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Shantaram's Bungalow

Edward at Shataram's
At Shantaram's

It was a new station for me. No one to be seen of the old gang. Everyone I asked after was on leave and I was on three weeks leave as of then! I wasted no time. I went to Poona. Sneh was sweetness itself. There was a permanent arrangement that any officer of the squadron would drop in if in the area and let her know how things were. The news that I was under close arrest are not likely to gladden a girl's heart but she shrewdly guessed that "it had something to do with India". As I did my best to explain she quite unfairly blamed Chrish. True, that but for him, it would not have happened. But..

I was dragged in to see Baiji (her mother) and almost as quickly dragged out again. We hardly had time to exchange 'raised eyebrows'. Up to the roof apartment where it seemed that every horizontal surface was covered with 'gifts' for me. In the main, consisting of two grey silk suits in heavy hand spun, hand woven silk and six silk shirts similarly made. One great difference in the build of the average European and his comparatively flat Indian counterpart is in the chest and I have always had a deep chest. One of the suits was hopelessly small but it was possible to button the other. She had solved her problem in her own style. She had stood in a shop doorway in Bombay until she saw a British service man who looked more or less right and asked him if he would mind being measured. Doubtless he would have received a shirt or similar for his trouble and a bizarre tale to tell. When it was made she was quite sure that it would not fit so she repeated the exercise.

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Hence, two suits, one of which just vanished. Her generosity was phenomenal. I have mentioned before how the tailors, sari sellers and so on swindled her unashamedly. I had mentioned it so many times to her but she merely replied that they have a hard enough life and that she paid 'with her eyes open'. Quite apart from the meagre RAF pay, I had only seen R.A.F. stations since leaving Kjaukpiu and I had not yet bought her anything. She quite understood the situation and was uncomplaining. Uncomplaining that is until I gave her a small sachet of reproductions of the Indian artist Amrita Sher-Gil. whose art was in some aspects influenced by Gaugin with his imaginative use of areas of colour. I had bought it in Calcutta on my way back from leave and since she liked Gaugin my feeling was that she would appreciate his influence. She went utterly berserk, pulled the prints out of the folder, rushed out on to the terrace and flung them to the four winds.

Some landed in the garden and some were blown into the road. "She had done everything for me and what had I done for her?' 'Brought into the house works of another woman.' 'If I preferred her, why didn't I go and live with her?" (I did not know it at the time but Malcolm Muggeridge and A. Sher-Gil were lovers!) From previous experience I knew that any attempt to explain could only exacerbate the situation and gathered up what I could from outside just as it came on to rain.

The Bride's Toilet
The Bride's Toilet
Amrita Sher-Gil

She was quite out of control of her feelings and I had become almost inured to tantrums of this sort. We had a particularly bad time when I joined the squadron. She felt that I was trying to kill myself then rather than be with her. Life, was to put it very simply so hectic that there were plenty of times when she threatened to leave that I was sorely tempted to say "Go ahead!"

Click here to view the ten prints by A. Sher-Gil and an introduction by Karl Khandalavala

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However we both knew full well that we were still desperately in love. What was happening now was far more serious. The war in Europe was finished, my old squadron was being completely reorganised and there was the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel of 'our' war. She was feeling insecure again but my own future too was shrouded in insecurity. My health at this time was poor which did not help matters and having been under completely unjustified close arrest was hardly likely to raise self esteem. I did not give my parents any hint that Sneh and I sometimes had our problems. My sister made no effort to hide her feelings regarding Sneh and myself. She was anti on all fronts and I was aware that she was firing the bullets that my mother was handing to her. My mother was keeping herself in very low profile although when I asked her if she could get hard-to-get anti perspirant for Sneh she responded that she was surprised that so perfect a person would need such a thing. I remember at the time that I pointed out that a movie set was hardly bearable on a hot day with studio lights focused on the actors like so many electric fires.

I naturally tried to keep family tensions 'on the back Burner'. Sneh, for her part, did what she could to build bridges as is evident from the following letter that she sent to my mother at this time.

"Poona 4 31st May '45

My Dear Mrs Sparkes, We haven't heard from you for some time now and are anxiously awaiting news. Sparkie arrived here on 20th May on 21 days leave. He looked then far from well and I felt a huge lump of pain looking at him. I had seen two other boys of his squadron a few days before he arrived. They looked normal and well. I had been hoping it would be the same with him. I had of course no idea that he had stayed back a month more (during which I had no news of him) to go through an experience (nothing to do with his work) because of the folly of another man, which was to leave him tired, unhappy, his faith shaken. You must trust me that this had nothing to do with flying or anything connected with flying. And you must also believe me that he is better now than I have ever seen him since he set foot in India. As a matter of fact my one worry is that no girl falls for your handsome, lively and cheerful son. He has almost completely got over what he has been through. He is keeping very fit, happy and well. I can swear that on my honour.

I shall be finishing "Din Raat" today. Then we will have a week more. I intend accompanying him to Trichinopoly and stay there for a month at least as I shan't have any obligations for a while. This is a season of mango fruits. We get some very beautiful fruit and have it for breakfast, lunch, dinner and otherwise. Unfortunately Sparkie likes it as much as I do so I have to keep a constant eye on my share. We have been eating the fruit for nearly a month now. What a pity we couldn't send it to England. Who knows, we might grow it at 'Timbers'!

Sparkie tells me that Valerie isn't very happy and has been restlessly searching for peace. He tells me that he felt very annoyed and wrote a few stinkers to her. I have blamed him for writing such letters when what was needed really was understanding and sympathy (without pity). I believe, it happens sometimes in the lives of all of us that we search in desperation for peace and fullness and not always do we find the right clue.

At such times only ones best friends and well wishers can save us by making us feel less lonely and alone. I understand thoroughly what the poor girl is going through. Times have been very difficult for all of you. The strain of war, more than anything, has set up that restlessness in young and old minds alike which starts them on to a wrong track. As other things return to normal, she too may find calm. Very soon she may find a man sincerely and deeply in love with her and added to that comfort and security. When she meets her brother she and we will have nothing to worry about? Actually Sparkie's letters have been bitter (I hadn't the chance to read them, they would never have been sent.) because he loves and respects her very much.

What a relief it must be for you to have the blackout lifted up. Of course, other things couldn't have changed much. God alone knows when the war here will end for then alone we will know the true meaning of a Victory Day.

My fondest love to Graham, Valerie,
loving regards to you and Mr Sparkes.

Affly: yours "Sneh"

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This letter, sent with the best of intentions, was to allay a mother's fears but there were a few points that would set alarm bells ringing in the 'old homestead'. "Of course, other things couldn't have changed much." Hardly likely to be greeted with joy by the family living on the South Coast!

I returned to my unit by train having been issued with a travel warrant. I was still far from well and our quarrels that often broke out from ' a clear blue sky' were worrying me. At major stations food sellers sold hot curries etc: from their trolleys. Leaves stitched into bowls were filled with lightening speed and exchanged for very reasonable money. The trick was to get it inside the carriage before the circling kites (Shite hawks to the troops) could dive and grab what they could, splashing everyone with the scalding and often highly coloured food. It was the fact that I no longer laughed that alerted me that I had better 'pull myself together'.

I reported to the adjutant and was told that the C.O. wanted to see me as soon as I arrived. Knocking at the door a familiar voice said "Come". Across the desk was "Jonesey", an officer who had joined us about six months before, who was junior to me and had now 'leapfrogged' to becoming my commanding officer. He was as obviously embarrassed as I was, shrugged his shoulders and said "Things have changed." Indeed they had. We exchanged stories and talked about the way the squadron was changing. Just as I was about to leave he said "There is a nasty surprise for you." The last thing the old C.O. had done was to write an adverse report on me. He passed it across the desk to me. It was almost beyond belief. No wonder that he did not have the guts to face me with it himself.

In it I was accused of taking on more departments than I could handle and then deserting them etc: etc: It was a damning report on a useless officer. Chrish and I had indeed taken over many squadron duties and when we were under close arrest had wondered what was happening to our headless departments. How on earth could we run them from close arrest? We were held incommunicado; we could not even ask our 'escort' anything about the squadron at all. I was proud of my squadron and would have laid down my life for its honour. My attitude to authority was evident for all to see but my efficiency had never been questioned, in fact I had so often been congratulated by the C.O. himself.

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Jonesey shrugged. "Nothing to do with me". Within the last few years I have received from R.A.F. Records my full service record. There is no record of an adverse report! My feelings as I turned in that night were of utter betrayal in the face of completely loyal service.

As I had come through the city, a familiar face was plastered over every surface from hoardings to telegraph poles: "Josef Lampkin Concert Violinist was to give a recital 14th September 1945". People in the public eye often spend a lonely life travelling from hotel to hotel preyed upon by autograph hunters, hangers on etc: When they chance to meet another 'notable' they tend to latch on. This is largely in self-defence in that one is less likely to be approached by members of the public if one is seen in the company of friends. It was in this manner that Sneh and I had become friends with Josef in Allahabad where he was giving a recital, because we were living in the same hotel. He was good company and I was determined to see him. The only contact that I had was the knowledge that he was good friends with the famous Indian dancer Ram Gopal whom he had probably met in the same way as he did Sneh and me.

Immediately after break fast I hailed the first taxi asked if he knew where Ram Gopal lived. "Certainly Sir!" so we set off for what was to become one of the most bizarre couple of weeks in my life.

 

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Edward Sparkes 1998-2002