Abbas (Kwajia Ahmad Abbas) lived in a flat on the ground floor right on the beach just to the north of Bombay a wonderful site. I was introduced to his household and a fellow guest; Snehprabha Pradhan. She was a film star but was also head of the Students Union. A terrific presence, tiny, quite lovely, then we were all deep in conversation well into the night after which I went to my first sleep in Indian India.
Sneh & Abbas
I was wakened by a servant with a plate on which was a fried egg and a chappatti. I managed to eat it with reasonable dignity and sat back to the music of sand and surf. Another egg arrived. It was not until the third that I realised that the only way to stop them arriving was to get up! 'Sneh' had already left for the film studio. 'Abbas' was at the office and not being sure what to do I phoned the base. Yes. They knew all about me and could tell me that I had to await my posting to a refresher course.
Feeling utterly rootless I went for a walk along the sands meeting no one but a young man with a net full of green coconuts swinging an ugly machete in his free hand, he changed course towards me an made a gesture of drinking, I nodded and he neatly sliced off the top of a nut an handed it to me. I handed him a rupee and he started a laborious search for change. I smiled and waved it away as he gave me a look that he must reserve for the totally insane but I had achieved my first transaction on Indian soil without a word being exchanged. The nut was soft and completely full of the most fresh and delicious drink that could be imagined, so unlike the tired product that I had previously been used to in England.
Knowing nothing of my surroundings I walked back to the Transit Camp which was only about a mile away. As I walked through the gate there was an unexpected sense of alienation. My room was just as it was when I had been taken to it. My tin trunk was there, the single chair, the empty chest of drawers, the bare bed, the wash stand, the bare walls. I went to the mess and ate lunch. Gravy with everything; thick, brown and tired and I idly wondered if the cook house just added more water and called it "Brown Windsor Soup" for the evening meal. I wandered round like a lost soul and checked that I was still "in transit" and wandered back to Abbas' flat where it was obvious that I had been much discussed and it seemed that they had decided that my woeful ignorance was to be ended by a crash course on things Indian!
That evening Sneh had decided that I should first learn about the Indian dance and classical music. I soon learned that there were many quite different types of dance. Manipuri, Kathak, Kathakali, and Bharata natya and that I should first try to get my head round Bharata natya with it's precise disciplines and gestures. As mentioned in a letter home 19/9/43 I did not get to bed until after 03:00hrs the following morning.
"I have contacted a group of quite amazing people in Bombay and am friendly with the editor of one of the main newspapers, with whom I am staying) the editor of Reuters etc: also a film star and how different they all are from our idea of them. She is pretty, speaks perfect English, is very small, has amazing energy and could slay most of the people I know as a conversationalist on almost any subject and dances and sings exquisitely. She danced and sang for me until about 03:30 one morning. Rather embarrassing to go out with such company though. I went with all of these people to an Indian show and during the interval our box was smiled @, gawked @, & clapped @ because of this beautiful girl who was @ once recognised as the star of umpteen films. As the only white man I may have reddened a little."
The Indian classic music recitals totally different from it's Western counterpart and to put it very simply consists of the Rag or Raga which contains the musical theme and the Tal or rhythm which is almost always picked out by the 'tabla'. There are two drums, one of which, the base component picks out the basic rhythm and a longer unit that is tuned by tightening the skin which has a circle of a gutta percha like substance in the centre. This is played with the fingers to an astonishing degree of dexterity and speed in a very wide range of notes. When two artists of equal skill play together and they use every particle of their skill, they are playing with but also against one another. A particularly skilful display by the players will be greeted by a response from the audience varying from a murmur of appreciation to thunderous applause and a good time is had by all. Some very good friends of mine find the performance quite excruciating to listen to but it could well be a cognoscenti's delight. Fully to appreciate such a classical concert is a delight to few Westerners and although I derive great pleasure from some of the Rags (say Rahg!) I perhaps appreciate them less than I should. Such a concert involves considerable empathy between the audience and performers.
As is usual with matters military, decisions are sudden and to be acted upon immediately and just as suddenly I was posted to Poona (Now Pune) to 'refresh' my flying skills. Leaving next day. So, hardly a decent farewell to Abbas, family and friends, I had to leave on the morrow. Railway passes were issued and I was down to the railway and away. We had been underway for about an hour when a servant came and asked me to go with him. I saw no reason to and was not sure that I had understood anyway... Then a very urbane gentleman, Sarthe by name introduced himself and asked me if I would like to join him with Snehprabha in her coach. Somewhat surprised I followed and there she was again. Her home was Poona and she was on her way to spend a few days with her mother. The journey became very pleasant.
The next day, installed at the RAF station I went up for my first flight for some weeks. As I was being driven back to my quarters a 15cwt open truck met me with a cloud of dust, a couple of officers from the boat and several Indians, all in a state of great excitement. There was an 'Indian princess' waiting for me in the mess. It was not quite true. She had left a message, would I have dinner with her and her mother. A car would be sent for me. Her mother was tiny, crippled with arthritis, very erudite with a great sense of humour. Sneh, dressed in a dazzling white sari was courtesy itself. We had dinner in the dining room which was a delight and her mother was then lifted bodily from the room by two servants and Sneh took me to her apartment which occupied the whole roof of the bungalow.
Luxurious but far from ostentatious it was a very complete flat with every convenience. I could hardly believe it. Here I was in a beautiful area of bungalows and gardens in a select area in the foothills among graceful palms in the cool evening with a beautiful girl for whom I had fallen quite heavily. She told me calmly and holding my eye that she had been married to a film star whom she had divorced owing to his impotence etc: etc: and that he had subsequently remarried and that his wife was pregnant. Her mother who had been head of a university was separated from her father. Before I left she told me that her mother was very glad to see her so happy and would it be alright if the car picked me up after flying the following day?
It was the start of a period of complete infatuation for me and as I soon discovered for her also. All of my noble thoughts of a singles pilot devoted solely to his flying were dashed. From then on my sole devotion was to this tiny, exotic creature.
Next: - Life in India
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Edward Sparkes ©1999