The Chapter Ends
The Hall at "Timbers"
As with everything Sneh did, there was little build up. It started with an enigmatic comment in a letter that indicated that she was thinking of coming to England followed by a telegram giving the time of her arrival at Heathrow.
Josef it seemed had slipped seamlessly into and out of my place and our letters had become less personal as time went on until they had ceased altogether. Each of our rows had slowly and secretly eroded my infatuation and each reconciliation had taken me longer to accept the status quo. The last terrible experience when she had so nearly died could well have been an attempt to frighten me that had gone wrong. It left me staring into the void, all emotion exhausted. I had no reaction when Josef re-entered her life. I only wished her well. She deserved to be happy. She was so extravagantly generous that I feared for her.
My mother asked where she would sleep and I offered my own room, saying that I would use a double room that had originally been built as servants' quarters. There was an audible sigh of relief that I had not suggested my absent sister's room that was 'en suite'. When she appeared from customs she looked tired from the flight and the five and a half hour time difference. Her supreme confidence seemed temporarily to have deserted her and her bobbed hair was plastered down with rose scented coconut oil. This puzzled me because I knew that she hated it. I asked her about it and she told me that she had been helped by an Indian couple who insisted that she tried it.
As soon as we got into the car I asked her how everyone was at home. Her reaction completely caught me off guard. Her eyes were almost those of a frightened animal as she turned to face me. "Baiji (her mother) has betrayed me." I was aghast at the statement and said that surely there was some mistake but she fiercely added "She has.' 'She has died and left me!" Then followed one of the tirades that I knew all too well. I suddenly felt tired. As we drew in to Timbers all was in darkness. I gave her a milk drink and took her to her room, staying behind to pour myself a stiff Scotch.
By the morning she joined the family for breakfast having showered, washed her hair and regained her confidence. She greeted my father and mother affectionately and my parents responded, my father excusing himself to go to the office. So far, so good and I left her with my mother until lunchtime. My father was behaving with slightly elaborate courtesy. She appeared to be perfectly happy and when I took her to Worthing she broke from her chrysalis; once more the Star. I was surprised to see the usually uninterested British public returning her ever so slightly imperious smile and inclination of the head, looking in her sari like some sunny flower in tired old England. People would touch my arm and ask, "Who is she?"
How different from the time when we begged the magistrate in Hyderabad Sind to marry us a few years ago. I asked her to give me a some days to think about it during which time I consulted the family solicitor. I can see dear old Harry Grey now. Adams Apple firmly framed within the arms of his starched wing collar as he looked at me with amazement. "Oh! No! I must advise you against this,' 'In the first place you would be breaking the law". His flow of words soon left me in no doubt that it could have disastrous results. In the first place it would appear as an effort for her to gain British citizenship. Of course I could understand Sneh. She wanted a divorce to prove that she was married. I was well and truly on the horns of a dilemma. She had given me so much so freely. She had seen to it that the press knew that she was going to England and she told me of one report that she was going with hope in her heart and 'The Bhagvad Gita' (Hindu holy book) in her handbag.
The gutter press in England is bad enough but it's Indian equivalent is many degrees worse. Sneh had no intention whatsoever in living in England so I asked her why she could not return and tell the papers that she was divorced but for reasons best known to herself she did not think this to be a good idea. It was at about this time that she said that she might benefit from a talk to Dr Watt and I gave her his address with some foreboding but suggested that she discussed the subject of her mother's 'treachery' as she now called it. On her return she adamantly refused to discuss any subject concerning her visit. Perhaps she was unsatisfied by his attitude to her feelings regarding her mother or did she fail to get him to talk about my time with him? She did, however, ask me to take her to the station a few times and mentioned that she wanted to go to Brighton. These visits were a blessing to me because they gave me time to get on with my work.
Her return flight to India had allowed her six weeks in England but it was plain that the arguments within the family were becoming more personal and more frequent. Sneh appeared to try to pour oil on troubled waters and sought long conversations with each member of the household but it became evident that a different song was being sung to each of us. Then came a rare telephone call from Dr Watt. I answered it.
In a voice that was so measured and controlled that it betrayed how close he was to an explosion he explained that owing to her 'closeness' to Sneh he had been forced to dismiss his secretary. He obviously held me in no way responsible. It was a bombshell. My parents immediately left for Bournemouth telling me that they would return when Sneh had departed. She became sweetness itself and sympathised with me in that I had such a difficult relationship with my parents.
One evening I invited Luther Roberts, an artist and a very dear friend to dinner. Sneh knew and liked him so we looked forward to the evening. In spite of her objection to alcohol we drank wine as usual, which must have annoyed her that night because she deliberately disrupted every conversation. After the meal was over I said that if she had a drink herself she could well enjoy it and to our surprise said, "All right, I would like a gin and tonic." I made her a very weak one in a large glass and we continued talking. She, however, continued to disrupt however the subject was steered to include her interests and then she started to act as though she was drunk although her alcohol intake was less than a quarter of a glass of a half strength drink.
Her drunkenness impression included putting the opposite side of the glass to her lips to drink and a series of clumsy actions that would not fool anyone. I was particularly annoyed because she was fully aware of her uncle whom she employed at Shantaram's Bungalow and was a benign but complete alcoholic. She suddenly said that she was going to bed, which brought our wishes for a good night's sleep and we listened as she climbed the stairs. Suddenly there was the thump of a falling body. I ran upstairs and found her face down on the landing. I turned her onto her back and called Luther. We each took an arm and a leg and put her on her bed.
I drove Luther home. He murmured "Enchanting creature!' 'Enchanting creature!"
"Yes Luther but impossible." "Yes! Enchanting but impossible!" he replied.
I took the long way home, the better to ponder.
Indians have a pet name within the family. My squadron friend Chrishna's was 'Biblo' and I was flattered when he signed his letters thus because it indicated that he regarded me as within his most intimate circle. Sneh's mother's was 'Bhaiji', an affectionate diminutive of 'Lady'. Sneh's was 'Baby'. I thought long about this lovely, gifted child adored by all, regally distributing her bounty. Her full name 'Snehprabha' means 'Light of Love'. Do our names bless or curse us?
As I drove in the light was on in her bedroom so I went in as the door was open. She was asleep or feigning sleep and scattered all round the room were the 4" X 6" pages and cover of her little paper-backed version of the "Bhagvad Gita". A Hindu would normally no more deface that than a Christian would scatter the pages of the New Testament. I picked up a page, on which were the words "Arjuna. Such acts are unworthy of you." I outlined them with her lipstick, tucked the page under a metal clip holding the dressing room mirror, put out the light and left the room.
She was quite herself the following morning, if a little quiet and we did not talk of the previous night. I told her that my work was suffering and I had to get back to it and that it would be better if we found an hotel for her for the remainder of her stay. She said nothing but nodded in acquiescence. She too could see that life was now impossible for us at Timbers. There was an International Conference of some sort and there was not a room to be booked in Worthing, Brighton or the surrounding area. I phoned a girl friend in London, told her of my quest and left early the following morning. We drove round London most of the day without success and returned to Timbers with a heavy heart. There was a note; not from Sneh but from Mrs Barnes** who had been looking after us. Sneh had found accommodation in Brighton and would be contacting me. She was gone and I never saw her again. (Apparently she went to her newfound friend Dr Watt's secretary.)
It seemed unimaginable that so fierce a love should finally mutate until there was not a vestige left, but it did. I still honour that love but it was for two other people. They no longer exist. The Sneh who was half of that existence is still there; somewhere within me but far stronger is the feeling that I still owe her.
Some few years later I had a phone call from a Squadron Leader David. It was wonderful to meet him again. When we last spoke we were both Flying Officers under arrest in Kjaukpyu. He had matured wonderfully and had grown into the rank. Quiet, as always, deliberate, almost slow in his movements but with great authority. I was proud of him and happy for him. I asked him if he really had a squadron. "You will never believe this but I now lead a squadron". Here he paused for effect and he leaned forward - "Ten Squadron Indian Air Force!" We stood up and hugged briefly. "Not a soul of the old ones left but do you mind if I mention Snehprabha?" "No, have you heard of her?" "One of my junior flying officers asked me if he could introduce his wife and then proudly produced Snehprabha". I could imagine him bowing with a courteous smile without a hint of recognition.
I said "Well! Well! You have quite taken me aback." He said. "Not half as 'aback' as I was." Perhaps Sneh was just as surprised to meet my old friend as her husband's Squadron Leader. He said that he had not heard that we had broken up and I told him that it had completely finished without any hard feelings some time before. I asked him how she was and if he thought that they were happy and he told me that he was not sure. Her husband had a flying accident and was in hospital for several weeks during which time Sneh did not visit him. If Sneh thought about meeting David again she need not have worried; he was always the soul of discretion. In any case, he died in a flying accident a short time afterwards.
** Poor Mrs Barnes who was Sneh's devoted slave was so sorry to see her go. "It was nothing to do my cooking was it?" She and her husband "Old Ike" had served in noble houses. Ike taught me how to bone birds and animals for cooking without breaking the skin. "Whoi Mr Edward. Oi moind the time when oi boned four and twenty larks for the Duke of Northumberland's breakfast!" Dear old Ike, he probably only skinned and prepared the breasts but even so; quite a feat with numbed fingers in the cold early morning.
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