Sneh was arriving on the next train and we were to live together 'somewhere in the city' for a month. Jonesey, my new C.O. was well aware that we were looking for a bungalow to rent for the period and raised no objection. Although I had not yet flown one, a full complement of Spitfire VIIIs was sitting on the apron ready for the squadron conversion from our dear old Hurrybirds.
I stood well back waiting for the first flush of passengers to leave the train. (We usually kept a very low profile for as long as possible in a city where she was not known to retain as much privacy as possible.) As soon as she appeared at the window I took a couple of porters and met her but she had unusually brought very little luggage with her. As usual we adopted the strict Indian protocol of the time and greeted with polite pleasure without touching. Her first question of course was "What had I done about renting?" It had proved difficult but we were booked in to the main hotel for three nights to make final arrangements. As we stood at one end of the desk booking in I was amazed to see my little W.A.A.F. officer of the boat from England at the other end booking out. She caught my eye and sized up the situation instantly. Her greeting showed the discretion that she had always shown. A simple "Hello" of recognition, a smile and no more. Just as we had parted on the boat, unable even to exchange a few words we just smiled and parted: This time for the last time.
As we walked to the lift, porters in tow, she murmured in my ear "You have slept with that girl!" I was aghast and did not answer. Was I so transparent? As soon as we were alone she kissed me and repeated, "You slept with that girl!" I countered that she and her two companions were the only women on the boat among officers and men of all services and that this was the first time I had seen her since landing in India. "Don't worry, I believe you Sparkie but you have slept with her. ''We women know these things."
Where was the furious outburst of jealous rage that so often consumed her? The matter was never mentioned again but the enigma remains.
I entered just as Ram raised his hand and said "I could slap you!" I pushed her behind me. Ram raised himself to his full height and adopted his "Godlike" Image. His eyes were opened to their fullest, almost circular and he fluttered his eyeballs in their sockets. This continued for some moments until he turned furiously and left the room. I had seen him do this before but only as a 'Stage God'. He had the most extraordinary control of his body and this ability to "wobble" his eye balls was only one aspect.
On the first day we met he asked me what others called me. I replied that 'Sparky' or just 'Sparkes' was usually the name used by my friends but he was more interested in how I was addressed in the family and from then on he used my Christian name. I thanked him for his generosity as a host and asked him if I may send a donation to the temple of Madura. He replied that it was not necessary but I sent it in his name. Just as I was leaving he gave me a small package saying that it was a little memento of my stay. I was wearing a bush jacket with its large side pockets and he indicated that I should put it there. At this he put his finger to his lips and without mentioning Sneh indicated that the contents be kept secret from her. I did not see him again until he came to perform in England. The packet contained the series of photographs of that accompany this and the previous "Mumble."
Our search for accommodation was rewarded when we settled on a small house in the middle of the city. It offered us the opportunity of living upstairs and leaving the downstairs area vacant as we only needed it for the month. Sneh proved to be an excellent 'nest builder' and we had a home in no time. The Indian caste system has many disadvantages, dividing society into rigid divisions. The ultimate 'Trades Union' organisation from birth to death so that a complete assembly of servants was assembled in no time. Servants are usually drawn from the Sudras, lowest of all castes and the lowest of these is the sweeper. There are the dhobis who do nothing but laundry, the bheestis who do nothing but carry water etc: etc: A living shame on an unchanging society. Ghandi was against the caste system and renamed the Sudras 'Harijans' which means 'The Elect of God' but the stigma remains. The most unusual anomaly in this is that the best cooks are invariably Brahmins, the highest, priestly caste and usually the employers are of a lower caste. This can cause complications in the kitchen but the lady of the house 'knows her place' and interferes at her peril.
With an eye to the temporary nature of our stay Sneh insisted that we did not invest in a complete 'Batterie de Cuisine' but bought a most extraordinary travelling model which was made of aluminium and comprised saucepans of various sizes, cups, plates, curry bowls, trays (thalis) etc: all one could wish, all packing up into a cylinder for transport. I looked at it and shuddered at the thought of cooking in the thin aluminium. As usual the shopkeeper was eating out of her hand and when she mentioned the difficulty of buying some provisions he sent a message to his home and we were given far more than we could use in the time we were to be there. Not only that but he refused to accept any payment. It was an honour to serve her etc: etc:
His wife called on Sneh that evening. "Would she consider talking to the senior classes at a local school." Our hope of anonymity for Sneh was dashed. Of course we were stupid to think that we really had any chance of that but "hope springs eternal in the human breast". Our only hope was to fill our calendar so that there was no free time. We often entertained squadron members for an evening meal and the C.O. was a frequent visitor. Then she was asked to appear at a squadron concert to be given by the Indian members. We no longer had any free time! She had, however started to knit a sweater for me. It was nevertheless a surprise to come home from daily squadron duties to find her sitting cross legged on a rug plumb in the middle of the main downstairs room. I naturally expressed surprise and said that surely she need not work away as she was on my sweater. She answered "I am not knitting it for you, it is for me."
I was not kept waiting for long. "You have been writing to women." The penny dropped. I had received no mail for several weeks and I had asked the mail office to send it to me at the house if and when it arrived so all of the mail that had been chasing me from Burma had arrived. It was all perfectly innocent but not in her eyes. Everything had been opened and where any female other than my mother had ended the letter "with love" as most of them were, they were angrily underlined in red lipstick. I was furious but she was in no mood to listen. She then announced that she had answered them all and told them never to contact me again. "WITH LOVE!' , no woman is going to write to my Sparky 'with love'! If she had only engaged her thinking brain. There were times when logic just vanished through the window. Strangely enough her fury evaporated. She had crushed those ghosts where all conspired to lure her man. She had slain them!
I realised the gulf between our understanding was not easily to be bridged. The unfairness with which Chrishna, David and myself had been treated had proved to be demoralising. They, at least, were still together and could discuss it. Quite apart from that I was ill. With what? I had no idea. I had avoided the skin complaints but in common with many of us there was the constant diarrhoea that was so debilitating, Burma had been hard on us all. Somewhere, somehow, I was morally and mentally exhausted.
It was wonderful to be back on Spitfires again and all was forgotten in the sheer joy of flight. The lightness of the controls, the instant response and the urgent power of the new Series 63 Merlins opened ever more horizons. However my left eye was closing before the final descent and blissful touchdown. On removing my helmet, the skin on the forehead almost immediately became swollen to match my left cheek until that eye was completely closed. The M.O. gave me an injection of adrenalin and the raised blains and swelling rapidly subsided. I very stupidly asked him not to report it and to my surprise he agreed on the condition that I reported any further occurrence to him. I said nothing of it to Sneh and we settled back into our happy domestic life.
Next: - Squadron Farewell
Previous: - Ram Gopal
Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002