An Interpretive Fable
I came across this story in an Indian children’s book. Hope you enjoy its take on interpretation.
Five men set off in a ox cart to sell produce from their garden and to buy provisions at the local market. They were Guruji the teacher, in a bright saffron turban, and his four very enthusiastic, very obedient disciples. Guruji urged his men, ‘Your guru is like a cow, ever ready to give milk for your benefit. So always, always, follow your guru’s orders.’ ‘Ji ha,’ said the four men together, their heads wobbling in agreement.
Guruji went on. ‘Make sure you take the essentials to eat and drink. We will not stop at all as I want to reach the market by noon.’ ‘Ji ha,’ said the four men. They loaded the cart with a big black pot of rice, jars of water, and a basket filled with fruit and vegetables for selling at the market. They sat in the soft, hay-lined wagon at the back. The cart was drawn by two oxen with tinkling brass bells on their thick necks. It was a beautiful day and the morning breeze tickled their noses.
Soon Guruji dozed off, and his head rolled from side to side. On the way the cart swerved to avoid a troop of monkeys. It gave a big jolt and Guruji’s turban slipped off his head and fell on to the road. ‘Stop!’ cried two of the men. ‘We must pick up Guruji’s turban.’ ‘No!’ cried the other two men. ‘Don’t you remember? Guruji doesn’t want to stop at all. He wants to reach the market by noon.’ The men did not know what to do. They looked at Guruji for guidance, but their teacher’s chest rose and fell with rattling snores. They continued the journey and the bullock cart wound its way along the road that skirted the edge of the river.
Guruji woke up, feeling very hot. He stroked his bald, damp head. ‘Where is my turban?’ he shouted. Guruji seemed very angry. The four men looked at each other. Then one of them said, ‘Guruji, it fell when the cart jolted!’ ‘Then why didn’t you pick it up?’ The four men shrugged uneasily. ‘Guruji, you told us not to stop at all,’ they said together. ‘Silly, silly men!’ Guruji slapped at his forehead in frustration. ‘How will I go to the market without my turban? Turn back at once. I need my turban!’ ‘Ji ha,’ said the four men together, and they all wobbled their heads in agreement. The cart turned back. Soon the men spotted the bright saffron turban on the road. They stopped the cart, picked up the turban and gave it to their teacher.
Guruji placed it on his head and wagged his finger at the four men. ‘Next time, pick up ANYTHING that falls on the road! Do you understand me? Do you?’ ‘Ji ha,’ said the four men, wobbling their heads. ‘Now hurry up or we will never reach the market in time.’ ‘Ji ha,’ said the four men, wobbling their heads once again. The five men in the ox cart set off for the market once more. Further along the road, Guruji dozed off again. Soon the droppings of the oxen fell heavily onto the road. Plop! Plop! Plop!
The four men looked at each other, horrified. They were supposed to pick up anything that fell on the road. ‘Stop’ cried two men. ‘We must pick up the dung, even if it is filthy. We must obey Guruji.’ ‘No!’ said the other two. ‘We will be late for the market!’ The tour men argued for a while. They looked at their sleeping teacher and recalled his orders — to pick up ANYTHING that fell on the road. Finally, they stopped the cart and the four men leapt out. They scooped the dung off the road and dropped it into the back of the cart, even though it made their hands filthy, even though they felt squeamish doing it.
Guruji woke and saw the pile of brown dung in the wagon next to him and asked, ‘What is this?’ ‘Dung,’ explained the four men. ‘It fell on the road so we picked it up.’ Guruji turned as red as cherry. ‘Silly, silly men! Stop! Get this dung off at once and clean the cart and your hands.’ ‘Ji ha,’ said the four men. The cart stopped. The men scooped the dung out the wagon then went to the river to wash their hands. When they returned, Guruji had calmed down. ‘I have made a list of all the essentials to be picked up if they fall off the cart.’ He handed the list to them. ‘Now, for your guru’s sake, please follow this list. DO NOT pick up anything that is not on the list. Is that clear?’ ‘Ji ha,’ said the four men, wobbling their heads in agreement. They read out the list:
The basket of fruit and vegetables;
The pot of boiled rice;
Jars of water.
The five men in the ox cart set off for the market once more. On their way, the cart ran into a tree and rolled over. Guruji fell into a deep, muddy ditch, while two of the men were flung on one side of the ditch and the other two were flung on the other side, along with the basket, the fruit, vegetables, pot of rice, and the jars of water. The men went through their teacher’s checklist to see what had fallen out of the cart: ‘Guruji’s turban did not fall. The basket of fruit and vegetables fell.’ They picked up the basket, but left the fruit and vegetables scattered on the road. ‘The pot of boiled rice fell.’ They picked up the pot, but left the rice. ‘The jars of water fell.’ They picked them up.
‘Help!’ cried Guruji. ‘Get me out of here.’ The four men shook their heads in unison. ‘Guruji, you are not on the checklist you gave us.’ ‘Help! Help!’ cried Guruji, struggling to get out of the ditch, but falling face down into the sticky mire. His white gown and face were soiled brown. The four men looked at each other in confusion. ‘He is testing us,’ said one of them. ‘This is a hard test, but we must follow his list.’ ‘Help! Help! Help!’ cried Guruji again. The four men looked helplessly at their teacher.
An old woman collecting twigs for firewood heard Guruji’s cries and ran to help. She held out a long twig to him. ‘Hold on to this,’ she said and pulled and pulled. Guruji clung on to the other end of the twig, but slipped and sank back into the sticky mire. The old woman suddenly caught sight of the four men standing still like temple pillars. ‘Stop gawking!’ she cried. ‘Come and help me.’ The four men shook their heads sadly. ‘We must follow Guruji’s checklist and he is not on it.’
‘Give me that list.’ The old woman grabbed it from the men and threw it to Guruji, who hastily scrawled his name on it. Then, and only then, did the four men pull their teacher out of the ditch and help him back on to the ox cart! ‘Turn back. We are not going to the market,’ said the upset Guruji. ‘Ji ha,’ said the four very obedient but very bewildered men.