THE CONTRACTOR had recruited a gang of laborers to fell trees in the hills and float them them downstream. Now he was looking for a boy who was a strong swimmer. It would be perilous work, in the swift mountain currents, and he would be paid more than any village child had ever earned.
Chaddu, who was larking about in the river with other lads, didn't know the contractor was watching him. He had his own reasons for doing well. He had bet a rich farmer's son that he could swim further under water than any of them. If he won, the boy would lend him his primer and help him learn to read. His father couldn't afford to send him to school, but this would be the next best thing.
Chaddu won the bet -- and got the job. The contractor spoke to Kedu the cripple, who accepted the offer on his son's behalf. Chaddu was now barely 11, and his father knew the work could be dangerous, but they desperately needed the money. The whole family could live on his pay -- 10 rupees a day (just over $1).
Chaddu ran after the contractor. Couldn't his brother have a job too? He was 16 and a good swimmer. The contractor needed a cook for his men, and engaged Chaddu's brother on the spot. Kedu collected 400 rupees (more than $40) as an advance on his sons' wages. Now he could buy new clothes as well as food. The smaller children had a treat from the village shop -- a boiled sweet each.
The walk into the hills where the trees were thick on the slopes took three days -- the furthest Chaddu had ever been from home.
At night, round the fire, the men told stories of the ghosts they had met in the hills, and Chaddu snuggled up close to his brother for warmth and protection. But in the morning, standing erect on the makeshift platform over the water, he seemed afraid of nothing.
The wet and slippery planks formed a bridge across the river just before it narrowed. There a dam had been built of trees and stones, with a gate to let logs through. Beyond the dam the river was strewn with huge boulders. The men had built a channel to protect the logs from being dashed against the rocks.Chaddu's job was to push the logs from the pool formed by the dam through the gate. When they got stuck, he prodded them with his pole, guiding them into the opening.
If he leaned too far over to push a stubborn log, he lost his footing. The first time he fell, he swallowed a lot of water and might have drowned. Chaddu managed to clamber back onto the bridge while the men cheered from the bank, which he obviously liked. Each time Chaddu fell in, he stayed under water a little longer, to make the watchers wonder if he was safe. The longer the dive, the louder the cheering when Chaddu finally came up.
The day the contractor came to inspect the work Chauddu didn't wait to lose his balance, but plunged into the pool deliberately. The contractor, who had not seen this game, grew worried as the boy failed to surface. The men smiled -- but then grew anxious waiting for Chaddu. There was no sign of him.
Chaddu's brother ran along the bank looking for him, and came back frightened. Then the men joined the search. The contractor waited at the pool, worried that he would be blamed.
Suddenly he heard a happy shout, and Chaddu jumped down beside him. He had dived through the gate and under the logs to come out a long way downstream. Luaghing with relief, the contractor took 20 rupees out of a grubby bundle of notes: "That's for the best swimmer." The men cheered again.
The boy watched the level of the river rise with obvious anxiety. But so long as the men continued their work, and the logs floated past him, he must stay at his post.
Chaddu maneuvered the logs with his pole. His movements, usually calm and steady, had become quick and jerky, betraying his anxiety. The foreman tried to reassure him. The rise of the water, he explained, was too slow to worry about. Sure, the storm in the hills had brought a lot of rain, but that often happened. Yes, he agreed, grass, leaves and twigs in the water foretold a flood. But small twigs meant a small flood. There was no danger.
Still, the foreman was taking no chances. Even a minor flood could damage the makeshift dam. He told Chaddu to get back to the bank, and ordered the men to lift the logs out of the water.
But he had left it too late. He had underestimated the force of the storm. The flash flood was upon them before even the old hands expected it.
Chaddu watched from a safe distance as the river threw the logs against the dam, breaching it in several places. Rebuilding began as soon as the flood passed, but this work was too heavy for a young boy. Chaddu began to play. He rode the logs in the water as if they were unruly steeds -- a carefree child again. He had time to daydream.
The men rolled huge boulders to the narrow neck of the river, and filled the gaps between them with stones and twigs, mud and sand. The top layer was constructed of tree trunks which they wedged between stones. This was to protect the floating logs from being damaged when they hit the dam. They worked slowly, with care. The structure must be strong enough to withstand the next flood.
The channel that led downstream from the dam also needed repair. The clearway it had provided between the rocks for the floating timber had been carried away.
At last logging was resumed. Some of the men climbed the hill to cut more trees, shaped them into logs, and bring the timber to the pool formed by the dam. Chaddu remounted his platform and steered the logs through into the channel.
Upstream, a tree brought down by the storm had become wedged in the bank. The strong current had packed stones, gravel and more trees against it, forming a natural dam. The pressure built up. Suddenly a huge head of water burst through, carrying with it large branches, stones, whole trees. Once again Chaddu's dam was overwhelmed.
Everyone scrambled clear, but there was no time to save the logs. The debris smashed into the dam, which crumbled under the impact. The ropes binding the channel walls snapped. The logs danced in the water like matchsticks, tumbling over each other as the surging torrent dashed them against rocks and banks.
The contractor was being paid only for those logs that he delivered to town unscathed. The two floods had done so much damage that he already stood to lose a lot of money.But the dam and the channel were rebuilt again and the logging resumed.
Then a cloudburst caused yet another flood. The dam was shattered for the third time. More logs were smashed. The contractor gave up. There would be no more work, he told the men, and he would owe them their wages. "We'll never see that money," an older man said.
They returned to the village like a defeated army, strung out in little groups along the mountain trail. Chaddu followed a long way behind them, disconsolate. His dreams of school vanished.
His father was less upset. Kedu the cripple had learned to expect adversity, and to accept it. No, he said, Chaddu would not be going to school, but he was too old for that, anyway. He was nearly 11, and would have to work harder -- not just graze the cattle, but take his turn in the field, help clear it of stones and level it. He was grown up now, Kedu said, and must do a man's job.
Chaddu had cheered up too. He had saved the 20 rupees given him by the contractor. He bought a tattered primer from one of the village schoolboys. He still had his dream -- and a book of his own.
Copyright (c) 1982, Victor Zorz