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Gafur Gulom: Shum bola [The Rascal]

The unnamed narrator and hero of this story lives in a mahalla in Tashkent. He is fourteen years old and, like other boys, enjoys running around, playing and causing a certain amount of mischief. His parents are poor but there is plenty to keep the boys occupied. They tease the mentally ill and have a whole range of inventive games. One day, they decide to make plov. Each child has the task of getting one of the ingredients. Our narrator has to get the oil. He goes home and distracts his sister, so that he can steal the butter, which he hides under his belt. He sees the hen outside and she seems to be sitting on an egg so he steals her egg as well, to her disgust, feeling that bringing more than required will earn him some merit. He hides the egg under his cap. However, just as he is about to flee, his mother returns and makes him do some work in the kitchen. As he starts getting hot, the butter melts. His mother feels that he has wet himself (or worse) and hits him on the head, causing the egg to break. The only solution is to run for it, which he does, setting off a whole series of adventure as he travels around the country, looking for work, looking for sustenance but also causing trouble.

His first port of call is to his aunt and uncle, who receive him kindly. Even when he takes their dog and uses it for fighting with the inevitable resulting injury, they do not seem to mind too much. However, his uncle has to go away for a few days and entrusts him with looking after his pet birds. He is not sure what to feed them but sees that their faeces are white so decides that sour milk is the answer. The birds do not seem impressed and refuse to eat. When they continue to refuse, he decides to force-feed them, with the inevitable consequences. He takes the money his uncle had given him for bird feed and the two surviving turtle doves and sets off. He meets an old friend, Omon, but not before has been forced to trade the birds, and they decide to go to the local bazaar. Bazaars will feature strongly in this book – somehow our narrator always ends up in one. Gulom paints a very colourful picture of the bazaars and, indeed, in my edition of the book, there are a few colorful line drawings of them. As in most of his adventures, while the bazaars are a source of colour and lively action, they are also where things sometimes go wrong. In this case, he and Omon are accused (incorrectly) of being an accomplice of a thief. Indeed, the accuser is a thief well-known to them but falsely accuses someone else. The boys manage to flee and end up staying with an old lady in a yurt.

A disreputable teacher, a scam involving selling prayers to the faithful and another disaster when they and the teacher pretend that they know the ritual of washing dead bodies but, of course, they do not and things go wrong,all follow. They are on the run again. When asked to slaughter a cow for an employer, our hero inadvertently slaughters the employer’s favourite donkey (it was all done in the dark, so an easy mistake to make). While hiding in an oven, he is witness to some inappropriate love-making, before again fleeing and again ending up in a bazaar. Once again, he is accused of being an accomplice to theft – he fits the description – but manages to prove his innocence, before joining a group of dervishes. The dervishes are holy but need money so are very glad when our hero steals a cow for them! They are less glad when he is caught spying on the harem, and once again he is on his travels.

His next job is apple picking but his lower nature gets the better of him and he tells fantastic lies. The employer is not amused and his on his way again, paid off with a bunch of apples. He and Omon had fallen out but meet up again and they get a job looking after sheep . Unfortunately, they go to look at a train and the noise frightens the sheep. After a long search they manage to find most but not all of them. It looks as though they have a good job picking carrots but each lies to the other over their respective tasks and this job turns out like the others. Our hero is now off to what appears to be a madrasa (religious school) but is, in fact, an opium den where he works and even manages to save some money. But he soon tires of it and just wants to go home.

This is a very amusing tale, as we follows our hero, with his lies, mischievousness and misadventures. It is rarely serious, even when the boys witness a man brutally beaten to death, allegedly for procuring. We do get a brief reference to the outside world, when we learn that World War I is going on and seems to be having an effect on prices. However, no-one takes much notice as, though they have heard of the French and Russians, they have no idea who the Germans are. Gulom’s light-hearted tales have certainly done well in Uzbekistan but, though his book was translated into German, I cannot see it having much success in Europe.

Publishing history

First published 1936 by Oznaşr
No English translation
First published in German as Der Schelm in 2014 by Akademnasha
Translated by Oybek Ostanov