Who was guilty?

A tale from Tibet

On a land midway between the earth and heaven, there once ruled a just king. This, of course, followed that his subjects too were good and honest people; in particular, two poor woodcutters. These two men were hardworking yet poor. They never stole from others, never lied. What was more, they cared for their respective old grand parents in addition to their families. The two were neighbours and good friends until something dreadful happened one afternoon.

Lee, as was the name of one of the two good men, drove his donkey deep into the forest close by to cut wood. After a long and weary day of work, Lee loaded his donkey with large bundles of firewood that hung heavily on both sides of the poor animal. Slowly, the two made their way back to the village. Once out of the forest, Lee walked ahead of his donkey, over and in between some large boulders that lay in their path. The animal carrying the unwieldy load was struggling to balance itself on the rocks.

“Hello, Chin! What a surprise seeing you here! What are you doing here, squatting on these rocks?” asked Lee of his good neighbour who sat there with a large earthen pot by his side.

“Hello to you, my dear friend! I am taking care of this jar of oil for an oil merchant who has gone to the village to do business for a few hours,” he replied with a smile.

“Okay, okay… then I should be getting along home. See you later! Come on, my little helper, the sooner we go home, the sooner the bundle is off your back!”

Perhaps, the donkey understood his master’s words, for he suddenly broke into a trot. And that was the start of a disaster.

Squeezing through the narrow gap between two rocks, the animal trotted on unmindful of the squatting man and his pot of oil. As one would have expected, the bundles hurt the man and knocked the jar down, spilling all the oil.

Needless to say, the two men fought over the spilt oil, each blaming the other for the accident. In a matter of a few seconds, two good friends became bitter enemies. Since neither the men nor the villagers could settle the issue, the matter was taken to their king. The wise king heard the case with great attention. He realised that both were good men and both were poor. He also realised that neither was really responsible for what had happened. But who was going to pay the oil merchant for the oil that was spilt?

The king rubbed his chin thoughtfully and mused upon the case for a long time. Then suddenly his face lit up. “My dear subjects, you know that I am a fair king and judge. In this bizarre case, I do not think the men are guilty! In my esteemed opinion, the guilt is either with the donkey or the rock! Hence, tomorrow at the crack of dawn, I shall take up the trial of these two guilty parties. We shall then decide who the guilty one is!” he told his packed court.

The land of Tibet did not sleep that night. All night long, the learned and the wise, farmers and the barbers, the cooks and the maids, grandmothers and aunts, little boys and girls discussed this intriguing situation. When dawn broke, the people, young and old, rich and poor thronged the palace. The king came out and stood high above, in a balcony.

“Good day to all my subjects who have cared to come here this morning! Guards, please lock all the palace gates. Allow no one to leave unless he has paid a yuan for being stupid. Pray, tell me my people, did you really think I was going to try a donkey and a stone in a court of law? Do not be ashamed, for your contribution will amply compensate the oil merchant for his loss!”

When a good man rules, his people too are good. Perhaps, that is why they lived on a land that is closer to heaven than ours.

Published as part of a series titled ‘Folktales of the World (Retold) ’ in Deccan Herald, Student Edition, dt. September 7, 2013

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