A retelling, for children, of the story, first told in the Mahabharata
A very, very long time ago, longer than anyone could imagine, a man stood on a riverbank, deep in a forest. He wasn’t just any man, but was a very special man; he was a holy man named Manu. He was saying his prayers, and in order to focus his attention, he stood on one leg. For ten thousand years, he had remained standing this way.
In the river nearby, fish were swimming, little fish and big fish, though Manu was intent on his prayers and was not watching them. One of the very tiny fish was hiding behind a rock. The big tail of one of the big fish splashed, making huge waves under the water and sending the little fish out from behind the rock into the main stream of water. There the little fish could be seen by so many big fish – great huge fish; some were blue with stripes; some were gold with big fins, and some had gigantic mouths. They swam nearer and nearer to the little fish, and he was really scared!
Suddenly making a decision, the little fish broke the surface of the water, and began to shout, “Help! Help!” Seeing Manu standing by the riverbank on one leg, he cried out to him, “Kind sir, save me! My name is Matsya! I’m just a tiny fish, and the big fish are about to eat me! You must help me!”
Manu’s eyes sprang open when he heard the voice of the little fish, and hearing the terror in his voice, he immediately wanted to help him. He ran toward the river, and without hesitating he bent down, and scooped up the tiny fish in both his hands, being careful to hold water in his palms, so the little fish would have some water.
“Oh, thank you, kind sir, thank you!” piped Matsya.
But Manu had a problem. Where was he going to keep Matsya, who couldn’t just stay in his hands? He needed something that would hold water. And he needed it really quickly or all the water would drain from his hands, and then Matsya wouldn’t be able to breathe, since a fish can only breathe in water.
He remembered a hut he had seen many years ago, just a little way further along on the river bank, and as fast as he could go, he ran toward it. Maybe there were kind people who lived there who would help him. Manu’s knees hurt a little; he wasn’t used to running since he’d just spent ten thousand years standing still on one leg, but he ran as fast as he could.
Outside the door of the hut, he shouted, “Hello! Hello! Is anybody home?”
The door flew open, and there was an elderly woman. Her hair was gray, and going in all directions. On the floor beside her was a little dog and two hens, all looking very surprised and slightly alarmed. “What do you want?” she said rather abruptly.
“Oh, kind lady, I’ve saved this little baby fish, and I need something that will hold water to keep him in. Can you please help?”
“Oh, of course, why didn’t you say so?” She went back inside, and Manu could hear pots and pans banging about. The dog and the hens looked even more alarmed and hid under a table by the door. Finally, she reappeared, with an earthen jar. She brushed past Manu, and went down to the river, and was back in an instant with the jar filled with water. “Here,” she said, extending the jar, “Put him in this. He’ll be safe.”
Manu slipped Matsya into the jar, which was the perfect size, just big enough so he had room to swim and splash about. “Thank you so much. You’ve been so very helpful!” said Manu. The woman smiled, and was already busy feeding the dog and the hens.
Manu walked along the riverbank back to the house he used to live in such a very long time ago. There his house was, just as before. He placed Matsya’s jar very gently on a table, where he would be completely safe. Matsya was looking sleepy, he’d had such a long and stressful day already, and he was only a baby.
What was he going to feed Matsya? He would be hungry when he woke up. Back down by the river, Manu found some water lilies that looked just like the right food for Matsya. They had green leaves and pink flowers. Matsya lived happily in the jar in Manu’s house for many, many months. Manu fed him various plants and grasses that grew in the river, and because Manu was very inventive, he created a special machine that could pump air into the jar, making lots of bubbles, so that Manu would have enough oxygen to breathe.
He learned exactly how to take care of the little fish, and raised him very successfully.
In fact, he raised him so successfully that Matsya got bigger and bigger and bigger.
Finally, one day, Matsya said to Manu, “This jar is too little for me now. I have to have something bigger to swim in. I can hardly turn around. Please, may I go to a pool?”
To be continued…
Illustration: Avohitatevs / Dreamstime.com