Friday, 10 February 2012

Dangers are everywhere

Volume 1 – chapter 7 –  Part 2  

India seemed to be a world of scavengers; survival for people and animals alike so often depended on snatching the means to live from others. When this need endangered her child it reinforced my mother’s determination to return home, of this I am convinced. We were having afternoon tea in the garden, and I stood, not far from her side, with a sandwich in my hand. Little did we realise that the food that I held made me a target; and what a shock it was when a 'Kite' ( A bird of the falcon family,) swooped down from nowhere and snatched the food from my grasp, the force of the blow knocking my off my feet. Fortunately I was not injured in this onslaught, but the suddenness of it and the fact that we were so unprepared made its effect so much more traumatic. This small incident was dramatic enough for us both to remember it forever afterwards.

The experience of life in an alien environment could have been made more tolerable had my father or friends been available to help and protect us. But my father had his job to do, and it was some time before anyone in the military community decided that they would offer help to the inexperienced newcomers. Friends did eventually appear on the scene, but they arrived far too late to prevent the stress which had already hardened my mother’s feelings against a life in India. This lack of friends when she needed them was of course partly due to the fact that she lacked the ability to make them. Her retiring nature meant that those who might have, and eventually did, become her friends, took a considerable time to get to know her.


Friends did finally come as this picture shows. They were the Bartlem’s who I mention in my story.

In the meantime, life for my mother was often a lonely one. For a while she did not even want to leave the safety of her home, but with her husband away all day, she finally began to venture out for walks. There were areas in the vicinity of the military compound where family members could go in relative safety, and it soon became part of her routine to take a certain path that she found to her liking. Maybe it was because she was so regular that she came to the notice of some of the soldiers that were around, and one in particular found the sight of an attractive young woman too much of a temptation to resist. One day he followed her and in a quiet spot approached and after some conversation became offensive, making indecent suggestions. This may have happened more than once, but the outcome was going to be predictable.

My mother was much distressed by what happened and she had no alternative but to tell my father the details, although she knew that his reaction would be a belligerent one. Sure enough he would take action, the very next day, by sending us on another walk knowing that the offender would appear again. The soldier in question was from another regiment, and he had no idea that the woman he was distressing was the wife of one of the garrisons boxing champions, and sure enough he duly appeared, only this time so did my father who was following on a bicycle. The offender never knew what hit him, and when my father had finished with him he was in a sorry state. Having served out his own form of justice, Dad now went to report the matter to his commanding officer, who in turn took the matter up with the C/O of the other regiment, and although my father had committed a serious offence by striking a private soldier, the matter was quietly dropped.

The first sympathy and support my mother received, came from an Anglo Indian lady who was the wife of one of my father’s fellow NCOs. Her name was Mrs Bartlem, and she was a handsome woman who had a strong personality, and a kind and capable nature. - Later on my mother was to have reason to be grateful for these qualities, when Mrs Bartlem may well have saved her life. - There is some irony in the fact that the first person to show us some kindness was not one of our own but a person of mixed blood. There is food for thought in the fact that she was Eurasian, a mixture of Anglo/Indian that was viewed with some contempt by both European and Indian people alike. Why are people of mixed race looked on with such scorn? Today opinion is moving away from this stance, which time and experience has shown us to be totally without foundation. One has only to consider the question of race and origins for a moment to realise very quickly, there are few people in the world who can claim to be pure. We are all mixed to varying degrees.

Even before we made her acquaintance Mrs Bartlem was known to us by reputation. Her husband Tom was the regimental provost sergeant and a friend of my father, and as such he often featured in the daily activities that my father described, when talking of such things. And so it was that one evening he came home with a story concerning the Bartlem’s, a story that on circulation was to astonish those that heard it. My mother in particular was impressed, by an act of bravery that almost certainly saved a life.

One of Sergeant Bartlem's duties was to make a regular inspection of the prison, and it became his habit to make these inspections random to ensure that those on duty were alert and attending to things properly. On a particular evening he had been relaxing at home, but having decided it was necessary to make one of his inspections, he had been too lazy to change into his full uniform, including regulation boots, so off he strolled in his sandals, and that was to prove his undoing. The prison block was a gloomy old building built of stone, and like many similar buildings in India it was well populated with all sorts of insect life, including spiders. Many of the spiders were brown in colour and their bite inflicted a very unpleasant wound, which was always slow to heal and which caused considerable pain and discomfort. However, the bite of this spider was not usually fatal. On the other hand there was another variety of spider, which was black, and its bite was lethal; it was not uncommon for the native population to report deaths resulting from the bite of this particular spider. On the evening in question Tom Bartlem walked the corridors and cells of his prison wearing sandals and as fate would have it, he was bitten on his bare foot by one of the black spiders. There was no antidote for this bite, and being late at night, there was no medical assistance readily available. To the men on duty it certainly looked as though their Provost Sergeant was about to die.

Perhaps Sergeant Bartlem would have died; fortunately this possibility never eventuated, thanks to the prompt actions of his wife. It appears someone had the good sense to run and fetch Mrs Bartlem from their quarters only a short distance away, and she immediately cut the bite open, and proceeded to such out the venom, washing out her mouth with alcohol after each mouth full of the blood containing the venom. It is doubtful whether there were many of the European wives could have accomplished such a feat. Maybe this act of love and courage had some influence on my mother who shortly afterwards decided that she would make Mrs Bartlem her friend.

After the two ladies had been friends for a while Mrs Bartlem again demonstrated her bravery, and the fact that she could remain cool in a crisis. Both ladies had a child about the same age and it became a regular practice for them to take their children for walks in their pushchairs together. On one such outing they were walking in single file along a narrow path through an area of bush and thick shrubbery, with my mother in the lead. Without realizing it she stepped over a small snake which was sunning itself in the dust on the path; and it is possible she might have actually stepped on it, but whatever the truth of the matter, the result was that the reptile reacted, quickly gathering to strike. Seeing what was happening before her Mrs Bartlem reacted just as quickly, seizing one of her shoes in an instant and smashing it down with a hammer blow.

Becoming aware of the commotion my mother turned and on discovering what had happened, made little of it, thinking that the danger had not been great. She could not have been more wrong in her assumption; the little snake was in fact a 'Krait' which is one of the most deadly snakes to be found in India. Because of its small size, its natural camouflage, and the potency of its venom, this species had caused the death of more people than any other, when considered in relation to their numbers. - Of course the cobra kills the largest number, but then there are so many more of them. - It was not until sometime later that my parents realized just how courageous Mrs Bartlem had been.

Of all the dangers in India there is no doubt that venomous snakes are one of the greatest; they kill many people every year. They can be aggressive, but the reason most people get bitten is simply because they go undetected, and therein is the danger. The local people have learned to live with this danger, and so have foreigners who have spent some time in India. One example of learning to live with the ever present danger of snakes would be the method adopted by my father and one of his friends when they played golf. The friend had a small Scots Terrier, and this aggressive little dog was their constant companion. The golf course had many areas of long dry grass, and other forms of cover, and it was well known that these areas harboured many snakes, the majority of them being Cobras. The dog had an uncanny ability to detect them and his reaction was always to bark and make aggressive advances to the location where the snake was hiding. The noise and activity of the little terrier invariably caused the snake to rear up and prepare to strike, and at this point in the proceedings the dog was in considerable danger. Being a regular occurrence it was not long before the two golfers had developed a technique for dealing with the problem. The method was for the two men to arm themselves with their heaviest golf clubs, and on approaching the snake, one on each side, they would take it in turns to strike the serpent a vigorous blow. The dog of course continued to distract the snake, and when the terrier and its first attacker had its full attention, the other player in this risky game would move in and strike again. It did not take many of these massive blows to kill most snakes, but well planned though this method was, it still had a high degree of risk. Perhaps this added excitement made a game of golf even more enjoyable? And let us not forget that it gave great pleasure to one small dog that afterwards had a fine old time savaging the remains of the dead reptile.

Much has been written about India, and most of it has been of a romantic nature, and why not, there is much that is romantic about the place. We would agree I am sure that most would prefer to read of the pleasures and the attractions of India, but, - and is there not always a but to be found lurking around most statements - there is another side to be seen and to be described as part of the fuller picture. For the reader who has no knowledge or experience of this diverse country, the romantic impression is the one he will experience more often than not, so the impression that I offer may come as something of a disappointment. It is not just the desire to paint a detailed picture that encourages me to outline the less attractive aspect of life in India, it is my need to explain the actions of my family as this story progresses. Many people die each year in India because of the diseases which are prevalent. Malaria kills thousands, and the health of many more is ruined; my father being one of them. Even today medicine has been unable to eradicate this terrible disease completely, and at the time of which I write the cause of Malaria had not long been discovered and understood. It was in 1902 in fact that Sir Ronald Ross received the Nobel Prize for his work on malaria, though thirty years later it was still killing on a large scale. It was conditions like this that my mother could not tolerate, and it was events such as the ones that I describe, that made her determined to return to England.

It is my effort to tell this story as accurately and honestly as I can that makes it appear a grim and gloomy one, but not all my memories are dark ones. There are images in my mind that bring a smile to my face, though the events that I recall were not intended to be humorous ones.


The teddy bear in this picture was a friend who never ran away, but he was not much good in a fight.

A review of the dangers of life in India soon makes one realize why a guard and protector is essential, especially for children. Even today such an arrangement would be desirable, and at the time of which I write in was even more so. Strange as it may sound my parents had discovered that there was one danger for a small English boy with hair that was almost white that they had never dreamed of. It was that very fact, that my appearance was a source of fascination to the Indian population; most had never seen such a strange child before. They were just curious, but my father was told that I should never be left alone; the interest I engendered could well result in abduction.

Like all children of an early age I had not yet learned the meaning of fear, and this confidence was also a fascination to the natives. For a child of such tender years to show such confidence must have been an unusual experience for them. It is possible that they concluded that I was empowered with some sort of authority over them, and a number of times I had exerted a captivating control over quite large groups. To have a young child order them and instruct them must have added a further degree of influence over their minds. When my rapport with the locals was observed it caused some amusement to my parents, and other members of the white community, but they also concluded that the interest I created could also make me a target.

An example of the effect I seemed to have on the local people was an occasion when my father took me to the tennis club where he played regularly. There were always a large number of natives there hoping to earn a little money by performing the various tasks for which the club would pay a few rupees; one such employment was the much sought after job of ball boy. When I appeared it was not long before I had a crowd around me, and not realising that I was an object of curiosity, I must have decided that they were there to amuse me and keep me company. On one occasion, my father and his friends noticed that I had formed the group into an audience by sitting them on a grassy slope by the tennis courts. Seeing that they all had their hands together and were reciting something that I appeared to be teaching them, the observers moved closer and discovered to their great amusement that I was busy instructing them in 'The Lord’s Prayer'.

When one considers that these natives were not Christians, it could be said that I had accomplished quite a feat. But it must also be said that they would not have considered much harm could come from listening to a child of four years of age. Consider also that my teaching was in English and there is no doubt that most of the students had no idea what they were repeating on my instruction. So here we have a most serious occasion which in retrospect brings a smile to ones face. I know this story to be true because my father took some photographs which still exist, though I don’t know where they are now.

It is interesting to consider the different views that my mother and father had of this strange and exotic life style we were leading in India. On the one hand after a number of years my father was well adjusted to it and considered that the benefits far outweighed the risks and disadvantages. My mother on the other hand saw very little that attracted her, and to her the dangers far exceeded the attractions.

Bearing in mind how she must have felt about it one can imagine how she would have reacted one day when her greatest fear was realized; I vanished. In later years my father tells of this incident with some amusement, he thought it so ridiculous that the whole regimental compound was thrown into a state of complete panic over my disappearance. At the time I suspect that it was not at all funny; a large number of recruits were turned out to search for me, and by late afternoon they were beginning to fear the worst. One of the searchers was my father’s half brother Albert and he was the one that eventually found me. I might add at this juncture that Albert had been 'Claimed', which means that my father had taken advantage of an old army tradition which allows an older brother to request the transfer of a younger brother.

Making use of a bicycle Albert had ventured further a-field taking in some of the nearby barracks occupied by Indian troops, and in was by one of their parade grounds that he found me. I am told that on that particular day some of the Sepoys had been given a long period of punishment drill, and their marching and counter marching had attracted my attention. I had spent most of the afternoon sitting on some stone steps watching them perform with great interest. I am sure my disappearance had been a great worry to everyone, but to my mother it must have been yet another reason for insisting that we return to the safety of England.

There was one further thing above everything that I have already mentioned that could create in my mother a determined and uncompromising attitude, and that was the health and safety of her only child. It does not take much imagination to visualize her reaction when she discovered that I had contracted dysentery. This was another disease which claimed many lives in India, and especially among Europeans. It didn't seem to matter how careful you were, it still seemed to be an impossible task to keep illness at bay. Today we are more aware of the effects of diseases against which we have no natural resistance, but in the 1930s this fact was not so well understood. In the case of dysentery however it is unsanitary conditions that are the cause, and so it proved in my case.

When I became ill and started to pass blood from my bowels, my mother was horrified and decided on the spot that she would insist on returning home. This I believe was the deciding factor, and my mother would allow no debate or discussion once she had made up her mind. It is doubtful that my mother realised that the only way the army would agree to meet the cost of returning us to England, was as a result of a request for a transfer home from my father. He had spent more than enough time in India to qualify for such a transfer, and had only remained in an overseas posting because he liked the life it allowed him to lead. In the meantime my mother set about finding out how I had become infected, and it was not long before she discovered that my Chokra, a boy of 12 or 13 years of age, had taken me to the native bazaar. He must have imagined that I would enjoy the experience, especially as he added to the pleasure by buying me some local sweet meats from a well known and popular vendor. It is almost certain that this was the cause of my illness, though the boy - who had a genuine affection for me, and would never have harmed me deliberately, - certainly had no idea that I could not eat what he could eat. I was troubled by the effects of this illness for a number of years, and sometimes feel that some permanent damage had been done, but my young companion had been innocent of any deliberate offence, and so was never punished.

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