Every Forty Eight (48 hrs leave) was precious and it was often possible to wangle a few hours either side for an extended Week End but there was nowhere to go excepting Calcutta. Then by using the brotherhood of aircrew one could cadge a lift. Ranji (F/Lt Ranjan Dutt) had always told me to stay at his home in 'Cal' if I had the chance so I wangled a trip.
F/Lt Ranjan Dutt
I never told Sneh about any few days off because she was so far away we should end up trying to make arrangements for her to come up and the 48 would be dead and buried before it started. Ranji's father met me at the door and made me welcome but told me that I should have to entertain myself because it was a very busy week end for him as he had an important dinner the following evening. He was so like his son, middle height, broad and carrying no excess weight. His eyes were restless, and coal black; his mouth a thin rat trap just like Ranji's. Every bit the Indian Tycoon.
It was evening and I had taken care to eat, so I turned in, but there was a discreet knock at the door and a bearer stood there with a tray on which was a bottle of whisky, a jug of water and a glass. "Whisky Sahib?" "Ah! Ji, burrah peg." (Yes, a large one) He held the bottle over the glass, looked at me and raised his eyebrows. I nodded and he poured a stiff drink; raised the jug and poured slowly until I raised my hand. He put the glass on the table and was about to leave the tray but I stopped him and said "Bas" (enough). He smiled, gave me an elaborate bow, took the tray and left. Feeling dirty and tired I had a shower.
Much refreshed but still tired I sat on the bed and sipped my huge whisky. I sat on the bed because the room may not have been used for some time and the bugs hiding in the holes in the cane chairs would be hungry. It was nothing to see a pair of thighs with a regular tattoo of red where the bugs had popped out round the edge of the chair to enjoy the offered meal. As was expected I wished that I had accepted the bottle as soon as I had finished my scotch but I lay on the bed naked but for a towel across my stomach while the huge punka flopped round in the ceiling as I hoped for the sleep which finally came.
The following morning I was joined at breakfast by a girl of stunning beauty, Ranji's father having already left. She was, it transpired, a relative of Ranji's mother. I had previously met his mother and sister who were also most attractive. Like most Indian women of their time they were intensely feminine, small boned and tiny. Although I much doubted if any of them had carried water or anything else on their heads they all walked with an elegance seldom seen in the West. Unfortunately I had to carry out the few chores for the squadron that had made the '48' possible so I arranged to continue our chat after lunch.
As I stepped out into the bustle of the city the same old frisson of excitement ran through me as I remembered other times in this incredible city with it's smells, filth and bustle. One particular moment was during the famine when the country people came to the city for food, only to find that the inhabitants were also suffering. They were actually starving to death outside windows full of delicacies for those able to afford them. I had gone back and filled my pockets with the only edibles that were available to me. Chocolate, of all things. When I went out again I realised my stupidity. A few sweetmeats could do nothing for these people so I had returned with the chocolate already softening. That was another time and the problems could not be solved with pity.
I have to admit that the prospect of meeting my breakfast companion lent wings to my feet and the morning slipped by as in a dream. The conversation after lunch continued as though there had been no interruption and I found that we had a great number of interests in common. She asked me if I had read any Indian poetry and I was glad to be able to tell her that I had read 'Gitanjali' and 'The Gardener' By Rabindranath Tagore. She said "And?" I pointed out that I felt that I had moved on and asked her what she was reading; she enthused about "The Waste Land" by T.S.Eliot. This put me on safe ground as he was my favourite poet at that time and there was a pleasant meeting of minds. Quite apart from that, we were flirting.
This was new because I was completely infatuated with Sneh. I had long become accustomed to Indian women turning their lustrous eyes towards me but my inner eye always saw that it was as Sneh's partner that I was an object of fascination and not for my own attributes. Of course I was flattered. Tea arrived only as a punctuation and at some time I asked her if she really had to accompany her 'uncle' to dinner that night as I had to leave first thing in the morning.
She said that she could not imagine any way that she could avoid going and almost like an evil genie, Ranji's father arrived. He asked her if she had rested to which she replied "Not yet". He seemed displeased and suggested that she had better go and do so before getting herself ready. She meekly obeyed and I noted that she disappeared into the room next to mine. I was also aware that Ranji's father slept in the room beyond that.
"Have you had a good day?" He poured himself a cup of cold tea. I assured him that I had been most successful on Squadron business. He commiserated that I had been too busy and that he was sorry not to have seen more of me but "This dinner tonight you know". The man was a snob and the dinner loomed large in his conversation, I was a complete cad and did not ask him to elaborate as to who else was dining.
I thanked him for his hospitality, he asked me if I could occupy myself, I affirmed that I could and he extended the invitation of an open house to me at any time I was in the city. I had a rest, thinking of the girl in the next room. All of the rooms on that side of the house could be made into one by folding back the doors. The door with it's inevitable hasp for a padlock was without a lock. The girl's room would have the hasp on her side and so on.
Feeling it prudent to do so I slipped out of the house before 'the diners' appeared and went to a Chinese restaurant for a good meal which was excellent but I felt very much at a loose end and a couple of hours later was sitting on a bar stool sipping on a whisky sour which I was rather unwisely alternating with beer. I had been idly watching the two most enormous men that I had ever seen; not that they were fat, they were slim, muscular and in American Army uniform. They could have been twins, about six feet six inches tall and definitely feeling their drink. Hell! He had caught my eye, the last thing I wanted. "Hi Buddy; Where ye frum?" He came over and flicked the wings on my bush jacket. "Jeeze their kinda cute, what er they?" I told him and he called his compatriot over. To say that they towered over me would be a gross understatement. Both of them were well over a foot taller. They were American Military Police on furlough, pronounced 'leave' and they were going to paint the town red. They decided that I too was 'kinda cute' and with an arm under each armpit I was lifted and dumped onto one of the stools they were using. Several stools on either side suddenly became vacant. I was to be their mascot for the evening! What was that that I was drinking? They changed from beer and drank heavily. They insisted that I drank with every drink that they had. If I wanted to go to the loo, they came too, getting louder all the time. They kept asking me questions and then hooting with laughter at my accent which they tried to copy and hooted again.
I was a virtual prisoner and could see no easy way out. There was no one to ask for help and if there were to be, my newfound companions would intimidate the bravest. Unfortunately they were getting nasty with one another. Just when things were getting really awkward there was a hullabaloo at the street entrance.
Two rickshaws were outside, their shafts on the ground and sitting in them as though waiting to be invited to descend were two dumpy little women the like of which I had never seen. They were dressed from head to foot in a dirty white and on their heads were huge cartwheel hats around the rim of which trembled white, pendant 'bobbles', each about the size of a large pea. Their faces were painted white, relieved only by a slash of livid red outlining their mouths. I asked the manager who told me that they were Tibetan whores. The effect on my 'protectors' was immediate, they leaped around like drunken grasshoppers emitting ear splitting high pitched whoops such as we have come to expect in cowboy films. Feeling somewhat the worse for wear and slightly drunk I headed back to sleep.
The housekeeper met me at the door and followed me down the hall with a conspiratorial expression on his face and asked where I had been. I was in just the mood to ask him what the Hell business it was of his, when he said "Memsahib came back from the dinner, she had terrible headache". I asked him how she was now and he told me that she had recovered as soon as she got home. I went into my room cursing fate. I looked at the door which led to her room, decided against knocking on it and went into the hall. There, with their backs up against the door of her room, were two servants, lying on the floor fast asleep.
It was late so I returned to my room. Sounds from the hall indicated that Dutt Sahib had returned soon after. I had had a completely futile evening, slept badly and even now am in two minds about what I should have done.
Next: - Bawli
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Edward Sparkes ©2000