FICTION | The Banker & the Boatman

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer


Once upon a time there was a poor boatman who lived in a village on the banks of a great river. Every day he made his living by ferrying people from one side to the other for a few rupees. It was a simple life, but an honest one. Sometimes the rains fell heavy and the waters swelled and churned, but the boatman knew the river and his craft, and was a strong swimmer besides. Sometimes the afternoon sun blazed overhead and the air seemed to steam and the boatman’s skin baked and browned, but always it was the boatman, his boat, and the river.


It was on one such afternoon, when the sun was at its zenith, that a banker came to him, rousing him as he dozed in the heat to take him across the water.


The boatman had never seen such a finely dressed fellow before. He wore a dark suit in the afternoon heat, and black leather shoes. His shirt, though unbuttoned at the top and filmy with sweat, was of fine silk. On his wrist gleamed an expensive-looking watch, and he carried a black briefcase.

The boatman had never seen such a finely dressed fellow before.

“Of course, sahib,” said the boatman, blinking sleep from his eyes. He ushered the banker to his little boat and started his motor. As they left the shore, the banker thrust a handful of rupees at him.


“Wow, sahib,” exclaimed the boatman in wonder, “you must be very rich!”


“Just shut the fuck up and steer the boat,” the banker snapped, and they continued on in silence.


Soon, however, the banker grew bored and, with nothing else to do, began to speak to the boatman. He complained incessantly, of the heat, of the smell of the boat’s diesel engine, of the business that brought him to this remote village.


“And this village,” he said with disdain, “what’s the deal with this shithole village? It looks ready to sink into the swamp. The roads are so crummy you can’t even drive on them. There’s nothing here at all.” He snorted. “It’s only natural, I guess. I don’t suppose there’s anyone here with even an ounce of ambition.”


The boatman didn’t answer, but his fist clenched on the tiller as he steered.


“Take you, for example,” the banker continued. “I suppose you’ve lived here all your life. How much do you make ferrying people back and forth across this smelly river? But you could have made something of yourself, become successful. Like me.” He slapped his stomach.


The boatman burned with shame. He looked at the banker with his soft skin and his plump belly and his casual arrogance. “Not everyone has those opportunities,” he replied quietly.


“Oh no, no, no, no, no!” exclaimed the banker, waving his hands. “Don’t blame it on that! I grew up poor too, in a shithole not so different from this. But I worked hard, got an education, I even got an MBA, you know?” The banker swelled with pride. “And now, look at me. I’m a partner at Goldman Sachs – that’s the best bank – where I handle mergers and acquisitions and hostile takeovers. I have three Lamborghinis, and I drive one to work every day. And you? You’re still here and you still know nothing. You’ve wasted your life.”


The boatman’s eyes filled with tears. He had never been spoken to in such a way before. He was not educated like the banker, he did not have an MBA or know about mergers and acquisitions and hostile takeovers, but he knew the river, he knew the language of the wind and the water and the frogs and the fish and the birds. He knew how to catch mud crabs and how to mend a fishing net. And he knew that if he was ever rich he would never behave like this. At least he was not cruel like the banker. Though he was not rich in money, he was rich in goodness of heart.

The boatman’s eyes filled with tears. He had never been spoken to in such a way before.

Just then, a storm came, one of those sudden squalls caused by the heat. The sky darkened, the wind blew, and the little boat began to pitch back and forth.


“What’s going on?” the banker demanded. “Is this safe? Will we make it to the other side?”


“Oh no, sahib,” said the boatman, “we’re caught in a storm. This boat may overturn. Do you know how to swim?”


“I- No, I don’t! I was too busy getting my MBA!” The banker hugged his briefcase to his chest and wailed.


The rains fell heavy and the waters swelled and churned and the little boat capsized.


The boatman kicked and paddled and managed to stay afloat, but the banker flailed his arms vainly.


“Help me!” he cried.


“Oh no, sahib,” said the boatman. “It looks like you’re going to drown!”

“Oh no, sahib,” said the boatman. “It looks like you’re going to drown!”

“Save me!” cried the banker as he thrashed. “I’ll give you anything you want! I’ll give you- One of my Lamborghinis!”


“And how would I drive it on the crummy roads of this village?” the boatman asked.


“Please, save me! Plea-aarrgh!” The banker’s screams turned into bubbles as he sank beneath the surface.


The boatman treaded water, watching until the bubbles stopped. Then, he noticed the banker’s briefcase bobbing in the waves. He grabbed it and swam towards the shore.


It was many hours later when he reached it. By then it was evening. The sun had come out from behind the clouds, but was now setting. The night birds, awaking, had begun to trill. The boatman crawled onto the muddy bank, bedraggled and exhausted. After resting for a while, he forced open the banker’s briefcase. Inside, he saw many papers he didn’t understand, along with a large stack of rupees, soggy from river water, but still usable.


Walking along the bank, the boatman found another boat, manned by a teenage boy, who he asked to ferry him to the other side, back to his village.


As they left the shore, the boatman handed the boy a handful of sodden rupees.


“Wow, sahib,” exclaimed the boy, his eyes wide with wonder, “you must be very rich!”


“Just shut the fuck up and steer the boat,” the boatman snapped.

Share Me
Tweet Me
Mail Me