Buying a Kukri
The following is an extract from my letter home 15/12/44:-
The allusions to poetry were, of course, to tell my parents my bearings and distance from Calcutta! (This, as was explained in a previous mumble, enabled my parents to compare the first line numbers in the Oxford Book of English Verse.)
Crishna was slight and delicately built, dark and by nature an Elizabethan. I always had the feeling that he was made to wear lace cuffs and to keep a lace handkerchief tucked into his sleeve, hand quick to the hilt of his rapier. His true weapon was his wit which seemed immediately to probe an opponent's defences. He was formidably well read, with an apt phrase for everything. He affected a tiny moustache similar to that of Ronald Coleman, a film hero of the time. His contempt for authority matched my own but he was far more adept than I could ever be. He always accepted orders with a slight (was it contemptuous?) smile that infuriated but I never heard him referred to as a 'black bastard'. Racial prejudice was rife throughout all ranks. An airman whom only a mother could love, would so refer to any Indian who so much as caught his eye.
Our 'basha' was a hut constructed entirely from bamboo, frame, roof, everything. The outer door and walls were framed bamboo matting. The door ran in bamboo runners, the inner door swung on 'hinges' made from strips of bamboo. It is so right. It could be dangerous stuff for the uninitiated, having to be cut at exactly the right angle. Too acute and the Panga, Machete, Kukri or whatever would glance off, seeming to gain energy to endanger, usually, the knee or shin. Too close to the right angle and all of the power seemed to be returned twofold, wrenching the wrist wickedly. The exact angle and the fibres parted as though welcoming the cut.
I was missing Mujid. Crishna was the only officer to keep his bearer, an old family retainer although it was not to be long before he too was sent back. He took on my chores as well as Chrish's. As luck would have it I suddenly went down with an almighty cold in the head. The sort of flying that was the norm for us with it's rapid changes of altitude meant that I was grounded so I was determined to sweat it out as soon as possible and remained in bed. I have alas, forgotten the name of that wonderful old servant but he fussed around to make me as comfortable as he could.
He prepared a Hookah or Hubble bubble pipe for me. They comprise an outer pot, jar or other receptacle which is airtight but for the neck and a long tube connected to a mouthpiece. This is part filled with water, usually scented with rosewater. Into this is placed the tobacco bowl with an extension that reaches below water level. By drawing on the mouthpiece, the smoke of the tobacco is drawn through the water giving a delightfully cool smoke. My hookah was now prepared by a true artist.
The bowl was large. First of all small pellets of cow dung that had been reduced to charcoal half filled the space on which was placed a thin ceramic wafer and finally a wad rather of moist tobacco. In true Indian fashion he placed the mouthpiece between the two middle fingers of his right hand, made a fist and by puffing through the gap between forefinger and thumb soon had the charcoal glowing. In the same manner a cigarette can be smoked by several people and when the ash becomes too long it is removed by just snapping the fingers. He handed me the mouthpiece and bowed himself out. I rarely smoked but could not resist the experience and was most agreeably surprised. This, was true luxury.
The old man returned to see that all was well and seeming to be pleased to see me enjoying the smoke he left. I watched him go towards the servant's quarters and scraped some "Vick's Vapour Rub" onto the tobacco. I can thoroughly recommend this practice to anyone with a bunged up nose. I swear that the menthol even kept the sweating down. Chrish had told the Doc of my being laid low so the latter soon turned up. He thoroughly approved of my self administered treatment and agreed to sign me off flying for the next three days. Perfect. The following day I managed to wangle a trip to Calcutta.
I soon found the Kukri Wallah in the market but try as I might he would only produce the 'souvenir' type of Kukri. All bright metal, dangling silk tassels etc: My unavailing efforts to get what I wanted had attracted a passing R.A.F. officer and we fell into conversation. It was no use. My poor Urdu had convinced the man that I was looking for a trinket. There was no doubt that this was the stall that I was told to find and I was sure that if he could not help me that I would never get my Kukri this side of Nepal.
It so happened that the next stand in the market sold nothing but hookahs, so I waved the Kukri Wallah away and explained the whole process to my new found friend and in doing so bought a small bag of the pellets and a ceramic disc, all of which cost me a few annas. The man sold hookahs of every shape and size from huge devices with more than one mouthpiece snaking away from them to the common simple coconut with hole instead of a mouthpiece. My new friend was impressed no end but needless to say I did not reveal that my apparent vast knowledge of hookahs had been gained in the last day or so.
As we made to walk away the kukri wallah approached me and said "You want kukri sahib?" I said "Kukri?" scornfully. He lowered his head, raised his hands and said "No Sahib, pukkha kukri". He then produced exactly what I had been trying to buy. A plain, fully forged, perfectly balanced kukri. I swung it a few times and it felt good so I asked him for the bar. He had been expecting it and produced a mild steel bar just over half an inch square and a foot long with sharp cuts all over it. I swung and brought the blade down on it with all my strength. There was just one more cut and the edge of the blade was unmarked. I had my kukri and it had cost no more than I had been asked for the imitations.
Smiles all round. As we walked away my companion asked the inevitable. What was the cut out near the hilt, he had heard that it was a sight! It is no more or less than a drip to prevent blood from making the handle slippery and the two "skinning knives"? They are, in fact, primitive sharpeners.They are held at an angle and the blade drawn through to remove any nicks, in the same manner as some domestic knives are drawn through the sharpener.
Since I had been written out of flying schedules no one even realised that I had been to Calcutta, but sadly Chrish's old retainer had been sent home. I had so wanted to tell him of how he had helped me. From then on down along the Arakan we recruited locals as 'bearers'. They were often quite young and looking into their bland smooth features the thought could never be far away that those expressionless eyes had often looked into the faces of the men that we were now fighting.
The men of the Arakan were, by and large, thin of hips and effete. They would squat together in complete indolence, seeming never to work or contribute to the harvest. The women, on the other hand, were often quite beautiful. It was as though nature had decided that they were too inbred and was attempting to enlarge the gene pool by attracting males from outside the community. The males had a an instinctive defence. By custom the breasts were flattened by a tight white garment held up by straps over the shoulders and it is usually the men who decide on tradition. When the women became old and skinny their useless withered dugs with their dark nipples swung back and forth below the hem. It may well have been a silent protest.
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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002