THE FADING MARGIN: serial 16.Posted: March 1, 2013
There is no readily available memoir of the administrative process whereby I left the regiment in Nasik and joined another in the state of Maharashtra; most probably I had made myself so unpleasant in the first that a means was found of foisting me off on the second. Whatever the explanation, in the middle of May a tortuous six-hour drive through the Western Ghats ended in the place where I was to spend most of my last two months in the subcontinent. “Camp not at all bad though very dusty and windy. Mess fair. Own room spacious and well appointed”, says an unusually upbeat note in my diary on the day after my arrival in Ahmednagar. Appointed acting adjutant, the previous holder of the office of principal assistant to the Commanding Officer of the regiment having recently sailed for home, it did not take long for me to recognise that I had moved from the frying pan into the fire. The regiment had fought in North Africa but had since been severely cannibalised, so that not a single officer who had served with it then was now on its strength. In the course of action in the Western Desert it had lost not only its treasure chest but – conveniently – the regimental accounts. ‘Inconsistencies’ in the explanations supplied to the original court of enquiry had been identified, suspicions of malfeasance aroused and the subsequent investigation prosecuted with timeless persistence. Four years on, it was still in being. One of my most important duties (in practice, there was no other), the colonel said, was both to continue research into the history of the loss and to attempt to determine as accurately as possible the size of what was believed to be the considerable sum involved.
In any circumstances it would not have been the occupation of my choice, but when pre-monsoon tension was mounting by the day, and in an office where the temperature must have been in the high nineties Fahrenheit and the benefit of the non-oscillating fan was not easy to detect, it was a task in comparison with which the labour of Sisyphus was a sybaritic relaxation. There was also a bird, which, perched in a nearby tree, from dawn to dusk and with indefatigable and metronomic regularity on a single, high-pitched note, emitted a seemingly purposeless call. One morning, maddened to breaking point (murder; not suicide) I rushed to the armoury in search of a rifle and was saved from a court martial offence only by the good sense of the sergeant of the guard.
It was an exercise in unrelieved futility. Without exception, anyone who might have provided useful information was either dead, had been dispersed, or been demobilised. I had no experience of accountancy and less than no aptitude for it. When the colonel asked me how things were progressing, knowing him to be a graduate of the “go at ’em and keep going at ’em hard” school of military philosophy who despised anyone who failed to “show willing”, I said that I thought a few more days might bring significant results and continued privately to hope that some more urgent matter for his attention and my employment might suddenly arise.
The hope was fulfilled in the form of a memorandum from higher than regimental authority on the subject of welfare. It was a cause of concern, said the memo, that cases of drunkenness, serious indiscipline, absence without leave and even desertion were on the increase. Reasons for what were beginning to look dangerously like the onset of a general malaise were not difficult to find in this most difficult period of transition from war to peace, but there could be no doubt that one of the most urgent countermeasures was the making of every effort to ensure that time was not allowed to lie heavily on unoccupied hands. Commanding officers must explore every means …….
And so on and so predictably forth. Overnight, the enquiry into the regiment’s lost funds was suspended sine die and I was appointed defender-in-chief of its military fibre. Of recent creation was an organisation responsible only to the War Office called the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, one of its declared purposes being, indeed, the improvement and maintenance of morale. Winston Churchill was later to be revealed as having considered it a shocking waste of resources; now, however, the colonel suggested that I should lose no time in contacting ABCA and enlisting their help. The Bureau, he understood, was housed in the ‘old fort’.
Reflective, I suspect, of the times and my part in them, diary entries for the period are slovenly and irregular. The wind of time having winnowed the chaff from the grain, memory alone must serve to report on my visit to ABCA. “These English are a strange people”, a leader of the Mahratta army is said to have remarked in 1803. “They came here in the morning, surveyed the wall, walked over it, killed the garrison and returned to breakfast”. The wall that now sheltered the Bureau had belonged to one of the strongest fortresses in the whole of India and was strategically vital in the campaign being waged by a certain General Arthur Wellesley – later to be better known as the Duke of Wellington – for the pacification of the Deccan. Typically, I knew next to nothing of the great man other than that he had won the Battle of Waterloo, very little indeed about his time in the (Iberian) Peninsular and nothing at all of the fort. It is safe to assume that I must have stated my business with the Bureau as a quest for ways and means to brighten the lives of the troops and received an appropriate response. Overtures resulted in my being handed over to a genial, well-fed, timeserving quartermaster-sergeant who proceeded to lead me into an Aladdin’s cave of potential diversions. Here were shelves piled high with board games of every kind from chess to snakes and ladders and Monopoly. Here were stacks of ping-pong tables, small mountains of dartboards, pillars of gramophone records (though curiously no gramophones) and enough assorted handicraft materials to keep several army divisions busily employed in basketwork, model-making and tapestry into an unforeseeably distant future. “Been there since the end of the Jap war”, said the genial custodian. “Only wonder is someone didn’t flog the lot months ago, but I don’t suppose the locals are too keen on ping -pong”.
A SEMINAL DISCOVERY
The books were, and remain, a conundrum. When I asked the quartermaster-sergeant if there was any reading material he first of all said no; all the “social bumf’” that London had sent out by the ton prior to the general election of 1945 (with justice, the Bureau came to be suspected of having been assiduously devoted to working for a Labour victory) had either been distributed or junked. Now that I mentioned it, he said, when I apologetically explained that by “reading material” I had meant something other than ABCA literature, there were a couple of boxes marked books that hadn’t even been opened yet but that I was more than welcome to. He’d have them loaded on to my vehicle along with any of the other stuff that I cared to select.
The monsoon broke shortly afterwards. I had not yet unpacked all of the books, but had dipped into the Huxley selection, started reading excerpts from the novels and within a few days had obtained paperback copies of Brave New World, Chrome Yellow, Point Counter Point, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan and Those Barren Leaves by mail order from Bombay. It was not the best time for an introduction to what Rebecca West so percipiently called “the literature of disillusionment”. Had I been endowed with even so much as a tithe of Huxley’s prodigious intellectual abilities, and, like him, been educated at Eton and Balliol, it is not wholly inconceivable that I might have taken him more or less in my ambitious stride; as it was, meagrely educated at best, emotionally overstretched, I had far too much time to wallow in the author’s satirical virtuosity and often evocative sexual cynicism (Evelyn Waugh referred to it as his “bored lovemaking”). Wallow I did, and in Kipling’s immortal words was bowled over “like a rabbit in a ride”. Star of sixth form English I may have been, but a distinction in the School Certificate has never been a match for a First in English at Oxford. What Huxley read on rainy days during his school holidays is not on record, but there can be little doubt that it was something more nutritious to the developing mind than The Last of the Mohicans, The Thirty-Nine Steps and Summer Lightning; all fairly representative of my own literary diet. There in Ahmednagar I was about as well-equipped for a discovery of one of the most influential authors of the 20th century as a neophyte dinghy sailor is for a single-handed voyage round the world.
The consequence was frequent bouts of emotional turmoil, including near-masochistic introspection (How ignorant one was! How intellectually inadequate and untutored! How uncouth!) leading to depression, leading in turn to exaggerated countermeasures. I had yet to learn the wisdom of Dr.Johnson’s “Melancholy should be diverted by every means but drinking”, so that in far and much-distorted retrospect those Ahmednagar days and nights are all very dry martinis and John Collinses, interspersed with long curry lunches (many in the hospitable officers’ mess of the Fourth Duke of Cambridgeshire’s Own Lancers, known as Hodson’s Horse) and self-punishing runs in the rain.
Ahmednagar! The scuffed, water-stained, faded green cover of the fat Huxley Rotunda is here today on my bookshelves. Seeing it, I see enormous cottonwool cumulus clouds surging up from the south. I see treetops “lashing the darkening sky”. I see raindrops exploding in the dust and smell the drenching of the long-parched earth. A baby cobra is discovered in the latrine and a 3-man team is assembled to dispatch it. I lie in my tin bath, listening to the monsoon deluge on the roof and hear Bima, my servant, exclaim “too much pani (water), sahib!”
POSTING TO POONA
Smoke and flames billowing from the windows of the Taj Mahal Hotel in 2008. A luncheon menu pinned to the page in an old diary. Music by the Melody Trio. That I was lunching at the Taj in Bombay on 8 August, 1946, was thanks to a friend in Hodson’s Horse. At a Hodson’s Sunday luncheon I met a Rifle Brigade captain who was visiting from Delhi, where he was on the staff at India Command. We were wearing the same ribbons on our uniforms and found a lot to talk about. What was I doing in Ahmednagar, he asked. Oh dear: it didn’t sound much fun! Could I be interested in a spot of what might be more colourful soldiering elsewhere? He wasn’t at liberty to say much more at the moment, but if anything should develop he would let me know. Numberless John Collinses, a curry lunch or two and a fortnight later, my bombardier clerk handed me an order from Brigade headquarters posting me “forthwith” to a regiment of artillery in Poona. It proved to be the last regimental assignment of my life.
Though in other circumstances a posting to Poona – one of the two most important military depots in India, staging point for legions of the lost – could have been a ticket to a kind of purgatory, I trusted my Rifle Brigade acquaintance unreservedly and with ill-concealed glee gave the colonel the news. Carrying magnanimity to saintly heights, he said he would be sorry to lose me. Shaming me with its collective kindness, the mess gave me a farewell party. Bima (for whose diplomacy I had cynically greater regard than for his sincerity) said that I was the best sahib that he had ever worked for. Finally, the genial ABCA quartermaster-sergeant at the old fort said it was very decent of me to return the books, but he didn’t see anyone else being interested in them and if I cared to have any – or all, for that matter – shipped home as personal possessions he would gladly arrange it. Retaining The Trumpet Major along with Hills and the Sea, I left the rest in his keeping, never expecting to see them again.
In Poona, the regiment I joined – again as assistant adjutant – was under orders for service overseas. Overseas, but nobody was saying where. “All in good time”, said the colonel, mysteriously. For the moment our precise destination did not matter; meanwhile, there was a lot to be done: new equipment to be acquired, checked and “put through its paces”, new drills to be practised, inoculations to be had. As acting assistant adjutant I would be involved with organising the move from Poona to our port of eventual embarkation and with the embarkation itself. A week or two later, liaising with Movements Control in Bombay, I was eating a mixed grill for lunch, accompanied by the music of the Melody Trio at the Taj. It was the occasion when I first heard that the regiment would be bound for the Middle East.
Monsoon notwithstanding, the Rifle Brigade had as good as promised light at the end of the tunnel and time in Poona passed agreeably enough. Taken at face value, my diary might give the impression that life revolved around the Poona Club. Fire had destroyed much of the original premises, but lunching, dining and dancing at ‘the Club’ rarely failed to feature on several days a week and nearly all of every weekend and there seems to have been no shortage of girls to grace such activities. Many, I suppose, were probably nurses or therapists of one sort or another from the hospital. Not a few, perhaps, were the wives of officers on the permanent establishments of various other military organisations. No matter their provenance, and as ever in India of the Raj, they must have been abundantly outnumbered by men of every sort and condition of military rank, but enough of their first names are on record to suggest that I had a generous share of their company. Anne, Pat, Joy, Joan, Betty, Barbara: plucked from their limbo of the ill-written chronicle (I am chastened to see how little my handwriting has improved with the years), they are ‘attractive’, ‘nice’, ‘quite pretty’, ‘interesting’, ‘fun’; but however hard I search for them in memory’s gallery, and not doubting that each was deserving of lasting honour, are no more substantial than shadows. Only one appears to have engaged my better-than-fleeting emotions; of one alone is there any memento. “For Nigel with love. (Grant says any more of this and he’ll institute proceedings)”, says the inscription on the back of a badly-faded black and white photograph in which a smiling, indisputably striking young woman is posed against a background of a snow-covered mountain which I know to be Nanga Parbat in the Himalaya Range. The inscription is signed “Laura”.
Laura was a nurse. Grant was Laura’s handsome, thirty-something-year-old husband, a surgeon in the Medical Corps, with whom she was much in love. The picture had been taken by him when he had returned from Burma in 1945, met Laura at the hospital in Poona and taken her on honeymoon to Kashmir. If I had not still been mindlessly besotted I myself could easily have fallen in love with his wife. As it was, the three of us were often together at the club, sometimes at Grant and Laura’s bungalow, once or twice at the races. “Lucky your case isn’t surgical”, Grant, calling on me in hospital, was shortly to say. “Otherwise I might be on it and my hand might slip”. A year later, hearing that both had been killed in a road accident, I wept.
It was hospital that provided my envoi to India. After a day of doing nothing worthy of special note, I had dozed after an early evening bath and woken before dinner with pain in my chest and shoulder. An hour or two later I was groaning in agony and very frightened. At midnight the regimental doctor called an ambulance. In the morning, after a drug-induced sleep, I was diagnosed with benign tertian malaria (there is also malignant tertian) which did not prevent my reading a lot, writing letters, and observing that the food was “excellent” and the attendant sisters “very sweet”. As time in hospital goes they were ten days about which I had nothing but good to say, excepting for the strange case of the snake in my bed. It was on my second night and I was probably running a temperature when I was awoken suddenly by something heavy, soft, and curiously sinister falling across my chest, and knew at once that it could only be a snake. Terror came instantly. Trying to eject the invader, I flayed about, throwing my body frantically from side to side, only succeeding in half strangling myself with the tangled, sweat-soaked sheet and tearing the mosquito net from its fastenings as the sinuous horror flopped to and fro across my upper torso. My screams brought a nurse and the night sister running. When at last— calmed by cool hands, caring voices and clean pyjamas, vastly pacified by the administering of a powerful soporific and the promise of safe oblivion for what was left of the night— I listened to the sister telling me what had happened I felt a terrible fool. Falling into a fevered sleep, lying on my arm, I had so temporarily paralysed it that a sudden convulsive movement of my body had caused the unfeeling limb to fall across my chest as if it had indeed been an alien intruder. Blind panic had accounted for everything else. I was discharged from hospital on 28 August.
NEXT FRIDAY, 8 March, Serial 17: Chapter Eleven, A Last Hurrah, Part One.