|Geoff and Jules - Chapter 5|
'A daring young man going west for a wheeze,
Was conning his way with remarkable ease;
This is his story; a series of sprees,
And all that he learns and he hears and he sees.'
Thus wrote Geoff in his diary before setting out to cash his Letter of Credit at the bank. Meanwhile I went in search of the dharamsala attached to the Lakshmi Hindu Temple. This dharamsala was crowded with people come to Delhi for the fairs and festivities of Republic Day a few days hence, and there was no room. But I was taken in hand by a worshipper at the temple who informed me thus: "Ah, never mind, my very good fellow, you may stay in the house of my friend, who is away from Delhi just now and who will be pleased for you to stay in his house." So saying he spirited me away to an elegant residential area and installed me in the care of the chowkidar of a comfortable two-storied home. I never saw him again.
Geoff, on the other hand, was quite disconsolate. Nobody would cash his letter of credit. It had, by a stroke of fate, expired the previous day. Somehow he had never realised that it was valid for only twelve months from its date if issue, and here it was now, quite useless. He would have to send it back to Melbourne and get the bank to forward the balance to him at some other city along our route. The balance was only about thirty-five American dollars, but that, together with another thirty or so which he expected to receive by mail from home was all he had to take him to England. So off he went to the post office for his mail. There were several letters for him but no sign of the draft he was expecting. That it had been sent was confirmed in another letter he received, so away to see the Inspector of Mails. Why was a registered letter marked PLEASE HOLD AND AWAIT COLLECTION not there. "Oh," said the Inspector of Mails sorting through reams of papers, "it is very simple. Yes. You were not here to collect the letter when it arrived, so we have sent it to the Dead Letter Office at Amritsar. That is why the letter is not here." In the face of such formidable beaurocracy there seemed little to be said, but Geoff dug his toes in. He would wait in the Inspector's office until he arranged to have the letter sent back from Amritsar.
Impossible to do such a thing quickly.
"I'll wait here anyway," said Geoff cheerfully, unpacking his rucksack, laying out his sleeping-bag and setting up the stove to cook a meal. So a telephone call was made to Amritsar which revealed that the letter had inexplicably been sent on from the Dead Letter Office in that city to the Dead Letter Office in Madras, and the letter had curiously been returned to the sender in Australia. Formidable indeed. But a financial disaster for Geoff, who was now left without money of any kind.
There was other mail however, and amongst this he was much cheered by a breezy letter from his mother, in which she told him about her hilarious attempts to let the back flat in their Melbourne house. She relates the happenings of one such attempt: "I was showing this chap how to work the gas stove with the gas match. 'Flick of the wrist,' I said, 'and Bob's your uncle. No matches!' 'Oh,' said this chap, 'Do you know my Uncle Bob?' 'No, no,' said I. 'But you just said Bob's my uncle,' said he. Me: 'No, no! He's nobody's uncle!' Chap: 'But he's my uncle!' Me: 'Look, it's only a saying. I don't know whose uncle he is.' Chap: 'He's mine!' Me: 'No, no. I just mean "Bob's your uncle", you know - quick and fast.' Chap: 'My Uncle Bob isn't quick or fast!' Me: 'I didn't mean he was anybody's uncle or quick and fast.' I had to leave it at that. I hope he didn't think I was silly."
Geoff was much cheered also by our elegant Delhi residence, and we showered, washed our clothes and slept peacefully in great comfort, being woken finally by the chowkidar, who insisted on bringing us breakfast. Such luxury. We hired bicycles and toured the places of interest in Delhi before Geoff returned to do battle once more with the Postal authorities and I presented myself at the Tourist Bureau to obtain tickets for the Republic Day Parade. It says a great deal for the officials of this Government organisation that although bearded, long-haired, with dirty dishevelled clothes and a general down-at-heel air, we were always treated with great courtesy and made to feel that our wanderings were as important to them as the visit of the wealthiest tourist. Whilst in the Tourist Bureau, a young American clapped me on the shoulder and asked abruptly, "Say, man, have you been to Africa?" A little startled, I had to confess inadequately that I had not. He was flying to East Africa, he told me, and was going to hitch through into the Sudan and then down into Egypt. "I sure as hell do need some information on that route. But I can't find anyone who's been there." We talked, and I told him I was travelling with an Australian. "Say! You're not with a guy called Geoff Knott?"
"Christ! I last saw that guy in Japan! Where is the old bastard?" I took him off to find Geoff.
"Norm Frost! You old ratbag! What are you doing here?" Geoff pumped his hand enthusiastically then stood off and eyed him curiously. "The last time I saw this bloke, Jules, he was my manager at the Japanese Marathon!" Norm was a genial fellow with something of a glib tongue. They had travelled together in the United States and then met by chance some months later in Hiroshima, where Norm had at once declared himself to be Geoff's manager. Geoff had never had a manager and had no need of one then, while Norm knew nothing about athletics of any kind, let alone the marathon. But this had in no way deterred Norm from persuading a large Tokyo newspaper to sponsor Geoff and accommodate them both in a comfortable hotel.
We went with Norm and had a meal at the Delhi Y.M.C.A., where he was staying, and spent the afternoon there exchanging tales. Norm told me how he first came to meet Geoff. "I was in Detroit, see, and I got this job where I had to drive a Chevvy up to Alaska inside fourteen days. They gave me a hundred bucks for gas and off I went - five thousand miles right on to Anchorage. I was going through the Badlands of Dakota - before you get to the Black Hills - when I sees this funny little bearded guy dancing around on the road up ahead. Well, I slow down and then he pulls out a big sign that says THE LAST BADMAN IN THE BADLANDS. So I figured that a guy with a sign like that sure as hell deserved some support."
"Yeah," said Geoff. "I had another one that said THE BLACKGUARD FROM THE BLACK HILLS! People like weird signs in the hills and they'll pick you up with a good one, but keep right on going if you just stand there and wave your arms."
"This crazy guy used to go off running along the road when we stopped to camp for the night," went on Norm. "I figured he didn't like cooking, but he reckoned he was in training."
"I got some great runs along that road," said Geoff. "The first night on the Alaska highway we set up camp and I went off for a run. I set out to go about five miles, but it developed into a real gallop. I was just rolling along and knocked up five miles in no time. Then I turned round to run back. After a mile or so a car pulled up and I was offered a lift. These Canadians must be nuts, I thought; can't they see I'm training. Then another car pulled up. I kept on running, and they plied me with questions. 'Where are you running to?'
'Yes, from Dawson Creek. I running the length of the Alaskan Highway.'
'When did you start?'
'Today. I run a hundred miles each day. Takes twelve hours,' I said, running along steadily.
'Do you stop at all?'
'Only at lunchtime. I stop for ten minutes while my mate gives me eggs and milk and sugar.'
'Is there any money in it?'
'Oh, there will be soon, when it catches on.'
'Where are you from?'
'Have a beer.'
'Thanks.' We drank a toast and went our ways. I hadn't gone another mile when another car pulled up. More questions ... same sort of thing.
'... to Alaska?'
'Yeah, a hundred miles a day.'
'Well, how come you were running the other way when I saw you back a while?'"
Geoff danced about, his eyes gleaming. A crowd had gathered around us as we talked, and he performed his tale in the centre of a circle of grave, puzzled faces which watched him intently.
Later we wandered across from New Delhi across into the old part of the city, which we liked better. It was, however, rather like going from Canberra to Calcutta, so extreme was the contrast. We stopped to watch a spruiker, who had a monkey beating a drum, while he talked up a big crowd to see the fearful battle of the cobra and the mongoose. He was a polished conman and we admired the style with which he extracted two annas from everybody in sight. There was no show till the crowd was a good size and everyone had paid. Then a rather dazed-looking cobra was poked unwillingly out of a sack while a mongoose, tethered in the dust to a nearby stake, scurried over and bit the snake casually on the neck. The snake was finished and the show was over.
We caught a bus to the International Agricultural Fair where, we were told, there were fine displays from the Indian states as well as from other countries, notably the U.S.S.R., China and other socialist republics. As we settled into the seats on the bus, people began to nudge each other and murmur, "Rusko, Rusko." They believed us to be Russians. Geoff, rising to the occasion, got to his feet and, adopting a thick husky voice, addressed the passengers.
"We have come to Hindustan to sell you machines for the fields. They are good machines! Very good! But you must not buy machines from Amerika. Bad! Very bad!"
And, as the bus was stationary, he danced a little jig - his idea of a Cossack dance. It was a smash performance; the little speech had pleased the people, but his jig delighted them beyond measure. They fell about with laughter, hooting and snorting and doubled up with mirth, so much so that Geoff felt impelled to continue. "Today we are bringing you machines. Tomorrow we will make you all part of Mother Russia! No!" And he stretched his arms wide in a heroic pose. More hilarity, slapping on the back and much laughter. It was, perhaps, the most good-humoured busload to have arrived at the Exhibition that day.
The foreign countries were busy competing with one another to show the Indians how excellent their system of living was, and how it was merely a matter of adopting their style for the problems of India to be solved. So there were smiling faces at each pavilion, with soaring production graphs and gleaming machines. East Germany outdid them all for interest by exhibiting a life-size plastic cow, fully illuminated internally and dissected to show all 'working' parts - veins, arteries and other organs. This fascinated the Hindus, and they gazed at their holy animal in wonder. Hordes of these gentle beasts wander the streets and roadways of India unmolested, living off scraps from vegetable stalls or handouts from storekeepers. In the cities they block traffic, cause general confusion, and their droppings fall everywhere, a hazard to pedestrians. The only thing to be said for them is that they provide a living for a few - those who collect the dung, dry it into little cakes and sell it for fuel. The roast-peanut vendors of Delhi use nothing else for the roasting, and most people who cannot afford kerosene would have no other cooking fuel.
We were in the pavilion of the Socialist Republic of Outer Mongolia when Geoff was seized with an urgent need to go to the lavatory. He tried to explain his predicament to a smiling Mongolian demonstrating a butter-churn. Unfortunately, the man was not expert in English and could not grasp Geoff's meaning. Geoff uttered every word for lavatory he could think of without success and, in a final desperate bid, seized the butter-churn and squatted down upon it to demonstrate his need. A stunned silence. Then a horrified Indian attendant rushed over and snatched the churn from him indignantly, exclaiming, "No, no, sir! It is not for that purpose. It is for making butter!"
Geoff had sent a cable to his bank and instructed them to forward his money to their agent in Teheran so that he could collect it as we passed that way. In the meantime we would share what money I had. We were anxious to be off; we felt we had been long enough in India and could feel the pull of the Khyber Pass and the mountains of Afghanistan beyond. After our sojourn in the crowded lowlands, we felt the need to betake ourselves to a cooler climate, to the snows of the Hindu Kush. Accordingly, we boarded the Frontier Mail to travel to Amritsar, on the Pakistan border. Installed comfortably on the luggage racks of an "Attendants" compartment, we settled down to read our paperbacks before drifting off to sleep. But alas, Geoff was beset by a relentless questioner. "From which country are you coming, Sahib?"
Irritated, he determined not to get caught up and parried neatly with German, a language in which he rather fancied himself. "Ich nicht sprecken Englische!" he rasped darkly. His questioner was momentarily nonplussed but not so easily deterred. Struggling on laboriously with a kind of hideous pidgin English, the poor fellow rephrased the question in half a dozen different ways, all of which Geoff rebuffed with a dogged, "Ich nicht sprecken Englische," or occasionally, "Ich nicht bin Englander." He was finally stumped, however, when the Indian happened to notice the book he was reading.
"Sahib, why is it that you are not speaking English when it is an English book that you are reading?"
Geoff had no answer to this, and smiling ruefully, he said, "Oh, well, my friend, in my country we have a saying that if you can't beat them, join them." And he fell to a long description of Australia, swaggies, kangaroos and all.
We paused for a day or two at Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs; fine, stalwart, bearded men in turbans, surely the best-natured and most helpful men in India. There was free accommodation for pilgrims at the serai of Guru Ram Das by the Golden Temple, where these generous-hearted people accommodated and fed up to two thousand of the poor, the pilgrims or refugees. We camped in the courtyard of the serai, along with many hundreds of Tibetans who had found their way there after the heartbreaking and arduous trek out of their mountainous homeland. The Sikhs had undertaken to give them shelter and food and assist them on their way to more permanent settlements.
We fell in here with a young Englishman returning home from Malaysia. He was an agreeable companion but offended us somewhat the following morning by rejecting our carefully prepared porridge-and-rice breakfast, which he claimed was "pretty awful". Nevertheless, he came with us on a tour of the Golden Temple, whence had come the melodious chanting we had heard throughout the previous night. It is a brilliant golden structure with shining cupolas, set in the centre of a square marble-terraced tank of water - the Pool of Nectar, from which the city takes its name. A sikh accompanied us and explained his religion to us and the significance of the things we saw. A particularly horrific series of paintings in the nearby museum depicted the martyrdom of various of the Gurus and their followers. One showed a follower of the ninth Guru being held in a rack and sawn vertically in two for refusing to become a muslim. This was done in Chandni Chowk, Delhi - a peaceful-enough thoroughfare nowadays but a regular butchery then. Another showed the ninth Guru himself - there were ten in all - being chopped up joint by joint. Small wonder that they took the name of Singh - or lion-hearted - and believed that the waters of the Golden Temple gave them strength and courage. The simple fact is that they needed it. And of course they are known now as fearless, forthright men who fight fiercely when roused. There are other pictures of more recent times in which British soldiers are seen firing on about two thousand Sikhs, peacefully gathered at a political rally in 1922. It was, of course, the work of the infamous General Dyer who commented, according to our young English companion, "That'll teach the buggers a lesson!"
As most of them were dead or wounded, I suppose it did," observed Geoff drily.
Having changed our money into Pakistani Rupees, the three of us caught a bus to the border a few miles away. Geoff clowned about to entertain the few passengers and introduced our young Englishman as "an Englishman from England, a resident of London, British, and a Commonwealth citizen to boot." Later he repeated this introduction to a Pakistani immigration official, who regarded him steadily for a moment before remarking, "Truly he is a man of superior qualities."
Soon we were in Lahore and, having said goodbye to the Englishman, cast about for the road to Rawalpindi, Peshawar and the Khyber Pass. By a stroke of fortune we were not on the road an hour before we had hitched a ride with three men returning from Karachi to Kabul in Afghanistan. They were from the German Embassy there and had just taken delivery of three new Volkswagens. We saw little of Pakistan, stopping for the night at Peshawar then pressing on next morning for the Khyber Pass. But the Germans were agreeable companions and we enjoyed the unaccustomed comfort of the cars.
Pulling in at a Pakistan Military Control Post, Geoff and I angled about to get a photo of this legendary pass, from here a low opening in an undistinguished line of hills ahead. The profile of Jamrud Fort, an ancient mud building, stood out in the foreground. But within minutes a small, narrow-faced man appeared at my side and clutched anxiously at my sleeve demanding my passport. Nervously he informed us that the Commandant wished to see us at once, and it was clear that the invitation could not be refused when two soldiers appeared with rifles and hustled us off into the fort. Through the great gates, round dark corridors, along battlements to where the Commandant's office looked out over the road and the entrance to the Pass. "Your passports!" The commandant eyed us coldly, his hand outstretched for our documents. "Why were you photographing my fort?"
We mumbled a story about just looking at the scene through the viewfinders. "...and it wasn't really worth a shot," offered Geoff brightly. Not surprisingly, the Commandant was unimpressed. After all it was his fort.
He looked at our passports. "Ah! Australia, New Zealand! You are Commonwealth people!" He smiled and relaxed. "I thought you were Russians. Will you take tea?" He ushered us into his office where a radio in the corner droned, "... and Davidson moves in again for the third ball of the over ..." It was the cricket test - Australia versus Pakistan at Rawalpindi. "You see, I must be very careful," he explained earnestly. "I know the Russians are trying to photograph my fort. This is a most important place." We listened politely. No doubt the Russians had first photographed the fort at the turn of the century, and in any event a well directed fire-hose would clearly cause serious damage to the walls.
There was a clatter, and in rushed our German hosts puffing and blowing, exuding diplomatic bonhomie. Obviously thinking to extricate us from a ticklish situation, they beamed, apologised, shook hands, complimented the Commandant on his excellent establishment and exerted all their professional charm to avoid an unfortunate incident. This resulted in another invitation to tea, and we all sat about smiling foolishly.
On through the Pass. Bald barren hills, and the road running deviously between great tumbled masses of rock rearing above us into the limits of the sky. An excellent sealed road that winds on, around and steadily upwards. Pill-boxes and stone forts set on every hill and crag far into the distance. And plaques on the rock faces with the names and coats of arms of the British regiments which fought repeatedly for every inch of this incredible stretch of road. The legends are brief: "Shagai Fort: Khyber Rifles." But the tribesmen are more striking than the road. Some are on donkeys, some perched precariously on the high piled tops of spectacularly painted Khyber buses, others in square stone villages, staring stolidly as we drive past. On the road, men walk with a spare, aggressive dignity, and all carry rifles, from flintlocks to army .303s, the cartridge belt fully loaded and slung over the shoulder.
In less than an hour we breast the top and gaze out across hazy miles of rugged hills. Towering up on the horizon stand the snow-covered mountains of the Hindu Kush, and somewhere through the distant hills lies Kabul, remote and cols at an altitude of some six thousand feet.
Then through the Afghan border post and lines of indolent, grey-clad soldiers standing, staring blankly. Their uniforms could be the field-grey cast-offs of German stormtroopers. The cars speed on. Toward evening we pull in at the scattered township of Jalalabad and take a meal of kebabs and bread at a teahouse. Dark inside, and we are watched by the inquisitive eyes of proud, haughty men dressed in ragged finery as they sit cross-legged on carpets laid over earthen benches around the walls. Faces from the melting pot of conquest and migration. There is an Italian, there the rosy cheeks and broad open face of an Irishman, over there two Mongols and an Arab, while certainly that blonde, blue-eyed fellow is Scandinavian. A heterogeneous people. We eat with gusto. Oh how we eat. The kebabs are our first meat for months. And the bread is coarse, flat and delicious. We tear off great hunks and wash it down with strong, sweet tea.
It is dark outside, and we go on again along the metalled road. There are patches of snow on the ground, and every now and again our headlights catch the greatcoats of patrolling soldiers, the light gleaming for a moment on a fixed bayonet. They are guarding the road. My companion sounds the horn. "In Afghanistan," he says, "it is necessary to be making a great noise. Ze people, all the time they are sleepink!" I wonder if the Afghans expect their roads to be spirited away in the night. "Ach, zese Afghanistan roads!" he mutters again as he carefully negotiates a boulder-strewn pothole.
We are running along now beside the Kabul River, a harsh rocky landscape, stark and beautiful in the moonlight. We stop for a moment at the bottom of a deep gorge and the river is rushing, roaring and tumbling over enormous masses of fallen rock. The moon shines thinly into this jagged canyon, and the black walls tower hundreds of feet above us on each side. It is hostile, but eerily beautiful. The landscape of another planet.
Before midnight we are in Kabul, and leaving our German friends we trudge through the slush of the snow-covered streets. Where to sleep? We see the outline of a mosque ahead and find a courtyard with a low shelter protected from the snow and the harsh wind. Unrolling our sleeping-bags we sleep fitfully in the cold night.
A clear, strong tenor voice rings out and we struggle awake. What is it and where is this place? The voice soars, then falls with a series of choking sobs, then up again with a long wailing ululation. We grasp our consciousness. It is the muezzin, and the faithful are being called to prayer. There is the pale blue of the early morning sky, and it is not so cold. The call is strangely beautiful and we listen in silence. Away on the other side of the grey courtyard we see the rhythmic movements of a few shadowy figures bowing, prostrating and rising.
Then the voice stopped and we heard footsteps descending the steps of the minaret. A figure emerged from a doorway and approached, striped robes billowing out behind. "Gruss Gott!" Fine Arab features, and strong brown eyes twinkling in a bearded, leathery face. He spoke again, "Wir kommen sie?" Geoff began a laborious reply in halting German. "So you speak English?"
"Yes, we're better at that."
"And let me see - you must be Australians." His voice had a deep resonance and he spoke carefully with little accent. "Ho! What a fine gift of providence. You have just come to Kabul and you don't know anybody." He gave a great laugh that shook his body, and the trailing end of his turban danced over his shoulder. "What a fine pair of cock-birds!" We were in a state of some confusion and had not quite caught up with events. "Come!" He turned and strode over to a gateway, beckoned us to follow and disappeared. Geoff shrugged, we packed our gear and followed. He was sitting in a bettered old jeep in the narrow street outside and eyed us with an amused smile. "Come on, jump in!"
He let in the clutch, and the old jeep lurched forward. "I am Mirhud, of the Nirghani!" he shouted over his shoulder, spinning the wheel to turn into another street. A few trees stood gaunt and bare in piles of mud, snow and slush. High stone walls ran along one side, and on the other a motley collection of mud and stone buildings with wooden posts and shutters.
"I'm Geoff Knott from Australia." We introduced ourselves, and he nodded. We crossed a bridge. The Kabul river ran blue-grey, cold and murky underneath. Then past a mosque with a blue-tiled minaret and into a part of the city crowded with markets and stalls. Not many people about, but shopkeepers in an incredible array of garments were taking down wooden shutters and setting out gaudy piles of goods. There were men in waistcoats, old Army jackets, Indian shawls and dhotis, pantaloons and shapeless flowing robes. Multi-coloured, patched and brilliant, most wore turbans wound about with strips of dirty-looking silk. Others were attired in natty American suits, just a little too big or too small, but set off nicely with woolly Carracul caps. We bounced along in the ruts and slush, pulling up with a jerk outside a snug-looking teahouse.
"Come!" said Mirhud. "We shall take some Chai and Nan!" He led the way inside and greeted the proprietor haughtily, making known his wants in rapid, flowing Farsi - or Persian. He washed his hands at a little tank of warm water fed by a huge copper samovar in the centre of the room. Then arranging his robes comfortably, he sat cross-legged on a carpet-covered bench against the wall. A man wearing a patched coat of many colours brought three little china pots of tea and three small bowls. This was the chai. The man was the owner of this chaikhana; he made an obsequious gesture then hurried off to return with great flat pieces of the bread we had enjoyed so much the previous night. We sipped the sweet black tea and warmed our hands on the little bowls. The bread was fresh-baked and delicious.
"How did you pick us for Australians?" Geoff asked.
Mirhud laughed. "Oh ho! Your German is so bad, and I know the accent. I have met Australians before! How do you like our Nan?"
"Nan? Is this the bread?"
"Yes, it is Nan."
"I'd say," said Geoff chewing thoughtfully, "that it's about the best bread I've tasted!"
Mirhud smiled, "I am pleased it is to your taste. It is a staple food. Many of the poor people can afford little else, but it is full of goodness and will give you strength for many hours." He sucked tea noisily through the lump-sugar in his teeth. "I am going to the village of my brother. You will come with me." It was an invitation, but clearly he expected no refusal. Rising abruptly he flung a few coins at the proprietor of the chaikhana and climbed back into the jeep.
We rattled off and headed out through the now bustling streets into the hills. In a few moments we had passed the ancient outer wall of the city and were climbing a tortuous road through the stark, snow-spattered hills. The brilliant sunshine threw a dazzling contrast between the dun-coloured earth and the great drifts of snow. After half an hour, and passing only two or three fortress-like farm dwellings, we came to the village. Straggling, square-cut buildings clustered together on the banks of a small stream, where several willows grew. We pulled up outside a doorway set in a high mud wall. A few barefooted boys wearing skullcaps and dirty pantaloons ran up chattering. Mirhud led us through the doorway and into the bustling courtyard of his brother's house. The sun streamed down and we felt a sudden warmth after the rush of cold air in the jeep.
Two or three shadowy figures vanished through the door of a squat building across the yard ... the women of the household. A straggle of hens pecked about in the dirt and the snow. Several children were playing at one end, while animals could be heard moving about in another building against the courtyard wall. There was an untidy air of prosperity about the place, and the people looked well fed and content.
A great shout, a door flung open and into the yard leaped a tall, lean man and ran across to us. "Mirhud! Mirhud!" He embraced him and pummelled him affectionately.
"It is my brother Akkul!" Mirhud grinned at us and in a few quick phrases told Akkul how he had found us at the mosque.
Akkul gave us a swift appraising look and, grasping Geoff by the arm, led us both over to a table set with chairs under a cloth awning. He called through a door, and in a moment a boy appeared with tea and sweet cinnamon cakes. Looking across the wall of the courtyard, the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush seemed to ring the little village. The boy served us with the tea and cakes, while Akkul fell into earnest talk with his brother. He was handsome, clean-shaven save for a luxuriant black moustache, and probably in his late thirties. He wore a yellow, embroidered waistcoat over a silken shirt which hung loosely outside black pantaloons. His eyes were clear, and he radiated strength and good health.
Mirhus turned to us. "I ask your pardon for this rudeness; but there is much business I must discuss with my brother." He gestured around at this domestic rural scene. "I grew up here as a child. But I had a clever way with words, and my father sent me to Kabul to study the holy books with the wise men and the mullahs. I miss this place. Then, when I was older, my father's brother paid for me to go to Germany to study at universities there, and I learned to speak German - and English too." He paused. "If you can be patient with me, soon there will be wrestling." He turned and talked earnestly again with Akkul. Wrestling! Geoff and I looked at each other. I hoped that I would not be called upon to wrestle anyone. I felt that fortune would be treating me less than fairly if I had to pit my strength against such as Akkul.
The door in the courtyard wall swung open with a bang, and a great thickset figure strode into the yard. Dressed in a full-length leather kaftan decorated with embroidered patterns and lined with coarse wool, he wore a tall sheepskin hat, carried a short whip and presented a most formidable appearance. Of indeterminate age, he had a thick black moustache and gleaming white teeth. Standing with a hand on one hip he shouted harshly across at the two brothers. They jumped up at once and replied angrily in loud voices. Faces appeared at the unglazed windows behind us, and the women could be seen in another doorway, their faces and figures enveloped in the long chadoris of purdah. Through the gateway behind the stranger crept ragged figures in ones and twos to take up positions squatting against the wall at the far end of the yard, gaping. The children stopped their games and stood staring. Then the stranger called out again, threateningly and the air was tense, expectant. Geoff and I glanced at each other uneasily and started edging back to the wall. Suddenly all three burst out laughing and rushed together, thumping each other and embracing. Smiles creased every face, and we relaxed, wondering what on earth was going on.
The stranger was called Khozad; he spoke with a full-throated, booming voice, and when he laughed it seemed to erupt from his belly. "Khozad is my wrestling partner," beamed Mirhud affectionately, taking the burly figure by the arm and drawing him over to us. Khozad smiled gravely and nearly crushed my hand when I tentatively extended it.
"What was all that business at the gate about?" asked Geoff later. We were both curious.
Mirhud threw back his head and laughed. "It sounds bad, nay? Ho, yes! I am able to come only two or three times a year for wrestling with Khozad, and when he comes we insult each other. I suppose it is a sign of madness, but we enjoy these great insults. When we wrestle we become very good at it. We try each to make the other angry."
Geoff grinned. "Yeah, I know what you mean. We do it in Australia, too. Especially when we're good mates. The more you abuse the other bloke the better you get on together. Sometimes it's like a bit of a contest. But only amongst friends. If anyone else does it then there's trouble."
"Yes, it is so with us." Mirhud called the boy again and issued rapid instructions. "We will wrestle now." He and Khozad disappeared inside one of the low mud buildings, while more and more people filed into the yard, ranging themselves about the walls. Merchants, traders, mullahs, bazaar-stall owners, and small farmers, all had the expectant look of small children at a party. Meanwhile, servants were sweeping clear a large dry circle of beaten earth, and the boy brought us more tea.
"Jeez, Jules!" exclaimed Geoff delightedly. "This could be better than when Careless Hands shot the Canadian in the main street of Cooma!"
The two men reappeared, both wearing pantaloons and stripped to the waist. The murmur went up from the crowd, and the women sighed audibly. Khozad was the taller of the two and more heavily built. He had massive shoulders, while Mirhud was slighter, with a well proportioned muscular body. Both men had rubbed oil lightly over their bodies, and their shoulders and arms glistened as they moved in the sunlight. They stood facing each other in the circle. Then a cantankerous-looking old warrior appeared and raised an arm high, shouting a few words at the people crowding into the courtyard. What he said we could not tell, but his words were treated with great respect, the motley, ragtaggle crowd falling back against the walls.
Khozad half-crossed his eyes, arms hanging loose, then dropping one knee he lunged forward and down, catching Mirhud behind the thigh with one hand and behind the neck with the other. Then twisting suddenly he lifted him with his back and threw him down hard onto the beaten ground.
"Aiyee-e-e-e-e!!" went the crowd, small boys hopping up and down gleefully. Such a quick throw was evidently not expected. In several places money changed hands. Then a hush as Mirhud rolled over quickly and rose to his feet in one supple movement. Khozad circled about, carefully watching his opponent, then another lunge as he tried to grasp Mirhud around the waist. Mirhus was better prepared now and slid to one side, catching Khozad by one leg and throwing him off balance. There was a tangle of legs, and Khozad was on the ground, gasping as Mirhud thumped down on his stomach, knocking all the wind out of him. Giving him no time to recover he slid behind and clamped a leg around his neck, choking him and pinioning him to the ground at the shoulders.
Akkul leant over and tapped Geoff on the chest, grinning and flexing his muscles as if to suggest that he and Geoff could try a bout after these two were done. Geoff quickly mimed a picture of himself running for his life over the hills with Akkul in hot pursuit, which set Akkul slapping his thighs and roaring with laughter.
Meanwhile, Khozad had flipped himself over and applied a scissor-lock on Mirhud, whose turn it was now to lie spreadeagled on the ground, writhing and twisting to be free of the relentless pressure of Khozad's legs. Both men were breathing in grunts and gasps, and the sweat ran off them freely. For the most part the people in the crowd watched in silence, but every good throw brought a murmuring of approval, while an especially skilful grip won an "Aiyee-ee-ee-ee!!" as they crowded in around the wrestlers. The old warrior snarled, swore and berated them all as he prowled savagely about on the inside of the circle, driving them back with blows from his fist. Most men in the crowd were betting on their favourite, and a richly dressed, elderly merchant, wearing an elaborate green silk turban, sat cross-legged, holding the wagers and staring impassively at the spectacle.
The two combatants were standing together now, grasping each other round the body in a great hug, each straining and striving to throw the other off balance. There was scarcely any movement as their muscles drove and strained and cracked; the veins stood out in their foreheads, and their teeth bared in a ferocious grimace. Their bodies were streaked with sweat and dirt, and each heaved and worked to shift the other. Then Mirhud slackened his grip momentarily, giving Khozad a chance to lift him to the side. But Mirhud straightened again, applied a sudden pressure in a different place, and Khozad was over, flat in the dirt, looking surprised, with Mirhus kneeling triumphantly on his chest, pinning him to the ground, unable to move.
The bout had not been in progress more than quarter of an hour but both men had tired and they signalled servants to bring them gowns to throw over their sweating bodies. Mirhud was deemed to be the winner, and the men in the crowd broke up into small groups, settling their wagers and arguing the finer points of the contest. They were unhappy that the fight had not gone on longer, but Khozad and Mirhud ignored them and went inside.
Several men wandered over and stood talking to Akkul, eyeing Geoff and me curiously. But most squatted on their haunches, absorbing the warmth of the sun, since nobody was in a hurry to go anywhere or do anything. One of the refreshing aspects of life in such 'backward' countries is that one is freed from the bondage of regulated time. Here in Afghanistan the greatest enjoyment of life is to be extracted from today, for it is here and now, while yesterday is past, and tomorrow is in the hands of Allah. Men are not tyrannised by the fear of future security, so what better than to enjoy now what God has freely bestowed, and quietly absorb the warmth of the sun.