Thursday, 9 February 2012

We go to India–It was not to Mother’s liking

Volume 1 – chapter 7 – Part 1

I have little to tell of my first three years because I have no memories of that time. This was the period from my birth in 1933 until my mother and I travelled to India with my father. A greater change could not be imagined and anyone who knew my mother would probably have predicted that it would all be too much for her. I have already described how she was not equipped for so vast a change in her life, and even with years of gentle help and sensitive support it is doubtful that she would have been able to make such an extreme adjustment. I hardly need to add that such gentle and sensitive support was not forthcoming. My father was a military man, and the army and its way of life does not create people able to relate to sensitivity or to help those with a delicate disposition. My parents, like most newly married couples, did not know each other well in their early years together, and they did not understand each other as a consequence. There was little chance that my father could help my mother through this major change in her life.

Being so young, I was unaffected by this radical change to my circumstances. Under different conditions the Indian experience could have been the beginning of better things. Even as things turned out, the period we spent in India had a pronounced influence on my life. In one respect it could be described as a taste of honey, a taste that would be difficult to forget when honey was no longer on the menu. Whatever the effects of living in India, it would be true to say that we never fitted comfortably into the life we returned to in England.

It was towards the end of 1935 that my father again qualified for home leave, and when he next returned to India, he was accompanied by his family. He must have known that his new role as a husband and father would change his life greatly, but he must have looked forward to it, never imagining what difficulties lay ahead. The impression I derive from the memories I have, is that my father had confidence in his ability to accomplish whatever he set out to do. When in our prime we believe that there is no problem too difficult, all that is needed is sufficient strength and determination. In time he was to discover that love and emotions, sensitivity and a delicate temperament, could not be ordered or commanded, and his family were not just recruits who could be trained and licked into shape. Discipline and regulations might solve most problems for the army, but they are of little value when you are dealing with an unhappy woman, or a sick child.

The ship that carried us to India was a small cargo/passenger vessel called the SS California, and it was often used entirely for the transportation of military stores and personnel. Being a married man now proved an advantage because accommodation for families was much superior to that provided for a single man. CQMS (Company Quarter Master Sergeant) Bishop, as a Warrant Officer Class II must have derived much satisfaction from the type of family cabin that had been allotted to him.

Life aboard ship was very formal, and in accordance with the tradition of the period it was usual for officers and NCOs to wear dress uniforms when dinning. There were also social occasions when they met for dances and other entertainments. My father of course was used to such affairs, but for my mother it was all very new and nerve racking. She had no assistance or guidance, and such things as wearing an evening gown were worrying when one had little or no experience of such matters. Was she wearing the right things? Did she conform to the fashion in vogue? It was so important to earn the approval of the other passengers. No one, including her husband had told her that she would have this sort of situation to deal with. Many would have had little difficulty adjusting, and would have considered such things of little importance, but it is such things that can make life seem unbearable.

It did not take long for this new and strange situation to overwhelm the shy and retiring Mary. Soon she was a bundle of nerves, ready to run for cover at the first opportunity. After a week or so the opportunity to escape the public gaze presented itself. On a particular evening, when my parents returned to their cabin after yet another social engagement, they found that their little boy was awake. Needing something with which to amuse himself he had found his mothers make up, and making good use of the time available, had emptied the face powder and other cosmetics all over the bed. He had also used up most of the lipstick drawing pictures all over the walls, and any other surface that would sustain an image in red. Father of course was furious and threatened all kinds of punishment, but my mother seized this excuse to refuse further engagements, and from this time onwards insisted on remaining with her child, having meals in the cabin as often as possible, and politely refusing invitations to wine, dine, and dance.

There is little more than I can add about our voyage to India, though I was told by my mother that I was especially fond of listening to the band that played on the main deck of the ship when the weather was good. I provided some amusement for the passengers by walking to the front of the band and conducting in a very grave and serious manner. Already it seems I was showing an aptitude for music.

In only a few short weeks my father was finding that his wife was not suited to the role assigned to her, she looked well and had a natural charm and dignity, but he soon realized that she was not equipped to make the adjustment that the situation required. Mary was to continue to disappoint him in this regard until finally he recognised that she would never change. From now on it became usual for my mother to take refuge in the privacy and security of her own quarters, and my Dad went off to enjoy the company of both the military and the Indian social set without her.

A physical and energetic man, my father also found that his wife held the view that sex was a degrading and disgusting business; this was another part of their relationship which revealed their incompatibility. I am sure that in the eyes of my father, his lovely wife was, in this respect, a failure and a disappointment. Inevitably it was not long before she began to hear stories of her husband’s popularity among more sociable women, who were eager and willing to keep him company in her absence. The indiscretions committed by my father during this period of his life were never to be forgotten. In later years he was to be brought to account for them, his punishment lasting far longer than did his period of sinning. In many respects army life made my mother withdraw into herself more and more, and this resulted in my father seeking consolation elsewhere to a corresponding degree. Military life requires a very strong marriage if it is to survive, and the fact that standards of behaviour among its personnel often left much to be desired, that did not help either.


My father and I have our picture taken with some of the staff which included the boy who rarely left my side; behind us was Joseph the cook and two of the house servants.

Our accommodation came with a staff of 4 or 5 servants, and I can recall one who was an elderly Sikh with a white moustache and a turban to match. His name was Joseph, and he was the cook and considered himself next in importance after the Sahib and Memsahib. His favourite implement was a very large meat cleaver and he was rarely seen without it. It was a multipurpose tool which was used for all sorts of things, some of which one would never have imagined, and for which it was never intended. Like most of his race Joseph was a tall and dignified man who was also quite clearly a warrior; It is likely that he was a retired soldier who considered his position as a cook as being somewhat beneath him. Joseph applied strict discipline to the other servants, and when one remembers that there may have been religious differences between them as well, it is not surprising that there was a degree of friction from time to time.


It is at this point in my story that my first memories begin; some of my narrative now being from my own recollection. I can for example remember the large bungalow we lived in, and though it seemed very grand to a little boy, it was I believe typical of such dwellings occupied by Europeans in India. The rooms had French windows, which opened on to verandas which ran entirely around the building. In such a hot climate these windows were often open; which led on occasions to dangers which came as a shock to those who were new to a life in India. Thieves were not uncommon in this part of the world, and reptiles also entered uninvited quite often. A further unpleasantness, and probably an even greater danger, was the occasional intrusion by wild dogs, which were quite fearless when driven by hunger. In their desperation they would enter any building in search of food. These dogs were all rabid and could be very aggressive, especially when cornered. My father had more than one encounter with such animals, and treated them with great caution; death from the bite of a rabid dog was quite common in India, and as far as I know, still is.

A picture taken outside our bungalow at Secunderabad just north of Hyderabad in the state of Andhra Pradesh the year would have been about 1936 which would have made me three years old.


Another picture outside our bungalow that my father took with his folding camera that gave many years of good service.

My mother of course was far too gentle a person to be able to deal with native staff successfully; they worked well when handled firmly but quickly took advantage when they detected a lack of strength and control. Domestic affairs went smoothly enough most of the time, but when trouble did occur my father found to his great annoyance that he was immediately called to deal with it. Several times the cook had to be admonished by my father for his threatening use of the meat cleaver when dealing with other members of the staff, and it was soon apparent that my mother was unable to be firm enough to prevent such incidents.

The most flexible of people would have found these strange surroundings and circumstances difficult to adjust to, and for my mother it all seemed like yet another nightmare. It was not only the domestic scene but life in general that was difficult to deal with. Each day produced new hazards and impossible situations; or so it seemed to her. It was this constant flow of unexpected experiences that kept her off balance, and though some incidents were of a minor nature they were all unsettling, and enough to produce in her mind an almost uncontrollable urge to take flight. The world around her was an alien one; this was a way of life that she was convinced she would never get used to; or so she said some years later. How could she adjust to a place where native women paused in the road, squatted down, and answered the call of nature?


My mother did not like India or the life we were leading very much; she was not adaptable or a good traveller.

My mother was not gregarious and was in fact a shy person and that was her problem. She did not make friends easily and in India she was very much alone with her husband absent most of the time. The only company she had for quite a time was the servants who were strange and foreign in her eyes. She had a role to play but to put it in terms of the stage she was miscast. When Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: and one man in his time plays many parts.” That was very true but what he does not mention is that we are not all good actors.

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