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from the October 2019 issue

When the Deer Moved Away

Tradition and modernity clash in this folktale from the Spiti region of the Himalayas, translated by Noor Zaheer.

There is a village named Tabo in the Spiti region of the Himalayas. The village is shaped like a cup, a huge tract of flat land surrounded by high, rocky mountains. The Spiti river cuts this cup-shaped land in half, gushing and rushing for a couple of miles before slowing down to the leisurely gait of a pregnant woman as it reaches the flatlands. The Tabo monastery, known for its wall paintings, is situated above the village, about halfway up the mountain slope.

As autumn ends, herds of deer come down from the high mountains in search of food. Their arrival is the sign that snowfall is just a couple of days away. Grain, vegetables, and firewood are quickly stored indoors, clothes are washed and dried, wine decanted for the last time. Though most of the deer continue their migration to the lower ranges, one herd remains in Tabo because the village and the monastery take care of them.

Once it so happened that an outsider, a certain Deeku, was visiting Tabo. He was a photographer and also seemed interested in some of the ancient artifacts that were held in the thousand-year-old monastery. This Deeku made fun of the traditional customs and Buddhist rituals. He tried to impress the local people with his scientific knowledge, his tape recorder, and his camera. He had managed to persuade one young boy, Sonam, that everything about the village was backward and outdated.

Deeku was planning to leave in a few days when suddenly he heard the sound of gentle hooves in the distance. The sound echoed around the bare slopes of the hills, and the villagers came out with small offerings to welcome the herd of deer. After the ritual welcome, the villagers got busy with the annual chores of preparing for the winter, knowing that it would snow in a day or two. But Deeku’s radio told him that there would be no snowfall for the next four days. The villagers did not believe him, as they trusted the deer, who were said to be the incarnation of Buddha. Along with the usual herd, this time there was a much larger deer. He had long, beautiful horns and large brown eyes, and he kept a close watch over the herd as if he were protecting it.

Sure enough, it snowed heavily two days after the arrival of the deer, and the exit road from Tabo to Kaza was blocked. Deeku was unhappy at this state of affairs, and worried too, because it meant staying in this remote village through the winter. The villagers made fun of his weather forecast but were generous enough to offer him a place to stay and hospitality without charge. After some time, the village faced a shortage of firewood and things to eat. The monastery announced community cooking to save on the wood and food. Naturally, this meant that the community kitchen made food that was simple, like porridge, which did not use much fuel.

Deeku soon tired of this food and was amazed to see that the villagers saved a portion of even this frugal meal to share with the deer. One day, he jokingly remarked that since the deer were being regularly fed, surely they would be eaten soon. He was almost beaten to death for even making such a suggestion. It was the lamas who saved him, but they warned him to treat all life with respect. Deeku refused to understand the close bond between the humans and the deer and their dependence on each other. The deer lived and slept outside in the cold, assuring human beings that winter might be severe but had to be borne and that it would soon give way to spring and summer.

One night, Deeku did not eat any of the coarse meal and he could no longer bear the pangs of hunger that rumbled in his stomach. He persuaded Sonam to accompany him and showed him a gun that he had stowed away in his bag. Sonam asked what he intended to do with the gun, and Deeku told him that he was planning to kill one of the deer. Sonam was reluctant to be part of the hunt, but Deeku convinced him, saying that when the deer had been killed, everyone in the village would eat fresh meat and that they would all be grateful to him for having given them a good meal. Sonam continued to resist and Deeku tried to bully him into submission. Meanwhile, the large deer stepped out of the area where the herd was resting and into range for Deeku to shoot. Deeku grabbed the chance. He took aim and fired. The entire village woke up when they heard the shot and surrounded Deeku and Sonam. The lamas also came down from the monastery.

Fearing for his life, Deeku broke out of the circle of villagers who had surrounded him. He turned in the wrong direction, and though the villagers ran after him, calling to him to stop, he continued running and fell down a precipice. Sonam’s family surrendered him to the monastery for punishment. The head lama announced that Sonam was dead to the village and that no one should have any contact with him. He would be the “living dead”—that was his punishment.

Strange as it may sound, the deer waited until the announcement of the punishment was made and then they moved as one body, walking away from the village and from human beings. They still come down every winter, but they do not venture anywhere near the village. They stay on the other side of the river, where they are often chased and hunted by the leopards, but it seems as if they would rather face the dangers of the forest than trust the human beings again.

Translation © 2019 by Noor Zaheer. All rights reserved.

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