Ants and Grasshoppers

The allegorical tale of Ants and Grasshoppers is often used to drive home the inevitable connection between handwork and success, as well as laziness and hardship. Or between talent and riches, indolence and penury. Here is another story that may run contrary to this message.

About twelve years ago, I met a man who could speak 13 languages. Here is how it happened. I was in a taxi, trying to locate the Ayyappan temple where my son was to have his rice feeding ceremony (which is the ritualistic celebration of the child having his first sold meal). My wife had paid for it, but had promptly misplaced the receipt, so we didn’t have the address. She said, “No problem, we will just ask the driver to take us to the Ayyappan temple.” It turned out that there were 28 Ayyappan temples in Bangalore, so her strategy wasn’t very sound. As we were passing by a police station, my brother-in-law had the taxi stopped, to step in and ask for directions.

My father found this surprising because in my native land of Kerala, the police have a fierce reputation. He said to me, in Malayalam, as a joke, “If this was in Kerala, he would get beaten up first before he could ask anything!” Then the driver started laughing. Surprised, I asked him if he was a Malayalee. He said, no, he was from Maharashtra, but he had lived with a couple of Malayalees in the Gulf, so he picked up the language. We then started speaking in Malayalam, and his fluency was pretty good.

Now, I know that Malayalam is not an easy language to pick up or learn, mainly because nobody really likes or takes pride in it. In that respect, it is very different from Hindi or Tamil, or any of the European languages, for that matter. Speakers of those languages tend to speak their language in preference to any other foreign tongue. We mallus, on the other hand, converse in anything other than Malayalam to show our sophistication. So the malayalee friends of the driver were unlikely to have taken an active interest in teaching him; they would have preferred to speak in Hindi or English. Knowing this, I asked the driver if he spoke any other languages. He said, “Yes, since we are in Bangalore, I speak Kannada. Tamil also, so many people speak it here. Telugu is pretty close to Kannada. Marathi and Hindi, of course, my mother tongues. Picked up enough Arabic in the Gulf to get by. I can manage English. Learned French as well.” All in all, he could speak 13 languages, as disparate as Malayalam and Arabic.

If this guy had been born in the US or anywhere else in the world, he probably would have a professor in linguistics or something. In India, he had to be a migrant worker, a taxi driver, working long hours in away from home, facing nothing but hardship and poverty.

Just wondering — is this guy an ant or a grasshopper in the story below?

Original Story:

The Ant works hard in the withering heat all summer building its house and laying up supplies for the winter. The Grasshopper thinks the Ant is a fool and laughs dances plays the summer away. Come winter, the Ant is warm and well fed. The Grasshopper has no food or shelter so he dies out in the cold.

Indian Version:

The Ant works hard in the withering heat all summer building its house and laying up supplies for the winter. The Grasshopper thinks the Ant’s a fool and laughs dances plays the summer away.

Come winter, the shivering Grasshopper calls a press conference and demands to know why the Ant should be allowed to be warm and well fed while others are cold and starving.

NDTV, Times Now, CNN IBN, BBC, CNN , Asianet show up to provide pictures of the shivering Grasshopper
next to a video of the Ant in his comfortable home with a table filled with food.

The World is stunned by the sharp contrast.

How can this be that this poor Grasshopper is allowed to suffer so?

Arundhati Roy stages a demonstration in front of the Ant’s house.

Medha Patkar goes on a fast along with other Grasshoppers demanding that Grasshoppers be relocated to warmer climates during winter .

Mayawati states this as ‘injustice’ done on Minorities.

The Internet is flooded with online petitions seeking support to the Grasshopper

CPM in Kerala immediately passes a law preventing Ants from working hard in the heat so as to bring about equality of poverty among Ants and

Railway minister allocates one free coach to Grasshoppers on all Indian Railway Trains, aptly named as the ‘Grasshopper Rath’.

Finally, the Judicial Committee drafts the ‘Prevention of Terrorism Against Grasshoppers Act'[POTAGA] , with effect from the beginning of the winter..

Education minister makes ‘Special Reservation’ for Grasshoppers in Educational
Institutions in Government Services.

The Ant is fined for failing to comply with POTAGA and having nothing left to pay his retroactive taxes, it’s home is confiscated by Government
and handed over to the Grasshopper in a ceremony covered by NDTV, Times Now, CNN IBN, BBC, CNN.

Arundhati Roy calls it ‘A Triumph of Justice’.

Railway minister calls it ‘Socialistic Justice’.

CPM calls it ‘Revolutionary Resurgence of Downtrodden’

Many years later…

The Ant has since migrated to the US and set up a multi-billion dollar company in Silicon Valley,

100s of Grasshoppers still die of starvation despite reservation somewhere in India,


As a result of losing lot of hard working Ants and feeding the grasshoppers, India is still a developing country…!!

I think it is a mistake to see the world in black and white like what is illustrated in the story. Sure, there are hardworking guys, and lazy ones. Smart ones and stupid ones. Rich ones and poor ones. But then, there is a whole spectrum in between. Where we find ourselves in the spectrum is only an accident of circumstances, genetics, and dumb luck. In my view, if an ant wants to go to the US and make a billion bucks, that’s fine. Nothing to feel guilty about. No need to justify it by pointing fingers at some grasshoppers and Arundhati Roys.

By the way, we did find the temple eventually. And rice feeding ceremony went well – except for a few funny moments related to languages. Turned out that the Ayyappan temple priests were Malayalees, naturally, and they were instructing me in Malayalam. There is a peculiar way in which priests speak, which confused me a bit. One of them said, “Can feed the child.” (കുട്ടിക്ക് കൊടുക്കാം.) So I fed him. The priest then said, “The wife also can feed.” But in Malayalam, it is identical to, “Can feed the wife also.” (ഭാര്യക്കും കൊടുക്കാം.) So I tried feeding her, and the priests were shocked and dismayed.