India is the Land of Arranged Marriages. Parents of brides and grooms across the length and breadth of South Asia are always on the lookout for potential partners once their wards reach marriageable age. This stems from the patriarchal and caste-conscious nature of Indian society. For an Indian family, nothing could be more disgraceful than having to see their children elope with boys and girls of a different community. Multiple conditions are placed on youngsters – curfews (with regard to time spent out of offices and homes), travel restrictions (on places where there is no elder to supervise them) and interactions with the opposite sex (regardless of the mode – in person, through mobile phones or the Internet). Technology has made it much more difficult to control ‘dangerous behaviour’ but the desire to perpetuate tradition remains very strong.

Restrictions placed on young men and women also create weird and amusing behaviour patterns. Interactions between members of opposite genders oscillate between extremes, from the intensely bashful to the annoyingly intrusive. It is only in colleges and offices that young Indians manage to come out of their shells and act normally. The same goes for marriage. Attitudes towards marriage range from the cold and calculated (approach adopted by parents eager to bag the most handsomely paid groom or fair skinned bride) to the hilariously desperate (for companionship) and tragically resigned (to the prospect of spending one’s life with a total stranger) among twenty-somethings. The prospect of marriage triggers humor as much as hope in a society where social interaction is strictly regimented. I am producing one such example, from Cecil Henry Bompas’ ‘Folklore of the Santal Parganas’. The leopard’s character sums up some of the funny ways in which desperate youngsters seek out help to get hitched.

The Raibar and the Leopard

Once upon a time a Raibar was going backwards and forwards between two families arranging a marriage and part of the road which he used to travel ran through a forest. One day as he was going to The bride’s house he took a sack with him intending to try and get the loan of some Indian corn from the bride’s relations; but as he was passing through the piece of jungle he suddenly met a leopard; he was terribly frightened but collecting his wits he addressed the animal thus “Leopard; I beg you not to eat me; I am engaged on a work of great merit, I am making two men out of one.”

This address amazed the leopard and he at once asked the  Raibar whether he could make him into two, and promised that if he could his life should be spared. The Raibar answered readily, “Seeing that in pursuit of my profession I have made two men out of one all over the country, of course I can make you into two leopards if I try; all you have to do is to get into this sack and keep quiet; if you utter a sound you will spoil the charm.”

“Well,” said the leopard, “I will try and see; I undertake to keep quite quiet, and if you are successful I promise to tell the whole race of leopards to spare the lives of Raibars.” So saying the leopard jumped into the sack and allowed the man to tie him up tightly in it. No sooner was this done than the Raibar took the sack on his head and carried it to the bank of a river and having given it two or three hearty whacks with his stick threw it into the water. The sack went floating down the stream and it happened that lower down a leopardess sat watching the water and when she saw the sack coming along she thought that it was a dead cow floating down. So when it came near she jumped into the water and pulled it ashore.

She then proceeded to tear open the sack, when out jumped the first leopard; he soon explained how he came to be in the sack, and declared that the Raibar’s promise had been fulfilled and that she was his destined mate. The leopardess agreed and the two set to work to tell all the other leopards what had happened and what a kindness the Raibar had done them; and so it came to pass that to the present day leopards never interfere with Raibars when they are going about arranging a marriage; no one ever heard of one being injured.

Meanwhile the Raibar went on his way rejoicing at having rid himself of the leopard. But the next year, while engaged on the business of another marriage, the Raibar was passing through the same jungle when he came face to face with the very leopard that he thought he had safely disposed of; he at once took to his heels, but the leopard called out to him not to be afraid and to wait, as he had something to say to him. So the Raibar stopped and the leopard asked whether he did not recognize him; the Raibar stoutly denied all knowledge of him. “Well,” said the leopard “I am the leopard of whom you made two out of one, and to show my gratitude I will give you any reward you like; would you like a cow or a deer or any other animal? I will kill you one and bring it to you.”

When the Raibar saw the turn that things had taken he thought that he had better take advantage of it, so he asked for a good large nilgai. The leopard told him to come to a certain tree at noon the next day and he would find the animal there. So they separated and the next day at noon the Raibar went to the tree and found a fine nilgai waiting for him, which he and his friends took home and ate with joy.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and shows an illustration of a Leopard, from a copy of the Farahnamah, a Persian manuscript with brightly coloured illustrations of a whole range of mammals, birds and reptiles, that dates back to the 17th century CE. This particular copy is preserved at the Harvey Cushing and John Hay Whitney Medical Library in Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut (USA).