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A Piece in the Game

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Click, click, click -- the beads moved slowly through the man’s hand. Those around him said, “His mantra is long” or “His prayers are wise” or “He knows all the blessed ones by name” and did not disturb him as he walked around the village, saying his prayers.

Sometimes he would stop near a gate in the town walls and face it as he made his prayers, but no bead would click until he resumed his walk. His meditation was clearly an active one. Those who were unkind accused him of resting and not performing his prayers well (for one who did not perform them correctly could not be assured of their merits), but others rebuked them and said, “Why would he not follow the form correctly? Clearly his priest has told him to face the gates, told him to send out his prayers by the roads or by the winds of each direction.” All would nod at this and the man at prayer would fade from their remembrances.

Captain Kimball O’Hara, V.C. had been playing the Great Game in ways both small and large since he was twelve. He had not originally volunteered for the army when the recruiting came through in 1914, but Hamilton Sahib, the one who had replaced Jameson who had replaced Creighton (F.R.S., now much to the delight of Kim and, indeed, Creighton himself) called him in and said, “The morale is low at the Western Front. They need officers who speak the language and, frankly, my first thought when I got the telegram was of you.”

“And what would you have of me, sir. I could keep figures for the quartermaster or draw maps, but I am not one used to command. I have never sought it, not once was it looked for, in this Great Game we have played.”

“But you speak the languages. They need Urdu mostly, and, though you go too native for a true white man, you are a Sahib and trained to lead. St. Xavier’s I believe.”

“Yes, Hamilton Sahib.” Kim used the phrase to annoy him, as one Englishman did not use the sobriquet with another. “It is my Angrezi, not my Urdu which worries me.”

“Angrezi. It’s English and if you weren’t a troublesome Irishman, you wouldn’t insult the language of Shakespeare so.”

Kim looked at the man blandly. “I have heard how many Sahibs speak Urdu. If they weren’t so arrogant, they would not insult the language of Diwan-e-Ghalib so.”

“It’s your duty, O’Hara, for King and country.”

Kim nodded. “I have never seen this country. Perhaps I should serve the King to see it.”

Now, two months after recovering from the “three day grippe,” contracted on the journey home, and which others called the Spanish Flu, he was being ordered back into the game, back into the hills of Afghanistan.

His first stop was at a caravanserai which was resting not far from Umballa. When he was young, before he knew the soul of Teshoo Lama, Mahbub had appeared a great age to him. Yet, here he still was, beard red as ever -- though his hair was now white as the snow in the high Himalayas -- dealing in horse flesh, some from the Arabian Peninsula where the workings of El Aurens had made kingdoms and countries from hills of sand and the dissolution of the Ottomans, most from his own Kabullah stock, hearty and ready to run either around the track or on the polo fields.

“Friend to all the World, where do we go?”

“Surely, Hajji, it is time to replenish your stock?”

The red beard bobbed as he nodded and said, “I had not thought to leave quite yet, but this year it is better to judge the colts and mares before the monsoons come that they may be taken to Simla in due course.”

From small words do great caravans move and the following day, they began their trek to the northwest.

The new Amir had risen while Kim was in his last week of recovery from the ‘flu, and the five kingdoms, which had vowed fealty to the Amir's father and then to him after the debacle of the Russian and the Frenchman, seemed again to be preparing to oppose the British.

A horse trader from Kabul and his assembly would not be stopped from using the roads either by the British or by the men of the Amir. None would expect Kim to be there among them. Indeed, two of the men at the border had served under Captain O’Hara, but none recognized him in the person of guard to the caravan. He was himself, thinking in Urdu and dreaming in Hindi, skin darkened by both the sun and artifice.

While they were there rumors came to their ears in the markets and streets of less repute that the Amir was planning violence against the English. Kim sent back word via telegraph about a mare who would bear colts born playing polo and received back word the next day that the buyer wanted to know the full pedigree.

Mahbub nodded sagely when word of the telegram was passed to him, and they came up with ways, most too dangerous to implement, to get what was needed. The way they discovered took the form of a civil lawsuit against one of the polis of the region. Access to the government offices was required to pursue such a suit, and Mahbub was able to make great show, calling upon Allah and his Prophet, of the wrong he’d been done while his caravan guard slouched in the street and smoked. If there were times when the guard could not be found easily, well, the streets of ill-repute were, as they often are, right next to the government buildings.

Within four days, Kim had been able to copy directly documents which implied the old Amir had no longer been a friend to the British and to steal two pieces of correspondence, after their delivery, which proved his son no longer was either.

Mahbub took his new crop of horses, strong and high spirited, back out of the mountains and to the plains to deliver the evidence of the wondrous mare's pedigree. If he was short one caravan guard, who would notice?

Kim had been left behind at the behest of Hamilton Sahib to find out the size of the city and the thickness of its walls. He dressed as a Mohammaden pilgrim, one contemplating and preparing for the Haj, with his beads he paced out the full dimensions of the walls, at each gate he stopped and made good estimate of their thickness, and each night he drew the maps and wrote the details that they could be taken back to Hamilton.

When he completed his work, and made certain his departure seemed like part of his pilgrimage rather than a flit by night, he began the long road back. Sometimes he walked alone; sometimes he walked beside a caravan to share jokes and jibes with the merchants and travelers (and on occasion to be invited to share their meals). He went straight through Rawalpindi, and again prayed his way around the walls of the city before departing, again taking the road back to Umballa.

Approaching Amritsar, the Mohammaden disappeared, but a Sikh wanting to join the festival of Baisakhi which was three days away, appeared in his place.

The next week proved hell could be unleashed upon the earth. He shared in the Langar on his first day, that vast meal the Sikhs prepare for all who would partake, and there made contact with another of the Sons of the Charm who made show of seeing his cousin and inviting him to stop with the family until the festival was finished. Throughout that long night, Kim copied his notes and maps onto onion skin and sewed them into a linen modi that he would wear when he left the region as a Hindu of the Vaishaya caste. The originals were sent with another contact who dined with them the next day and would take a much longer route to Umballa.

While they dined a great crime was committed, and the local Sahib leader chose to make the crime worse with one of his own. Every man who traversed the route where the British teacher had been pulled from her bicycle and beaten to be left for dead had to do so crawling on his belly. This made for bad feeling between the Sikhs and the British which was left to infect them for two more days.

Kim could not betray himself, but he managed a coded telegram to Hamilton who sent back, "We stand behind the local man."

On April 13, they left the house to take part in the festival, which Kim had stayed for as cover for his movements, he saw a sign written in English stating that no gatherings were allowed to take place. He had his cousin send his family, except for the oldest son, back to their home and the three men did their best to disseminate the message throughout the district. Many ignored it, but others either heeded the warning or passed it along to others.

The thunder of guns as they turned back toward the cousin’s house told Kim they had not done enough, though he knew his old master, the kind lama, would say he’d acquired merit with those he had kept away from the Golden Temple that day.

Kim left as soon as he’d verified that the cousin and his son had returned safely to the family, though there would be 1500 others who had not returned to their homes that night. He made his way to Umballa as quickly as he could by train and cart and, after finding a safe place to become a Sahib again, presented his work to Hamilton.

He caught up with Mahbub’s caravan a week later. He had no charge from Hamilton; this was his time to wander. Kim had made his protest against the actions in Amritsar, but no one, not even Hamilton who usually trusted his judgment, would hear it or heed it.

The clangor it caused rang throughout all India, and it kept the British from focusing on Afghanistan so that they were taken by surprise when the Amir attacked.

Mahbub looked at his friend and said, “Once before you have had this sadness, this langor, though then I had it mostly described to me by that Bengali who called himself a hakim. Has your master come to trouble your dreams?”

“No, my old friend, he has stepped off the wheel and wouldn’t trouble my dreams. You do well though to remind me of Babu. I would that he were here to discuss my dilemma with.”

Mahbub threw up his hands. “Why do you have need of that fat man and his lies? Have I not always been honest with you, Friend to all the World? Can you not speak of this heart heaviness to me?”

“Peace. Yes, we’ll speak of it, but listening to the two of you argue has often helped me.”

“Ah, you wished the jewel of my wisdom to be set off by the foil of his ignorance.”

Kim smiled to himself. “Do you see me as a Sahib?”

Mahbub did him the honor of taking the question seriously. “Sometimes. Not always when you are dressed as one, but more often then.”

“And will a Sahib have a place in India soon?”

“In my lifetime, yes. When you have as many years as I do, perhaps not. This is what troubles you?”

Kim kept silent for a long time, letting the pace of the road empty his mind as it had when he was a chela. Finally he said, “I believe the Sahibs are hardening their hearts and their actions and that India will suffer.”

“But England is your homeland.”

“The monsoons never leave there; the cold seeps into your bones worse than the mountain passes do. The food is bland. They serve cow and pig and have the affrontery not to cook them well, but they consider us to be the barbarians.”

Mahbub said, “And are you of us?”

“Am I not friend to all the world? Have I not lived here my whole life?”

“When I first knew you, you said you had ten summers. I found out later, you only had seven.”

“The only lie I ever told you.”

Mahbub shrugged. “I was a stranger then.” This time it was his turn to leave a long pause before he chose to speak again. “If you choose, you can be part of the change which will come. For you, it would mean adding one more layer to the game, because, for this moment, it is still best that the British hold us safe from the other greedy Europeans who would take from us.”

“Yes. I have become too attached my master would have said.”

“You are a man without even one wife and no sons. I would say you should become more attached. Allah would bless you, Friend to the Stars.”

“If it be His will.”

Mahbub said, “You have never lied to me. I have never lied to you. If you choose to walk to Nadiad, I will walk beside you.”

A few weeks later, after stopping to sell horses to the British officers and their ladies at many stops along the way, the caravan approached Nadiad.

Mahbub rested a hand on his shoulder. “You walk alone from here.”

“Is it a walk you’ve already made, Hajji?”


Kim nodded and they parted as men of the East part from each other.

He walked the last mile alone, thinking his own name, “Kim, Kim, Kim,” wondering at his own soul and its path. He arrived after the noon meal, when all were asleep and he sat outside the gate thinking and remembering all of what he was.

When the household woke again, he wandered into the compound and found a man spinning cotton under the arches. His heart leapt as he saw a man whose eyes and soul were like Teshoo Lama, and Kim sat respectfully across from him until he spoke.

“Who are you?” He asked when the wheel stopped turning.

“I am called in the markets ‘Friend to all the World.’”

“And are you?”

Kim took his time answering. “I believe I am. I was born a Sahib, but did not live as one until I was nearly a man. I know Sikh and Mussulman and Hindu and I served a lama from beyond the highest hills.”

The man nodded.

Again, he asked, “Who are you?”

“I am thy chela, Gandhiji.”