In the late 50s well before the advent of television in India, the radio beamed music and news. The only source of visual entertainment then was the projector with its 8mm silent movies and 16mm movies with sound. The latter was extensively used in schools and colleges. And in the boarding school where I received my formal education, cowboy movies were screened regularly. As a little boy I was thrilled to watch the sharpshooting sheriff gun down the bad guys. John Wayne was a popular hero at the time, featuring in many of the Westerns.
At home during the holidays, I played cowboys and Red Indians with other kids performing the role of the sheriff, brandishing a toy six-shooter metal handgun with a long barrel. It was a replica of the revolver in most respects and even had dummy bullets that could be inserted in the cylinder and rotated after each shot had been fired emitting a roar, sparks and smoke. I used to roam around sporting a sheriff’s badge and the toy gun scaring the daylights out of the other kids.
One day while I was on my rounds, a large black car screeched to a halt near where I was. A tall muscular gentleman in the backseat lowered the window glass and beckoned me. I was a bit scared, but presuming that he needed directions, I approached him. He asked my name, the school I was attending and seemed to be in a very jovial mood. Soon, he wanted to see my toy gun, the dummy bullets and all. He inspected it minutely and returned it to me commenting that it looked very much like the real thing. Asking me to wait, he gently pulled out a pistol from a holster fitted to his shoulder. After removing the fully loaded magazine, he placed the weapon in my palm saying it was a Colt automatic six-shot pistol which was lethal. Quivering with fright, I clutched the pistol tight sensing it was too dangerous for me to handle. I feared I would drop it, so I quickly returned it to the owner who said goodbye and sped away.
Greatly elated at having held a genuine firearm, I narrated the incident to my dad who told me that the gentleman concerned was an ex-army officer deputed by the local bank to bring cash to pay the workers’ wages on the tea estate. This task was usually undertaken by the estate manager but it had gradually become too risky for an unarmed man to handle as there was a notorious bandit on the rampage, plundering cash and jewellery at gunpoint, from unwary travellers on the lonely mountain roads. He had made many abortive attempts to steal estate funds while in transit and only the alertness of the British tea planters had saved them from being shot and relieved of a tidy sum.
Back at school, I used to relate the episode to all my awed, wide-eyed schoolmates but hardly anyone would believe me as they thought I had spun yet another fictitious cowboy yarn!