Sept. 2nd Place THE CHOWKIDAR


Underneath a large pith helmet, the young boy’s face was shielded from the harsh sun beating down on the Quetta military cantonment. He wore a white cotton shirt and baggy khaki shorts. The white-daubed buildings and the straight lines of red-daubed rocks along the sides of the roads sported a fresh coat of paint. Sitting astride his pet donkey, the four-year-old surveyed the scene. Willy’s mother watched him from the shade of the veranda of their cantonment house with an overprotective eye.

The scene of edged roads and pathways filled the lady with a sense of order in this far-flung dusty outpost of the British Raj. Though her heart pined to be back among the green rolling hills of Devon in England.

Willy’s mother was clothed in a prim full-length white cotton dress, buttoned to the neck. A white chiffon scarf tied in a bow under her chin held a large straw hat in place on her head. From her chair on the veranda, she could assess her son’s demeanour. The donkey stood pensively, snorting the air under the woman’s gaze.

‘Sit up straight in the saddle, Willy. The photographer will be here soon. When father comes home, you can show him how well you can ride.’

The donkey’s ears twitched at the sound of the woman’s stern voice.

‘Yes, Mama.’

The reins of the donkey were held by a leathery, dark-skinned man dressed in a light green shalwar kameez. The shirt tails of his tunic hung down to his knees over baggy pantaloon trousers. His feet were clad with thick-soled leather sandals, while upon his head sat a dark-green turban with a distinctive checked pattern. Standing in the cauldron of the hot June day, Farrukh felt the uncertainty of his fate burning into his brain.

‘Frookee, walk me to the garden gate.’

The child’s way of saying the man’s name rolled off the lad’s tongue with easy familiarity and affection. Farrukh smiled back warmly at the boy, glad that the child’s request had snapped him out of his worrying thoughts.

‘Yes, little sahib. You look proper little English army man like your father, Captain sahib.’

The chowkidar’s broken English was thick with his Baluch and Pashtu accent.

‘Noow you holdi tight, young sahib, and we walking to gate.’

Taking heed of his mother’s instructions, the boy sat bolt upright as the chowkidar led the donkey along the path. Upon reaching the gate, the trio saw a khaki, open-topped military car coming up the road. The car stopped in front of the house, and the driver got out. Opening the front passenger door, the driver saluted the alighting officer, while a little man in a white cotton suit, white hat and black shoes, got down from the rear seat. To assist the photographer, the driver gathered up the camera gear from the back seat, and then followed the officer and the short man through the front gate of the garden.

‘Look, Papa, how well I am riding.’

‘Very good, William, and thank you, Farrukh, for taking good care of the lad.’

‘Thank you, Captain sahib. Farrukh sorry you must leave.’

‘Yes, back to England. All because of the war, you know. But I hear a story from Abdul the cook that you are going to Australia.’

‘Yes, Captain sahib. I have telegram. My cousin sick and wants me to help with camels.’

‘I’m sure you will do well, and I will give you a good letter of recommendation.’

‘Thank you very much, Captain sahib. May Allah bless you.’

Willy sat still on the animal, listening carefully to the conversation, while the donkey did likewise. Although not fully able to comprehend the import of what was said, young Willy sensed that something was soon to happen and that he would be leaving the place where he was born.

‘Come, Mr Mahmood, we need to get these photographs taken.’

‘Yes, Captain sahib. They will be ready at my shop in Quetta town the day after tomorrow.’

The party moved up the pathway toward the house, and the captain’s wife came down from the veranda to greet her husband. Her smile said everything. She was glad to be leaving this place.

With the sun at his back, the photographer set up his camera with the aid of the driver. When he was ready, Mr Mahmood began marshalling the family for various photographs in front of the cantonment house. The final picture was of young Willy sitting on his pet donkey, with the chowkidar Farrukh holding the reins.

In the frame of the picture, three pairs of eyes looked out to an uncertain future.

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