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:!
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!:-
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.
Note. I have left the use of the symbol '@' for 'at' to remain faithful to the letter.
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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002