It was another cold and rainy winter night. The rain battered the thatched roof relentlessly and ran down the eaves of the little cottage in the village. It had rained all morning and all afternoon. Now the sun had set, and the rain continued to pour throughout the night. Five-year-old Tompok had not been out of the house all day. He was an only child and had no brothers or sisters to play with. His friends could not come over to play tag with him in the yard. He had not been able to go over to their house to play hide-and-seek. Little Tompok was miserable. He had stood at the window all day, looking out at the rain.
“When will it stop raining, Mother?” he cried out again. “I want to go out and play.” If he said this once, he said this a hundred times that day. His mother was bustling around the house. As she did every day, she swept and dusted and cleaned. As she did every day, she cooked and did the dishes after they had eaten. She washed the pots and she washed the pans. She did not wash the clothes as there was no way of drying them out on the bamboo clothes rack out in the yard since it was still pouring.
“I want to go outside and play,” Tompok whined. His mother tried to console him. She loved Little Tompok very much. “Please stop crying, Tom,” she pleaded. She gave him a piece of candied fruit, but he pushed her hand away and kept crying. He was a champion crier, Dear Well Behaved One, famous among his family and friends for his astonishing ability to cry and cry. He would sometimes forget he was crying and stop to listen to grown-ups talking or to watch the birds flying by, only to resume his wailing when he remembered he was supposed to be crying. That was how much of a crybaby Little Tompok was. Who knew a boy could hold so much liquid? It was amazing. He was just impossible.
It had been a tiring day for his mother. She was tired of listening to Little Tompok crying and whinging when she had so much to do around the house! And now she did not know whether to cook dinner or soothe the little boy. ‘How I wish he would just stop, have his dinner, and go to bed!’ she muttered to herself.
She said to the little boy, “Come Tom. Let Mother tell you a funny story while dinner is cooking. I’ll tell you the story about the farting old couple!”
“You’ve already told me that story,” said Little Tompok through his tears.
“Then how about an adventure story? How about the story of Kong, the Warrior Toad? You like that one.’
‘You’ve told me about Kong already too. I don’t want to listen to the story about that silly toad anymore!’ Little Tompok’s face was all puffy and red from his crying.
Tompok’s Mother felt like spanking him. She was so frustrated. But she was a good mother, Dear Loved One, and never spanked her boy. She laid out their dinner, hoping he would eat and go to sleep.
“Here, let us eat. I have delicious grilled fish for you. Come, now, there’s a good boy. What will Father say when he gets back and hears you have not been eating well?” she coaxed her little boy.
“I don’t want any fish! I had that yesterday!’ Little Tompok wailed. Exasperated, his mother cried out, “Eat your food, or the fox will get you!” There was no fox, but she was hoping that would scare the little boy. Little Tompok cocked his head to one side for a moment and paused for a bit, and then resumed his wailing again.
“Stop crying now, or the bear will take you away!” cried his mother. This did not have any effect on the boy either.
“Look, if you don’t stop crying, the tiger will come!” said his mother in her scariest voice.
But the boy kept crying. “I am not scared of the fox, or the bear, or the tiger,” he said. At that very moment, Dear Attentive One, it so happened that a tiger was lurking in the shadows of the bamboo cowshed on the other side of the yard. He had come to grab a nice cow for his dinner. His ears pricked up when he heard Little Tompok’s mother mention his name. He smirked to himself, pleased that his name struck fear in the hearts of mothers and their children. But what was this? The boy was not scared of him, did he say? The tiger thought of letting out a fierce roar to scare the foolish child. But he thought the better of it, for that would attract the attention of the villagers. Then how would he carry away the delicious cow for his dinner? He fumed at the insult but crouched silently in the dark, waiting.
Inside the cottage, Little Tompok’s mother was at her wit’s end. The boy just would not stop crying! She kept very quiet, with a finger on her lips, as she put her face close to the little boy’s. Suddenly, inspired by the rhythmic tip-tap, tip-tap of the raindrops falling from the eaves, she screamed out loud, “Oh my God! Tapta has come!”
Hearing the name “Tapta” for the first time, the boy stopped crying. The tiger pricked up his ears in the dark in surprise too.
“Tapta? What is this demon Tapta the child is scared of, when he is not scared of me, the lord of the jungle?” the tiger thought. He was the fiercest and the most powerful of all the animals in creation, as you know, Dear Animal Lover. The child had quietened not when his name was mentioned, but at the mere utterance of the name of this creature called Tapta. “Surely, Tapta must be a demon more powerful than me!”the tiger shuddered at the thought. With his head bowed and ears folded back in fear, the cowardly beast crept into the cowshed and hid among the cows in fear. “I hope Tapta does not come in here,” he growled softly to himself.
Just then, a thief came scurrying silently in the dark, rainy night. He slipped quietly into the cowshed. He had missed what had just happened in the little house, and began to grope in the dark for the fattest cow he could steal.
His hands touched the frightened tiger’s bottom in the dark. “Aha! What a plump cow! I think I will steal this one!” he muttered to himself. He dragged the cowering tiger out by his ears, thinking he was a cow, and climbed on his back.
The tiger prayed in fright, “Have mercy on me, oh my ancestors! Tapta has chosen me when he could have had the pick of any of these cows! What should I do now?” He thought he had better go along quietly, and hope the fearsome Tapta did not kill him.
He meekly allowed the thief to tie a rope around his neck and ride away on him in the blackness of the night. The thief was pleased with his easy loot. He stroked the terrified tiger’s head and thought to himself, “Oh, what a fat one I got this time! Let me take a closer look at her.” He touched the tiger’s ears and thought, ‘Hmm, this cow’s ears are very short – maybe they got torn in a fight . . . and where are her horns?”
The tiger was terrified. “Oh, please save me, my ancestors!” he said under his breath. “Tapta is feeling my head and ears! He will surely bite my ears off and eat them for a snack!”
Then the thief thought, “Hmm . . . I hope her tail is in place or I won’t be able to get a good price for her.” He reached out his hands and began to search for the tail. When the thief found the tiger’s tail, he said, “What a strange cow this is! She has no tuft at the end of her tail!”
Frozen with fear, the tiger said to himself, “Oh no! Tapta is sizing me up! He must want to make a juicy rump roast from poor little me!”
The winter rain had now turned into a light drizzle, and the moon came out from behind a silver-black cloud. The thief looked down at the animal he was riding and murmured, “Stripes? Strange. This cow has such an unusual pattern on her body!” He took a closer look and suddenly realised he was not riding a cow but an enormous tiger! He screamed out in horror, “Aaaaaaargh! Aaaaaargh!”
The tiger heard the thief’s horrible cry. He leapt up in terror and bolted away at full speed into the night, throwing the thief off his back. The thief fell down – splat! – in the mud. Without looking back, the tiger fled, his ears flattened back in fear, to the safety of the jungle outside the village. He ran and ran and ran, Dear Brave One, only stopping when he had reached the water hole. “Whew! What a narrow escape! I nearly got killed by Tapta tonight!” He vowed to stay away from the village, so Tapta would not catch him ever again.
Excerpted with permission from “The Demon, the Tiger and the Crybaby” in Feathers, Fools and Farts: Manipuri Folktales Retold, L Somi Roy and Thangjam Hindustani Devi, Puffin.