|FOOTNOTES TO FANDOM #12 | FOOTNOTES Page | Obituary Page ||
In the immediate post-Hiroshima period, fannish survivors in Britain were resuming contacts and piecing together a shattered fandom. But there were many fans still far from home, with no immediate hopes of getting back. I was one of them.
The autumn of 1945 found me, a redundant RAF radar mechanic, stranded on the vast sub-continent of India, still a gem in the Crown of the British Empire. The authorities seemed nonplussed by the suddenness of Japan's collapse after the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The outbreak of peace convinced grumbling 'civilians in uniform' that their continued presence here had lost any point, and military routines wilted. The question increasingly asked was: "When do I get home and out ?"
Priorities for demob and return to Britain were to be determined by a simple formula, juggling age and length of service. Then we were told that the resulting figure was subject to manipulation by the powers-that-be with imponderables such as 'essential technical qualifications' and inevitably! 'the exigencies of the service'. In other words, you will be demobbed when They say so. As a 25-year-old airman with, at that date, four years war service as a radar mech, my demob group was 44. Hard luck! Currently, a few lucky sods in the 20s group were heading for Bombay and a troopship home. There were rumours that the release of radar technicians would be subject to delay, which augured a long wait for me. In response to anxious questions from Marion about why I'm hanging on in India when I could be more useful at home, I could only write:
"The announcement that only 28s will be demobbed by next June (1946) seems odd to me. If they can get rid of the 20s by, say, December, then six months is a helluva long time to spend over a mere eight groups. I only hope this announcement is intended to counteract the false optimism of newspaper reports you can imagine the reception the news got out here! Especially on top of the suggestion to release groups at home before their overseas counterparts. Demob is a very sore point among the troops here."
And to back this up I snipped a few cuttings from the letter columns of SEAC, the forces newspaper in South East Asia Command, and stuffed 'em in the envelope...
"Because SEAC is a medium through which the authorities may know our minds, I write to emphasise that the 'provisional' programme of releases gives little ground for satisfaction to men in groups 30 to 40. RAF men are aghast at the thought that, even though the war is over, another 12 to 18 months will go by before they are likely to be demobilised..."
Signs of paranoia there! I'd have loved to read the letters that didn't get into print. The rumbling went on unceasingly...
In the general confusion I was posted to an RAF station at Adgodi, near Bangalore, in South India, for retraining to service airborne radar gear. On arrival it was pleasant to be greeted by familiar faces; mates from the voyage out here, months ago, passing acquaintances from the dysentery-ridden transit camp at Worli, where new arrivals were dispersed to operational signals units. We'd plenty to jaw about, catching up with each other's travels; when we finally call round to the orderly room to ask about the course we're told that it's already under way, and that there are no vacancies for us late arrivals. And added our informant, an indifferent admin type there weren't enough of us to justify setting up a second course. We wondered why we'd bothered to come.
They found ways of keeping us occupied while they decided what to do with us. Sent to clear -away some long-dismantled aerial mast sections, we had to assemble a portable derrick to help manhandle the big wooden frames. Someone, rashly, had dumped the parts in the open for several months. When we tried to lift the wooden spars they crumbled to powder, leaving us clutching the metal bits while hordes of termites scurried away over our feet. The aerial frames were in no better shape. But anxious to please, we collected the metal fittings and solemnly presented them to the stores with a token bag of wood dust. And a few crushed termites.
We were in no hurry to leave. It was the cool season in South India: steady sunshine with the day temperature around 80 degrees, and cool nights. I devoted myself to catching up with my sunbathing.
The camp was within walking distance of the military cantonment area of Bangalore, which was the centre of No.2 Army Command in India. The place crawled with military police determined to ensure that strict army standards of dress were observed at all times by BORs (British Other Ranks) and that no one wandered into the rest of the city, which was out of bounds to all servicemen. Fortunately, the RAF was a little more relaxed about these things. There were only a few permanent staff at Adgodi: most of the inmates, like me, were just passing through, wanderers between small technical units, away from the discipline of the large camps and installations. In off-duty hours we were allowed the privilege of getting out of uniform and able to leave camp wearing 'civvies'. I acquired an outrageously multicoloured shirt, and being the proud possessor of an all-over mahogany tan, found that I could pose as a civilian and wander out of the cantonment with impunity and, despite the suspicious glare of officious MPs, mingle with the general populace.
The out-of-bounds situation was largely the result of recent civil unrest. The 'Quit India' movement had a strong following here; yet I found the natives decidedly friendly on these excursions. I visited several cinemas to see Indian films mainly naive but lively musicals and the people I sat next to regarded it as a novelty to have a European in the audience. Once convinced of my interest, there was no stopping volunteers explaining plot and dialogue, filling me in with gossip about the stars and news of the directors, recommendations for other films to see... great fun! Returning from one of these expeditions I was intrigued to find myself at a crossroads where some diligent sign-poster had put out-of-bounds notices at each of the four roads. A surrealist triumph or expectation of descending paratroops ?
After being regaled by my accounts of these trips, Jack bearded a friendly Indian flight-sergeant at the camp and asked if an official tour of the sights could be arranged. Local patriotism triumphed, and he not only got permission to ignore out-of-bounds restrictions, but rustled up transport too, and we drove off, a party of twenty, for a half-day tour.
Bangalore then was a relatively modern city, with wide tree-lined roads and parks in the central area. We started our tour round the science colleges, visiting the physics, radiology, spectroscopy and radio laboratories, then moved to the older part of the city, round the market, where there were still narrow winding streets. The party spread out to sample the attractions of the hole-inthe-wall shops, which suited me as I wanted to visit an address in the locality, passed on to me when in Bombay. It was the local communist party branch, where I'd been told I'd find cultural, as well as political links. Jack came with me but we were soon confused by the erratic numbering on the streets until we tumbled to the fact that the lack of continuity at intersections was because the numbering of the buildings ran off the main street, round the alleyways, and back. When eventually we tracked down my address, the premises were shuttered up and seemed deserted. We knocked on the door several times without result; just as we were about to retreat, the door opened a crack, and a dimly glimpsed personage informed us that we were at the something-or-other manufacturing company, and they were closed. Maybe we were adrift... maybe we should have had a password... conversation reached a dead end and the door was firmly closed in our faces.
We rejoined the party in time to hear our enthusiastic guide saying that all that existed of Bangalore in the 16th century was a mud-brick fort and a small bull temple, built by Kempe Gowda, chieftain and founder of Mysore state. During the 18th century when Hyder Ali and his son, Tipoo Sultan, rose to power in Mysore, the fort was rebuilt in stone, only to be demolished during the wars with the British. We moved along to inspect the remains of the old fort: it was not very impressive. A part of the wall had been restored but only, apparently, to accommodate a large notice proclaiming "Through this breach the British launched their final assault..." We clambered on to the 'sagging ramparts then descended to peer into the gloom of a smelly dungeon; a plaque over the ornamental doorway informed visitors that "here were confined Captain (afterwards) Sir David Baird and many others prior to their release in March 1785". The chronicles of the British Raj relate that Captain Baird was incarcerated for four years during the wars with Hyder Ali and the French. He returned a few years after his release, having risen to the rank of major-general, roundly defeated the opposition and promptly demolished the stone fort. Honour satisfied, he departed for Egypt and clobbered the French forces, called at South Africa where he wrested the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch, and then went to Spain, where his luck ran out. He lost an arm at the battle of Corunna, and after receiving the thanks of a grateful parliament, he retired.
But I digress...
Next on our itinerary was the Bull temple, to the south of the city. When the ghari pulled up and we descended, hosts of cheering kids came streaming from all directions. Someone spotted the vintage Brownie box camera sported by one of our members and wanted him to take photographs of a huge floral piece they'd just made up for a procession. Itinerant photographers here process prints on the spot for clients; the kids expected the same service, and were visibly disappointed when snaps were taken but no prints immediately forthcoming. But we reached the temple without incident with a remnant of the crowd still cheering in blithe ignorance of this disappointment.
We slipped off our footwear in the courtyard: it was cool and dark inside the temple after the brilliant sunlight. As our eyes adapted we became aware of a huge black stone seated bull towering above us, gleaming in the light of a few oil lamps Nandi, the sacred mount of the god Siva. Some 15 feet high and 20 feet long, it was impressive, menacing even. The place filled with the children, everywhere were festoons of flowers and paper decorations in readiness for the festival. We gave some coins as an offering and were presented with heavy-scented champak blossoms. (I carried mine back to the billet and laid it on top of my mosquito net for the night, and dozed off drenched by its perfume. Next morning it was gone, swiped by some marauding monkey, but its presence lingered).
We investigated one of the four watchtowers erected by Kempe Gowda to mark the boundaries of his township, deciding that the multilingual plaque announcing this fact must have been a much later addition. To round off a crowded day, we lingered at Lal Bagh, gardens laid out by Hyder Ali and Tipoo Sultan in the 18th century, landscaped in the Mughal manner with trees, lotus ponds and lakes, and an abundance of red roses. Sensibly, Sir David had spared this for posterity.
I was enjoying my stay in Bangalore. It provided some compensations for the depressing news of delays on the demob front. But it wasn't to last I collapsed with a fever and lost all interest in life. The camp medic promptly diagnosed malaria, whipped me into sick quarters and dosed me with mepacrine tablets, a malaria-suppressant with a side effect that turned one's skin bright yellow. But I was past caring. I shivered and sweated it out for a week, by which time the doc abandoned his initial diagnosis, panicked, and despatched me to the isolation.wing of the Bangalore Military Hospital as a suspect typhoid case...
Once there, I was thrust into a strait-jacket of a bed and exhorted not to get up under any circumstances. Firmly embraced by crisp starched unrelenting sheets, I couldn't budge anyway. They robbed me of more blood than I felt I could spare, for obscure tests. Then I was put on a strict starvation diet.
Private Mule materialised at the ward entrance on this first day of my incarceration. A tall, thin, dark-skinned Tamil, with shaven head and a prized pair of clonky army-issue boots, he was sweeper, bottle and bedpan bringer, and odd-job man about the ward. At this first encounter I was treated to an impressive sweeping salute, a broad grin and a deafening "Good morning sahib!", and it became a morning ritual for the rest of my stay. A cheery soul, he laffed heartily at secret thoughts as he progressed along the ward. He spoke little Urdu and less English; the Anglo-Indian orderlies,Italian POW helpers, and the patients spoke little or no Tamil, which resulted in some cryptic exchanges. On occasion we stretched sign language to its limits on attempted longer conversations.
"War finis" Mr Mule asserted frequently, "English sahibs go. You sahib, you sahib, all go, tig hai. Leave army", and with a shaking of the head, "India no good". When we tried to find out if he had any family, he declaimed "Father sleep, mother sleep, sister sleep", then added, "Nay missus", and marched of to the accompaniment of one of his deep belly laffs.
Only when my temperature chart looked less like a cross-section of the Alps was I allowed up, content to collapse on a hard seat at the side of the bed. A welcome letter from Jack proved to be a farewell note explaining that he'd been unable to penetrate the defences of the isolation ward to visit me, and had put my kit in the camp stores for fumigation. He'd been posted to Transport Command at Delhi : "Think of the Taj by moonlight and a graceful maiden clad in a diaphanous sari..." he drooled, and I wondered if he'd pinched my copy of the Kama Sutra. The thought flitted into my mind that I'd not written to Marion over the past fortnight; my last unfinished letter was now securely locked up with my kit in Adgodi stores.
The great day came when my nutritional intake was stepped up. A new calorie-conscious sister took over day duty in the ward, and I was promoted to a relaxed diet: breakfast, pigeon-size poached egg with two delicate slivers of bread with butter scraped on, and off; lunch, two teaspoonfuls of minced chicken, ditto reconstituted potato, occasionally followed by a gesture of ice-cream, and maybe fruit; tea, four Marmite-smeared slivers of bread; dinner, same as lunch, only less so. Initially, this regimen sufficed, but rude health returned and the interval between dinner and breakfast seemed an eternity. In desperation, I joined in the general bribery of passing orderlies with free-issue cigarettes, to obtain an irregular supplement of porridge, biscuits and fruit. Once even oh ecstasy! an illicit helping of steak and chips. Most of this contraband was consumed in the evening, when mosquito nets were lowered over beds and the ward lights dimmed for the night.
A renewed interest in life made me appreciate the extent of my confinement. Our ward was an interior room, windowless, where little sound reached us from the corridor. One of my immediate neighbours was an older man, prostrate and incommunicative since his arrival; on my other side was a BOR just recovering from a dose of typhoid who had developed pneumonia and needed a dose of penicillin every few hours. Passing teams of doctors continued to prod and probe me and extract blood samples for culture tests, and once I was wheeled out for an x-ray though no one seemed to know why. In between these medical routines, I exchanged a few quiet words with the BOR about our ailments and, inevitably, about demob and the question of how long. Otherwise, I tended to stare at the blank glossy hygienic wall opposite, dozed fitfully, and waited for the next interruption.
One of those timeless days I woke to find that a visiting angel had left some books from the hospital library on my table. The titles included Nicer to Stay in Bed, Three Fevers and Death in the Ward (honest!) and were avidly devoured in next to no time flat. I then devoted considerable energy trying to convey to one of the friendlier Italian helpers that I didn't want thrillers or Westerns, but serious novels, science fiction even. He played safe, returning with copies of Collins 'Classics' solid reading like Kenilworth, Barnaby Rudge, Dr Jeckyll & Mr Hyde and The Sleeper Awakes and, inevitably in India, lots of Dornford Yates. I never fathomed out why Dornford Yates enjoyed the popularity he did among the sahibs and memsahibs: he just set my teeth on edge. By way of relief, occasional volumes of Thurber, Forester and Greene came my way. Thereafter the selection degenerated...
Boredom was relieved by one of the sisters bearing an armful of American free-issue-to-the-troops paperbacks: Hemingway's short stories, Ogden Nash, Linklater's Juan in China, and a Pocket Mystery Reader with Saki, Leacock, Wodehouse, Waugh and Poe, plus an article by Rex Stout in which he proved that Dr Watson was actually Holmes' wife a convincing thesis it seemed, supported by quotations transforming Watson from a mere woman, a possible mistress, to establish that she actually was Mrs Holmes. (Marion was sceptical when I passed on this spicy snippet). And M.R. James's Ghost Stories in which I came across this revealing passage:
"Those who spend the greater part of their time in reading or writing books are .... apt to take particular notice of accumulations of books when they come across them. They will not pass a stall, a shop, or even a bedroom shelf without reading some title, and if they find themselves in an unfamiliar library, no host need trouble further about their entertainment."
A fellow soul, Mr James, I thought; and promptly made a note of the words to quote in some future article.
I don't know how I could have survived my stay at the BMH without books. Then a batch of the mail following me across the continent caught up: long-awaited news from home Marion still doesn't know I'm in hospital! a clutter of fanmags, including some VOMs from Forrie Ackerman which provoked peculiar looks from one of the sisters who tidied up my locker that day. And a letter from long-silent fan John 'Zeus' Craig updating me on his travels across Europe. He wrote from a "charming little German village called Neubeckem in Westphalia", after a protracted stay in Italy waiting to join a Jugoslavian operation that was aborted, and then moving up through France to Germany:
"I see the censorship still is (or was) operating in your area, so you can't tell me exactly where you are... I gather it is in India. Give me Europe every time....saw some excellent art exhibitions in Rome, including a modern art show with some original di Chiricos which impressed me no end."
I almost had a relapse in envy.
Routine was upset one morning by the non-appearance of Mr Mula. The sister on duty confided that he'd complained about a stomach upset and she'd told him to take a 'number 9' pill. Mule promptly swallowed several before he could be stopped; no doubt in the conviction it would speed his recovery. He made an appearance in the evening, looking somewhat shaken and a shadow of his usual ebullient self. We sympathised. He pointed to his belly, bunched his fingers to indicate anguish, looked woebegone, and weakly said "Oh, sahibs...bedpan!" and held up siz fingers. Our minds boggled.
Eventually I was taken off diet, ravenously consuming everything put before me. I began to feel my old self. As a sign of progress I was transferred to a bed on the veranda, overlooking the gardens. It was a relief to see the outside world again, to enjoy fresh air and sunshine, to exercise wasted limbs. Inside, there were too many reminders that I was in a military hospital. I was balled out for not leaping smartly to attention and saluting as the matron and her entourage swept past my bed one day. I escaped court-martial and prompt execution only when the ward sister explained to the Glowering Presence that I was a low form of RAF life that the army had misguidedly taken in... I thought a more valid argument would be that in my emaciated condition, pajama pants were liable to drop under the stress of saluting. I made a note to be absent or in bed when visiting rank sails majestically through the ward in future.
Still, things were decidedly more cheerful except that my hair started to come out in handfuls, Sister regaled us hair-losers with jovial tales of typhoid patients leaving hospital with pates like shiny billiard balls, then tried to console us with the thought of all the money we'd save on haircuts. I was promised a bath, and dreamed of a palatial tiled bathroom and soaking in a roomy bath with lashings of hot water, as a change from the usual cold shower. Alas, the bath proved to be a cramped galvanised container, my knees bumped against my chin when I tried to fit in, and the water was lukewarm.
A short while after, I was discharged but they never decided what bug got into my system just another 'UDF' (undiagnosed fever) case. When I moved into the army convalescent hostel in Bangalore cantonment for a fortnight, I guess I must have looked a rum sight. My weight had slipped from the usual 160 pounds to a mere 112; my bush jacket flapped on my shoulders and had to make a new notch in my belt to support my shorts. And thanks to the combined effect of mepacrine and a fading suntan I looked distinctly jaundiced. The good news was that my my hair now only came out in combfuls.
The first day I strolled out of the hostel on tottery legs I was nearly blown over by the wind of a passing cyclist, a portly RAMC officer, who after one look at me was moved to ask how I liked Bangalore after Burma. I felt a fraud, but mumbled "much better" as he rode on. It seemed a shame to waste his obvious sympathy...
St John's convalescent hostel was run by the Red Cross in the person of Mrs Gabe, who mothered us all. Determined to keep our minds off the services during our stay sound therapy! she provided civvy clothes for us to wear. We ate at tables set for four, with tablecloths and serviettes. No one rousted you out of bed in a morning. And for entertainment there was an extensive library, games room, radio, and wind-up gramophone.
From the first day of my stay, I found myself at a table with three other victims of the strict regimen of the BMH, determined to regain lost weight. All the bearers soon learned to ask "Second help?" before removing empty plates, and we were dubbed the "wuffing table". I staggered out after lunch into boiling hot sunshine and hugged what shade there was on the mile walk into town. I was down to basic shirt, shorts and sandals but passed many staid locals fully clad in European suits, complete with ties, sweating heartily; I wondered how they survived. And despite the relaxations in dress, there were some characters who insisted in parading round the hostel in full uniform. Odd.
Dodging the livestock that wandered the street unhindered, nibbling at any surviving greenery, resisting the blandishments of rickshaw wallahs, I called in a few bookshops. They all seemed to be pushing the novels of Dornford Yates. When aching limbs called for a rest I found an Indian coffee house, and retired into its shade and the welcome cool of flapping ceiling fans, content to watch Bangalore pass by while I chewed fat cashew nuts and sipped tall glasses of iced coffee laced with cream. Revived, I discovered a store with stacks of new Penguins on its shelves.
I lingered awhile browsing but came away with Nat Gubbins' Over the Fence, Isherwood's Mr Norris, a volume of New Yorker Profiles, and an American hardback of Dorothy Parker poems. By the time I returned to the hostel with these treasures, I'd worked up an appetite for tea...
Creaking joints were rested on the lawn, and I read and nattered with other inmates until dusk and foraging skeeters drove us in for a hearty dinner. A box of records, discovered in a corner of the lounge, offered escape from the usual banalities and dance music on the radio, and I enjoyed them while catching up with a long letter to Marion, seated at a writing desk ablaze with a spray of scarlet blooms on one side and a pile of jigsaw puzzles of episodes in the life of the Buddha on the other. I dropped off to sleep that night feeling that life had returned again after a period of suspended animation in the hospital.
It was a day or-so later before I found the energy to venture in the direction of Adgodi. Lifts were scarce and I walked most of the way. But it was worth the efforts : when I reported to the RAF sick quarters for my medical discharge, the doc glanced at my papers and after one look at my wasted frame promptly put me down for 21 days sick leave. When I went to check out a few needed items from my kit, I was further cheered by the news that radar mechs up to group 25 were due for release early in December. I returned to the hostel in jubilant mood with a fat wad of accumulated mail from home.
My outings were cut short when the weather turned dull and showery, with a chill wind.. But sunshine returned and I pestered the WVS office for gen on places where I could spend my leave. Mysore was conveniently near, but alas, it was currently out of bounds because of outbreaks of plague. An enthusiastic recommendation from behind the counter suggested the Nilgiris the Blue Mountains as an alternative: I was torn between the attractions of a hostel at Kotagiri (scenic beauties, hidden among tea plantations, walks, good bus services 'to other towns) and one at Wellington (convenient for Ootacamund, Coonoor, and other stamping grounds of the Victorian Raj). For a few rupees a day, either place sounded great and my trip to Adgodi revealed that back-pay amounted to some 500 rupees. No direct booking though; application involved filling up a lengthy form for processing by the admin people, and final approval by the CO, before arrangements could be got under way. I could wait.
Months before, with the thought of time hanging heavy, I'd started a correspondence course for the forces on the topic of 'modern art'. Owing to my travels and mail delays, my progress to date on the course had been erratic. In the restful atmosphere of St John's I diligently caught up with things, explaining glibly why Millet is a greater realist than Giotto, comparing the painting of Monet and Matisse, writing an essay on cubism, and realising how little I really knew on the subject. I found a well-stocked library in nearby Cubbon Park with an enlighted collection of books on Western art, and after much paperwork and payment of entrance fee, subscription and deposit became a member. With these resources at my disposal my assignments seemed less daunting. I was often scribbling notes long after everyone else had retreated to bed, and found myself talking to Mrs Gabe about art and artists. She had known Matthew Smith had a painting of his, presently tucked away protected from damp during the monsoon period.
I became hooked on a weekly journal, Mysindia, published locally, with sensible political and literary articles and comment, and a lively book review section. An article by Jag Mohan on an Indian artist who died a few years before Amrita Sher-Gil excited my attention. Most of the contemporary Indian work I'd seen in Bombay was academic, westernised and boring. The reproductions of Sher-Gils' work left much to be desired but indicated a forceful talent sort of Gauguin through Indian eyes that demanded investigation. I wandered into the local publishing office in search of Jag Mohan, and they passed on his address (he lived in Madras). My enthusiastic letter of enquiry prompted a 3-page account of modern Indian artists of note and the promise of another letter to follow with some reproductions.He also gave me the address of the Punjab Literary League who had published a memorial issue of their journal in tribute to Sher-Gil. I wrote off for it. I was impatient to hear more about her.
I quitted the hostel most reluctantly and returned to RAF reality at Adgodi. I found the place in turmoil: the radar unit was disbanding and moving down to Ceylon and the place was being converted to an Educational & Vocational Training centre. After years in the forces we apparently needed brainwashing before we could be safely returned to Civvy Street. Or it could have been another desperate distraction to keep us occupied until released. I kept a low profile and found myself an undemanding job in the drawing office, undemanding in that nobody wanted any drawings doing anyway. Happily, my leave pass materialised in the middle of the confusion. I dashed to Bangalore for last-minute shopping, acquiring a grotty sketchpad of local manufacture and a few tubes of water colour, in anticipation of doing some sketching, and sent off two bulging food parcels home to supplement the rations over Christmas.
I shook the dust of Adgodi off my chappals and departed in high glee with all my gear to the train to the hills. It left at dusk. I was alone in a second class compartment with upholstered seats but lighting that discouraged reading, so I settled under a blanket and dozed fitfully until the sun crawled over the horizon. Now the train was well out on to the plains, among palms and paddy fields; black masses on the horizon gradually resolved into mountains, their tops smothered in cloud.
At Mettupalayam, the terminus of the broad-gauge main line, under the shadow of the towering rain-forest covered slopes of the Nilgiris, I transferred to the small-gauge 'Blue Mountain Express', a six-coach train pushed by a sturdy little engine to complete the trip up to Wellington. To say that the next part of the journey was spectacular would be an understatement. We crawled up steep gradients aided by a rachet track, hugged the mountainside, passing through fairy caves and grottos, rode over magnificent waterfalls on flimsy-looking bridges, passed through damp drifting clouds, the wild angle of our climb and the height imposing strange perspectives on to the landscape. Below us, Mettupalayam became an insignificant patch that shrank as we climbed. Breathtaking.
Dazed after all this heady grandeur, I dismounted at Wellington station to find that there was no transport to the hotel. But there were plenty of porters jostling for custom: a couple grabbed my kitbag, bedroll and well-filled tin trunk, hoisted them on their heads and jogged their way to my destination. I followed them empty-handed: I hated playing this role of the 'burra sahib', striding along while older, smaller men carried my burdens, but I'd been in India long enough to realise that if you try to buck the system you rob someone of their livelihood.
The holiday home was an imposing residence, run by a Salvation Army 'colonel' and his family, aided by hordes of servants. With mountains on either side, it had a commanding view of Wellington. Bags of scope for painting I thought, happily. Accommodation was excellent: plumbing and sanitation superior to anything I'd encountered in the Raj so far, comfortable beds (and no need to bother with mossie nets at this height), and large open grates in the meeting rooms for wood fires on cool evenings
Mornings started with breakfast in bed, and at the rest of the day's meals food was varied, well-cooked and plentiful. I started to put on weight. Mind you, there was a small price to pay: being hosted by the Sally Army meant that after the evening meal you were expected to join in a brief session of hymn singing, led by the colonel, in good voice but, alas, tone deaf. We all rose to the spirit of the occasion. I threw out the lifeline and promised to be there when they called the roll up yonder, with great gusto. Occasionally harmonium, the colonel, and the assembly got out of phase with exquisitely dire results...
After that first day, I donned my civvies with my shirt of many colours. An army sergeant across the table from me winced and lifted his arms to shield his eyes from the sight: we'd exchanged wry glances, nearly busting from suppressed mirth, during the hymn singing of the previous evening, and in next to no time flat we were exchanging life stories. Derek came from Macclesfield and was currently stationed at the hospital in nearby Coimbatore. Friendship bloomed and we explored the locality together for a few days in between painting expeditions.
The sun rises high and bright in a purple-blue sky: at an altitude of 7,500 feet the sunshine is pure ultra-violet and I took to wearing my bush hat for shade and protection on these outings. Watercolour painting had its problems a brush charged with colour dried out almost before it touched the paper, and my limited range of pigments seemed inadequate to render the subtleties of the greens in the lush vegetation. Verdant grasslands, tea plantations, shady groves of blue-green wattle and silvery eucalyptus. And the earth was bright red or was it just the stark contrast with the prevalent greens that made it so? My eyes, long used to the muted tones of a northern clime, found it hard to come to grips with raw tropical hues.
Ootacamund, universally referred to as Ooty, merited a visit as a survival from the heyday of the British Raj, buildings all neat terracotta and white stone trim, neatly set among rolling grasslands. We gawped at The Club, where the rules of snooker were invented; listened to highfalutin' tales of the Ooty Hunt (it chased jackals in lieu of foxes); posted letters in tall scarlet pillar-boxes embellished with the royal arms and the VR cypher. Overwhelmed by these evocative surroundings, we retired to a nearby canteen to sample the toasted crumpets.
The whole area proved to be pleasant country in which to walk, explore and, on occasion, get lost. I did it all in changing company: Derek went back on duty, and I enjoyed meeting other exiles, and a surprising number of local folk willing to linger and chat. I never realised that I could be so gregarious.
I'd not made a reservation for the return trip; there didn't seem any need. When I descended on the scenic railway, finding it just as breathtaking as my ascent, Mettupalayam was deserted, which is unusual for an Indian station. I found an empty compartment on the train with a sticker on the door claiming it was reserved for two officers, and settled in there. There was room for eight, so I figured they couldn't object. This view was shared by a couple travelling to the next station, who also piled in with their luggage. Inevitably a transport sergeant then appeared, checking reservations, and told us to clear out. Since he didn't return, and there was no sign of the two officers, we stayed put. At the last minute someone came and changed the sticker on the door. We had a quick look. "LAC Turner & Four Mental Cases" it read. Coincidence or joke? Uneasily, we decided to await developments. There were none, and the train set off on time.
After my companions departed at Coimbatore, I settled down and dozed off, only to be roused in the night by a weird chanting in the adjoining compartment, accompanied by a banging and scraping on the dividing partition. After a while things quietened down, only to start up more violently. It sounded as though the lunatics had boarded the train after all; I felt sorry for LAC Turner trying to cope with them. Next morning I woke up well before the train steamed into Bangalore City station but my noisy neighbours had already alighted during the night and all was peaceful.
I scrounged a lift back to Adgodi, settled in a conveniently empty hut, rousted out the admin types to check on demob news, rescued a pile of redirected mail and realised, suddenly, that in a fortnight it would be Christmas! My peace was shattered by the arrival of a, gang from Ceylon, destined for the EVT instructors course. Apart from the demob situation, their main gripe was that Ceylon had not been so good, apart from the scenery. Things cost four times Indian prices; all they could send home was tea, since everything else had to be imported and couldn't be sent out again. I helped solve their problems by becoming self-appointed guide to bargains in the bazaars. It passed the time.
Christmas came and went.
By way of celebration, bearers, sweepers, char- and fruit-wallahs, all the casual workers on the station bestowed floral garlands on us and then stood back for "Krismuss bakshish". Despite the unseasonal weather, a very traditional Christmas dinner was laid on by the RAF with a free issue of local bottled beer tepid, of course. In the hot sunshine I found it hard to work up any enthusiasm, retired from the celebrations and tried to remember what snow was like... and wondered how the folks were coping back home, and if my parcels had arrived in time.
The new year found me homing in on yet another reunion of wandering radar mechs. This time we converged on Poona. I arrived late in the afternoon after a long and leisurely train journey up the Western Ghats. I staggered out of the station with my gear and managed to thumb a lift on one of the passing trucks bound for the drome.
My advent was badly timed. Everyone was in a state of jitters that day owing to a visit by Field-Marshal Lord Wavell, Viceroy of India, and the wining and dining were still in progress. I was brushed out of the way behind the guardroom door, a scruffy blot on all the spit and polish summoned up for the great occasion. By the time the Great Man and his vast retinue had been safely, disposed of, departing in the direction of Bombay in a long cavalcade, I emerged as a minor irritant after a tiring day. Nobody knew where to send me. It stated quite clearly on my papers that I was to join 145 Air Ministry Experimental Station, but after a long debate among guardroom personnel it seemed that only a couple of people had heard of the unit, and one of them was convinced that it was already disbanded. I wasn't really worried: all I wanted was a bed, and they could sort out the rest next day. Then someone recalled that several other mechanics had arrived that morning, in the middle of the intensive bullshitting preparatory to the Viceroy's visit, who'd been dumped in a hut on the outer fringes of the camp, far away from the ceremonial area. I was despatched to 'this billet to see if they could cast any light on my destination.
Things brightened up as soon as I staggered into the hut with my kit, to be greeted by several familiar faces. I found a bed space next to Nick whom I'd not seen since we parted at Worli, six months before. He'd changed slightly: he'd had his head shaved, and I remarked on the shortest crew cut I'd ever seen. In return, he complained that he kept losing sight of me when I turned sideways on despite the weight I'd regained after the good living of the past few weeks. We dashed out into Poona to celebrate our reunion in what remained of the evening, and drank a special toast to Jack, the 'old man' of our gang, demob group 26, who'd written to tell us that he was on his way to Bombay in search of a troopship home...
The RAF ghari, a battered 2-ton Bedford open truck, rattled over the rough ghat road, trailing a plume of fine ochre dust in the still morning air. There were eight of us crammed in the back with a load of.supplies, perched on bedrolls and kitbags, scorching under the hot January sun and grateful for the slight breeze of our passage. The base camp at Poona lay some thirty miles behind us; directly ahead, looming larger as we approached, was our destination a massive twin-peaked hill, ringed with the ruins of Purandhar fort, relic of past Maratha wars with the Moghul invaders in the 17th century, occupied today by the British Raj and the newly established GEE navigational radar centre in the Western Ghats.
When the oppressive bulk of Purandhar blotted out most of the sky, the road abruptly came to an end in a clearing. Our ghari slowed, circling leisurely to pull up at the foot of a narrow track that corkscrewed up the hillside at an alarming angle. Piling out, we stretched cramped limbs and circulated a waterbottle, rinsing the dust from dry mouths before starting to unload our gear.
A jeep came bouncing down the hill, horn blaring, its driver yelling a cheery welcome. Since there was room for only two people and their baggage on each trip, transfer to the domestic site, located on a spur about a third of the way up the hill, proved a lengthy business. Our driver, obviously well-practiced in negotiating the 4-wheel-drive on the hairpin bends, zoomed up with breathtaking confidence. I clung to a vibrating seat with one hand, restrained shifting kit with the other, momentarily closed my eyes as spinning wheels seemed to hang over the void reversing on tight corners. It was a relief when we levelled out, skidded past a large water tank and pulled up outside a stone-built bungalow, to be our quarters for the next week.
Later that afternoon, showered, fed, and relaxed in clean clothes, we sat on a cool veranda, gazing out over the Western Ghats: rugged undulating waves of dusty grays, browns and yellow ochres, shimmering and disappearing into the heat haze. We were impressed. The wind keened through the roof tiles providing a sound effect that added to the impression of having strayed on to the set of Lost Horizon.
A pep talk in the evening from the officer commanding impressed upon us that we were pioneers establishing the GEE chain across India: operational stations sited north and south of Purandhar, and installations starting up around Delhi and Calcutta, part of a masterplan of navigational radar for an airlift right through to Japan. To Japan? It seemed that the end of the war was a glitch too minor to cancel the whole shebang and save the tax-payers' money. Sensing a lack of enthusiasm among his audience, the CO dismissed us before awkward non-technical questions could be asked.
It had been a long day. We slept on it.
The following morning we were escorted to the technical site, perched on one of the peaks of Purandhar, some 4800 feet above sea-level. The place could only be reached on foot; at first the track rambled through the ruins of the old fort, then toiled over steep slopes to a last sheer stretch. Here footholds were carved out of the rock and a rope handrail provided a welcome boost, the work of the Madrasi sappers who heaved all the apparatus along the route, plus the component parts of a Nissen hut to house it, and then assembled it all, with a 70-foot portable aerial mast, on top. No mean feat. Once up, we shivered in the chill breeze, and despite the attractions of the awe-inspiring view and a close-up look at the apparently deserted Hindu temple that occupied the opposite peak, were glad to crowd into the shelter of the Nut. We were given a general picture of routines, asked questions, got some hands-on experience. The afternoon passed quickly.
The descent was easier going but left little time to linger and explore the fortifications before dusk. Only after a welcome meal did we realise that welfare arrangements had not caught up with our Shangri-la: no books or recreation facilities here, the only diversion was a tiny general store and cafe opened by an enterprising Portuguese Indian on occasional evenings. This was not one of them of course. We also find that parts of the site were out of bounds because internees were still kept there and strict non-fraternisation was the order of the day.
During our stay we clambered up the shrubby terrain several times to visit the ruins but never managed to make a full circuit of the black stone curtain walls that wound round the hill for more than twenty miles, with six hefty bastions guarding the remains of the three main gates. Sections were in surprisingly good nick, other stretches had almost disappeared. The builders of our present quarters, sometime last century, had obviously used the fortifications as a ready-to-hand source of materials.
The fortifications date back to the early 17th century. In 1665 the Rajput general Jai Singh asserted Moghul authority in the area and forced the Maratha leader Sivaji to sign a peace treaty at Purandhar, and surrender many of the forts he occupied in the locality. Five years later Sivaji became a local hero by sacking the port of Surat, regaining control of the hill forts and, by devious means, freeing his territory of Moghul domination. And Purandhar was the scene for the settlement between the British and the Marathas in 1776.
Our preoccupations with India's martial past were terminated by the news that we were to move to Mahableshwar, some 50 miles to the south, to get, detailed instruction. on GEE operation at the 'slave' station there. There was no room on the regular supply truck so a spare open truck was rustled up for us to follow in, just taking essentials for a ten-day stay and leaving our kit in store at Purandhar.
The supply truck set off early in the morning while we were still sorting ourselves out: we piled aboard our transport and followed in hot pursuit. It was a rough ride: the hillside road was all curves and unsurfaced, so the lightly-loaded vehicle bounced and swayed alarmingly. We just clung on and prayed. Eventually we caught up, our driver hanging close on the tail of the leading truck so that we were enveloped in its trailing dust cloud. Banging heartily on the roof of his cab, we eventually persuaded him to drop back, leaving us spluttering and spitting out dust and shaking out our clothes. Fortunately, the higher we climbed up the ghats the less dust there was to disturb, but there were other hazards. Like bullock carts coming in the opposite direction. Bullocks display an obstinate urge to stay put in the middle of the narrow road... But we survived.
We turned west off the Satara road, through Wai, a place of impressive temples and a lively market, then rumbled through Panchgani, a hill station of pleasant aspect, with only twenty miles to go along a level road that finished up at Government House in the heart of the Mahableshwar plateau.
Back in the 19th century, in the palmy days of the Raj, Mahableshwar was chosen as the hill station where the Governor of Bombay and his retinue would spend the summer, to escape the heat and humidity of Bombay. In its heyday Government House must have been impressive: it was in a pretty dilapidated state When we arrived. Before the RAF took it over, the place had been HQ for the army's jungle and mountain warfare training unit which probably did little to stem the rot. Flower bowls and bird baths in the grouds were broken and neglected; a ceremonial cannon, minus a wheel, rusted alongside a solitary cannonball in the overgrown grass; the roof of the two-storey building was damaged, window frames broken, paint peeling. Inside, it was the same story: stairways had 'Building Unsafe' notices and we were warned not to, use the upstairs rooms because the floors were rotting.
We got a cold reception from the 'permanent staff'. Everyone here had flown over from England recently. Pete the young flying-officer in charge was a technical man, interested only in the equipment. He left all the admin and organisation to a medical orderly, who was in love with the idea of being in charge. We fell out with him straight off, and christened him 'The Adjutant' to his evident annoyance. He made the bearers call him 'Doctor Sahib', which they did while cheerfully ripping him off on catering arrangements. The grub was poor after Purandhar standards, yet we were asked to pay extra each week for messing. Adding insult to injury, the Adjutant took it on himself to ban all char and fruit-wallahs from calling, on the grounds of 'maintaining hygiene'. Feelings ran high when he wanted to inoculate us for everything in the book. Since most of us had been updated with essential jabs before Christmas, we protested vociferously until he backed down.
We were left to make our own quarters among the empty rooms. The only furnishings were charpoys the standard Indian wooden bed-frame with ropes stretched across for support. There was a cold shower, a limited supply of hot water, but no inside lavatories. We used a temporary structure outside; very basic, communal, and open to the fresh air... A diesel generator supplied the power for lighting, with occasional failures.
We took a hint from soot-blackened fireplaces and decided to follow the example of previous occupants and light a fire to brighten the evenings and brew up. We sought a bearer: one likely applicant was short, cheery, said he was 25 but looked 15, and handed us a batch of dog-eared testimonials, one of which read: "I have employed Fakir Mohammed as a bearer for three months. He is intelligent and honest, but lazy". We hired him on the spot and he proved a useful ally in subsequent tussles with the Adjutant's restrictive regime. We had a visit from the nursing orderly when we were settled in, enjoying chat and charpoy-bashing. He wanted to explain that he wasn't going to jab us after all, but just had to say that 'officially'... He got some bleak looks and left.
Not surprisingly, our instruction on GEE was ill-organised. Each morning at 9 a ghari took us to the technical site at Wilson Point, the highest spot of the plateau, some 4500 feet up. A dozen of us squeezed into the cramped cabin; our instructor mumbled into his beard, quoting heavily from an SD (all operational manuals for radar equipment were classified as secret documents, referred to as 'ess-dees'), with his finger tracing out key points on circuit diagrams visible only to privileged viewers at the front. This went on for an hour or so those on the fringes who got no benefit usually finished up casting through old copies of Post lying around, or catching up with Jane's exploits in out-of-date Mirrors. Then we had to hang around for an hour or so before the truck collected us again. During this interval our tutor revealed that he'd only had a 4-day course on GEE before his overseas posting!
We were to start off each afternoon practicing morse. Initially, only three bods admitted any . expertise: when it came to brass tacks it turned out that only Nick and me were ignorant of the morse alphabet. So while the rest of the class were busy rattling their keys, we sat and looked suitably dumb.This always surprised the instructors we seemed to get a different bloke each session who said they couldn't teach us anything until we knew the alphabet. We weren't worried! After that, for the rest of the afternoon, we were back to the bloke with his nose glued in the SD. We didn't learn a great deal in this way but natural curiosity prompted us to skim through the SD in quiet periods and grasp the basics. But we lacked any involvement: after all the chain wasn't operational, and if ever it did start up its main aim was to assist air-trooping, which had almost ceased. So what was the point?
Our attitude must have seeped through. Later on, Pete thought that the 'dumb trainees' were spending too much time scrounging round, and decided to give us a test. However, his preoccupation with the equipment proved his undoing. He had a pet theory about the frequency jumps that occur when tuning up the transmitter: as he succinctly put it "as you turn the knob it goes wuff one way, and wuff-wuff the other way. Why?" and then couldn't resist expounding his theories almost before you'd drawn breath to reply. Thereafter you nodded your head at discreet intervals, dropped an occasional "well... yes" in agreement, and you passed. I passed.
Back at Government House, things were almost convivial despite the lack of amenities. Shorty our bearer kept us supplied with kindling for the fire, and appeared one day dragging in a hefty gnarled log. With no way of reducing this to usable chunks, we took the.easy way out and stuck one end in the fireplace and pushed it forward periodically as it was consumed. It burned slowly, with help, but conveniently extinguished itself as the fire died down during the night. It seemed a permanent fixture and was dubbed the 'Epstein Log' by an inmate who insisted that its deformed contours reminded him of Jacob's sculptures. One charpoy sited almost on top of the fire miraculously escaped being burnt each night when we were brewing up: one leg was broken and lashed on insecurely with rope but collapsed whenever some absent-minded card-player sat on it. It was marked down as the next fuel source when, if ever, the Epstein Log burned up. Its occupant was an old pal of Nick, going back to the time they were stationed in the Shetlands. We were regaled with hair-raising tales of the night the 200-foot CH aerial mast was blown down, with lurid details of how Toothless Teresa got in the family way... I never did sort out whether the two events were related. Mercifully, the arrival of the ration-run ghari from Poona spared us from further harrowing revelations by bringing up-to-date copies of the News of the World, specially printed over here for free distribution to the forces, with all the latest scandal from home the Brunette in the Flat case, and the doings of Lord Snell and his 'romp-worthy' girl friend plus a pile of salvaged magazines of several months' vintage, in which I was tickled to find an article by Wally Gillings on the atom and rocket flight. Long delayed mail should have arrived from Purandhar but didn't, owing to a breakdown.
We didn't get much chance to explore the locality during those first few days of our stay, but skipped a few boring morse sessions, to visit the bazaar. The place was just returning to life, to the sound of massed sewing machines rattling out cheap shirts, after being closed down last, year when there was an outbreak of plague belated news of which had obviously panicked the Adjutant into his proposal for mass inoculations. There was not a great deal on offer, but classes were disrupted one day by the news that an entrepreneur had turned up with a supply of real Cadbury chocolate bars. Despite the extortionate prices we cleared out his Stock. And rummaging through a motley collection of decaying books on offer, I picked up a tatty but intact copy of a guide which, despite passages of purple prose, looked useful, if perhaps out of date: "Pocket Book of Mahabaleshwar & Panchgani, with 3 maps, by N.M. Dastur".
My curiosity ignored the warnings against venturing up on to the first floor of Government House and I found a pleasant retreat in an airy room with French windows and a balcony looking right across the plateau towards the coastal plain. I could see several distant promontaries stretching out from the jungle covering, which I was able to identify from Mr Dastur's maps and I was seized by a mad urge to explore them. On our first free weekend, Nick scrounged some K-ration packs and we set out for the day, determined to reach Lodwick Point, a weathered spur that was within walking distance and seemed a natural lookout on all the rugged grandeur. Despite (or because of) the detailed maps in the guide, it proved easy to get lost in the maze of tracks and paths that tunnelled through the wilder areas of jungle. Mr Dastur's book carried warnings of panthers and wild pigs but doubtless they had been eliminated by generations of Big White Hunters visiting Government House. We didn't encounter anything more dangerous than the occasional group of monkeys moving through the tree tops or a scampering tree-rat, the large bushy-tailed Indian grey squirrel. There were abundant noisy pea-fowl, and colourful butterflies were everywhere. When we did eventually break clear of the undergrowth to the open space of the escarpment, it made all the sweat and effort worthwhile. A rough path ran through scorched grass to end on a massive rocky outcrop that hung, brooding, high over the Koyana valley. We wedged ourselves in among the crannies and wallowed in the grand panoramic view of the ghats stretching down to the sea, some thirty miles off.
We lingered there a long while, cooling off in the breeze that swept up the mountainside, an updraft creating little wind devils that careered along the path, sucking up dust and debris several feet above the ground until they lost momentum and collapsed.I realised how Mr Dastur must have struggled finding words to describe the heady beauty of the landscape. I returned several times and filled pages in my sketchbook in an effort to retain something of the memory.
During the monsoon season there were several spectacular waterfalls from the plateau according to Mr. Dasur. We were here at the wrong time: when I visited the downfall area of Chinaman's Waterfall and Dhobi Fall, they were dried-up apologies, with a token trickle of water seeping between the rocks. It was possible to clamber down the hillside a fair way, dodging thorn bushes and clumps of cactus, before the final drop, wheretherewere superlative views of the valley with its narrow cultivated area, a verdant strip running through the parched plain, gradually rising to wooded slopes, and the bare vertical face of stratified rock. I struggled to capture the scene as my sketchbook fluttered in the perpetual updraft.
There were other problems at the Yenna Lake in the centre of Mahableshwar. For a time it was a favourite haunt. Workers operated flimsy contraptions that lifted water from the lake to spill into irrigation channels running through extensive fruit beds; the local women washed clothes at the water's edge, beating hell out of the laundry on the flat dhobi stones. All very colourful and eye-catching. But I soon found that my subjects were as much interested in me as I was in them. I went back to landscape painting:
When I located a table and some chairs in the litter upstairs at Government House, I converted my retreat into a studio of sorts. I could paint there undisturbed. One afternoon when I lingered late painting a view of the Koyana valley from the balcony, I tried to capture the effect of the setting sun as the atmospheric haze softened and magnified its ruddy disc. The sea was visible as a luminous pink band stretching across the horizon beyond the fading outline of the hills. Then I lost interest in struggling to paint in the rapidly fading light: there was a huge sun spot visible to one side of the disc. I watched it until the sun sank into the obscuring haze.
Some mail got through to us eventually, and a long silence settled over the place while the letters were read. Marion wrote to say she was confused by getting batches of letters out of sequence and found my recent movements obscure. That made two of us: I certainly seemed to have crammed rather a lot into a short period of time. My efforts to catch up with the modern art correspondence course while in Bangalore brought a letter from the tutor returning my assignments: "I hope you won't mind if I quote a few encouraging lines from your answers in a French broadcast to Canada next month we are not allowed to give names, so it will never be held against you...". Fame at last, of a sort, but alas a reminder that there was no hope of doing any more work on the course until I was posted from Mahableshwar and reunited with my kit, still in store at Purandhar. The ghastly thought crossed my mind that I might be transferred to the permanent staff here: I considered the prospect with mixed feelings.
The technical site was our main contact with the outside world, and we were getting strange reports of RAF stations taking action in protest about the dilatory demob; intercepted radio messages suggested that the unrest was widespread and growing. We sought clarification from Poona, to be told that all the big RAF stations and camps were involved in a spontaneous revolt against the prospect of having to hang on here for another twelve months or so before general demob became effective. Poona permanent staff were about to join in, but the accounts section were nobly working on for a while to ensure that everyone was paid before they took action. A gesture we all appreciated.
We were in a daze at the news. There's little we can do that will affect the situation in our present isolation; Nick climbed the aerial mast to hang a token red handkerchief, but life goes on much as usual, apart from the hectic debates about where it will all lead. There'd been some speculation about the official reaction to the revolt, some fears that the army would be called in to sort things. That could be nasty. But so far it seemed quiet on the ground and we all hoped that this latest move would provoke some positive results...
It's unbelievable: fancy the bloody RAF going on strike! ■
FOOTNOTES TO FANDOM #12a...
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