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Chharra

 

Suri left for the squadron as soon as the course ended but I had to wait a day or two while the new wing was fitted to the Hurrybird I had used to prune a tree. Meanwhile the weather closed in but soon my old kite was sitting waiting for me again. As I was taking off to rejoin the squadron which was being 'tropicalised' for Burma in Chharra I though with some amusement that the only other pilot in the squadron likely to try in this weather would be my old ferry chum 'Picken' and sure enough he had been in Calcutta and landed just before I did.

I was looking forward to leave on the first of the month. Sneh had a new contract for two films, one in Poona and one in Bombay and she had managed to include a clause that gave her free time whenever I could get leave. Out of sheer cussedness the C.O. refused to let me go on leave on the first, insisting that I waited until the fourteenth. It did occur to me that he may be trying to spoil my relationship with Sneh on 'orders from above' as there were political overtones.

Mujid is still with me. Yesterday I was reading my mail from home and I told him that there was a message for him. "Mujid, my mother sends you salaams from England". He crossed his legs like a house trained child desperately trying not to pee and blushed to his ears in an agony of shyness. He seemed to struggle with such intimacy from a far country. Slowly he pulled himself together, coughed and in a low voice, begged me to return his salaams. It was all very touching, he was a very good man and I was able to trust him completely.

A letter home:-

"Yesterday he handed me a bill for 30 Rupees (about 3.00) that had sprung from various small purchases. I checked it over carefully as I was expected to and found it correct. "What do you think memsahib will say when I go on leave and tell her that Mujid has spent all my money?" "Nothing Sir; memsahib my mother." (He had taken to calling me 'Sir' instead of 'Sahib', proudly emphasising the word.)

"What in Hell do you mean; memsahib your mother?" "Yes sir, memsahib my mother, you my father." The other day I told him to keep a little change as 'baksheesh'. "Everything you give me sir, is baksheesh."

Thank goodness it is only a few days to the fourteenth and leave. I only have one chap under instruction at the moment. He is a 'bible puncher' and my oaths are getting a bit bloodcurdling these days. My God he is a clot and I have to be sure that he doesn't write me off in formation flying. He tried hard enough yesterday!"

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A chap came into the mess one evening and announced that an officer had been killed over France. The C.O. and I had served under him. The C.O. looked across the mess and caught my eye, then stood up, walked across to me; I stood up and we shook hands. Not a word; he turned and walked back. Not an eyebrow was raised.

Air crew felt themselves to be an elite and their minor breaks with tradition were tolerated within bounds. The top button of my 'Blues' was always left undone, as was the custom. There were four buttons down the front. Only the bottom one was the original R.A.F. The next one was Canadian from an old friend F/Lt Madden, now dead as was the next one from a friend in the Norwegian Air Force. The top one was a bit of bravado. It came by swapping with a trooper in the "Death's Head" regiment of the Hussars with a skull embossed. I have no idea of what became of him. We were both pleased with the swap when we got to chatting on a train journey in England.

I find that I have been putting off recording the news that Johnny Walton had 'bought it'. He was 'straffing' a train in Italy in a Spitfire. It was an ammunition train and it blew up, and took him with it. We had been soul mates in Canada. I had always been able to keep myself apart from feelings in this field but I had allowed myself to become fond of him. It was a mistake. It shook me and the ache can all too easily be recalled. In a letter home I tried to come to terms with this side of our life and this sense of 'aloofness' and compared it to that described by Dostoevsky in his "House of the Dead" recounting the attitudes of the prisoners in Siberia.

Chharra was a bomber base and as I was writing home I happened to glance across at a Squadron Leader a few feet away who was playing the piano and playing beautifully. We had met and I found him to be sensitive and erudite. I liked him but the nod and wink exchanged was a mutual understanding of the unreality of life in air crew and the fact that it was wise to preserve that isolation. On the same exercise when I hit the tree, another damaged a wing and yet another removed a prop tip and this is only training. Lt Barnes (American) has already bought it over Rangoon a week or so after returning from the course.

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Another letter home snippet:-

"You ask me my feelings regarding the heat. I have none. You asked me my reactions to the cold in Scandinavia. I naturally wish that it were cooler. I am looking forward to Poona because it is cooler. My right trouser leg is always soaked with the perspiration that trickles from the cuff of my right gauntlet. I wonder what happens to the sweat from my left (throttle hand).

Talking of sweat, when I was on the A.F.I. course we were sheltering from a tropical storm when a lorry driven by coolies became stuck in the mud. In the warm drenching rain I worked like a madman helping them to get it out. I cannot tell you how happy I was, covered in mud, soaked to the skin in my first physical work for a long time."

Garlands of white jasmine flowers dangled between my legs
"Garlands of white Jasmine flowers dangled between my legs"

I managed to cadge a flight right across India for my leave, then another hour or two and we were together again at 'Shantaram's Bungalow' but we managed few moments alone before the 'welcoming committee'. Garlands of white jasmine flowers dangled between my legs. One of them was so complicated as to be opened up like little cages on each side. I felt like a water buffalo as they often had a log of wood dangling between their legs to stop them running away.

I was plonked in a chair and given a drink while a girl massaged my calves 'because of the long journey'. This is a wonderful Indian custom and any visitor is likely to be so welcomed. I can only laugh in the memory and realise that we could well adopt the custom but it would be unlikely to catch on in Europe. There is much massaging in Indian family life!

Then the questions, endless questions and that disconcerting Indian habit of showing concern in one's well being by making remarks such as "Are you quite sure that you are well? You look a little tired/worn/exhausted/strained etc: until one realises the intent it is easy to wonder what is wrong! It took what seemed endless time before we could be alone. To my amazement, Sneh pushed me back to take a good look at me. What -have- they been giving you, you look like a chinaman. (I had forgotten that the mepacrine that we were taking against malaria had made even the whites of my eyes yellow.)

"The first thing must be a good purgative to get you ready for decent food!" "No Sparkie I am serious". We must remove all traces of that terrible life from you!" She - was- serious, there was no time to be lost. She had hired a bungalow in a small village in the Western Ghats (the mountains between the coast and the Deccan plain) for a week or so and I had to have every bit of the despised life of the service life cleansed from me.

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"What do you think of the car?" "Car? What car?" She sucked in her lips in mock exasperation and led me by the hand to where a small 'Singer' sports car was parked in the front courtyard. It did not sink in for a few moments, then my mind crashed into gear. The last time I was on leave she had gone into a shop leaving me on the pavement. When she came out I was looking at this car for want of something to do. "Do you like it?" "Pretty little thing isn't it!" My poor girl had found out who owned it and bought it for me. I was shattered. They had sold her a pup. She knew nothing of cars and in any case they were very hard to come by in wartime India.

The tyres and battery had obviously been changed. The tyres were almost bald and after a brief bleat silence reigned. Her faith in me was complete. She expected it to burst into song and whisk us away for a spin in the foothills. Things were getting difficult. She had engaged a male secretary to relieve her of some of the chores; we were introduced with instant mutual dislike. He was a thin young Parsee and I imagined him presenting visiting cards with "Master of Arts. Bombay (failed) on them. (A common practice among failed students). He was told to take the battery to a garage and get it replaced. The tyres were not so easy to replace so we prepared to holiday in her car.

She never ceased to amaze me. She sized the situation up and put the experience behind her. The car was not to be seen on my next leave. It was not mentioned again. She accepted that it was one of the consequences of stardom and took it for granted that she would be charged more than the general public. If, however she felt that she was being taken advantage of because she was a woman a storm of hurricane dimensions would descend upon the transgressor. The memory makes me quail.

 

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Edward Sparkes 1998-2002