The summer of 1988 was extremely hot. It was so hot that the small Tibetan refugee settlement of Kham Kathok surrounded by tropical mountains baked in the sun. Sweat trickled down our cheeks and even the air under the Usha ceiling fan was hot. The best thing we could do to cool off was to head down to the river that flowed along the valley between the mountains. Along with the other children, I would race towards the river, stripping off my clothes and diving into the wild and clean waters, leaving a trail of scattered clothes behind on the sandy bank.
But even hotter than the weather that summer was the new Bollywood film, Tarzan. I knew it was a booming success at the box office all over India because the movie soundtrack played continuously in towns and villages everywhere. Even the tiniest chai stalls blared the songs from Tarzan on their battered stereos in the bazaar.
My village had its share of the excitement too. The movie’s popularity was increased by the arrival of Chocho Dawa, our neighbour’s teenage cousin. He was from Kharapathar; a place tucked away somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas where he helped his parents tend their herd of horses and mules and earned money by hiring them out to transfer crates of apples for the local Indian apple orchard owners. He was of slender build, with strong arms from years of moving apple crates. His black hair hung down to his shoulders, and he smoked beedis. What was more was he was amazingly talented; to the delight of us children, he could sing all the songs from Tarzan. He would flash all the fingers on his hands in front of us and say, “Ten times!” his handsome eyes looking directly into our eyes. “I have seen Tarzan ten times!” nodding as he said it.
As evening approached, we gathered excitedly in the front yard of the house where Chocho Dawa was staying. There was a rickety wooden chair ready for him under an illuminated light bulb suspended from the eaves of the house. We kids took our places, sitting on the concrete ground, forming a semi-circle around the empty chair. By the time it was eight o’clock, a hush fell over the gathered audience. We heard the crickets in the nearby bushes and the rustling and fluttering of moths drawn to the light. Then, the impressive, silhouetted figure of Dawa appeared at the window of the house. After a moment, he disappeared once again, only to emerge from the doorway, which creaked open to announce the arrival of the great storyteller. He strode towards us children; everyone with eager excitement on our faces. All eyes were on him as the crowd parted naturally so that he could make his way to the chair that awaited him. He sat down and let his hands rest on his knees.
A friend sitting next to me rubbed his hands together in excitement and said with twinkling eyes, “Now he will tell us the Tarzan story again!”
Chocho Dawa wore a bandana, a strip of leather around his forehead, holding his ink-black hair back. He rummaged through the pockets of his shorts to pull out a small bundle of beedis and a matchbox. He took out a beedi and put it firmly between his lips. He struck a matchstick against the box. Instantly a fire was produced, which, with a curved hand to shield it against the breeze, he held to the beedi. For a brief moment, his features looked like those of a deity on an altar lit by flickering butter lamps. Then, with a sudden wave of his hand, the fire was blown out. He took a long drag and let out the long grey smoke through his nostrils and mouth, covering his face for a brief moment. After the third drag, he dropped the burning cigarette butt at his foot and smothered it under his flip-flop and once again his face disappeared behind the smoky veil as he exhaled.
His gaze roamed over us, then a smile broke across his face. With his glowing teeth, he clapped his hands together and asked, “Are you ready for the story?”
We screamed “Yes!” in unison and excitement. To which he responded by calling his younger cousin indoors.
“Yeah?” Gomchen’s voice came from inside the house, accompanied by his silhouette at the window.
“Press the play button now on the tape recorder.”
The shadow vanished from the window. A few of us jumped up to peep inside. The room was dimly lit, and the walls decorated with Tarzan posters. We could see a rectangular box on a table emitting an array of coloured lights, almost like a beaming rainbow. Gomchen pressed the play button.
‘Ji lay lay, Ji lay lay, ayo ayo, Ji lay lay…’
The song blasted out of the tape recorder. Dawa threw his hands in the air. He leapt up from his chair and started to move to the music. He jumped from side-to-side dancing as if in a trance. Kids moved back, away from him, to make space. His dancing shadow performed before us until he stopped abruptly, out of breath and panting heavily. He shouted between breaths.
The machine clunked to a stop inside the house, and the loud music ceased as abruptly as Dawa’s dance. He took his seat and wiped away the sweat trickling down his face with the back of his hand. The audience exploded with applause, but before the sound of clapping had finished, he began to tell the story.
“The hunters were camping in the jungle and having a party, drinking and dancing around a bonfire,” he said, putting on a serious expression.
“They were there in search of Tarzan. The heroine, Jane, ventured out alone towards the river nearby. Once at the edge of the river, she sat down on a boulder and listened to the sound of the river as it rushed by. When she looked across the river, there he was, standing on the opposite bank, the Ape Man. He wore only a loincloth; his hair was long and his body muscular. Both of them watched each other in amazement. Before she realised it, Tarzan had vanished, but she heard his call echo through the jungle. It stirred in her romantic temptations, and yet at the same time, it frightened her.”
Chocho Dawa placed his hand next to his mouth and called out to imitate Tarzan.
“E e e o o o o e e e e…E e e o o o o e e e…”
He threw his mop of hair from side to side with his leather bandana around his head. Then he started to demonstrate Tarzan’s ability to swing from branch to branch by moving his hands one after another in the space above his head. Eventually, he turned back to his attentive audience. He allowed for several seconds of silence while he looked into the night sky, which was getting darker and was now overcast with the gathering clouds.
“That’s how Tarzan and his woman met and fell in love.”
Raindrops started to fall. Chocho Dawa took a look at his watch. Then it started to pour. Some of the audience scattered with their hands over their heads into the night. He shouted over the noise of the downpour.
“The final part of the movie will be at the river tomorrow afternoon. I will see you all there.”
Despite the rain, the remaining audience stayed put. What happened next? How did the movie end? We wanted to know! Chocho Dawa looked at our eager faces, and he hesitated. Then we heard a rolling thunder in the distance. He waved his hands to send us away and retreated into the house.
The next day we gathered on the bank of the river. It looked murky and swollen—it had doubled in size overnight with the heavy rain. Chocho Dawa arrived with his assistant, Gomchen, tagging along. While we watched, he changed his clothes into his Tarzan gear.
After a moment, he was ready and standing at the edge of the swollen river in a loincloth and leather strip around his head.
After monitoring the river, he turned around and said,
“Sing the title song of the movie.”
We all sung the song together,
He dove into the flowing water and resurfaced, but the current was strong; he was being washed downstream. He thrashed his strong arms and swam through the murky water. Then he gripped onto a boulder with his head and shoulders above the water. He shouted towards his standing, frightened audience.
“This is how Tarzan fights off the crocodile to save his woman.”
He punched the surface of the river, splashing the water. But all of a sudden, he lost his grip and struggled before vanishing, reappearing and vanishing again. We could see his hands waving as he struggled to keep his head above water. There was nothing we could do except run along on the riverbank. After some time, our Tibetan Tarzan reappeared on the edge of the river some one hundred yards downstream. His knee was cut and bruised. He did not finish the story, and to this day I never learned how it ended. We all returned to the village with our Ape Man limping silently beside us.
N. Dhargyal is a British Tibetan living in Brighton, UK. He was one of the founding members of Tibetan Youth-UK and earned his BA (Hons) in Literature from The Open University. He is currently working on a short story collection tentatively titled The Rise of The Grassland Spirit. Some of his spoken words are available on The Soundcloud.
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