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Critical Times

Hamilton Studios Photo of Edward and Sneh - Bombay

Early mornings would often see me hurrying through the streets on my way to the airport with everyone on their way to work in the city. The only anomaly was that I was a junior European officer blending into the Indian scene. At first the sight of people sleeping on the pavement seemed strange and the general public appeared to ignore what they did not want to see. On one occasion I noticed an elderly man lying on his back against a building with a thin stream of excrement running from him and into the gutter. Suddenly arriving at this unhappy sight I had to step over it as it was too late to make a detour without losing balance. He was still there when I returned in the evening but the thin dribble had dried and no longer attracted flies, he must have died. The following morning he was gone. Who removed him? Who was he? Did anyone care? Was it dysentery or, perish the thought, cholera? We bring nothing into the world and take nothing from it!

One aspect of the Hinduism that has sent the westerner's thoughts into a near terminal wobble has been the business of virgin widows. Virgin Widows? This is a direct legacy of child marriage. The very thought is certain to send tremors through the feminist and many other souls. Although the ceremony takes place and the girl usually goes to the 'husband's' home to live the marriage is not consummated until the couple have matured but childhood survival rates mean that a girl could become a widow at a very early age. Marriage is considered to be for life but this left the door open for mature and often old men taking the opportunity of placing advertisements offering marriage to virgin widows!

In ancient times a wife was burned to death on her husband's funeral pyre after the administration of drugs to help her bear the ordeal. The British Raj stepped in and forbade this practice of 'suttee' but this did not stop some women from immolating themselves. The life of a widow used not to be happy one. She was supposed not to wear jewellery or to enjoy the status she enjoyed as a married woman. On one occasion I was chatting to Sneh's mother when bloodcurdling shrieks and screams came from a nearby home. Baiji's expression changed to utter sadness and I naturally asked her what was going on. She just said "They are breaking her bangles." It was a ritual performed after the death of her husband, confirming her entry into widowhood, one of the most dreaded experiences in a woman's life. Sneh entered the room and the two women sat together in sad empathy while my own mind tried to come to terms with recognising yet another complication of Hindu life.

It was at about this time that we started our monumental rows. It is difficult to remember the source of the first niggles but it was almost certain to have originated in Sneh's incredible bouts of jealousy. They rose from nothing. she had no reason, I was completely besotted by her but she could not bear to think that I knew another woman. She would ask me about a girl in England and what she looked like and when I tried to describe her she would burst out "You see!' 'You think about her!" There was no escape and sometimes she would yell at me "Help me!' 'Help me!" She could see in her logical mind but her jealousy was not logical and she knew that it was. She quite accepted that she had a large group of male admirers who would jump to do her the merest service but there were none among them who were female with the exception of Abbas' wife who she treated as a distant cousin.

This quarrelling was doing me no good at all. I had been ill and had hardly recovered. Flying schedules had been stepped up and a good time in each day was spent in the air. At this time I wrote home that my life was twanging like an over stretched string and that the notes were not getting any lower. There were times when we could hardly live with one another only to realise that we could not live without one another. She was incredibly generous which made life a little difficult because a junior officer was poorly paid, perhaps a hangover from a time when officers often bought their commissions and were expected to live in the manner demanded of them. From the very first I had told her that I could not possibly live up to the level expected of film stars and that it would be better if we lived within my means. I was dealing with a girl who had been head of the all Indian Student's Union and known to be a formidable debater.

Her logic was impeccable, she had the money, if I had access to such funds I would spend it in the same way. It was expected of her, she had standards to keep up, she could not live at a lower level. After all it was 'our' money, why could we not share it? If we went on holiday, she arranged and paid for it.

At about this time she decided that we had no official photos and I found that we had an appointment with Hamilton Studios, perhaps the best in Bombay at the time. She was adamant that we should not be photographed by the film studio and reminded me of what had happened when they had taken surreptitious photos of the two of us. I was not particularly keen at the time as I was just recovering from several bouts of fever and did not look too well which would worry my parents as it was plain that a set would be sent to them. She took just a change of two saris and I had to wear my blues which hardly suited the weather at the time. Her instructions to the photographer fascinated me. She certainly knew a thing or two about lighting etc: She was listened to with the greatest respect, after all she was a pro:!

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photographs taken at Hamilton Studios.

I was learning what it was like to be married to a film star as letter home made plain. It was written from my new address. No 10 Squadron Royal Indian Airforce!:-

"It is amazing the way people of all sorts poke their noses in to our private life. She is warned that people in uniform are rapists and I am warned about the loose morals of film stars. Half an hour ago I was told by an Indian officer with whom I share a room when at the station that she is married to our friend Abbas with whom we so often stay and seems to think that she is after my money!

Honestly, things are ghastly on the whole for women in this country. If a woman is a civil servant, actress, doctor, school teacher, nurse; in fact if she is anything @ all other than cooped up within the extended family she is immoral to the orthodox. Even this generation giggle at what their parents frown upon. When she came to me when I was in Karachi her father heard that she was prostituting herself with two military officers for a 'good time'. On Christmas Eve we went to a Gala Dinner @ a large hotel and later I was told by someone, not knowing who I was, that 'she and some military officers were drunk there' She does not drink, I had not touched a drop.

Anyway, our happiness as a couple has been dealt a further blow. I have been posted to the above squadron which is in the process of formation. Do not worry, we are doing nothing more active than a display this week. It is a fighter squadron but I am afraid that I have not got what I wanted in aircraft and I take a pretty dim view but someone has to do the job. The amazing thing is that my new C.O. is the chap with whom I had the trouble or who started the trouble when I was @ Eshott He is not very popular here. I only arrived here yesterday. It will be some time before we see action.

Sneh was naturally very cut up. I took a few days French Leave and was not missed. (or they knew damned well where I was.) So you see, the future for us is under a darker cloud than ever. Now we shall only be able to meet on my leaves. We are some thousand miles apart just now but she will probably come to the vicinity for a time. I have no idea of when we shall meet again as we may not be here for long. She has sworn to wear nothing but white until we meet again. I have told her not to be so drastic and I hope that she will not stick to it. She was very brave but her grief was terrible. The night before I left we went into a churchyard that had some sentimental significance for us and as I stood behind her with my arms around her she prayed aloud with her tears continually splashing on my bare arms. As we left she said "Honestly Sparky I will not tell you how I have decided to live my life whilst we are apart but if God denies us happiness then even he will hang his head in shame."


This was quite in line with her relationship with her God. She spoke as to a person in authority who, once in a while, needed a good talking to as to the direction he should take! The following extract is from the same letter and hardly adequately covers the extraordinary scene at the railway station as I departed to join my new squadron together with several others on the same mission. Fortunately, one of them was my old friend P/O Picken with whom I flew on Ferry Command. The garlands were, as always between us, white jasmine flowers. The huge bouquet referred to was, at first a great embarrassment but turned into a great success as I managed to distribute the individual flowers among my fellow passengers.

"One RAF officer and a few Indian friends came to see me off and she garlanded me, then gave me a huge bouquet of flowers, I then garlanded her. A good crowd of her fans was gathering to make a pretty sizeable crowd. The other chaps on the train did not know what to make of it @ all. As she walked up the platform with the train as it pulled out, our friends followed and then her fans swept everyone along with them whether they liked it or no!

She looked very sweet in her white sari and garland." 


Note. I have left the use of the symbol '@' for 'at' to remain faithful to the letter.

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Edward Sparkes ©1999