There's no room for us on the regular supply wagon on the morning of our departure, so a spare truck is found for us to follow in, taking only essentials for a ten-day stay at Mahableshwar, leaving the rest of our kit in store at Purandhar fort. The supply ghari sets off early while we are still sorting ourselves out; we pile aboard our transport and speed in hot pursuit.
It's a rough ride. The hillside road is unsurfaced, all bends, and our lightly loaded vehicle bounces and sways alarmingly; we cling on and pray. When we do catch up our driver persistently hugs the tail of the leading truck so that we are enveloped, spluttering and spitting, in its trailing cloud of dust. It requires much cursing and banging on the cab roof to persuade him to drop back to a sensible distance and give us a breather. In the open truck there's no escaping the sun, already high in a clear sky, and the flying dust clings to sweaty skins and shirts.
There are other hazards, like the occasional bullock cart approaching from the opposite direction. Faced by the furious clatter of our approaching vehicles, bullocks tend to lower obstinate heads and stay put in the middle of the narrow road, despite the prods of panicking peasants. Miraculously we get by.
We turn west off the Satara road, rumble through Wai with its roadside temples on to Panchgani, a hill station of pleasant aspect. Picking their way round a busy market our vehicles slow down to manoeuvre past a convoy of supercilious camels, belching and farting prodigiously as they pad along the crowded thoroughfare. Then we are out in open country again, climbing a road that finishes up at Government House, in the heart of the Mahableshwar plateau.
In the palmy days of the British Raj, back last century, Mahableshwar was chosen as the hill station where the Governor of Bombay and his retinue would spend the summer, to escape the heat and oppressive humidity of Bombay. In its heyday Government House must have been impressive; it is in a sadly dilapidated state when we arrive. Before the RAF took it over, the place had been HQ for the army's jungle and mountain warfare training unit and allowed to go to rack and ruin.
Flower bowls and bird baths in the grounds are toppled and broken; a ceremonial cannon, minus a wheel, rusts alongside a solitary cannonball on the overgrown lawns; the roof of the two-storey building is damaged, window frames broken, paint peeling. Inside, the stairways are decorated with "building unsafe" notices, and we are warned not to venture upstairs because of rotting floors.
Surprisingly, we get a chilly reception from the 'permanent' staff, a tight little community trained as a group in England and recently flown directly here. We are viewed askance as wild intruders, a disruptive element. Pete, the flying officer in charge, who has moved straight from university into the RAF, proves to be a technical man, interested only in the equipment, content to leave the chores of camp organisation and admin to his medical orderly, a youth obviously in love with the idea of authority, who insists that the bearers address him as "Doctor Sahib".
We immediately fall out with him on arrival when he proposes inoculating us with everything in the book. Since we were updated with essential jabs before Christmas we protest vociferously until he backs down, and our relations remain strained for the rest of our stay.
We are left to find temporary quarters among the many empty rooms in the residence. The only furnishings provided are charpoys. There are no inside lavatories: we use a makeshift structure outside, very basic, communal, but open to the fresh air. Power for lighting is provided by a diesel generator, with frequent shutdowns. However there is a shower and, miracle of miracles, an occasional supply of hot water for washing.
Viewing our sweaty, grimy group impatiently queueing to sluice off the red dust that smothers us after the last stage of the journey, a line from an Alun Lewis poem surfaces in my mind: High on the ghat the new turned soil is red. He'd obviously visited the Maratha ghats and I'd read that he spent time on an army jungle warfare course. It could have been here.
Taking a hint from soot-blackened fireplaces we decide to follow the example of previous occupants and light a communal fire to brighten up cool evenings and enable us to brew up. We seek a bearer from the locals; one likely applicant, short and cheery, looks 15 but says he is 25, hands us a batch of dog-eared testimonials, one of which reads: "I have employed Fakir Mohammed as a bearer for three months. He is honest and intelligent, but lazy." We hire him on the spot.
It seems our medic has charge of catering, and is being cheerfully ripped off by suppliers; the grub is poor after Purandhar standards, yet we are expected to pay extra for messing. To add insult to injury our tormentor has banned all char and fruit wallahs from calling, on the grounds of "maintaining hygiene". Our bearer is promptly set to smuggle in illicit supplies and boost our morale.
The GEE course gets off to a bad start. Around nine each morning a ghari collects and dumps us at the technical site at Wilson Point, the highest spot of the plateau. A dozen of us squeeze into the cramped cabin, our instructor mumbles into his beard, quoting heavily from an SD (all operational manuals for radar equipment are classified as 'secret documents', hence referred to as 'ess-dees'), with his finger tracing out key points on circuit diagrams visible only to a few privileged viewers at the front.
This goes on for over an hour and those on the fringes of the group derive little benefit, lose interest and pass the time thumbing through old copies of Picture Post, or catching up with Jane's exploits in stray copies of the Mirror lying around. Then we hang about for half an hour or so before the truck returns to collect us for return to billets. During one of these waits, our instructor apologetically confesses that he'd only received four days' training on the equipment before being shipped to India.
Things do not improve in the afternoons, when we are due to practice morse—essential to communications between master and slave stations. Initially, only three bods admit to any expertise, but when it comes down to brass tacks it turns out that only Nick and myself are ignorant of the morse alphabet. So while the rest of the class rattle keys to varying effect, we sit and look suitably dumb. This always surprises instructors—we seem to get a different bloke each session—who say they can't teach us anything until we know the alphabet.
One expert confides that the average person has to hear every letter about 40,000 times before he recognises it without great effort, by which stage he will be able to read about twenty words a minute. That sounds as though we may be here for a long time. And after all this mental strain we are returned to our expert with his nose glued in the SD.
While we don't learn a great deal with this regimen, natural curiosity prompts us to skim through the SD in occasional quiet periods until we have grasped the basics. Though we do lack a certain involvement: after all, the GEE chain is not yet operational, and if it does ever start up, its main purpose is to assist air-trooping, which has practically ceased anyway. So what is the point? This bolshie attitude seeps through to our leader.
Pete decides that the dumb trainees are spending too much time scrounging around, and announces that he will give us all a test. However, his preocupation with the equipment proves his undoing. He has a pet theory about the frequency jumps that occur when tuning the transmitter—as he succinctly puts it, "when you turn the knob it goes wuff one way and wuff-wuff the other way— why?", and then can't resist expounding his own ideas almost before you draw breath to reply.
Thereafter you need only nod your head at discreet intervals, drop an occasional "well... yes" in token agreement, and you pass. We pass.
Back at Government House, life is convivial despite the lack of amenities and mail. Our bearer keeps us supplied with kindling for the fire and one day drags in a hefty gnarled log. With no way of reducing this to convenient chunks for fuel, we take the easy way out and just stick one end in the fireplace, pushing the log forward periodically as it is consumed. It burns very slowly, with help, but conveniently extinguishes itself as the fire dies down during the night.
It becomes a semi-permanent fixture and is dubbed the "Epstein Log" by an inmate who insists that its deformed contours remind him of one of Jacob's sculptures. One charpoy, sited almost on top of the fireplace, miraculously escapes being ignited each night when we brew up. One of its legs is broken and lashed to the frame insecurely with rope, collapsing whenever an absentminded card-player sits on the end of the bed. It is marked down as the next source of fuel should the Epstein Log ever burn up, and currently occupied by Alfred, a long-time pal of Nick.
They were stationed together in the Shetlands and one evening Alf regales us with hair-raising tales of their predicament the night the 200-foot CH-aerial mast was blown down in a storm, and goes into lurid detail of how Toothless Teresa got in the family way... I am never quite certain if the two events were related...
Mercifully, the arrival of the ration-run ghari from Poona spares us from further harrowing revelations by bringing up-to-date copies of the News of the World, specially printed in India for free distribution to the forces, with all the latest scandal from home—the Brunette in the Flat case, the doings of Lord Snell and his rompworthy girl-friend—plus a pile of magazines of several months vintage salvaged and sent by the good memsahibs of Poona. Long-delayed mail should have arrived from Purandhar but didn't owing to a transport breakdown.
We don't get much chance to explore the locality during the first few days of our stay, but skip a morse session to visit the nearby bazaar. The place is just returning to life, to the sound of massed sewing machines rattling out cheap shirts, after its closure last year when there were some cases of plague, the belated news of which had panicked our medic into his aborted mass-inoculation scheme. There is not a great deal on offer, but at least it is an opportunity to brush up bargaining techniques.
We find one vendor with supplies of genuine Cadbury chocolate bars and despite extortionate prices being asked initially we clear his stock, retiring with our booty to a small hotel by the side of the Yenna Lake that serves iced coffee and biscuits. Later, rummaging through a shelf of decaying books on offer, I find a tatty but intact copy of a guide, Pocket Book of Mahableshwar & Panchgani, with 3 maps, by N.M. Dastur, which despite passages of purple prose on local beauty spots, looks useful, even if a trifle out of date.
Curiosity drives me to ignore the warnings against venturing up on to the first floor of Government House, and I find myself a pleasant retreat in an airy room with French windows opening on to a balcony with a view across the plateau toward the coastal plain. Several distant promontories are visible, stretching out from the jungle covering; I find them named on Mr Dastur's maps, and am seized by a mad urge to explore them.
On our first free weekend, Nick scrounges some K-ration packs and we set out for the day, determined to reach Lodwick Point, a weathered spur within walking distance that seems a natural lookout over the rugged grandeur of the Western Ghats. Despite, or because of, the detailed maps in the guide, it proves easy to get lost in the maze of tracks and paths that tunnel through the wilder areas of jungle. Mr Dastur's book carries warnings of panthers and wild pigs, but doubtless they have been eliminated by generations of Great White Hunters on visits to Government House.
We don't encounter anything more threatening than noisy pea-fowl, the occasional group of monkeys moving through the tree tops, or a scampering grey tree rat. When eventually we break clear of the undergrowth and out into the open space of the escarpment, it makes all the sweat and toil worthwhile. We follow a rough path running across scorched grasses that ends at a massive rocky outcrop, hanging, brooding, high over the Koyana valley.
Wedging ourselves among the crannies we revel in a grand panoramic view of the ghats, extending down to the coastal plain and the sea some thirty miles distant. A cooling breeze sweeps up the mountainside, an updraught that creates little 'wind devils', sends them careering along the path, sucking up dust and debris several feet above the ground until they lose momentum and collapse.
It is a spot I return to several times, filling several pages in my sketchbook in an effort to preserve something of the heady beauty of the landscape. According to Mr Dasur's guide there are several spectacular waterfalls from the plateau during the monsoon season. We are here at the wrong time—when I visit the downfall area of Chinaman's Waterfall and Dhobi Fall, they are dried-up apologies, mere token trickles of water seeping between the rocks.
It is possible to clamber down the hillside a fair way, dodging thorn bushes and clumps of cactus, before the final drop, where there are superlative views of the valley and its narrow cultivated area, a verdant strip running through the parched plain, gradually rising to wooded slopes, then a bare vertical face of stratified rock. I struggle to capture the scene as my sketchbook flutters in the perpetual updraught.
There are other problems at the Yenna Lake in the centre of Mahableshwar. For a time it is one of my favourite haunts for sketching. Workers operate flimsy contraptions lifting water from the lake to spill into irrigation channels running through extensive fruit beds. The local women wash clothes at the water's edge, beating hell out of the laundry on flat dhobi stones. An eye-catching colourful scene, but gradually all work comes to a halt and I realise that my subjects are as much interested in me as I am in them. I reluctantly return to landscape painting.
Back at Government House, I find a table and some chairs among the litter upstairs and convert my retreat into a studio of sorts, where I can paint undisturbed in my free time. One late afternoon, sketching a view of the Koyana valley from the balcony, I try to capture the effect of the setting sun as the atmospheric haze softens and magnifies its ruddy disc.
The sea is visible as an intense luminous pink band stretching across the horizon beyond the fading outline of the hills. When the rapidly fading light makes it impossible to continue painting, my interest is captured and held by a huge sun spot visible to one side of the vast disc. I watch it until the sun sinks into the obscuring haze.
Some of the long-delayed mail catches up with us eventually. Marion writes to say she is confused by getting batches of letters out of sequence, and finds my recent movements obscure. I guess that makes two of us; I also feel a mite disorientated after the past couple of eventful months. ■
© Harry Turner, 1998.