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Invalided Home

 

There were several reasons that I chose to return to Bombay by train instead of cadging a lift by air. I had a travel warrant already made out, I had to book in to Worli Distribution Centre, I had to take my entire kit but mainly because events had left me tired out and I needed time to think. The stimulation of operations was over and although many pilots felt a sense of relief, I had no such feelings. I craved operational flying and had become completely addicted. My prop that had supported me for so long had gone. My fellow pilots had looked upon me as impregnable to any emotion and so I seemed to be but ops, to me, had become a drug.

The magnificent Indian Railway system, bequeathed to India by the British to be run by Anglo Indians trundled me westwards, thinking. The war was over, virtually days before and I was homeless. India had deprived me of any 'colonial innocence'. Living as an "Indian" within a day of landing, the scales had dropped from my eyes. We, the British, had no moral right to hold an entire continent in thraldom. We had educated some of the inhabitants to the point where they would make good civil servant clerks but no further. We had flattered the Maharajas and indulged their excesses as far as it suited us.

Ghandi once said "If we were to be conquered, thank God that it was by the British." That did not excuse the behaviour of the soldiery for whom the boot and the universal epithet of "Black Bastard" solved everything. We may try to excuse our fellow countrymen in their lack of culture/education as no fault of theirs but their racial hatred hid their own insecurities. In my own squadron the Indian Officers were often referred to as "Black Bastards" when their standards of education and culture were aeons ahead of their accusers.

I needed time to think! I had to remember that Sneh, when she had seen her father for the first time since she was a child said "But he has become so dark Sparkie!" Strange, that she, (not of the almighty Caucasians) should say that! Another BUT, why in my letters home, did I mention that Sneh was lighter in skin that many southern Europeans? Are we all racists? Do we reject the unfamiliar? This was all crazy. Sneh had, at first rejected ballroom dancing as decadent. An excuse for 'social fondling'. Later, to my surprise she had asked me to teach her the steps of the dances of the period, the waltz, the Fox trot, etc:

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The joke is, that although we danced together in our home, with great pleasure, I felt that she was deserting the roots of her Hindu culture. In retrospect, there is no doubt that my own poor showing on the dance floor was the true reason. I was a hopeless ballroom dancer but she had a wonderful sense of rhythm which is flattering to any dancing partner.

Then there was the problem of what I was going to say to 'Baiji' (her mother) when I returned to Poona from Worli? Sneh and I had endlessly discussed how I would return to England and that she would follow later and after she had been there some time we would be in a better position to decide our future. To explain all this to Baiji would be more difficult. I anticipated that she would not be keen on her daughter 'in unknown parts,' leaving her alone in India.

My arrival in Worli, in the northern reaches of Bombay reminded me of the horror that I felt on arrival. These transit camps seemed sucked dry by each person who passed through leaving them as barren of character as a desert. That is unkind to deserts because each desert has its own character. Owing to the uncertainty of my embarkation date I was not going to be able to be away from Bombay for many days at a time and I was lucky to get a "48" (two days leave). First my tin trunk had to be repainted with my rank and destination and a yellow circle on which was a red cross to indicate that I was being invalided home. I was able to get our old friend Abbas to look after all this only leaving a duffel bag to represent me at Worli. I was all too aware of how effects disappeared.

Sneh did not meet me at the station when I arrived in Poona. This was a ploy to avoid her having to face the inevitable crowd that would follow her. She sometimes managed to get the stationmaster to hide her but, India was a continent simmering with the implication that independence from England was only being held up by a reluctant British government. Poona and Bombay were particularly vulnerable to the influence of activists as Bombay was the main port of connection to "The Empire" and Poona had been the garrison city just over the Western Ghats at the entrance to the great central plain. All this made our position particularly vulnerable as Sneh was the darling of the Maharastrians and we were in the heartland of Maharastra.

She met me on my arrival at Shantaram's Bungalow. It seemed that she had been pestered by students from 'her' university regarding rumours that I had been arrested because of her and was on the point of being shipped back to England. Insignificant cogs that we were, there was a case to be answered. When she explained that we had both been invited to dispel the rumour to the students I smelt a rat, believing this to be yet another ploy for them all to meet her but she was insistent that we had to go.

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This was all getting out of hand. For me to appear to address a gang of students as an R.A.F. officer was out of the question. Sneh was adamant that I dress in dhoti and kurta. It seemed to be the only way out and we agreed to go the following night. I was never completely at ease in a dhoti. Because it was just a length of white cotton worn wrapped round the body and between the legs. I always had the feeling that it could all descend to my ankles and the kurta was so sheer as to be rather transparent.

Thus, we found ourselves on stage as though about to debate. The 'Chairman' set out the rumours and asked me to reply. I lied that we had been stopped from flying because we were engaged on other duties and there was no truth in my being forcibly repatriated to England. I told them that my aged father was very ill and had asked to see me so I had been granted leave to see him. That excuse I had cobbled together from the countless pleas for home leave I was requested in the squadron. (I was once completely fooled by a sergeant who was about to get a severe reprimand from me for a flagrant misdemeanour, I had found him in tears holding a letter which he said contained the news that his baby son was dead.) They had all sounded so bizarre when I had first heard such incredible lies. There was a neat "Indianness" about them and my explanation was accepted without question. The Chairman then rose and said how pleased he was that the rumours were untrue and perhaps Sneh would honour them with a song!

The cat was out of the bag but Sneh grabbed with both hands and stuffed it back by saying that as I was leaving for weeks, perhaps months, she was in no mood for singing so would they excuse her. Honour satisfied all round we were both offered sympathy and they hoped that my father would get better. I felt guilty for my lie about my father's health and wondered if the similar liars from whom I had lifted the idea shared my guilt. Sneh had been completely right regarding my dress. Acceptance was absolute.

The following day we went to Bombay, I to see what was going on at Worli, she booked us into the Taj Mahal Hotel. There was nothing for it but for me to return to the transit camp when embarkation was imminent and she would return to Poona. No tearful farewells at the dockside; I would be swallowed up into finding sleeping quarters, sorting out meal times and the countless things one had to arrange. Sneh had booked us into a suite of three rooms on the first floor. They were rather sparsely furnished, inevitably being separated by folding doors with bolts and a simple swinging hasp through which one inserted a padlock. The final room was to be our bedroom.

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Sneh surveyed the scene with her usual suspicion and she was soon going round each room with an insecticide 'puffer', seeking out every hole in the cane seats or any crack in which an insect could hide. Hindus seem to harbour a deep suspicion of anything that may contaminate them. All most laudable and rather obvious when faced with a battery of cutlery at table. Each item is taken and thoroughly wiped on the table cloth to clean it before being used. I only hoped that she would be more trustful in an English home!

We spent our days there as tourists but tourists who had no idea of how long the holiday would last. Each morning I would phone Worli for any news and we would go out for the day. On the penultimate day we returned in the evening, collected the key and went to the lift. It quickly filled and just as Sneh went in the attendant stepped in front of her, raised his hand and asked me to take the next lift. It arrived almost immediately and I got in followed by a lady who asked for a floor above ours. Sneh was waiting as the doors opened but there was no welcome. She immediately went into a tirade that I had planned to leave her so that I could travel up with the sole occupant. As in all similar episodes, there was no warning. All reason left her. It was no use my saying that I could not even say what the lady looked like. It had all happened so many times before but I was tired, ill and felt defenceless. If I could I would have cried. She accused me of every sin in the book, raked over endless failures on my part, the rant went on and on until she went into the bedroom.

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As usual I left her to get over it which sometimes ended with her asleep but a strange sound brought me to the bedroom where she was sitting on the bed with panic in her eyes which were bulging. There was a silk scarf round her neck so tight that the flesh was almost hiding it. The knot was tiny and immovable. I dashed to the door only to find the corridor empty. Back to her, she was clawing at her throat: I too tried to get my fingers inside the scarf but could not. There was a pair of scissors on the dressing table. I flung her on her face which by now was purple and just managed to slide one blade between the back of her neck and the scarf and turned it ninety degrees. It only chewed at the silk but I took care at the next cut and the scarf burst from her throat. She just looked at me with huge terrified eyes, great dry coughs and deep deep breaths. Breaths that seemed to be searching the depths of her lungs before lurching into yet more quick breaths. As her breathing became more normal she sought my hand. "I'm sorry". Sorry? That meant nothing any more. My strength was utterly spent. I was empty.

She ordered tea and when it came she suddenly said "I had better come with you to collect your stuff from Abbas, take you to Worli and go on to Poona." If I answered at all it must have been in agreement. Then she suddenly said "Come on.' 'If we hurry we can catch the tea dance". I had no further recollection until she was in my arms, as light as a feather, her eyes bright and happy. Round her neck, hiding a livid scar was a diaphanous scarf. Her gaiety was infectious, she was happy. Happy!

The following day we went to Abbas, picked up my trunk and as we said our farewells, we laughed at how I was leaving on the morrow and how we had sat in this room almost as soon as I had landed. So much had happened. Abbas was a lovely man and was worried that I looked so ill. I reminded him that I had survived much since that day. I clasped him in my arms in farewell as a brother, as one who had suffered his own private misery with Sneh but I was never to tell him (or her) that I knew.

Sneh dropped me at the gates of Worli with my tin trunk. She kissed me softly in the taxi saying, "That is for all of our kisses.' 'Now go; quickly." I did not even see her as the taxi turned and she was gone.

 

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Edward Sparkes 1998-2002