Harry Turner's Episodes of Personal History
With the RAF in India #2     | HISTORY Page | Obituary Page |

2. Bombay Blues

Don't see much of the city, peering from the shelter of a dripping canopy as the convoy speeds through the monsoon downpour. Glimpses of tall modern buildings along the seafront; glimpses of well-stocked shops and ritzy cinemas as we swing into wide streets; glimpses of cross-roads turned into lakes, of unlucky pedestrians caught in the spray of our passage. Then we're skirting industrial sprawl and shanty towns, rumbling along a coast road, grey-brown sea heaving and foaming over the rocks, horizon lost in mist, to be dumped at Worli, RAF transit camp north of Bombay, where new arrivals are sorted and posted to units further east. So much for cosy expectations of an India of sunshine and unchanging blue skies...

The sun breaks through next day, rapidly burning away the morning mists while we swelter in the long, concrete-floored billets with wooden shutters flapping in the window spaces, laying out our kit for an official inspection after the long sea trip. Our beds are native-made charpoys, just four legs and a frame of roughly finished wood with crude tenon joints, over which rope is woven as a support. But they're comfortable after weeks of hammocks and hard decks... We've each been issued with a canvas durry, blankets and sheets, an additional burden to the kit we shall take along on our travels. And we have to put up mosquito nets each night: more for practice than practical use.

Endless parades, fatigues and guard duties effectively confine us to camp, what little free time we have taken up binding about the stodgy cookhouse grub, intrusive flies, malodorous latrines, and our frequent intestinal upsets. Our numbers are depleted by daily postings to active service units, or banishment to sick bay as dysentery strikes. So when Nick, Jack and I find we have some useful free time, it seems reward enough for surviving the first few days of our stay. We celebrate by grabbing passes and dash off to sample the delights of Bombay.

There's a dearth of military transport, no hope of thumbing a lift. Joining the mob at the bus stop, we fight our way on the first arrival, a double-decker with an open top which has Nick wondering if it was designed that way, or merely encountered a low bridge. Conductors top and bottom vainly try to control the influx of intending passengers until matters are resolved by the driver, who starts with a lurch that effectively dislodges surplus travellers from the platform. Delivered to the terminus we are besieged by begging urchins until a tram arrives going the rest of the way to the city centre. It hums along shakily, occasionally losing its trolley as it sways round the bends.

Mingling with the crowds in one of the main shopping streets, we savour the relaxed atmosphere of war-time Bombay. It's late afternoon and most of the shops are shut or shutting. To escape the persistence of pedlars flashing trays of souvenirs under our noses we nip into a book shop where I am dazzled by the display of art books, with many out of print items long unobtainable at home. Zealous assistants shadow me round the shelves, look sceptical when told I am merely browsing, continue discreet surveillance under the pretext of rearranging perfectly arranged displays. In the face of these unwelcome attentions and Nick and Jack's growing impatience, I retreat, swearing to return when I get my hands on some back-pay.

Wending our way through the traffic—hooting buses and clanging trams, impatient cars and loitering victorias, tinkling cyclists and, sublimely indifferent to the turmoil around them, sacred cows—we cross the wide road to sit awhile under the palm trees on one of the many open grassed spaces, content to watch the rush pass by. During this breather we are accosted by eleven kids anxious to brush our shoes, a further seven armed with cans of metal-polish determined to put a sparkle on our cap badges, refuse six offers of matches, turn down a hopeful coconut vendor only to succumb to two visits from a banana-wallah, and then get a straight demand for an anna from a young bibi toting a baby on her hip. "Hey," says Nick, "I think there's a queue forming!" We disengage ourselves, move on.

Wandering away from the Westernised façades of modern business blocks, we pass an impressive building with huge Assyrian bulls from a past age carved on either side of an impressive gateway with the bold notice "Temple for Parsees only", plunge into narrow streets where the shops become open arcades or holes in the wall, crammed with merchandise—souvenirs, clothes, carpets, foods and spices. Street operators tempt us with flashy gold watches and jewellery, and for a space we are followed by a belligerent character determined to sell us a bullwhip or a murderous-looking cosh, who laughs ominously when told we don't need one... We realise then that it is dark and we are lost.

By the time we find our way back to the arcades of a main street, we have to pick our way past the prostrate wrapped forms of folk already settled down for the night on the hard pavements. Once we get our bearings we make a beeline for one of the Services canteens, a haven where the memsahibs of Bombay condescendingly do their bit for the war effort by providing refreshment for the passing trooper. Settled in comfortably, we are tempted to linger, and emerge to find that most public transport has ceased. We need to dash to Churchgate station, conveniently near, to catch the electric train if we are to get back to base before passes expire.

Once at Worli we can't face the long walk to the camp from the station and decide, after a brief haggle over the fare, to ride back in the luxury of a horse-drawn victoria. The carriage upholstery is redolent of horse-dung, its springing creaks ominously under our combined weight. The half-starved nag momentarily strains to overcome the inertia, starts off at a smart canter, thinks better of it and settles for a modest walking pace despite the urgings of restive passengers. Another overloaded victoria catches up, threatens to overtake us.

Pride stung, our driver responds to the challenge by suddenly flicking his whip with a biting crack that startles his steed into a ponderous gallop and we career into the lead. Wild shouts from our rival greet this move and a race is on. It's Ben-Hur in slow-motion; the cabs sway wildly along the ill-lit track in imminent danger of collision. We hang on, fearful of being pitched out of our speeding chariot. The madness ends abruptly; both horses, exhausted by this uncalled-for exertion, snort mightily and promptly give up the struggle. While the drivers maintain a facesaving show of cracking whips, the excitement is over: the last stretch of our journey resumed at a decorous pace. Safely delivered to the camp gates with minutes to spare before passes expire we totter through the darkness to our billets...

After being confined to camp for several days I escape early one afternoon moved by an ambition to see an Indian film, an epic from the Bhagavad Gita, recommended by several of the bearers as having a straightforward storyline and lots of singing and dancing to distract me from the Hindi dialogue. Once in Bombay, finding the cinema proves not so simple; my detailed instructions fail me. Lost, I give up and just mooch around exploring generally, returning in time to take pot luck at the camp cinema, where they're showing Russian Story, an American-produced miscellany of sequences from Soviet film classics—Alexander Nevsky, Peter the Great, Battleship Potemkin, Lenin in October—and contemporary newsreels telling the story of Russia's fight against oppression.

The Indians scattered through the audience seem very enthusiastic: Lenin and Stalin spark a round of applause whenever they appear. At the end of the film when the national anthem is played, members of the forces are obliged to stand to attention, while the locals blithely file out chattering. An argument sparks at the end of the row between a soldier and a flashing-eyed Indian; hard to tell whether the BOR is indignant because the anthem has been ignored, or if he's been jostled when the Indian attempted to pass, but the movement of the exiting crowd prises them apart before matters become serious.

In the foyer, a few people linger round a bookstall set up by the Friends of the Soviet Union. I strike up a conversation with the two Indians in charge, come away with an invitation to visit their HQ in Bombay and the address of the local Communist Party, where I'm assured I'll meet writers and artists. I hope the instructions on how to get there are more reliable than those I received when I set out for that elusive cinema... ■

Communist Party of India meeting leaflet, August 1945
Flyer for CPI meeting in August 1945

© Harry Turner, 1999.

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