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Ashore in Bombay


First impressions of India? Impossible? No! One thing stood out above the colours and the impact of a culture far older than my own. There seemed to be so many people with Tuberculosis. Bloody spittle everywhere, red streaks on the pavements, walls; everywhere. Never did I expect to see a sign "Do not spit on the walls" but there it was and not immune from the defiant splodge. It was a couple of days before I learned that all of this massive haemorrhage resulted from the national habit of chewing betel nut. More on this later when I was initiated into the arcane art of assembling the 'chew'.

Impressions poured in from all sides. Not only from the R.A.F. life that ruled one part of my life but my immediate plunge into Indian culture resulting from my fortuitous meeting with K.A.Abbas which was to change life as I had known it. All previous ideas were to be scrapped along with the tropical kit that I bought at great expense in England. We new arrivals stood out among the 'old India hands' as though we were advertising our inexperience. "Get your knees brown" was the usual opening gambit but we were fairly tanned from our 'cruise'. It was our uniforms that gave us away. We had noticed that the few officers that had come aboard were wearing 'bush jackets' of a cellular cotton material that we knew as Aertex. They were similar to our uniform jackets, with large pockets and an integral belt. We lost no time in going into Bombay and getting kitted out again by the ubiquitous Chinese tailors and shoemakers who fitted us in an amazingly short time. They and their restaurants were to be found the length and breadth of the sub-continent, always smiling and efficient.

We were temporarily stationed at Worli just north of the city and it is only recently that I have discovered that it was termed the "Wastage Pool". THAT would have improved our moral no end as we waited postings to our permanent units, the few pilots among us were to go on a flight refresher course to blow away the cobwebs. I was shown to my room, clean but with the barest essentials of furniture. Just my shiny new "termite proof" tin trunk with my belongings all safely padlocked and my overnight bag.

I took my precious copies of Convoy Cuttings and smoothed them out. I cannot have left the room for more than five minutes but they were gone. Someone wanting a quick read had 'scrounged them'. That was that. If only there was some clue as to which rubbish bin claimed them.

We were called to the cinema. The usual lecture by the M.O. (Doctor) on V.D. and personal hygiene! We were heartily sick of and well used to the boring diatribe. The M.O. obviously knew our mood.

"OK! Chaps! Two little stories. Number one! Just because a girl has a fur coat and diamonds, it doesn't mean that she doesn't have VD. She probably got them both at the same time."

"Two! An officer complained to the Indian Mess Officer that the latrines were always full of flies. "Oh! Sahib!" 'That is because you go at the wrong times; you should always go just before meal times when they are always in the kitchen!'"

"That's all chaps; now I am sure that you have lots to do." The last was a big joke because everyone else was already bored to tears. For my part, Abbas had opened a life-changing pattern for me but for now I had to try to mix oil and water; service life and the world of the Indian literati. Worli had no real mess for the transients. There were several Canadian officers, and one or two of them were pilots so we decided to take a trip into Bombay to take a look at the city. Several of the lads were gossiping about streets of prostitutes kept in cages. The truth was far more mundane.

In the heat of India it is necessary to leave windows open to try and get a breath of air through the house. This would obviously give any thief, or anyone of ill intent far too easy an access. This is countered by thief proof grills of countless variety from the elegant and very beautiful designs in the best areas to simple grills in the poorer areas. Thus, in the areas given over to "Palaces of Pleasure" it is easy to see why the ladies displaying their charms would seem, to the uninitiated, to be in cages.

Two of us felt more in need of a meal so we left the rest to explore the 'Red Light' area. Oranges and Bananas were extremely cheap and gave a snack that were well protected from countless tropical diseases by their thick skin, we never tired of them but man cannot live on fruit alone. We settled for that other 'India wide' dish, eggs and chips. After a wide eyed effort at digesting the unfamiliar scene, time was pressing so we went in search of a taxi to take us back to Worli. To our growing concern there were none to be found. We certainly did not like the idea of a few hours walk through the suburbs and poor areas of the city where we could well walk into hostility that were between Worli and us.

animated gharry

We decided to hire a gharry - a horse drawn carriage with four wheels that seemed to be more used for sight seeing. As we trundled northwards the driver became more agitated with us urging him onwards with little more instruction than "More further!". At one point he called to a group of young men who walked over to us. We were prepared to sell ourselves dearly and stood up back to back in the well between the seats. We were somewhat shamed when asked in perfect English "Can I help you?" I explained our situation and he was highly amused that we were taking a gharry so far out of the city and suggested that we carried on as we were and just motioned the driver onwards with a wave of his hand. We carried on silencing the driver with promises of 'plenty backsheesh'.

At last we saw Worli Camp in the distance but at that point the horse collapsed. It was most dramatic. Each leg suddenly slid to it's own point of the compass as it fell. The gharry driver dismounted, mournfully looked at the poor animal and scratched his head. There was no movement. He bent down and lifted the head, then dropped it onto the tarmac with an awful thud. He looked up at us sadly and summed up the situation by spreading his arms wide and saying "Me horse finished Sahib!" We were all shattered. It was in the early hours of the morning as we pooled what money we had with much urging from the driver. We had far less money between us than we had thought. Between us it came to sixteen Rupees and fourteen Annas which we gave to him. He helped us search our other pockets with great enthusiasm but finally accepted the situation with a shrug and something that I did not catch but included "Allah!" Probably "Insh Allah!" which means roughly - "It is the will of Allah!" and usually accompanies complete acceptance of the perfidy of fate.

A couple of weeks later I was passing a gharry rank in Bombay and he hailed me. "Heh! You know me Sahib?" He was all smiles. "Yes! Do you know me?" "Ji (yes) Sahib!' 'Sixteen Rupees, Fourteen Annas" and he burst into guffaws! He was plainly enjoying swindling us and judging by the reaction of the rest of the rank, we had been the subject of much amusement. I did not ask after the horse, not wishing to expose myself to more fun. Probably a hired nag at the end of it's days. Surely it was not trained. I had already realised that nothing can be taken for granted in India.

My two 'Indian' lives ran concurrently and although neither met the other I seemed to be quite at home in both. The sheer banality of service life seemed cantilevered by my other Indian life where the conversation was brilliant and there was elegance in a culture quite new to me. In one life I was almost a tourist, looking through the eyes of a tourist at colour, poverty and strangeness. I calmly observed one of the sights of the Bombay of that time, a man sitting above his scrotum which was grossly enlarged by elephantiasis until it weighed 60/70 lbs. It is caused by *Filariasis, a parasite, some of which live in the lymphatic system. A limb can grow to an enormous size. Just one of the delightful diseases carried by the many bloodsucking insects.

A letter home dated 16/9/43: -

 "I am in a transit camp @ the moment and have just put up my camp kit. Honestly, it must be one of the most practically designed units in the services. It contains a bed, a sleeping bag, two blankets, a chair, a wash stand, a bucket (canvas), a bath, a pillow and a cape/groundsheet. To this, I have added a mosquito net, which cost me 10 Rupees (about 15/-).

The first things I noticed were the extraordinary brilliance of the greens, the beauty of the women's saris and their wonderful carriage. Every woman walks as a queen should walk. We are @ the seaside and all round the crescent of the bay are coconut palms, which for the first few days seemed so romantic.

The heat is not unlike that of a cucumber house and one's feelings vary with the state of one's belly. Feeling dirty and hungry a few of us wandered around and found children selling bananas @ 8d per dozen and oranges at 2d each. Spirits went up considerably when we went into a coffee shop and had a couple of eggs and chips. On the way back a small girl was exhibiting a young cobra and yelling "One Anna' 'One Anna." (About 1d). I lifted it out of the basket and tried to buy it. She was quite horrified that I had stolen her thunder.

Talking of thunder, another torrential shower has just started. These showers are responsible for the phenomenon of semi nude gentlemen carrying umbrellas. This evening brought one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my life. A sunset of unparalleled beauty. It seemed not so much in the clouds as all around us. It was as though we had been transported to a 'faery' land. The very air was luminous. It had none of the chilly grandeur of the **Aurora Borealis but had it's own beauty and purity of colour.

Warm colours in constant change and with such harmony that I had to look @ my own hands to see if they were still brown and that I was not changing also. Then came the rain and brilliant lightning flaring the nearby palace with it's blueness.

Oh! Yes! Life is good. For I have full and steady bowels.

Let me know what is happening at home."

* Filariasis today is controlled by drugs not available at the time of writing.
**(Aurora Borealis - I had lived in Scandinavia for some years)

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Edward Sparkes ©1999