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Short Stories for Children of All Ages: The Drummer BoyPedagogical Project “The Joy of Reading”


The Drummer Boy

a tale from Gujarat

There once lived a young boy called Ghopal, with big, kind eyes that lit up when he smiled. He lived with his mother in a small hut in a village in Gujarat. Ever since he had seen the drummers play at garba during the festival of Navaratri, he really, really wanted a drum.

Every day, Ghopal woke up before sunrise and hurried to finish his chores. He gathered dung from the cowshed next to their hut, shaped it into patties and spread them out to dry. Later, he would collect the patties in a basket and carry it to the stove in the corner of the yard where Ma cooked.

Ma made a living by pounding flour for the shopkeepers who then sold it in little packets at their shops. As she ground the grain in the mortar, Ghopal was transformed into the drummer boy. He sat on the mud floor, placed the tin pot upside down on his lap, and tapped his fingers on it. He could play any sound. He played the sounds of the earth shaking, the ocean lashing and the wind clashing. And as he played, he sang:

If I had a drum, a big drum, a big bass drum,
My heart would boom, boom, boom.
Tak dhama dhoom dhoom dhoom!’
‘Gho-pal, Gho-pal, Gho-pal!’ his mother cried, to remind him to get on with his other chores.
At the third cry, he would rise.
When he milked the buffalo, the drumbeats played in his head. Tak dhama dhoom dhoom dhoom! When he went to fetch the water, the drumbeats played all the way to the village well. Tak dhama dhoom dhoom dhoom! At night when all was still, the drumbeats played. Tak dhama dhoom dhoom dhoom!
One day, Ghopal saw that his mother’s face was cheery and decided it was a good time to ask.
‘Ma, I want to buy a drum.’

‘A drum?’ Ma’s brows rose. ‘What will you do with a drum?’ she asked.’ A drum will not fill your stomach.’ She tweaked his nose playfully.

Ghopal nibbled his lower lip. How could he describe the flip-flop flutters he felt when he heard the sound of drums? How could he explain the magic of the boom-boom beats that tingled in his fingers? It was his heart that he wanted to satisfy, not his stomach. He forced a smile, not wishing to upset his mother.

She patted him on the head. ‘Look, I’ve a lot of left-over flour today,’ she said.’ I will make some hot-hot pakoras for you.’ She skinned and sliced a few potatoes, onions and aubergines into rings and dipped them into the batter of flour. Then she slipped them into the sizzling oil in the frying pan.

The smell of spicy pakoras drifted into his nostrils. Ghopal loved the crispy golden fritters, but he ate only a few. He was too busy thinking up a plan. He wrapped up the rest of the pakoras in a cloth and slipped them into his pocket. Soon he would have his very own drum.

He set off for the market. On the way, he came upon a potter lady with a crying child strapped on her back. He felt sorry for the little boy. ‘Are you hungry?’ he asked, and brought out the pakoras from his pocket. ‘Here, have some.’

The little boy stopped crying and began to eat. Ghopal folded the cloth round the remaining pakoras and slipped them back into his pocket. There were still plenty left over for his plan.

‘You are very kind,’ said the potter lady to Ghopal, kissing the back of his hand.’ I can’t pay you as I have not sold any of my wares. Will you please accept a pot instead?’

A clay pot was not what Ghopal wanted, but he had a satisfying feeling in his heart as the hungry boy smiled at him through his tears. He thanked the lady and went on his way. He had a long way to go to reach the market. Strumming his fingers on the pot, he made his way along, singing:

‘If I had a drum, a big drum, a big bass drum,
My heart would boom, boom, boom.
Tak dhama dhoom dhoom dhoom!’

Soon the sun shone fiercely and his throat felt dry like the cracked mud track. He was glad he had a pot, and stopped at a gurgling stream to scoop up some water for drinking.

As he was filling his pot, he saw an angry man yelling at his wife.
‘You broke the pot!’

‘I slipped. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to break it,’ the poor washerwoman sobbed into her hands. At her feet lay the shattered shards of the clay pot.

‘What will we do now? How will we collect water?’ The husband shook his angry fist at his frightened wife.

Ghopal felt sorry for her. Quickly, he drank the water from his pot and went to the washerwoman. ‘You can have my pot. I don’t need it anymore.’ He gave it to her.

The washerwoman looked at Ghopal in disbelief. ‘I like your big kind eyes.’ She took off her shawl from her shoulders and held it out. ‘Bless your heart, beta. Please take this as payment for your pot.’

It was a bright shawl knitted with many different colours of wool. A shawl was not what Ghopal wanted, but he accepted it politely and thanked her. Hanging it round his neck, he took off, singing:

‘If I had a drum, a big drum, a big bass drum,
My heart would boom, boom, boom.
Tak dhama dhoom dhoom dhoom!’
Soon he passed by a rich merchant on a white stallion. Catching sight of Ghopal’s shawl, the merchant came to a halt.

‘Young boy, from where did you buy that beautiful shawl?’ he asked. ‘It is exactly the kind my sick wife would love. I have just bought a dozen shawls for her at the market, but none of them are as pretty as yours.’

Ghopal imagined the merchant’s sick wife lying in bed in pain and felt sorry for her. He said a washerwoman had given him the shawl and that she had probably knitted it. ‘Sir, give my shawl to your wife.’ He took it off and gave it to the merchant.

‘Bless you, kind boy.’ The surprised merchant thanked Ghopal dearly. ‘Will you please take my horse as payment for your shawl?’

Now a horse was not what Ghopal wanted, but he nodded and accepted it. He mounted the white horse, sat on the red velvet saddle and rode away, singing:

‘If I had a drum, a big drum, a big bass drum,
My heart would boom, boom, boom.
Tak dhama dhoom dhoom dhoom!’

Just up the road, in a shady patch beneath some lemon trees, he saw a bustling crowd gathered under a shimiana, a bright red awning raised on four bamboo poles. A wedding party! He was eager to see the bride.

As he drew closer, he took in the strong smells of camphor and burning sandalwood. The beautiful bride sat in a bright red sari adorned with garlands of marigolds. A gold tikka, or ornament, crowned her forehead. Her wrists were covered with bangles and her hands and feet painted with intricate henna designs. A small sacred fire burned in a corner where the bride and groom would circle round and take vows to proclaim their love and respect for each other. Dancers acted out stories and the musicians played many instruments, but Ghopal’s gaze was glued to the drums. His heart ached for a drum.

Suddenly, a priest in a long saffron robe rose lo address the audience. ‘The groom is delayed. The position of the stars will change! We will have to cancel this wedding.’

The bride began to cry. Whispering broke out among the guests. ‘What will we do?’ The drummers stopped playing the drums.

‘Wait,’ cried Ghopal. Heads turned to stare at him. ‘This wedding will go on,’ he said. ‘I will fetch the groom.’ He asked where the young man lived and galloped away on his horse at the speed of light.

Very soon, he returned on his horse with the groom behind him. The bride was delighted. ‘Kind boy, how can I repay you? Is there anything you want?’ she asked.

‘A drum,’ Ghopal said at once, and his heart went boom.
The bride smiled. ‘We have many, many drums,’ she said. She told the musicians to bring their drums over at once.

There were big drums and small drums, hard drums and soft drums, drums of every colour. She looked at Ghopal. ‘You can pick whichever drum you like.’

Ghopals eyes lit up. He chose a big bass drum that was as blue as the sky. He thanked the bride, mounted his horse and away he went to the market, jigglety-jolt, jigglety-jolt, thinking he was the luckiest boy in the whole world. And he still had the pakoras in his pocket.

He would go on with his plan to sell them at the market. Now that he had his drum, he would give the money to Ma.

The market teemed with people selling all sorts of goods. It was noisy and smelly. Wasps and flies buzzed. Ghopal cried, ‘Pakoras for sale! Pakoras for sale!’

Nobody heard him. His voice was lost in the hustle and bustle. He slunk into a corner. How would he attract people’s attention? He began to play his drum. He alternated with his right and left hand, playing faster and faster. Tak dhama dhoom dhoom dhoom!

The beats were hypnotic and attracted a large crowd. People began to sing and dance. Soon all of his pakoras were sold.
‘Mmmmm. Very tasty,’ said the people as they ate them.
A man in a gold-embroidered kurta came by. ‘How much is that drum, young boy?’
‘Sorry, sahib,’ said Ghopal. ‘My drum’s not for sale.’ He would never part with his drum.

At the end of the day, he counted his clinking coins. He could hardly wait to see Ma’s happy face. He took his drum and got on his horse, singing all the way home:

I have a drum, a big drum, a big blue, bass drum.
And my heart goes boom, boom, boom.
Tak dhama dhoom dhoom dhoom!
Tak dhama dhoom dhoom dhoom!’
Shenaaz Nanji; Christopher Corr
Indian Tales: A Barefoot Collection
Cambridge, MA: Barefoot Books,2007

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