By Mike Smith
My adoptive father was too old for military service when war broke out in 1939, but young enough by 1941 to be sent to India with the RAF (Royal Air Force), where he stayed until after that war’s end.
I’ve served, but not in an army, for five years under difficult circumstances, though nowhere near as difficult, and not half a world away from everything I knew about and had been led to believe. So, I have only an inkling of the stress he must have been under.
I have a couple of tiny diaries that he kept. Diaries were illegal for soldiers, I believe, which might explain their size. But they were sufficient for what he had to record, which by the second volume had reduced mostly to the chiselled capitals, day after day, of no mail.
I had, and to my regret, lost, a small pamphlet of Hindustani, issued to him by the Wild Woodbines cigarette brand. I can still count to ten – ek, doe, teen* and some more but probably not with good inflection. And phrases, the meanings of which have faded, can be brought to mind and tongue like fragments of old tunes. For a short time during my childhood, my father employed a man from the sub-continent, and he taught me a little more. I suspect he was badly treated, perhaps unknowingly, probably without conscious malice, by the other workers and left under circumstances that smacked, even to my child’s eye and ear, of dogs going to live on a farm.
His very presence, I think, must have owed something to my father’s experience of India. It had pervaded his consciousness and never left him. Neither did the malaria he had caught there. Throughout my childhood in the fifties, I was a chota wallah*, and slept in a charpoy, and was exhorted to jaldi jao*, not, I suspect, the politest way to summon or dismiss someone.
Quite co-incidentally I encountered an ‘old soldier’ of doubtful veracity, who plied me with British Army issue ration blocks dated to the 1940s, among which were ‘curry’, probably of the lamb or goat variety. To these, water was added, and the mush boiled. The smell was nice. I liked curry. But father would light a cigar, just as he did when our dog farted, and he’d reminisce about India, not fondly. The poverty and dirt had appalled him. He had misunderstood, or at least not become aware of the taboos on which hand did what. Yet he’d taken part in a failed distribution of tinned beef raided from the quartermaster’s stores, equally appalled at people literally dying in the streets of starvation, while the cinema reassured British troops of the vast food supplies kept for emergencies.
The Hindus had refused the meat, with a hostility that he never understood, but their refusal in the face of death both amazed him, and, I believe, destroyed his faith in the religion of his own country — he had a pious sister who, he told me, could never have made such a sacrifice for her faith. He had a brother-in-law too, who was a conscientious objector, and would never hear a word said against him. I think the Indian experience might have contributed to that. He told me also of a hut full of his comrades being ‘rescued’, from a harmless snake that was occupying the threshold, by one of the punka wallahs*, a man who never by word or smirk, he said, ever betrayed their moment of terror.
Sadly, my father died before I was old enough to have a really grown-up conversation with him about it.
So, India, though I’ve never been there, and though I’ve never talked to more than a handful of people who have lived there, has always been on the periphery of my life. My father had a camera with him and was far more of a photographer than he was a diarist. The black and white contact prints — from a Leica 35mm I believe — show jungles and deserts and temples and street scenes, even those streets with the dying upon them. They show servicemen in shorts and tropical kit, mostly standing in front of vehicles or planes. They show local workers on government service, which may or may not be the source of an acronym used in pay-books that has become tainted with misuse.
Since a short trip to China in the 1980s where a man dressed in military uniform welcomed us at Beijing airport with a smile (the smile seeming more fundamental than the uniform, I recognised he was just like me), I’ve believed we are all closer than we are distant, though we often stand or crouch on different sides of barricades erected in error and folly and for the benefit of those who would control us.
Recently I’ve had the good fortune to be rewarded with commendations and prizes in a series of flash fiction competitions run out of India, and to have the occasional piece taken for use in journals. For the years that I ran my BHDandMe blog, the 3rd largest group of readers was from India. Perhaps that drew me to reading writers whose names I don’t know how to pronounce and whose landscapes I have never seen except on a screen. And that’s been good for me, and in a strange way has brought me closer not only to them, but to the memory of my father.
*ek, do, teen…: 1, 2,3… counting in Hindustani
*chota wallah: small man
*jaldi jao: Go fast
*punkah wallah: manual fan operators.
Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com
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