Friday, December 14, 2007

Cowboy Jean Labelle - Khawlkungi

Translated by Margaret L Pachuau

Unlike many other children, Rinsanga never loitered about on the way to school, yet despite this, a particularly fascinating shop at the Bara Bazaar never failed to attract his attention. This store sold many things that were enticing to the young boy’s eyes and indeed it was hardly surprising for most of the ready made garments there sported foreign labels of myriad hues. Amongst these were several varieties of ready made trousers and the one that especially captured his attention bore the ‘Cowboy Jean’ label.

One day he started off for school a little earlier than he usually did, and on his way he stepped into the shop, and on doing so he discovered that there were various pairs of jeans that bore the ‘Cowboy Jean’ label and that they were just his size. The trousers were of various hues and the ones that he liked best were a dark blue pair…running the material through his fingers he discovered that they were very fine indeed. Hesitantly, he asked shopkeeper the price and he was told that the prices varied considerably, for some were genuine American jeans worth two hundred and fifty rupees, while at the same time there was another brand procured from abroad that cost a hundred and fifty rupees. This brand was dubbed “LABELLE”. Rinsanga ran his fingers down the material and discovered that it was just exquisite and then onwards he set his heart on owning a pair. He debated for a while and thought of the other boys at school who belonged to very rich families. There were boys whose parents were rich businessmen,and there were some boys whose parents were contractors and yet still others who worked as government servants. In fact all these boys sported a pair of cowboy jeans. A disheartened Rinsanga stepped out dejectedly from the shop, and pondered sadly,
“Even if I asked my father I know for sure that he has no money to spare, for the most that he has ever given me is fifty paise. Why, there are times when he hands over as little as ten paise …something worth as much as a hundred and fifty rupees is an impossible dream for me.”

Contemplating thus, Rinsanga reached school. At school his best friend was a boy called Lalhluna, and both their fathers worked in the same office and this accounted for the camaraderie between the two boys as well. As they were not as well off as the other boys, they would shirk the company of the other more well to do boys. On the day when they could sport casual dress in school, and he noticed that Lalhluna wore a pair of new jeans. Rinsanga was greatly astonished and asked him,
“How come you have a new pair of cowboy jeans? Where did you buy it? Did you get it from the market?”
“Yes, it is from the market”
“Is it “LABELLE”? Did you buy it for a hundred and fifty rupees?”
“Yes, it is indeed “LABELLE”, it was actually marked for a hundred and fifty rupees but we bought if for a hundred and forty five rupees.”
Rinsanga gazed at Lalhluna’s jeans and much to his relief he noted that they were not the pair he had set his heart on.
Lalhluna urged him,
“You must buy a pair too-even though it is expensive, the material is excellent and so it will last for quite a while.”
“I wish I could afford to buy a pair as well, but my father does not have the money.”
At this Lalhluna said,
“My father did not buy me this pair, my mother purchased it for me from the money she earns from her sewing”
Rinsanga brooded over this and thought
“I do not have a mother. And my father and I barely speak to one another”

Rinsanga continued to ponder about several things at school. Time passed swiftly and before long, the English period was over and their Mathematics teacher appeared. Lalhluna told Rinsanga,
“I did not do the sums that the teacher had asked us to do. Let me copy them from your book otherwise our teacher is sure to give me a sound beating”
Rinsanga knew that the teacher had often scolded Lalhluna.
“Why, the teacher and you seem to be making this bickering session a habit.”
Saying this he passed on his notebook to his friend, who began copying the work furiously.

Lalhluna was not as intelligent as Rinsanga and it was true that he was often chided for his slovenly ways but he really did not mind. Being the only boy amongst several sisters he was pampered and fussed over at home, and in fact very soon he was to embark upon a holiday. Thus he was a happy go lucky boy and the fact that he was not doing too well at school was of the least concern for him.

Rinsanga reflected, “The likes of Lalhluna hardly ever study, and they are not too intelligent either but his parents shower him with all that he wants. As for me no matter how hard I study there is no one to buy me anything at all. Hluna’s parents are planning to take him for a holiday and they really pamper fortunate he is…as for me I am so poor… and there are countless occassions when he has treated me to a cup of tea, I have never done the same for him…sometimes I feel that studying seems to be futile.”
His thoughts drifted thence and he was very dejected. In a short while, it was time for the exams and their results were declared after a week. Lalhluna had failed while Rinsanga secured the first position in class. The boy was very happy about this, for not only had he stood first in class but he realized that it was opportune time to request his father to buy him the much-coveted pair of jeans.

Rinsanga’s father worked in the transport department, and thus he was very busy and especially if there were buses that arrived late, he would reach home very late at night.Often he would arrive even after dark. As a result the father and son duo hardly ever had the opportunity to meet each other or talk to each other. After his mother’s death his grandmother had come to live with them, and both of them would stay together while his father went out for work. Rinsanga was thus not very attached to his father. Shortly after dinner when his father sat down in the living room to read the papers, Rinsanga approached him hesitantly, but very determined to ask him for a pair of jeans. He entered the living room, where his father sat with his nose buried behind a book. Trembling in sheer anticipation, Rinsanga approached his father and cleared his throat nervously. His father, with his nose still buried in the book asked
“What is it my son?”
“Father, our examination results have been declared.”
“Ah! is that so,did you do well?”
“I stood first in class.”
“Why then, you did very well indeed” adding quickly, “We must celebrate as soon as possible, if only I had the money to buy you something.”
Even a mere glance at his father’s worn countenance proved that he was hardworking and exhausted.
“Son, if I did have some money what would you want me to get you?”
“Father, as I have stood first in class could you please buy me a pair of “cowboy jeans”? All my friends in class wear them, and besides Hluna owns a pair too. There is hardly anyone in our school who does not own a pair of jeans.”
Suddenly he realized that he had spoken much more than he had intended to, and he fell silent for awhile.
His father queried, “How much are they?”
“They are very expensive, at a hundred and fifty a pair. Of course, there are some that cost two hundred and fifty rupees as well but the ones I want are called “LABELLE” and they cost a hundred and fifty rupees. They are a dark blue shade and the material is quite the very best so they last for years, why, I could even stay for three or four years without purchasing another pair of trousers.”
His father responded
“For a hundred and fifty rupees you could buy at least four or five pairs of trousers”
“But all my friends have these and I too would really like a pair”
His father contemplated in silence for a while. At length he said, “I really don’t have any money to buy you the jeans just as yet, but as soon as we receive our arrears I shall buy you a pair,”he promised.

Rinsanga asked excitedly, “Father, when will that be?”
“I really don’t know. Perhaps after two or three months for we have not been informed as yet.”
Rinsanga was greatly disheartened and without another word he left the room. As they were on holiday there was hardly anything to do. The next day, he sat down for breakfast with his grandmother and by then his father had long since left for work. In the afternoon he went out. A football match was about to take place at the playground at two in the afternoon and he wanted to watch the same. As it was still early, he ambled off as slowly as possible. In the distance he saw Lalmuana coming his way. Suddenly it dawned upon him that Lalmuana was wearing a pair of ‘Cowboy jeans’—the dark blue pair that he had so coveted. Gazing carefully he noticed that the back pocket also sported the word “LABELLE”, and he wondered as to how a vagabond like Lalmuana could own such a pair.
“Was it stolen?”he wondered
Lalmuana was a very wicked young boy, and he was infamous as a tobacco chewing, cigarette smoking young boy, who was often given to stealing. He had been expelled from school as well, and thus he had not even passed the fifth standard. Rinsanga’s father in fact did not allow him to talk to him.
Rinsanga mused, “Apart from the fact that he chews tobacco chewing and smokes cigarettes I have yet to catch him stealing anything but in spite of this, tales of his unruly conduct rent the air”
Lalmuana asked him,“Is school closed now? Are you going to the movies?”
Rinsanga said, “I am going to watch football.”
All this while he eyed Lalmuana’s jeans longingly, noticing too that they were the very same pair that he desired for himself.
“You have a fine pair of jeans, where did you get them from?” Rinsanga queried.
“I bought them myself,” Lalmuana declared, puffing away at his cigarette.
“Are they the ones from the Bara bazaar?”
“Yes indeed. These are “LABELLE” jeans.”
“I too long for a pair and my father will buy them for me as soon as he gets his arrears but right now there is no money to buy them. How could you afford to buy them? Are they not marked for a hundred and fifty rupees?”
“Sure they are for that very amount. I got them out of my own earnings, why don’t you get them on your own too? You’ll have to wait awhile if you wait for your father’s arrears. Try to earn some money while you are on hoilday.” Saying this he threw his cigarette on the ground.
“How can children like us earn such a huge amount?” Rinsanga asked.
Lalmuana replied nonchalantly “Oh come on! There are plenty of ways in which children can earn money… but for the likes of you who are only concerned with your studies it will be no easy task.” Saying this he took out a packet of tobacco from his pocket.
“Want some?” he offered Rinsanga.
“No thank you…tell me how did you get the money to buy jeans like these? Did you pick people’s pockets?” Rinsanga asked.
“Of course not,” Lalmuana defended vehemently.
At that Rinsanga queried, “Then did you steal anything?”
Lalmuana became very defensive, and he said,“I am not as bad as that!”
And as Rinsanga was still unable to comprehend he cast a few stealthy glances here and there and said in a conspiratorial manner,
“I know an easy way out but this isn’t something that I will readily disclose to other friends.”
There was no one else about, but Lalmuana acted as if he was afraid that someone might just appear suddenly.
Rinsanga said, “I didn’t know that there were easy ways to make money.”
“That is why I told you that one has to be very clever, the likes of you with your heads glued to your books will never be able to understand such things.”
Rinsanga was not too happy. “I am not as stupid as you think,”he defended while at the same time he was still a bit confused about what Lalmuana had said.

Lalmuana asked him, “Do you ever watch movies?”
“Never, my father says that schoolgoing children should not watch movies, thus he forbids me from doing so,” Rinsannga replied.
Lalmuana whistled plaintively, “That is the very reason why it will be difficult for you to understand. One has to watch the occasional movie at times.You see, it is easy to earn money especially when there is a good movie being screened.”

Rinsanga asked eagerly, “How is that so?”
Lalmuana explained,“Well, if a good movie is being screened then naturally every one wants to watch the movie, thus there is a great demand for the tickets, and there are times when it becomes virtually impossible to procure them. But it is a lot easier for children as we can scamper about in the midst of the others and purchase as much as we want.If we buy ten tickets we can sell them off for a higher amount. A ticket for 2.50/-rupees could be sold for 5/-rupees or more and we shall make an easy profit of twenty five rupees from ten tickets. And especially if the movie is a hit then we’ll easily get the required amount for a pair of Cowboy jeans.” And pausing, he added importantly, “All this is highly confidential.”

Rinsanga instantly queried, “Won’t the police make trouble for those who have procured the tickets in plenty? Won’t they arrest us if they find out?”
“The police are not a problem, they merely go around to check if there is trouble, they are least bothered about the sale of tickets,” Lalmuana replied with great confidence.
“Isn’t it rather dishonest?” Rinsanga prodded.
“Certainly not. We are merely purchasing it for those who want to watch a movie, and we are selling it at a slightly higher price to those who want to watch the movie. We aren’t conning anyone. Why, even in the market we purchase things at a much higher rate than the cost price. Even Cowboy jeans could sell for as low as ninety five rupees in Shillong. Everyone makes a calculated risk regarding the selling price and the profit margin. There is absolutely nothing criminal about it whatsoever,” Lalmuana proclaimed.

Lalmuana was older than Rinsanga and and he was much more cunning. Rinsanga contemplated seriously, and realized that there seemed to be no crime involved in the deal. Seeing Muana’s jeans only made him more eager to own a pair.
“Tomorrow at the Assam Rifles theatre, the film Sholay is being screened and it is a great movie. There will be a mad rush for the tickets. Why don’t you come? We’ll sell tickets in black then.” Lalmuana suggested.
“Did you say black? It doesn’t sound very honest," Rinsanga said in dismay.
Lalmuana replied,“Oh that was for the heck of it, besides you wanted a pair of Cowboy jeans and I wanted to help you, so it’s up to you.”
Rinsanga mused, “I’ll think about it” and soon both the boys parted company.

While watching the football match Rinsanga continued to ponder over the affair. The cinema hall was very close to the football field and as soon as the match was over he went towards the hall. At the entrance of the old canteen there were huge posters depicting the movies that were to be screened. As he continued gazing at the posters, the only thing that came to his mind was the manner in which he could get the tickets in black. In sheer anticipation he headed for home. Before he went to bed, he contemplated a long while, and at last he decided to follow Lalmuana’s advice.
He thought, “I shall be able to buy a pair of ‘Cowboy Jeans’ and the very fact that I shall be able to do so with money of my own will be truly wonderful. As soon as Lalhluna gets back I shall be able to treat him with the money I have saved… my… won’t he be surprised! And when he discovers that the money is actually mine, he will be green with envy,” and he went off to sleep happily.
As soon as he ate breakfast he rushed off to meet Lalmuana. Both of them were very early so they were yet unable to purchase tickets. As soon as he saw him Lalmuana said,
“Ah! so you have come? I thought you wouldn’t turn up.”
Rinsanga replied, “But I do not have any money to purchase the tickets.”
“Don’t let that worry you.You will soon have a lot of money, we’ll buy the tickets with my money and then we’ll split the profits in half. What are friends for? Come on, let's have some tea,”Lalhluna suggested.
And saying this they headed towards the tea stall. There were a group of policemen there, and Sanga began to feel frightened, he stuck close to Lalmuana.
“What are these policemen doing here?”he whispered.
Lalmuana replied, “They’ll do whatever they wish, anyone can enter a tea stall, perhaps they are here to drink tea,”he replied nonchalently. And sure enough the policemen did have some tea as well. After a long while the ticket counter opened and people began to appear from all sides. The policemen too got up swiftly and walked away. Lalmuana and Rinsanga too went out quickly and both of them slipped away amongst the crowd, and soon they purchased ten tickets each. Rinsanga pocketed ten tickets and at Lalmuana’s cue they both disappeared amidst the throngs of people. There were several other people who were in the queue to purchase tickets, and the crowd was jostling and pushing everywhere.
Suddenly, Lalmuana spied a young man with some money sticking out of his pocket, and he quickly grabbed the money, but the man had sensed his touch and he glanced back espying Lalmuana in the process. Lalmuana then walked towards Rinsanga.
“Here, let me sell the tickets”
And saying this he dug his hands in his pockets and as he did so he put in the three hundred rupee notes he had picked from the young man. He also put in five fifty rupee notes as well as four twenty rupee notes. He then grabbed all the tickets in his pocket and walked off insouciantly.
As he walked away the young man accosted him, “Wicked boy, why did you pick my pocket? No wonder you are seen here so often… go on, give me back my money quickly,” he yelled.
Nonchalantly Lalmuana said, “There were lots of other young boys next to you as well, why do you accuse only me? You may search my person and you’ll realize that apart from the tickets I have procured for my friends there isn’t anything else.”

Unaware of what was going on, Rinsanga stood next to them while the young man searched Lalmuana’s pockets. But there was nothing on his person, and upon hearing their heated argument a policeman on duty nearby hastened over, and at this Rinsanga thought,
“If it is a matter of theft, then I am free of blame.”
The police asked, “What seems to be the trouble here?”
“This young boy here has picked my pocket but I have searched his pockets and there seems to be nothing here. I wonder why? I could have sworn it was him.”
The policeman replied, “Well, young boys here are a real nuisance… Who on earth could it have been? We must check their school satchels for school boys often bunk school in order to watch the movies.”
A brief search revealed that it was Rinsanga’s satchel that held the stolen money.
“So it was you… and to think we nearly accused your friend here,” the policeman declared, and dragged him out.
“Follow us at once… you wicked boy, the likes of you ought to be punished. Why on earth do your parents allow you to watch the movies?”
Rinsanga was dragged about. “I did not take the money. I never ever steal and I do not watch movies either.You can ask my friend here,” he pleaded, but the police refused to pay any attention to him.
“Why don’t you speak up on my behalf? I really did not take it. You must have put in the money when you put your hand in my pocket,” he begged of Lalmuana.
Muana stuck out his tongue at him, “How would I know whether you took the money or not, now you must pay for your ways.”

A disheartened Rinsanga was taken to the police to the police station.
“Delinquents are a real problem especially as they are still too young to be kept in the lock up . We must decide upon their case when their families arrive but in the meantime in order to teach them a lesson we must at least keep them in the lock up,” the officer stated.

Several people watched them with great interest and Rinsanga was really embarrassed and he walked with his head bent low. On reaching the station the police threw him in the lock up and said, “Stay there for the time being and that will be the best option for you.Your family can bail you out for a sum of a hundred rupees…young thieves ought not to be treated lightly, if you carry on in this manner,in all probability you’ll be doing regular rounds of the jail very soon.”
Some policemen laughed at him and Rinsanga found all of this very humiliating. There was no way in which he could even plead his case.That morning he had left home without even eating properly and by then he was beginning to feel very hungry. No one gave him any food and there was no drinking water either. He stayed by himself the entire day and even as he thought of Lalmuana’s cunning crafty manner, he was angry with himself for having fallen prey to Lalmuana’s wiles. But repentance was not quite the answer then. His father had often told him not to befriend Lalmuana but he had disobeyed for want of a pair of jeans and now he had to endure this humiliation. His covetousness had led him to such a pass. “I did not realize that Lalmuana could be this wicked,”he thought to himself, helplessly.
The clock struck five, and still there was not a soul in sight. Rinsanga sat dejectedly by himself.

It so happened that on that very night, the local pastor had happened to hear about Rinsanga’s predicament as he went on his rounds visiting the sick. He was deeply grieved to hear that there were some families where children had been affected by estranged relationships .And on that particular day Rinsanga’s father was very late in returning from the office. He had received his arrears unexpectedly from the office and thus it had taken him a long time to get home. After the arrears had been distributed he had gone to the market and so eventually by the time he reached home it was dusk. When he reached home, he saw the warrant of arrest regarding his son and immediately, without uttering a word, he went out of the house. The police station was very far from his house and he managed to reach the police station by around seven o’clock only. Rinsanga pondered, “Whoever would bail me out of here? My father certainly will never have a hundred rupees… how dreadful it would be if I were to spend the rest of my life here.”
Suddenly a policeman opened the door, “Son, come out… you are free to go now.”
Rinsanga jumped out of the lock up wondering all the while.

“Whoever could have bailed me out?” He quickly glanced around and suddenly he saw his father. “He’ll probably threaten me with dire consequences,” he thought in trepidation.
Unable to move further forward, he waited in anticipation of his father. Words failed to describe the expression on his father’s countenance. It was impossible to discern his mood.
However, his father gently told him,
“Son, let’s go home… we still have a long way to go, let’s have tea and then we’ll proceed.”
Unable to respond Rinsanga quickly followed his father. They entered a tea stall and drank some tea in silence.The silence resonated as they both proceeded out of the shop. No words were uttered on the way as the duo walked home.As soon as they reached home, his grandmother laid the table for dinner and they ate hungrily. After the meal his father said,
“Son, you had better go to bed, as it is you’ve had a quite a day.”

Rinsanga went into his room quickly. It was quite dark and the lamp had not yet been lit. However he was not in a hurry to light the lamp because he felt that the darkness of the night blended well with the darkness of his soul. The happenings of the day flashed vividly in his mind’s eye and he felt deeply humiliated. He rejected the brightness of the lamp, preferring instead the great darkness for company. Pondering upon the ill effects of bad company he knew that his disobedience towards his father was indeed a great sin, and in a way he was astonished that his father had not given him a severe beating.
By then he realized that Lalmuana had secretly hidden the money in his pocket even as he took away the tickets. Deep in the recesses of his heart he was filled with intense hatred for Lalmuana. As he continued to contemplate he knew that his father, overworked and underpaid as he was, had been forced to shell out a hundred rupees which he could ill afford in order to bail him out. His thoughts were in turmoil and finally he whispered a little prayer,
“Dear God please help me to be an obedient boy .”
After the prayer he felt a bit lighthearted. Soon sleep overcame him and he slept fitfully until dawn.

He awoke at dawn and sat up quickly in bed. Suddenly,he spied a pair of folded trousers on the table by his bedside, the pocket was neatly inscribed with the words “LABELLE”. He thought it was all a dream… he rubbed his eyes but he realized that it was for real. Springing up from the bed he inspected it more closely and gradually it dawned upon him that it was not a dream. He soon realized his father had unexpectedly obtained his arrears and he had purchased it for him just as he had promised. He thought of the disgrace that he had brought his father. He then arose and went to his father’s room and knelt down at his feet.
“Father, forgive me for I have committed a grievous wrong.”
And saying thus, he pleaded for forgiveness. He confessed everything to his father, who listened very intently, lovingly stroking his hair all the while,
“Son, God will forgive you,” his father said at length.
Rinsanga was truly repentant about what he had done and he declared, “Father, from now on I shall always obey you.”
Saying this, he wept copiously at his father’s feet even as his father hugged him.
Just then, the pastor who had heard about Rinsanga’s escapade, entered the house. When he saw the father and son clasped in a warm embrace he was truly happy.
“Now that’s the way things should be… there should always exist a close bond between parents and children. Very often, most parents maintain an unwelcome distance in our relationship with our children and so they often have no affection for us whatsoever. This brings about regrets only.”
The three of them prayed together and later, Rinsanga went to his room, repenting all the while, even as he vowed to turn over a new leaf.
Khawlkungi is one of Mizoram's most prolific women writers, and is the recipient of several awards including the Padma Shri for Literature in 1987. She has written several plays including Zawlpala Thlan Tlangah, A Va Pawi Em and Monu Sual, as well as poems and short stories. She has also translated a number of English literary works into Mizo.


  1. memories of my mother telling me this story when we were tucked in bed on a stormy night come flooding back.

  2. That's really sweet. To think we actually have our very own bedtime stories :)

  3. hei chu naupangte kan nih laiin "rophum ruk" tih bu ah a awm in ka hria! ..pi khawlkungi ziak tih hi ka lo hre ngai lo reng reng a! ti lunglen thlak hle mai.. naupan lai ruah sur nasat lai a, khum a mu a pakhat in a chhiar rik a kan ngaihthlak thap thin lai te min ti hre chhuak..

    translation pawh nalh khawp mai...

    ngaihnawm kan ti thei khawp mai....

  4. @ margaret: thanks for the transalations! most of these stories would have been inaccessible to us who stumble through the original mizo.

    i find it rather interesting that quite a few of these stories deal with themes of guilt/sin/punishment/repentance in various ways. is this the 'christian' influence?

  5. featherbone, thank you for your interest. Yes, Mizo lit is heavily laden with Christian ethics and morals, in some writers more so than others but it's definitely a strong influence in just about every aspect of our lit. You might like to check out the comments section on a previous blogpost entitled Thunderbird where we discuss this.