Gateway to India
Our ship's paper, Convoy Cuttings, was into its final edition and the "staff" worked with a will with the remaining stocks of paper. We were determined to try to give everyone on board one to take as a souvenir. The work was repetitive and I was constantly surprised that everyone worked so hard and with not a complaint in sight.
Each edition was full of jokes but I wrote an editorial to bring a little gravitas as this was to be the last edition, I was determined to sketch out some common sense attitudes to the new life we were about to meet. I elaborated on the differences we would meet (and with all of the confidence of one who had never been there), and on the great nationalistic pride that was running through the country. How we must meet unfamiliar customs with patience and understanding and to try and understand how we should feel in similar circumstances etc. etc.
We were well aware of the strength of the feelings of independence on the sub-continent but the bulk of the new arrivals were quite confident that the sun would never settle on the British empire and unfortunately the three Indian citizens we were taking home were plainly at odds with their travelling companions.
The editorial was ready to be duplicated into the space reserved for it but I stubbornly refused to complete without a glimpse of the country. The O.C. Troops sent for me and told me that I had better wind-up the library but gave no idea of arrival time. The occasional appearance of sailing vessels indicated that we were approaching land and the ship's crew were obviously going about different duties with much activity below decks. The O.C. Troops was pressing me to get the last edition distributed. I took him below and showed him the piles the paper ready for the last touches. Why not finish it?
All the linocuts had been given away with the exception of the large header showing the name of the paper flowing in the smoke of the funnel. I had intended to keep that for myself but he was "pushing rank".
"I was going to thank you for all you have done but sometimes you are infuriating!!!"
I gave it to him.
When I met my little WAAF after the evening meal as usual we expressed our mutual gratitude and pondered the future. Neither of us had any idea of where we should be posted and our relationship was as complete as it had been that other night when it started. A haven of, dare I say it, tenderness and understanding, in a world sadly lacking in these quantities? We had complemented one another, worked together and found completeness. We promised to meet the next evening after getting our precious paper distributed as we were now approaching the harbour.
I met the O.C. Troops as I went below. We went to his cabin where the Quartermaster and the Adjutant were drinking Scotch. The former told me that almost all of the library books had been returned. How had I done it? I had charged 1/- deposit. It seemed that a return of 25% was normal. Looking back it was a ridiculously small sum but perhaps they were angling for their copy of the paper. The Quartermaster left us and the Adjutant gave me a despairing look; Our O.C. was well away. A couple more glasses and I suggested that I had a better turn in as I had to be up early in the morning.
The following morning we were in the bustle of the harbour and there was so many impressions flooding in that I could see no change to my editorial other than a complete rewrite. I went below and was shamed to see that the stencil was loaded into the duplicator and the team, hand on handle, were ready to print. I gave the OK and with an "I could have told you so!!!" expression on every face our copy was rolling. The O.C was in a terrible mood with an equally terrible hangover. The Adjutant was wearing his cap which almost concealed the imprint "Convoy Cuttings" across his forehead. His shirt hardly covered two further blurred imprints. An attempt to remove the one on his forehead had obviously been painful. The Colonel was a huge man and his Adjutant small .
It seemed that we may get off that afternoon. The Indians were already gone and everyone stood in little groups waiting for news. The papers were all distributed. I felt rudderless but was amazed by the colour ashore. All the dock workers wore red turbans and the brilliance of the saris of the few visible women covered every hue of the Peacock.
Shortly after lunch the O.C. Troops sent for me. The Adjutant looked the picture of gloom and when I looked at the O.C. I thought there was a hint of fear in his eye. The situation was serious. Gandhi had been insulted and there were several Indian journalists in the cinema and they would not leave until they had an explanation. I was to blame. He marched me to meet them and said "Here is the editor!"
Waving the back page of " Convoy Cuttings " very close to my face a little rat faced man was demanding an answer. The little man did not want an answer. He wanted to humiliate me. I asked how I had insulted Gandhi as I had always admired him. Suddenly the awful truth hit me. On the three column page there were three linocuts. There was one of a monkey hanging by one arm to a tree and there was another of Gandhi holding his umbrella --- the silhouettes were almost identical.
I was horrified and it must have been obvious. It had been printed for almost a week. The whole idea was to create an attractive page. A quiet voice said "So you can see how that could cause offence in the present climate?" The speaker was a slight, pleasant man with a great presence. I said " Gentlemen. You are professional journalists, I am not, I was trying to produce a paper for the troops under very difficult circumstances."
"The linocuts were made at different times and merely used to fill in spaces. The rat faced one attacked again. "The handle of the umbrella is far too thick". I patiently explained that if the linoleum were to be cut any thinner it would have broken in printing. I then asked if everyone had read the editorial. No: they only had the one copy. To my surprise the O.C. had several. He must have pulled rank again. They read in silence. The quiet man spoke. "I think that all Indians would be happy if other British troops could read this before entering our country" "May I reprint it?" Then turning to the O.C. he said "We have been most unfair to this Officer and I would like to invite him to my home for a few days."
The O.C. looked at him with joy and almost gave me to him. He was Kwajia Ahmad Abbas, K.A.Abbas [famous for his books and screenplays]. He was quiet, modest and had great influence. He became my friend at that moment. That meeting had a most profound influence on my life. He gave me his address and I promised to contact him as soon as possible. They left and even Rat Face shook my hand.
The O.C. turned to me and said "That fixed the bastards!"
I felt an ineffable sadness.
As the O.C. and I left I saw my little WAAF on the other side of the deck. There was no hope of getting to her, they were just moving off. A mutual look of "Thank you". We were to meet momentarily once more and once again "Thank you".
An incredible life in India was starting.
Next: - Ashore in Bombay
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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002