When visitors to my home walk over to take a closer look at the plants blooming on the window sills, they are usually surprised to notice the frogs perched on the flowerpots, or peeking out from behind the leaves and flowers. I’m not sure why these amphibians fascinate me - perhaps their large, round heads and bulging eyes are the perfect fodder for a writer’s imagination! Here are some frogs from my collection …
One of my earliest picture books, ‘Wally Grows Up’, (Children’s Book Trust, 1994) was about a little tadpole, Wally, who knew that he though he looked like a tiny fish, he was not really one. And Wally worried, and wondered what he would turn into someday. Here’s a page from the book (illustrated by Chaitali Chatterjee)
And here's an original story for children that I have written about one of the goggle-eyed creatures that have cast a spell on me ....
THE DAY OF THE TOAD
Croaky was a big, fat toad who lived in a large field, thick with jungle grass. I am sure you can guess why he was called Croaky. Yes, of course – it was because of the hoarse croaks that came from deep within his throat. Croaky looked like any other toad. His bulbous eyes bulged from his head, and his rough skin was covered with warts. He had no teeth, and so, when he parted his thin, wide lips to smile, he looked very ugly indeed. But Croaky did not seem to mind his ugliness at all. He did not long to be beautiful, nor did he try to beautify himself. This was because Croaky believed in fairy tales, or rather, in one particular fairy tale, which he firmly believed, was one day going to change his life forever. And he had come to hear about it purely by chance.
He had been crouching lazily near a slushy little pond that lay in the middle of his field, his eyes half shut. He had taken no notice whatsoever of the lovely, long-necked swan who had brought her seven babies to the pond for a swim. The cygnets were rather unattractive, and as they splashed about noisily in the water, Croaky had heard one of them ask his mother shrilly, “Mama, when will we become as beautiful as you are?”
“Be patient, dears,” Mother Swan had replied lovingly in a soft voice. “Someday, you will all be beautiful swans.”
“Oh good!” the precocious little cygnet replied. “I do so want to be beautiful! I should hate to go through life looking being as ugly as old Croaky, for instance.”
“Hush!” said mother swan, silencing him instantly. “You really must not speak like that, dear. It is terribly ill-mannered, and vain. And who knows? Perhaps old Croaky will turn into a prince one day…”
“Turn into a prince? Whatever do you mean?” asked the cygnet curiously.
Mother swan shrugged, and laughed. “It’s just a fairy-tale,” she said carelessly, “but an interesting one. If you are all good, I shall tell it to you when we are drying off after our swim.”
And that was how Croaky came to hear the story of the frog prince.
As he had crouched in the thick grass, he had heard mother swan narrate the story of how a beautiful princess had once lost her little golden ball in a pond while she was playing. And the ball had been seized by a toad – one exactly like Croaky himself. But did the toad return the ball to the princess? No! Croaky had heard mother swan say that the toad had made the princess promise that she would take him to her palace if he returned her precious ball to her. And, so, the toad had gone to live in the fair maiden’s palace. And then, wonder of wonders! Croaky heard that there, the beautiful princess had kissed the toad. Yes! Then, magically, his hideous scaly skin had fallen away, and he had turned into a handsome, dazzling prince.
It was the most wonderful story that Croaky had ever heard, and long after mother swan had left with her family, her words rang in his ears. As he sat there silently in the tall grass, and mulled over the tale in his mind, he began to feel excited. Croaky was sure it had been a true story. And it had happened to a common, ordinary toad like him! Why, the more he thought about it, the more Croaky realized that it could happen to him too. He, Croaky the toad, could well turn into a handsome prince one day. In a flash of inspiration, Croaky decided that when he became a prince, he would call himself Prince Dazzle.
Now, once he had heard this fairy tale, Croaky could think of nothing else. He spent his days dreaming of how he would turn into a prince. But he soon realized that hidden away among the tall, overgrown grass, there was no way that a princess would ever find him. So, Croaky decided that he would take up a vantage position near the pond.
He jumped on to a rock, and sat upon it. His bulging eyes darted all round the field, as he surveyed the landscape for the beautiful princess who he was sure, would come to find him. He perched patiently on the rock in this manner for many days, in sun and rain, and waited and waited.
An old turtle, who also lived near the pond, watched Croaky curiously for a few days. Finally, when he could contain his curiosity no more, he ambled up slowly to Croaky. “Croaky,” he said in a puzzled tone, “pray tell me, what on earths are you doing, perched on that rock for days on end?”
Croaky replied, “I’m waiting for a princess to find me. She will take me away to her palace, and there, she will kiss me, and I will turn into a prince! And you know what? I’m going to call myself Prince Dazzle.” A note of great pride and triumph crept into his voice as he spoke he last few words with a flourish, and looked down patronizingly at the turtle.
The old turtle was silent for a moment, and then a slow smile spread across his wrinkled, weather-beaten face. “My dear Croaky,” he said, chuckling softly. “How can you possibly believe such nonsense? Such things don’t happen in real life- they happen only in fairy tales! You are never going to become a dazzling prince…”
“Oh, pooh,” Croaky butted in rudely, looking down scornfully at the turtle from his lofty perch. “You are only saying that because you are jealous. Why I’m sure you’d secretly like a princess to kiss you too, and turn you into a dazzling prince.”
“Not at all, said the turtle firmly. I’m quite sure that I like being myself. And as for you, you’d better get off that rock quickly. If you are not careful, you will be seized by schoolchildren looking for toads to dissect, and then, you’ll be cut into little pieces in their school laboratories…”
Croaky sniffed contemptuously and murmured under his breath. “Not me! I’m going to become Prince Dazzle.” The turtle continued, “Once they caught me also, and they took me to their school laboratory to display me as a specimen. A dreadful experience it was too.” He shuddered violently at the memory. “I did not put my head out of my shell for two whole days while I was there. The laboratory was full of frogs and toads like you, and most of them had been cut up into little pieces! Good grief! What a relief it was to me when they threw me back into our field. You’d better be careful, Croaky,” he warned. But Croaky, ambitious toad that he was, paid no attention to the wise turtle’s words. He continued to sit hopefully on the rock every day, and then, unexpectedly, one day, a small girl came to the pond. She was riding a big, red bicycle, and was wearing a pleated grey school pinafore with a white blouse. She did not look like a princess at all, but Croaky, who had never seen a princess before, did not know that. He watched excitedly, with bated breath as she took off her shoes and socks and waded carefully into the pond.
“Croak! Croak!” Croaky said loudly, in what he believed were warm, welcoming tones. “Here I am! I’ve been waiting for you for so long!” he trembled in excitement. His big dream was going to be realized at last.
The little schoolgirl moved forward nimbly, and then for Croaky, his dream started to turn into a nightmare. For the little girl, with surprising speed, whipped out a little black net that she had hidden in the folds of her pinafore. She threw it over Croaky, sitting hopefully on his rock. As the strong, black web fell over him, it held him tight within its folds. But poor Croaky did not move a muscle or struggle, for he was too stunned by this turn of events to react.
The schoolgirl quickly snatched up the net, and then, in a trice, had thrust Croaky into a little cardboard box which had a few holes bored in its lid. She tied up the box securely with string in a flash, and hung it on the handlebars of her bicycle. As she tied her shoelaces, she beamed with pleasure. “What a nice, fat toad I have got today for my dissection,” she murmured to herself. “Today is my lucky day!”
But as Croaky sat all squashed up in the little cardboard box, he began to realize what a pitiable state he was in. He shivered as he recalled the wise old turtle’s words, and the awful truth about his situation finally sank in. The person who had found him was definitely not a princess, and he was never going to be a prince either. The fate that awaited him was truly horrible.
Then, with a burst of his old spirit, Croaky decide that he could not let something so dreadful happen to him without at least trying to do something about it. Summoning up all the strength in his body, he began to leap up and down furiously in the cardboard box, using his stout, powerful legs. The flimsy cardboard box began to rock perilously, and the little girl, who was steering her bicycle, took her hands off the handlebars for a moment to try and still its motion. But alas! A moment was all that was needed for the girl to lose control of the bicycle, which zigzagged crazily across the road, and then fell down, with its wheels spinning madly. The cardboard box hit the ground with a thud, and burst open, and Croaky was free! With a mighty leap, he escaped from the box, and by the time the little girl got shakily to her feet, dusted herself down, and started looking around for her toad, he was many, many jumps away. He was soon back in his own field, hidden securely by the tall jungle grass. How happy he was to return to his old home, even though he was still the same ugly toad.
Croaky soon pushed his dream of turning into Prince Dazzle to the back of his mind, and he tried not to think of it ever. But sometimes, the thought still springs to his mind unbidden, once in a way, as he hops around the field where he still lives. And he just can’t help wondering - why do fairytales never come true?
‘The Day of the Toad’ was first published in the ‘Young World’ supplement of the Hindu newspaper on Saturday, November 11th, 1995. It was published in a collection of stories titled "The Magic Umbrella and Other Stories," (Prism Books Pvt Ltd,1999) Please do not reproduce this story without permission.