The Frog and the Nightingale by Vikram Seth
Once upon a time a frog
Croaked away in Bingle Bog
Every night from dusk to dawn
He croaked awn and awn and awn
Other creatures loathed his voice,
But, alas, they had no choice,
And the crass cacophony
Blared out from the sumac tree
At whose foot the frog each night
Minstrelled on till morning night
Meaning … A sunmac tree stood inside the Bingle Bog. A bog is a wet soft muddy ground. Such place is the favored habitat for frogs. Comfortably seated at the feet of the tree, the frog sang away to its heart’s content from evening till morning. Its loud and relentless croaking was heard for quite a distance. The high decibel and hoarseness of the frog’s din caused considerable nuisances for other creatures living nearby.
Neither stones nor prayers nor sticks.
Insults or complaints or bricks
Stilled the frogs determination
To display his heart’s elation.
But one night a nightingale
In the moonlight cold and pale
Perched upon the sumac tree
Casting forth her melody
Dumbstruck sat the gaping frog
And the whole admiring bog
Stared towards the sumac, rapt,
And, when she had ended, clapped,
Ducks had swum and herons waded
To her as she serenaded
Meaning … The creatures beseeched the frog to stop its noise that they found too disagreeable to put up with. But, the vainglorious frog paid no heed to them, and continued with its night-long rendering. Finally, the irate creatures could stand the nuisance anymore and began to use sticks and stones to subdue the irrepressible singer. Neither the neighbors’ taunts, nor their physical threats could deter the frog’s dusk-to-dawn guttural outpourings.
One night, a nightingale flew in from somewhere and perched on the branch of the sunmac tree. It began to sing in its natural melodious voice in the cold lonely night. Its voice left the frog flummoxed. All other inhabitants in the marshy land around began to listen to the new singer’s voice with great pleasure. At the end of her singing, she got a standing ovation from the audience listening in to it. Ducks swam and herons waded through the mud and slush to be nearer to the nightingale. She sang her way into the hearts of all the creatures in the bog.
And a solitary loon
Wept, beneath the summer moon.
Toads and teals and tiddlers, captured
By her voice, cheered on, enraptured:
“Bravo! ” “Too divine! ” “Encore! “
So the nightingale once more,
Quite unused to such applause,
Sang till dawn without a pause.
Meaning ….The applause the nightingale received unnerved the frog. He became swagger was replaced by circumspection and doom. He became a miserable soul. In the meanwhile, the nightingale’s audience swelled. All the listeners were enthralled with her music. Showering praise on her profusely, they prodded the nightingale to continue to sing one after another. The adulation she received from her audience kept her going till dawn.
Next night when the Nightingale
Shook her head and twitched her tail,
Closed an eye and fluffed a wing
And had cleared her throat to sing
She was startled by a croak.
“Sorry – was that you who spoke? “
She enquired when the frog
Hopped towards her from the bog.
“Yes,” the frog replied. “You see,
I’m the frog who owns this tree
In this bog I’ve long been known
For my splendid baritone
And, of course, I wield my pen
For Bog Trumpet now and then”
“Did you… did you like my song? “
“Not too bad – but far too long.
The technique was fine of course,
But it lacked a certain force”.
“Oh! ” the nightingale confessed.
Greatly flattered and impressed
That a critic of such note
Had discussed her art and throat:
“I don’t think the song’s divine.
But – oh, well – at least it’s mine”.
Meaning … The next night, the nightingale was getting ready to start another long singing session for the benefit of her admirers when the frog leapt towards her from the bog and announced his arrival with his usual croak. The nightingale was curious to hear him out.
In a boastful voice, the frog declared that the tree she was resting on belonged to him. He then proceeded to expound his singing talent through which he had entertained the many creatures in the bog for long. He even stated how he wrote music for the Bog Trumpet band.
The nightingale was impressed at the frog’s musical credentials, and wanted to know if he liked her concerts. Speaking like a music critic of renown, the frog began to pronounce his judgments. In a condescending tone, the frog said that the nightingale sang well, but her concert could be shorter. He had a word of praise for her technique. However, it lacked force, the frog said.
The frog’s comments of praise emanating from the frog completely floored the nightingale. She was indeed very flattered to hear a reputed music critic like the frog speaking about her singing in such laudatory terms. She spoke to herself saying that the singing might not be hugely sophisticated, but those were hers, after all.
“That’s not much to boast about”.
Said the heartless frog. “Without
Proper training such as I
– And few others can supply.
You’ll remain a mere beginner.
But with me you’ll be a winner”
“Dearest frog”, the nightingale
Breathed: “This is a fairy tale –
And you are Mozart in disguise
Come to earth before my eyes”.
“Well I charge a modest fee.”
“Oh! ” “But it won’t hurt, you’ll see”
Now the nightingale inspired,
Flushed with confidence, and fired
With both art and adoration,
Sang – and was a huge sensation.
Animals for miles around
Flocked towards the magic sound,
And the frog with great precision
Counted heads and charged admission.
Meaning … In a tone befitting to that of a veteran mentor, the frog cautioned the nightingale that her singing would not take her very far. The frog rudely told her how she needed to hone her skills under his tutelage to let her talent blossom.
The nightingale was ecstatic to receive such kind offer from the singing maestro frog. Her joy knew no bounds, because such a great singer had agreed to impart training to her. She felt as if she was dreaming. Mozart, the musical prodigy had descended from heaven to coach her, she said.
Emboldened by the naivety of the nightingale, the frog said he would charge a modest fee for his services. It was a new dawn of life for the nightingale. She took to singing with great enthusiasm and energy. She soon became a singing sensation drawing music lovers from the surrounding animal kingdom. They came, they listened and they left surrendering their hearts to the nightingale.
The frog counted the gate money. His cash register kept ringing with added intensity as the days went by.
Though next morning it was raining,
He began her vocal training.
“But I can’t sing in this weather”
“Come my dear – we’ll sing together.
Just put on your scarf and sash,
Koo-oh-ah! ko-ash! ko-ash! “
So the frog and nightingale
Journeyed up and down the scale
For six hours, till she was shivering
and her voice was hoarse and quivering.
Though subdued and sleep deprived,
In the night her throat revived,
And the sumac tree was bowed,
With a breathless, titled crowd:
Owl of Sandwich, Duck of Kent,
Mallard and Milady Trent,
Martin Cardinal Mephisto,
And the Coot of Monte Cristo,
Ladies with tiaras glittering
In the interval sat twittering –
And the frog observed them glitter
With a joy both sweet and bitter.
Every day the frog who’d sold her
Songs for silver tried to scold her:
“You must practice even longer
Till your voice, like mine grows stronger.
In the second song last night
You got nervous in mid-flight.
And, my dear, lay on more trills:
Audiences enjoy such frills.
You must make your public happier:
Give them something sharper snappier.
We must aim for better billings.
You still owe me sixty shillings.”
Meaning … The frog was keen to show how astute a trainer he was. On a particularly wet day, he made the nightingale to come for the practice session. The water and the cold made her sulk at the suggestion of her mentor. She protested, but the frog had his way. He prevailed upon the hapless student to join him in the singing practice. The poor nightingale had no way to say ‘no’. For nearly six hours, she sang till her vocal chords began to fail her due to exhaustion and overwork.
By night, she had managed to give another concert for the assembled gathering. Among the dignitaries that evening were the Owl of Sandwich, the Duck of Kent, Mallard and Milady Trent, Martin Cardinal Mephisto, and the Coot of Monte Cristo. The lady guests kept chatting with great delight. It was an audience that seemed to have be succumbed to the soprano’s singing.
The frog stood at the gate with his purse constantly bulging. But the happiness was tinged with a little sadness too. In some distant corner of his heart, jealousy was rearing its head. To get even with his shining pupil, the frog began to get unduly stern and demanding towards her. He urged her to work harder and harder to give her voice the necessary strength. He chided her for her very minor failings and asked her to make the songs more pulsating and heart-throbbing.
He tersely reminded her that she still owed her sixty shillings. To earn that, she must add some innovations to her singing so that the public came to the concerts in larger numbers.
Day by day the nightingale
Grew more sorrowful and pale.
Night on night her tired song
Zipped and trilled and bounced along,
Till the birds and beasts grew tired
At a voice so uninspired
And the ticket office gross
Crashed, and she grew more morose –
For her ears were now addicted
To applause quite unrestricted,
And to sing into the night
All alone gave no delight.
Now the frog puffed up with rage.
“Brainless bird – you’re on the stage –
Use your wits and follow fashion.
Puff your lungs out with your passion.”
Trembling, terrified to fail,
Blind with tears, the nightingale
Heard him out in silence, tried,
Puffed up, burst a vein, and died.
Said the frog: “I tried to teach her,
But she was a stupid creature –
Far too nervous, far too tense.
Far too prone to influence.
Well, poor bird – she should have known
That your song must be your own.
That’s why I sing with panache:
“Koo-oh-ah! ko-ash! ko-ash! “
And the foghorn of the frog
Blared unrivalled through the bog.
Meaning … The endless harangue of the frog robbed the nightingale of her vitality and freshness. Her singing deteriorated to the point of being monotonous and drab. Soon the audience began to feel bored and came in lesser and lesser numbers.
The gate money collection plummeted adding to her frustration and dismay. The earlier rapturous applause was gone. It made her a brooding bird. She could not enjoy singing to vacant audience seats. It was so discouraging.
The frog was unforgiving. He came down hard on the demoralized nightingale and pressed her to come out with some louder and more vibrant style to woo back the audience.
The poor bird tried hard, but met little success. She was thoroughly drained by then. Finally, she wanted to give her voice the best try ever, but sadly, in the process, ruptured the vein. She perished soon after.
The frog was remorseless. He did not see that he had driven the poor bird to death by his relentless pressure to copy him. Instead, he began to chide his dead pupil by calling him stupid, nervous, tense and impressionable. Quite cynically, he admonished the dead nightingale for having to imitate him (under his orders!) rather than sticking to her natural style — just the way he croaks his nights away with no regards for what others think of the noise.
[Extra notes, question-answers, and morals in the value-pack.]