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BLink turns 5

Cowboys and Indians

Sohan S Koonar | Updated on January 18, 2019

On his 10th birthday Mohan received a hardcover, full-colour Kit Carson comic book. It was a rare gift and it opened a whole new world for him. He discovered that there was a magical place out West where pale-faced men called cowboys fought pitched battles with the red men called Indians.

“Indians?” Mohan wondered.

He lived in a town in the interior of the East African country of Tanganyika, ruled by the British, and he was an Indian. His father, as a Sikh, wore a turban and the natives addressed him as Bwana Singha. The Indians lived in the centre of the town and several owned shops and businesses and the native Africans lived in a shanty of tin-roofed huts. The British lived in an exclusive area of brick bungalows, which were surrounded by beautiful gardens and trimmed hedges. There was little social interaction between the races and Mohan only played with Indian children and attended an Indian school. He was, however, fascinated by the tall Masai who came from the bush to trade in the town and who carried long steel spears and machetes.

“My grandfather is a red man,” Mohan blurted to Mister Sadroo the shopkeeper.

The grey-haired man smiled and turned to serve another customer. Mohan was there to spend his monthly allowance of two shillings on more comic books. It was the only shop that carried books and comics. He had stared at the Kit Carson book for two months before getting it for his birthday. His father played tennis with Mister Sadroo’s son and the shopkeeper had let him linger in the store but not touch or read the comics lest he smudge them.

“You were saying something about your grandfather.”

“You see he is a red man.”

Mister Sadroo frowned.

“You see,” Mohan talked fast. “We went to visit him in India last year. He is a big man with big shoulders and thick legs. He ploughs fields with oxen and when he comes home to rest and eat he takes off his turban and lets his hair fall over his shoulders. He sits like this on the floor.”

Mister Sardoo watched as Mohan sat down cross-legged on the shop floor.

“He raises his right hand, palm to the front and greets me by saying, ‘Hai’. It sounds a lot like ‘Hau’, like the red men in the comic books.”

“You said he is a red man?”

“You see when grandfather comes home from the fields his face is very red.”

“I see.”

 

Mohan loved the stories of the pale-faced cowboys with pistols on their hips riding horses they had named and fighting the red men, the Indians riding painted ponies bareback, shooting arrows and waving their tomahawks. The cowboys lived in towns and the red men on the plains in conical tipis set around a central fire. He wondered what it would be like to sit around it as the Indians danced and whooped in a circle to celebrate the brave who had died in battle, or huddle with the chiefs wearing elaborate headdresses made of eagle feathers.

He fashioned a bow from a newly-cut branch and made arrows from the straight stems of bamboo stalks, the heavy axe his father used to chop wood for the stove, was a bit too cumbersome to serve as a tomahawk. He convinced his younger sister Guddi to play the cowboy and shot an arrow at her. It hit her in the face and she ran crying to their mother. Mohan got a tongue-lashing.

“You could have blinded her,” his mother screamed.

“Wait until Daddyji comes home,” Guddi sobbed.

“Put away those stupid comic books before I burn them,” Mummyji ordered.

Mohan gathered the comic books and hid them under his mattress. That night as he slept over them he dreamt of the plains and prairies out West and found himself riding bareback on a pony as he joined his people to attack a circle of wagons. He fired arrows through the hats of the cowboys as bullets whizzed past him.

“You’re very brave, Mohan,” the chief said as he danced around the fire.

Mummy combed his two- foot-long hair every morning and braided it in two rows, and then tied the braids at the nape of his neck. He was too young to tie a turban yet. “Leave them down,” he asked wanting to look like a red man. They wore their hair in twin braids.

Guddi giggled. “You will be teased. The boys will call you a girl.”

“What is happening to you?” Mummyji fretted before packing his lunch in a tiffin box.

Mohan daydreamt in class and missed homework assignments. He lost interest in cricket and football. As soon as his father put two shillings on his palm on the first of the month, he raced to Mister Sadroo’s shop and read his newly purchased comics seated on the store’s concrete steps. Guddi shared the candy she bought with a ten cent coin every second day and Mohan was grateful for that.

The headmaster called his father to complain about him. That evening Daddyji got very angry and wanted to belt him a few but Mummyji got in the middle and saved him. “Smarten up,” she advised.

Guddi tittered and smiled.

Mohan could not sleep all night and tossed and turned. He no longer liked living in Tanganyika, going to school with his braids tied at his neck, getting yelled at by his father and having to wait patiently for Guddi to share a tiny piece of candy or a toffee. He felt like he belonged in the West; the plains and prairie were calling for him to come and join his people, the Indians.

He confessed his thoughts to his best friend. Papu frowned and then began to laugh and shouted, “You are going mad, bloody crazy.”

“Have you ever read any of my comic books?” Mohan asked hoping that Papu would be inspired and believe him. They could go West together.

“I hate reading,” Papu scowled and walked away.

Mohan packed the things he thought he would need into a carpet bag and on Sunday as his family got ready for the temple asked his father, “Which way is west, Daddyji?”

“Simple. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.”

“What if I wanted to walk towards the west?”

“Keep the sun behind you until high noon and walk towards it in the afternoon.”

It was simple enough, Mohan thought. He waited for them to leave having feigned a stomach ache and after a short time, he picked up the bag, and the bow and arrows, then closed the door behind him.

****

People carrying baskets of fruits and vegetables on their heads, and others herding cattle and goats passed him as Mohan made his way west on the road beyond his school. Mohan knew that they were going to sell their wares in the Sunday open market in town. They gazed curiously at him as did a uniformed native constable on a bicycle.

“Going on a picnic?” the policeman smiled and stopped.

Mohan nodded.

“And going to do some hunting I see,” he pointed to the bow slung over the shoulder and the arrows sticking out of the bag.

“I hope to,” Mohan replied.

“Don’t go too far now,” the policeman said before starting to pedal into town.

A Morris Minor car passed and the two young British girls on the back seat smiled and waved to him. He shyly waved back.

By noon the sun blazed down on his bare head and the red dust covered his shoes and he stopped to rest under a tree and took a sip from the bottle of cola. Mohan was too excited to eat from the box of biscuits he had packed for the journey. A couple of Masai warriors came to sit beside him and he gave them two biscuits each.

“Where are you going?” the grey-haired one asked.

“I am going out West.”

“There are no Bwana Singhas for fifty miles that way,” the elder leaned forward to gaze at him.

“I am not going to visit any Bwana Singhas,” Mohan assured him.

“Don’t go too far. There are wild animals that way. Bad, bad, wild animals.”

“He will make a tasty morsel for the lions or the hyenas,” the younger warrior grinned and shut right up when the elder glared at him.

“Turn back at the next village,” the elder advised. “It is only bush after that.”

Mohan nodded. They left and he lay down to rest and was soon asleep. He came awake as a large bird trilled and took flight from the tree. The sun was halfway down to the west. He got up and collected his things and started to walk down the path.

“Hello young man,” a man shouted as he passed by the thatched huts lining the path. The sun was starting to turn large and red as it approached the horizon.

“Ta-ta,” Mohan waved back.

“Are you visiting the Patel family?” he asked. The Patels owned shops in all of the towns and villages.

Mohan stopped and shook his head. “I am going to visit the red people out West.”

“The Masai? Why?”

“Not the Masai. The red Indians.”

The man waved and went back into his hut.

 

Mohan began to walk faster into the setting sun. He knew he had to reach the prairie before dark and get to a tipi village with the fire in the centre. He wondered if the warriors would come to greet him seated on their painted ponies. Sweat trickled down his spine from the heat rising from the dirt path and he turned and could not see the lights of the village, and the night closed around him. He froze as the plaintive cry of a hyena reached his ears in the still air. It sounded far away. Mohan turned around in panic and began to walk back as other noises rose from the darkness. There was no moon and the stars were still not out in force.

The hyena laughed and it sounded closer. Mohan began to shake with fear and ran to the nearest tree outlined in the dark of faded dusk hoping to climb it before the pack got to him. They were the most dangerous of animals in Africa and ate every bit of their prey. Even the shoes and clothing, a Masai hunter had told his class when he visited as a guest speaker. Mohan felt fear like never before and his sweat became icy. He began to inch his way up the boab tree as the hyenas snarls got louder.

He was still in Africa he realised. There were no hyenas on the Western plains and prairie. He was not in his people’s country and now hyenas raced to devour him. His was to be an ignoble end and no braves would dance at his death or sing songs of sorrow. Mohan felt warm tears run down his cheeks as he desperately clambered up the tree.

****

“Mohan, Mohan, where are you,” he heard the cries before he saw the light from the torches as men ran towards him and his father appeared on the back of a Land Rover with the constable and the Masai warriors as more townspeople followed including British men with long guns.

“I am here Daddyji,” Mohan croaked from the tree trunk.

“Oh God, thank you God,” his father wept and took him into his arms.

The bush erupted with joyful sounds.

Mister Sadroo stared sternly from his perch behind the long counter of the shop. “Comics,” he asked.

Mohan shook his head and pointed to the Cadbury’s chocolate bars as his sister stood behind him. He had not been in the store for a month.

“One.”

“No, two.”

The shopkeeper handed him the bars and Mohan gave him a shilling and waited for the change.

“No more cowboy and Indian comics?” a small smile thinned on Mister Sadroo’s lips.

Mohan shook his head and lowered his eyes.

“Here.”

Mohan stared at the shilling coin on his palm.

“No charge for a brave young man who followed his dreams and brought the town together,” the shopkeeper’s eyes moistened. “And no charge for these.”

He handed Mohan two comic books as Guddi quickly grabbed the chocolate bars.

“Bring them back after you have read them, un-smudged and I will let you have two more,” Mister Sadroo promised.

Mohan ran out to sit on the store’s concrete steps.

 

Sohan S Koonar’s novel Paper Lions is forthcoming from Speaking Tiger

Published on January 18, 2019

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