X Squadron Royal Indian Airforce
I was determined to keep a low profile in the squadron but was concerned how I should be greeted by the Commanding Officer since I had not seen him since my Operational Training Unit when he had sent me to the 'Air Crew Disciplinary Unit' at Brighton! I need not have bothered he was all 'Hail Fellow Well Met'. "Hallo Ned, how have you been keeping?" (There was a well known American comic at the time called Ned Sparkes so he always addressed me as such). I also found that my Flight Commander and the Medical Officer were particularly friendly. The latter always sought me out after dinner and we went for a walk while he redistributed the dottle in his pipe. This seemed to give him great pleasure but he was damned good company and our conversations pursued many subjects. P/O Picken and I renewed our friendship but we had never become closer than good colleagues so the evening chats continued until he was replaced by an Indian M.O.
I had several flights of various types with the Flight Commander and he seemed more than pleased with my flying. The main subject of evening conversations with the M.O. suddenly turned to my time in hospital in Bombay with some emphasis on my opinion of the medical staff. We had become good friends so I told him of how I had dreaded being buttonholed by the one doctor who used to concentrate on my relationship with Sneh and his relationship with his wife down to the most intimate details. After a week or so the C.O. sent for me. It seemed that the doctor who I had tried to avoid has sent a report to the effect that I was mentally unbalanced and that my flying was a dangerous to the point that I had attempted to take off in a Hurricane with flaps fully down. In the first place my accuser was completely out of order in sending such a letter and his knowledge of flying was rudimentary. He must have seen the occasion when I had to abort a landing and 'go round again'. I said "O.K.! What now?"
It transpired that the Bombay M.O. had developed an obsession regarding my happy relationship with Sneh. The Flight Officer had said that if they had any other pilots who flew as dangerously he would be glad to have them and the Medical Officer had found me perfectly sane. There may well have been friends who would cast doubts on the latter!!! The outcome of it all was that the Bombay chap was sent home to England as a nutter.
Abdul Mudjid has come into my life! He is my new bearer. A sort of attenuated Pathan. A slightly sunken chest, there is nothing of him. Where has he been all of my life? I never have to worry about my uniforms. All is spirited away to return freshly laundered and ironed. He is at my side at table and seems to anticipate my merest needs. My bath is prepared, my loti (brass pot) placed beside it. As you know I have managed to avoid the skin problems so prevalent among my colleagues by bathing Indian style, outside the portable canvas bath. I need soap? Mudjid hands it to me, he pours water when and where needed without a word. When I am finished he dries my hair. My clothes are laid out, he brings my shoes. He runs any errand, buys extra food, there is nothing he will not do and stands quietly, ready for any service large or small. Already I cannot imagine life without him.
My relationship with Sneh was, once again centre stage, not that it could be hidden any more as three weeks after my joining the squadron she was booked into the best hotel in Lahore as Mrs Sparkes as the following quote in a letter home dated 3/5/44 states:-
"I have been with the squadron almost a month now and we have done nothing 'energetic' being thousands of miles from the action. The little woman has come up to see me and has been here since 23rd May. She had to travel 1200 miles by train and break a contract of four years standing so she is out of work and her poor studio has to find another star for a film written specially for her. I am now, among other things, squadron signals officer and in charge of all radio matters etc: My section is very proud of me specially when she came round the station and said Hello to them all. Every paper and film magazine in the country has by now published the bit about "our marriage." She was very fortunate in being escorted round the everything and even 'flying' the Link Trainer.
The eyes of my brother Indian officers nearly popped out when they were introduced. We are staying @ a wizard hotel with cousin Barburao (Who brought her as her chaperone!) and I wangle things as well as I can. I cycle to the squadron @ dawn (about 07:00Hrs) and return @ midday to return in the evenings, sometimes for night flying. Today is an exception. My day off. I returned @ 22:00 Hrs last night to dinner and had two large Gin & Limes (on an empty stomach!) because I was tired and spent from 3 to 4 this morning emptying myself @ both ends: Right as rain today but she has had some pain with her usual visitor who was nevertheless welcome as we were afraid that we had seen the last of her for some time.
We actually ventured onto the dance floor for the first time the other evening. ------------ a slow foxtrot which brought applause from some onlookers but blushes from her. -------------- The Punjabi dress worn in these parts is most attractive and she has had one made but to her own style. It has a full length skirt and a short blouse with long sleeves which leaves a bare midriff which is partly covered by a sash of fine gauze, all in biscuit and skin colour. ------- Since she is not here under her own name, some people repeat her name to see if she gives herself away or many other little tricks. --------------
4 May. Looked like rain this morning but I am afraid that it will blow over. God knows, we need it badly enough. The earth is parched and the air has seldom a breath of wind and if it comes it is like the draught from a furnace. Fortunately the city here is green. When I waken each morning my pyjama neck is soaked in perspiration, this part of the country is very hot indeed. We are all sitting in the crew room tent, most of the boys are playing Bridge, the gramaphone, thank God is silent! I was not coming this morning but "she did not want it thought that she was the sort of woman who would keep her husband from his duty."
She made it quite clear before she came up that she did not expect to see me more than a short time each day. What she will do when I finally move off to somewhere where she cannot follow I have not the faintest idea. She lets worry affect her too much. I am sure that you would laugh at me these days. I have to swallow much that I found intolerable in woman."
She had to return to Poona on May 9 because I had to take the advance party to our new base at Risalpur (Risaahlpur please) on the North West Frontier not far from the Khyber Pass and Peshawar on the 10th as I wrote home on May 11:-
"We have moved so she had to go back. Too good to last. She left on the 9th. She worries more than anything I have yet seen and cannot be more than a short while without me and since it was plain that this time we should have to part for a long time she became extremely nervous and irritable and her old jealousy cropped up again. She twice decided that she would go back home and that we must part, @ these times I found that I was inclined to say "Go ahead!" but I do still love her deeply and realise that I have not (partly due to circumstances and partly to temperament) given her as much as she has given me."
I was Commanding Officer for about a week! It was a permanent R.A.F. station and very special. The tribesmen (Pathans) were very wild and wooly. All doors and windows including those of the hangars were covered with steel shutters every night and great care was taken to see that all guns are made safe. There was even a case where the guardroom rifles were locked back to back in a rack that was set in concrete. The whole rack was stolen, rifles and all!
Almost as soon as we had our first mail, Sgt Khan, one of my best men in signals came to me in great distress. His father had died and his uncles were trying to take everything over including his mother and sisters. He was a fine type, a typical Pathan, tall without an ounce of spare flesh on him, tall with fierce green eyes, utterly loyal and had transferred his love of guns and machines to his radios. I was in a most difficult position, I was well aware of the disbelief with which he would be met by a British officer but I knew something of the problems that he was facing and trusted him. I reminded him my responsibilities and he nodded. I asked him how long he wanted. "Ten days?" "I think so Sir." I signed his warrant.
Before the ten days was up the rest of the squadron arrived and I was, once again, many degrees from the throne. I told the C.O. immediately he arrived. The result was predictable. It seemed that whenever I was guilty of the slightest possibility of error he went on to auto pilot. Court of Enquiry; Court Martial threats were inevitable. "You have seen the last of him!" "I am quite sure that he will honour his word Sir." "His word?' His word?" "What do you think that is worth?" Sgt Khan was back on time but he was preceded by the most extraordinary letter that I have ever seen. It was written in Indian Ink on a piece of handmade paper.
After profuse thanks there was a paragraph that could have come from the preface to a Greek tragedy. "In honour of your trust in me; I ---Khan of the True Hill Tribes of Charsadda swear that if you ever call on me for help I will serve you to the last drop of my blood." After that followed a brief story of his father's grave and how he seen to it that 'his women' would be safe from family pressures and so on. The next time I saw him I congratulated him on settling his affairs. He clicked to attention, saluted and those clear green eyes confirmed his pledge.
"Lucky for you that he returned Ned!" The remark was inevitable but I had a chat with the Indian officers. Their grave attitude confirmed my fears and it was plain that I would have to be most careful not to give him any excuse to fulfil what he now saw as his obligation. It was the "I, a member of the True Hill Tribes of Charsadda." that set the seal on the oath. If, perchance he became convinced that I were to be deeply insulted or damaged by a person his oath bound him to me and I in turn would be bound by tribal tradition to care for his dependants should he be killed as a result. A rather daunting aspect. That letter was, to me, a most precious possession and realising that I could neither keep it with me or send it to England I sent it to Sneh with the request that she keep is safe for me.
I asked for it as soon as I had my next leave in Poona. "I destroyed it!" "You WHAT?" "Yes I destroyed it because shows how primitive some of my countrymen are!" Her countryman indeed! He was a fine man, bound by his (to us) primitive code of life but it did underline her deep commitment to India as an undivided country. I did not then, nor have I ever, forgiven her for the destruction of Khan's letter.
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Edward Sparkes ©1998