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Chharra 2

 

Home life was just becoming the norm when it was time to think about returning to the squadron. Where had the three weeks gone? I had been able to wangle a flight back from Poona airport thanks to my old Ferry contacts which saved a day or two and we had decided to go out to a Chinese restaurant for dinner on the last night, mainly to get away from people feeling sorry for us.

We were given the best table, Sneh ,for some reason, being a favourite film star of the Chinese and the attention she was given in some way took the edge from her unhappiness. She looked particularly beautiful in a pure white silk sari with a broad silver band. The waiters gathered round the doors to the kitchen and just looked at her and it was clear that they had decided to share her between them. Every time we were served it would be by a different one and the dishes were not those on the menu but had been elaborated. We should have known better than to expect a cosy little dinner together but in retrospect it was all to the good, it certainly pushed parting into the background.

Then came the moment to pay. The manager would not hear of it. "It is enough that you come here to eat." I took him to one side and tried to remonstrate but he was adamant. "You have no idea Sir, my staff almost worship her." There was nothing for it. This happened whenever we went into a Chinese restaurant; it was most embarrassing. Not so the Indian restaurants where we were charged top rate and were expected to pay over the odds as a tip!. Would she autograph a menu for the cook. I had no idea how many cooks they could pack into the kitchen; then the waiters, they brought up menus, serviettes, scraps of paper, anything. Naturally she loved it, asking a name here, giving a smile there.

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When it was over I tapped the teapot and said "More water?" It broke the ice and we drank yet another green tea. As we were about to leave the manager said "These are for you" and placed a beautiful pair of ivory chopsticks on the table in front of me. I said, "This is too much, these are ivory." He smiled and added "They are very special sir: if anyone tries to poison you they will turn blue!"

Did he know something I did not?

Millions of couples were parting and we were just another couple and we were as selfish with our thoughts as the others. I said my farewells to the household the previous night so finally there were just the two of us and she wanted us to part where we lived, the better to remember it. The car was waiting and dawn had just broken. No, she would not come to the car or wave Goodbye. As we dressed I said "Remember Shivaji" (The great Mahratta hero.) So she just stood there in the middle of the floor clad in a pure white sari, hands clasped gently in front of her. She knew just how she wanted me to remember her and she was so right.

As we slid away from the leafy suburbs, through the city and onto the harsh plain I found that my mind was already adjusting to the military straight jacket. Thanks to lucky connections I was in Chharra by night. It was another world. Of course it was familiar: all too bloody familiar.

The following morning Mujid met me with a long face. He was as efficient and anxious to please as ever but he was desperately unhappy so I tackled him after breakfast. He had never been so happy, on and on and all the time shifting from one foot to the other. "All right Mujid, you want to go home." "Yes sahib"

I had heard whispers the previous evening that the bearers were going to funk coming into Burma with us. So much for the warrior Pathans! In retrospect I realised that he would readily have come with me but it was fear of the unknown. Also the Pathan villagers knew one another and he could not be the only one to leave his wife and family fearing for his life. Sneh's generosity had meant that I had far more kit than I could possibly take into Burma so I asked Mujid if he would do one thing more for me and asked him if he would take my excess baggage to Sneh on his way home "Oh Yes Sahib!" I was amused that he no longer called me 'Sir'. It would almost double his journey home but he was so pleased to be trusted. We were both sorry that he could not come. We had a mutual respect which is beyond price.

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He immediately set about sorting out the minimum kit that I would need in the 'jung' and packed up the rest to take to Sneh. Little did he or I realise that she would fly at him for deserting me! Apparently she asked what sort of a servant/man/friend/Pathan/creature/dog/etc/etc/etc would betray the trust that I had in him. I, having been on the receiving end of more than one of these tirades felt for him. I also thanked a lurking instinct that made me give him enough money to manage and a little to give to his wife. I only hope that it was not as bad as I suspect it was. He was devoted to her.

Before he left he helped me to get a sort of weskit made to carry the endless bits of escape and or survival kit we were to carry. *(Click here to see the list for part of this.) We were lectured by doctors, escapees, commandos etc: etc: The doctor gave us instructions on what to do in case of snake bite etc: among the escape gear was a beautifully made double ended chromium plated brass gadget. One end held potassium permanganate and unscrewing the other end revealed an exquisitely sharp scalpel about 25mm long. "Don't hesitate a fraction of a second. Say to yourself 'IT'S GOT TO BE DONE' and slash the site of the bite across and across". "More blood the better!" "Suck it!"

"These centipedes.' 'Some of 'em ten inches long.' If one starts running up your arm don't knock it down: hit it's arse end." "If you knock it down it's legs will break off under your skin and fester!" Then lots of jolly advice about water sterilisation and what happens if you do not "If the Japs get you, play weak and escape within the first three days while you have the strength" "Always take your shoes & socks to bed; scorpions love shoes." Shoes? What did he mean; shoes? We were issued with marching boots which we always wore on ops. At least they did not fall to pieces so quickly in the 'jung'. Leeches were also a problem. They just stuck themselves to the underside of a leaf and transferred to the next animal to come along. There were several types of 'leech stick' which, applied to the rear end of a leech will make it let go. Salt, silver nitrate, tobacco etc: In emergency just chew a cigarette and apply.

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One item in the emergency kit that may interest is the 'Dinghy knife'. Every Spitfire or Hurricane pilot carried a "K type" dinghy strapped to his parachute. It was just big enough to take one man and was inflated by a small compressed air cylinder. There was a problem with this. Occasionally; very occasionally, on a very bad day the cylinder could operate without due cause. In this case the dinghy would inflate and take the line of least resistance which was between the pilots knees where it would expand, pushing the control column forwards which, of course, put the aircraft into a dive. The pilot would then have to take immediate action to puncture the dinghy. In my Spitfire days we had taken one of the pins that held the ammunition carrier and sharpened the end of it. So one ended up with a thing like a flat metal skewer about 12cm long. It would then be thrust into the collar until required when it could be pulled out and thrust into the expanding dinghy taking car not to puncture any delicate equipment in the area. A simple device and far better than the issue knife.

In fact we used our imagination with the kit supplied. For example the Machete with which we were supposed to hack our way through the jungle would have done credit to a bargain basement. I was immediately determined to get to Calcutta as soon as possible and buy a decent Kukri. My Weskit comprised a row jungle green canvas pockets with canvas straps over the shoulder to keep them just above Kukri and revolver level. The straps had pockets sewn in down the front to take 35mm film canisters to carry small gear such as fish hooks, line etc. There were a pair of tapes to tie in the front for quick release.

The most important piece of equipment was the humble French letter or condom (whatever has that poor French town of that name done to deserve it?) They were absolutely invaluable. We kept our wrist watches, matches, pills, water sterilizing tablets --- everything in them. To top all of our invaluable information there was even a chap who taught us how to play the game of 'cat's cradle'. Why? Because if we were shot down or made an unscheduled descent into the jungle we would stand a better chance if we had some way of communicating with the natives of the locality. The Burmese (it seems) are adept at 'cat's cradle' and the powers that be opined that if possible we should engage the children of the village by a demonstration, on the grounds that, if he can make the kids like him he cannot be all bad.

 

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Edward Sparkes 1998-2002