Harry Turner's Episodes of Personal History
With the RAF in India #4     | HISTORY Page | Obituary Page |

4. Interlude: Bangalore Military Hospital

I am enjoying my stay in Bangalore: it provides compensations for the depressing news of delays in demobilisation. But it doesn't last—I collapse with a fever and lose all interest in life. The RAF medic promptly diagnoses malaria, whips me into sick quarters, doses me with mepacrine, a malaria-suppressant with the unfortunate side effect of turning one's skin bright yellow. But I am past caring. I shiver and sweat it out for a week, by which time the doc abandons his initial diagnosis, panics, despatches me to the isolation wing of the Bangalore Military Hospital as a suspect typhoid case.

Once there, I am 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 can't budge anyway. They rob me of more blood than I feel I can spare, for obscure but necessary tests, promptly put me on a strict starvation diet.

Private Mula materialises 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 is sweeper, bottle and bedpan bringer, odd-job man about the ward, his title a convenient contraction of an impressive multisyllabic Tamil name to save hospital time.

At this first encounter I am treated to an impressive sweeping salute, a broad grin, a deafening "Good morning— sahib!" It becomes a morning ritual for the rest of my stay. A cheery soul, he chuckles at secret thoughts as he progresses along the ward. He speaks little Urdu and less English; the Anglo-Indian orderlies, Italian POW helpers, and the patients speak little or no Tamil, resulting in some cryptic exchanges. On occasion we stretch sign language to its limits attempting extended conversations.

"War finis," Private Mula asserts with an all-embracing wave of his hand, "English sahibs go: you sahib, you sahib, all go. Tig hai. Leave army." Then with a shake of his head, "India no good." We try to find out if he has any family. "Father sleep, mother sleep, sister sleep," he declaims, then adds "Nay missus!", marching off to the accompaniment of one of his deep belly laughs.

Only when my temperature chart looks less like a cross-section of the Alps am I allowed up, content to collapse on a hard seat at the bedside. A welcome letter from Jack proves to be a farewell note explaining that he'd been unable to penetrate the defences of the isolation ward to visit me, and had dumped my kit in the camp stores for fumigation. He's now posted to Transport Command at Delhi; "Think of the Taj by moonlight and a graceful maiden clad in a diaphanous sari..." he drools, and I wonder if he's pinched my copy of the Kama Sutra. I realise that with all the upsets I've not written to Marion for the past fortnight. Now my last unfinished letter is securely locked up with my kit in Adgodi stores.

A calorie-conscious sister takes over day duty in the ward and promotes me to a relaxed diet. Breakfast, pigeon-size poached egg and two delicate slivers of bread with butter scraped on, then off; lunch, two teaspoons 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 suffices. When rude health returns the interval between dinner and breakfast seems an eternity. Desperation forces me to join in the general bribery of passing orderlies with free-issue cigarettes, as exchange for an irregular supplement of porridge, biscuits and fruit. And once—oh ecstasy!—an illicit helping of steak and chips. Most of this contraband is consumed in the evening when mosquito nets are lowered over beds and the ward lights dimmed for the night.

This renewing interest in life makes me appreciate the extent of my confinement. Our ward is an interior room, windowless, where little sound reaches us from the corridor. One of my immediate neighbours is an older man, prostrate and incommunicative since his arrival; on the other side is a BOR recovering from a dose of typhoid who has developed pneumonia and gets a penicillin shot every few hours. Passing teams of doctors continue to prod and probe me or extract blood samples for culture tests, and once I am wheeled out for an x-ray though no one explains why. In between these medical routines, I exchange a few quiet words with the BOR about our ailments then, inevitably, about demob and the question of how long. Otherwise I am left to stare at the blank glossy hygienic wall opposite or doze fitfully waiting for the next interruption.

One day I wake to find that a visiting angel with a sense of humour has left a selection from the hospital library on my table. Nicer to Stay in Bed, Three Fevers and Death in the Ward are avidly devoured in next to no time flat. I then devote considerable energy trying to convey to one of the friendlier Italian helpers that I prefer novels to thrillers or Westerns. He returns with solid classics like Kenilworth, Barnaby Rudge, Dr Jeckyll & Mr Hyde, and, inevitably for India, lots of Dornford Yates. I never fathom out why Yates enjoys such popularity among the sahibs and memsahibs; he just sets my teeth on edge. For a period life is brightened by occasional volumes of Thurber, Forester and Greene that come my way; then the selection degenerates.

Boredom is relieved by a sister 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 proves that Doctor Watson is actually Holmes's wife—a convincing thesis it seems, supported by quotations transforming Watson from a mere woman, a possible mistress, to establish her as Mrs Holmes. (Marion is sceptical when I pass on this spicy snippet in a letter). And M.R. James's Ghost Stories with 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 think, and promptly make a note of the words to quote on a suitable occasion.

I don't know how I could have survived my stay at the BMH without books. Then a batch of mail following me across the continent catches up: long-awaited news from home—Marion still doesn't know I'm in hospital!—a clutter of American fanmags, a letter from long-silent correspondent John Craig updating me on his travels across Europe with the army. He writes 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 a visit to Rome.

Routine is upset one morning by the non-appearance of Private Mula. The sister on duty confides that he'd complained about a stomach upset and she'd told him to take a 'number 9' pill. Before she could stop him, Mula had gulped down several tablets, no doubt convinced that the bigger the dose the faster his recovery. He returns in the evening, looking shaken and a shadow of his usual ebullient self. We sympathise and he points to his belly, bunches his fist to indicate extreme anguish, looks woebegone, weakly says "Oh sahibs...bedpan!", holds up six fingers. Our minds boggle.

Eventually I am taken off diet, ravenously consume everything edible put before me, begin to feel my old self, and am transferred to a bed on the veranda, overlooking the gardens. While I miss the companionship of Private Mula, it is a relief to gaze on the outside world again, enjoy fresh air and sunshine, to exercise wasted limbs. Inside there are too many reminders that I am in a military hospital. One day I am bawled out for not leaping smartly to attention and saluting as the Matron and her entourage sweep through the ward.

I escape court-martial and prompt execution only when the ward sister explains to the Glowering Presence that I am a lowly form of RAF life that the army has misguidedly taken in... It occurs to me that a more valid argument would be that in my emaciated condition, pajama pants are liable to drop under the stress of saluting. I arrange to be absent or in bed when visiting rank sails majestically past my bed on future visits.

Still, things are now more cheerful, apart from the fact that my hair has started to come out in handfuls. Sister regales us with jovial tales of typhoid patients leaving hospital with pates like shiny billiard balls, then relents and tries to console us with the thought of all the money we'll save on haircuts. I am promised a bath, dream of a palatial tiled bathroom where I can soak in lashings of hot water, as a change to the usual cold shower. Alas, I finish up in a cramped galvanised tub, knees bumping against chin, the water tepid.

A short while later I am discharged though it is still not clear what bug attacked my system. I disappear into statistics as just another 'UDF', an undiagnosed fever case. I must look a rum sight when I move into the army convalescent hostel in Bangalore cantonment for a fortnight's stay. My weight has slipped from the usual 160 pounds to a mere 112, my bush jacket flaps on my shoulders, my belt needs a new notch to provide adequate support for shorts. Thanks to the combined effects of a fading suntan and the sallow afterglow of mepacrine, I look decidedly jaundiced. The good news is that my hair now only comes out in combfuls.

When first I venture out of the hostel, on tottery legs, I am almost blown over by the wind of a passing cyclist. A portly RAMC officer pulls up and after one glimpse of my wasted frame is moved to ask how I like Bangalore after Burma. I feel a fraud, but it seems a shame to waste his obvious sympathy.
   "Much better", I mumble. ■

© Harry Turner, 1999.

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