Wartime India

[img_assist|nid=146|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=65|height=100]My father, Corporal A.J. Payne (Jack), was in the RAF during the 1939 to 1945 war and was trained to work on Spitfire engines - Rolls Royce Merlins.

He spent the last years of the war in India. Here are accounts he wrote in the form of letters to his mother of trips he made to Calcutta, Darjeeling and the Taj Mahal during periods of leave. On his return to the UK he also wrote of some of his impressions and experiences of India.

Calcutta; A day in the Empire's second city

It was a Saturday morning and a day off, so I decided to spend it in Calcutta. As usual the sun was bright and the air was still, heralding another hot, sultry day.

I decided to catch the eight thirty train, as then it would still be fairly cool and I could get into the city in reasonable comfort. After twenty minutes walk across marshy ground I arrived at the station which was as usual crowded with other passengers, coolies, shoe shine boys and people lying and sitting about all over the platform. Many of them seem to spend their time there in rags, because they have nowhere else to go.

It was not long before the train came steaming in and the rush for carriages began. From the outside these trains resemble English trains, but the inside is far inferior consisting of four classes, first, second, intermediate and third. All of the trains are made up almost entirely of third class compartments with just a few first, second and intermediate and as servicemen and most white people use second class one can imagine what a scramble there is for the few seats available. As far as comfort is concerned these trains leave a lot to be desired, for even the first class is not as comfortable as our third at home is.

The landscape in this part of Bengal is very flat and uninteresting and as the train stopped at every little station, I was not sorry to reach Calcutta.

The part of the city frequented most by white people, or Europeans, as we are called, is a street known as Chowringhee and the streets branching from it, so I made my way there by tram. These are invariably hopelessly overcrowded, with people hanging on outside with an arm through the window. They are all single deckers and run in twos joined together. The heat and the crowd made this journey rather unpleasant, but after ten minutes I found myself at one end of Chowringhee, so I fought my way off of the tram after releasing my feet from under someone else’s.

I started to walk along this street which has become so famous with servicemen in these parts and one of the hundreds of shoe shine boys who line the pavement, soon drew my attention to my shoes which were rather dusty, thanks to the person in the tram who could not find floor space for his own feet. While I stood there having my shoes cleaned, someone tried to sell me a programme for the race meeting, another chap tried to sell me a paper, and a beggar woman with a baby in arms begged for money. In this respect the city is not as depressing as it was last year when the terrible famine was on, conditions then do not bear description.

As far as planning is concerned, this street, Chowringhee, reminded me of Princes Street, Edinburgh, but with its crowds of people, consisting of so many different Eastern nationalities with their own peculiar habits, it is vastly different. There are shops on one side of the street and the other side is open to a large park in which the cities recreation grounds are situated.

As I walked along the pavement, all sorts of things were thrust in front of me in the hope that I would buy, including razor blades, old English and American periodicals and little coloured birds that would sit one one’s finger. What I wanted to buy most of all was an iced drink, as it was very hot by this time, so I went into a café and cooled off. I had no trouble finding one, for there is an abundance of canteens and restaurants many of which are Chinese.

As I sat in the café there I wondered what I should do to make the most of the day. There is always so much to see in a strange city, but in this country the heat is against walking far, so I decided to go along to the end of Chowringhee to where the Cathedral is situated and have a look at that, so I boarded a tram and was soon there.

Naturally I discovered that it is not as ancient as most of our Cathedrals in England in fact the tower is fairly recent. On entering I discovered that it was one of the best Cathedrals I had seen, being very spacious, with no stone pillars to obstruct the view. English churches would do well to follow the method of seating used in all or at least most of the churches and chapels out here. They do not use pews but chairs with arms on, which are backed onto a permanent rail and so held in position, this rail forming the book rest for the row behind. I asked what appear to be the head caretaker, if it would be possible to go up on to the roof of the tower, so he detailed an Indian to show me the way. We wound up and up a spiral staircase till we reached the clock and as it was near the quarter hour we stopped and watched the hundred and one wheels and levers spring into action.

We finished our ascent by an iron spiral staircase and after opening a narrow door, popped out into the blazing sun again. The first thing I noticed was the gloriously cool breeze which tried to rob me of my topee when I stepped to the parapet. The land is so flat around here that the horizon looked almost like the sea. Calcutta looked like a very beautiful city with green parks, lovely avenues and imposing buildings, so different to looking at it close up.

In the afternoon I decided to visit the large covered-in market and I found that anything could be bought there, though certain things have disappeared recently. There used to be a lot of fountain pens and watches on show, but as soon as the prices became controlled, they suddenly went out of sight. In amongst the clothing shops the assistants were busy chasing after servicemen trying to sell them everything from footwear to headwear. I noticed a meat market adjoining, but I did not visit that for one can imagine that it might not have been too pleasant in a climate like this.

Transport in Calcutta is no difficulty for there is an abundance of rickshaws and taxis, in fact as I stood on the edge of the pavement in Chowringhee for a few minutes three or four rickshaw men offered their services and about as many taxi drivers sounded their horns and beckoned to me. These rickshaws seat two people and are pulled by one man.

The cinemas in such a city as this are an even greater attraction to the troops than those at home, owing to the fact that they are air-conditioned, and walking into them out of a hot street feels like walking into a refrigerator. Actually the temperature is about the same as that in English cinemas.

Well after having some tea I decided to get back to camp as it is not very pleasant in the city after dark and the later trains are hopelessly crowded, so I made my way to the tram stop and after watching two or three full ones go by I managed to get one foot on the step of one, but soon got pushed aside by more people getting on. The station was just as crowded as ever with people going and coming, but the majority were just sitting or lying around. Of course the train stopped at every little station, bit I was glad that I had left early because I had a seat.

Heavy black clouds were gathering on one side and I could see distant flashes of lightning so I began to wonder if I could race it to camp. There was no thunder when I left the train, but by the time I reached camp it seemed to be crashing all around me, and I managed to get in with a few minutes to spare, before it seemed that the black sky above opened up and let us have all it contained.

Darjeeling Railway

975818 L.A.C.Payne A.J.

Kanchrapara,

R.A.F.

India.

My Dear Mum,

Here is the letter I promised you, telling you all about my leave.

Well, the long awaited day came and I was up earlier than usual packing my tin trunk. The first difficulty confronting me was getting my trunk to the station as such things are rather awkward to carry in the hand and it just isn’t done for a white man to carry his own luggage, the hot weather is mainly against that, so I needed the services of a coolie. I soon got one by going out into the road, stopping an Indian and explaining to him in my very limited Hindustani what I wanted done, he was obviously willing to earn a bit of money, as he soon had a pad on his head and my tin box on top of that. They carry everything like that out here, big or small.

I had seen fellows going on leave for weeks before, and I had envied them, but now it was my turn to say "Cheerio" and enjoy the cool of the hills while they stayed down here sweating on the plains. I was not looking forward to the journey in front of me, knowing how packed the railways can be here, but I knew that the climate in Darjeeling would well compensate any discomforts I had to endure on the way up.

I got to the station in good time to catch the 12.15 train and soon found myself a second class seat on it. This class as I have already told you is not a patch on our third class at home, but neither is the first class for that matter. This was just a local train into Calcutta, where I was to catch the 3.45 mail train to Silguri, which is the nearest main line station to Darjeeling. It is like going to Reading to catch the Cornish Riveria Express. Of course, we stopped at all the little stations on the way to Calcutta, but local trains in this part of the world only stay a few seconds in each station, so it was not too annoying.

I arrived in the City with about 2 hours to spare before the mail train left so after killing about an hour and a quarter I decided to get on to the platform and find my reservation, if any. It is a recognized thing out here when travelling long distances to make a reservation some weeks before, which I had done. I produced evidence of this in the form of a slip of paper when I passed through the platform barrier.

I began to walk the length of the train looking for my second class seat to which my warrant entitled me, when a military voice said "Where are you going?" "Darjeeling", I promptly replied. "In there then," said the M.P. To my horror I gazed upon a whole third class carriage reserved for troops. It was empty when I got in so I found myself a corner. This is the lowest class on the line, the seats are made of wood and run the whole length of the carriage, one down each side and 2 back to back down the centre. More chaps got in soon after me filling the carriage to a capacity. A Warrant Officer got in and one of the chaps told him there was not room for him. A lengthy and heated argument took place, until the W/O threatened to use his authority and get the other fellow thrown out.

To get a rough picture of an Indian City station, just imagine Paddington on a summer’s day with about 20 or 30 degrees of temperature added, hundreds more people and a hundred more smells, and you can little wonder that we were all glad when 3.45 came and the train drew out. Naturally being a long distance train it was only scheduled to stop at big stations and junctions and for a few hours we made pretty good time. At the stations we drew into the char wallas were always waiting for us, though I did not patronize them myself. These are tea vendors who dash about along the length of the train usually carrying a kettle of tea in one hand, and a tray containing sugar and milk and what looks like small flower pots in the other. These small flower pots are used as cups and can be thrown away after.

Towards evening we ran into a very heavy storm and the clouds around us were pitch black but we did not mind that, as it cooled the atmosphere considerably. As we passed through a station about 7 o’clock I noticed a board on the platform which marked the division between the Tropic Zone and the Sub-Tropic Zone. We were now in the subtropics.

All was going well till just after dark when we stopped owing to trouble on the line ahead. We were stopped there for two long hours and the frogs in the swamped meadows on each side of the line were having the time of their lives. They revel in wet weather and make some terrific noises, some like goats, some like motor horns, and when there's hundreds of them making different noises its rather annoying. I was propped up in my corner trying to sleep. We moved eventually, and with the rocking of the train I managed to doze quite a lot of time away. The sky was bright in one place a little later on and I tried to convince myself it was the sun rising, but I found out to my horror that it was three a.m.

When day light did at last come we were still some distance from Siliguri, although we should have been there about 7 o’clock. We eventually arrived there about 10a.m.

[img_assist|nid=60|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=75|height=100] [img_assist|nid=67|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=72]

I have been told by my friends who had already been to Darjeeling to make straightway for the mountain railway at Siliguri, find myself a seat and make sure that my luggage was put in the correct van, as they had a habit of losing it. Bearing this in mind, I went straight to the platform where the mountain train was standing.

To appreciate the quaintness of this train one has to see for oneself. It is like an overgrown Hornby train set, something like the kiddies trains at seaside fairgrounds. Everything is in miniature, a small engine built in Glasgow, small luggage vans and small carriages. I found myself a seat, reserving it with my topee, and then went along to the luggage van to park my tin trunk. I made enquiries as to which was the right van, and I was told that there had been a landslide part way up and it had dislocated the line and all the luggage would be taken care of by the company, so I put it in a van with some more and hoped for the best.

I was rather hungry and thirsty by this time so I went into the station restaurant and had a breakfast after which I had a large mug of tea in the troops canteen. [img_assist|nid=64|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=73|height=100] The first part of the journey was not very steep so the train was quite a good length to begin with, but after a few very pleasant miles through the woods, we arrived at a station and the train was split up into about 3 small ones. [img_assist|nid=65|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=70] We set off once again and this time started climbing in earnest. The road to Darjeeling runs alongside the railway track all the way and we often ran across it and back again in order to make a tight bend easier. Some of the bends were so sharp that it was quite a common sight to see the engine travelling at right angles to the coach I was in. I soon realised that we had been climbing considerably, for quite often we were travelling on a ledge of rock with a drop of hundreds of feet below us. Two men sit on the front of the engine to throw sand on the lines when the wheels slip. We were just getting nicely dizzy, when we stopped at a station, where to my horror they took our luggage vans off. We soon realised why this was, because after starting off again we came to the landslide. This had to be bypassed on foot by climbing a considerable distance and meeting some waiting trains further up. The luggage was brought up from the previous station by lorries.

After a rather long wait we were on our way again continually climbing. Of course with this hard work the engine gets very thirsty, and it seems to rely on mountain streams for its supply of water. The drivers always knows where to stop. At one place I saw them filling the engine up by running the water along a piece of guttering from a stream in the rocks alongside.

The actual track is about two feet wide, that’s about a third of the width of the train, and when one looks out and sees such a tremendous drop, one wonders why on earth the whole train does not overturn and go crashing down to destruction.

The natives up in these parts are Nepalese and Tibetan mostly and the children take a delight in running alongside the train clacking two pieces of wood or bone which they hold between their fingers. Of course they do not do it for our amusement, but rather in the hopes of getting money thrown at them. [img_assist|nid=63|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=99] The first big stop was at Kurseong, a holiday resort about halfway to Darjeeling. Here, Nepalese girls were waiting to look after any belongings in the carriage, while we visited the canteen, where W.V.S. workers had some excellent sandwiches and tea for us. I returned to the carriage with my fellow passengers to find our girl faithfully looking after our belongings. An easy way to earn a little money, but by no means a way to get rich quickly. We did not wait about here long and we were soon on our way again leaving Kurseong via the main street.

We had been on this railway for four or five hours now and it was getting a bit tiring, the novelty having worn off, but we still had about twenty miles of twisting, turning and climbing to do. The highest point we reached was the stop before Darjeeling about 8,000 feet called Ghoom. Here the mist was thick and it could have been a November day in England had it been a little colder. It felt pretty cold as it was, but of course, having come straight up from the plains we were only attired for hot weather.

The rest of the journey was mostly down hill and we ran into Darjeeling about 6.30 p.m. [img_assist|nid=61|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=64] Now the struggle for the luggage began. The little luggage vans were being unloaded quite quickly, but there was such a crowd of coolies and passengers around them trying to sort it out that it was a job to get near it. I had already employed the services of a boy coolie, and it was not long before I had found my tin trunk and it was on his head. We had not left the station, when my coolie was accosted by a rather young Nepalese girl who was apparently in need of a job, and seemed to think she had more right to carry my luggage than had the boy. A rather heated argument followed and the girl won. These women who live in the hills carry very heavy loads by slinging a piece of rope around whatever they want to carry and putting it on their backs with the rope over the top of their head, so that by walking in a stopping position they have part of the weight on the back and part on the head with the hands free.

As you can imagine, I felt rather self-conscious to be walking through the streets of Darjeeling with a woman carrying my luggage but I discovered later on that the women do all the carrying. It is a very common sight to see them carrying large baskets of coal in the manner I have already described.

After threading our way through streets, up steps, down steps, and along side walks, we arrived at Caroline Villa, where I soon paid my girl off and dispensed with her. It was now about 7 p.m. and I had been travelling for 27 hours, so that when Mr. Hall answered the door to me, I’m afraid I presented a rather travel worn spectacle, but I suppose every visitor arrives in a similar condition, so that I was not an exception.

I just had time to clean myself up before dinner, and soon after this I was enjoying the comfort of a spring bed, without having to bother with a mosquito net. The absence of mosquitoes is one of the pleasures of being in the hills.

Darjeeling is quite a small town, but it has many large shops, quite a number of which are run by Britishers. A large percentage of the population is British, some living there permanently, and some just spending the hot season there. This is another reason why it is so pleasant. There are two cinemas, not exactly modern, but good enough for a wet evening, I think one used to be the Town Hall. For troops there are various clubs, billiard tables, organised visits to tea gardens, pony riding and of course the magnificent mountain scenery. There are so many English and Scotch people up there that they have organised their own clubs, the chief one of which is the Gymkhana Club. Here they have their own Concert Hall, Ballroom, Tennis Courts, Roller Skating and various other pastimes. This club is now open to members of the forces. The Concert Hall being a canteen, a dance is held once a week in the Ballroom, two Tennis Courts are reserved permanently and so is the Skating rink three or four times a week. In fact the Gymkhana Club is quite popular with men on leave in Darjeeling.

The weather did its best to damp my spirits for the first few days as the whole place was shrouded in cloud and it was almost constantly drizzling. The marvellous view I had hoped to see was absolutely blotted out. When one looked down from the hillside into the thick mist, it was like being on the edge of the world with nothing whatsoever beyond. I discovered that pony riding was very popular up there and they could be hired out by the hour. As this seemed rather good way of getting around, I decided to take one out one day, having been assured that they were very quiet. I found this was so end I had a very enjoyable hour going to the top of a hill and back again. Unfortunately my pony would only turn to the right, and as part of my journey was on the edge of a precipice I did not like to get rough with it in case it got rough with me. I suppose they get fed up with so many amateurs on their backs. On the way up the hill an old man with a beard insisted on me accepting a copy of St. Luke’s gospel. Before leaving my horse I noticed its number was 176 and decided to have it again sometime.

It was not long before I was in company with two other fellows who were living in the same house and so we spent most of the time together. The weather cleared up towards the end of my leave so we were able to spend the mornings at tennis. My friends fancied pony riding so one day the three of us set off, considering myself lucky to have found number 176 again. This time it seemed to be an entirely different animal though it would only turn to the right still. All it wanted to do was stop at the aide of the road and eat grass. I had practically no control over it at all, consequently it took me on a tour of the town. I’m afraid I had the pedestrians guessing at the corners, for no matter how hard I pulled at the reins it simply tugged its head round in defiance and went the way it thought. In the end I gave up all hope on controlling it from its back and got off and led it back.

Most people visiting Darjeeling aim at seeing the sun rise over Mount Everest, which is possible from Tiger Hill a distance of seven miles, and the common practice is to hire a taxi for a party of three. The proprietor of one of the taxi stands is a very fat man and can nearly always be seen standing or sitting outside of his garages. I approached him one day about going up to Tiger Hill at daybreak, but he assured me that it was impossible to see Everest at that time of the year owing to the poor visibility, as it was a distance of over a hundred miles. Needless to say, I was very disappointed about this.

The second highest mountain in the world, Kanchenjunga, is almost constantly visible from Darjeeling in the clear weather, but this too was obscured from view owing to the thick mist, but towards the end of my leave I was told that it was often clear in the early morning, so one morning before breakfast, a friend and I went to the top of observatory hill, hoping for a good view. The camera that I had borrowed from a friend in camp had been practically useless till then, but I took it with me hoping to get a few snaps. We were well rewarded for our efforts, for on reaching the top of the hill, there in front of us was that part of the Himalayas known as the Sikkim Range. We were looking across the top of the clouds and the mighty mountains seemed to rise up out of them. It is a marvellous sight which has to be seen to be appreciated. One cannot do it justice on paper.

There are five famous peaks next to one another all snow-covered, the middle one being Kanchenjunga. The snaps I will be sending you are the ones I took at this particular time. These is another attraction on observatory hill in the form of a Buddhist temple. The inhabitants of Darjeeling are a mixed lot, some Tibetan, some Nepalese and some Indian and it seems that all three races worship at this temple, though I was given to understand that most Nepalese are Hindu in religion. Nepal is the state where the famous Ghurkhas come from.

So far I have paid little attention to the industry for which Darjeeling is famous, that of tea. All over the hillsides tea plantations can be seen, usually growing in terraces. The bushes reminded me of bay trees about two feet six inches high and parties of native women can be seen going round with baskets on their backs, picking just a few leaves off each bush. The local shops make a business of sending tea home for customers the same as Devonshire shops do with cream.

Well, as is usually the case with leave, the time soon went and the day came for me to make my way to the station and board that masterpiece of trains again. As I have already stated Ghoom, the first station is much higher than Darjeeling so it means quite a climb for the train. There were two trains running close to one another and I was in the front one. The poor little engine had to work very hard and when we came to a steep piece of tracks it wheels would simply fly round and just keep the train moving, with the men in front busily throwing sand on the lines. At one place the track was steep on a rather sharp bend and the engine just could not make it, so we can to a standstill. The other train was just behind us, so we had to enlist the help of that to give us a push. We were on the edge of a precipice at the time and I had visions of being pushed right over it. It came up behind us with a terrific bump and with the united efforts we reached Gloom alright.

From here onwards the journey is mostly downhill naturally, and as the hours went by, became rather monotonous, especially as it was ground I had already covered. In places the railway doubles back round under itself making a figure of eight. It was just after going round one of these that we came to a stop and two of the men from the engine went running back. The driver had lost his money bag on the figure eight.

The landslide that had given us trouble on the way up had been repaired, but where it had been, the ground was of course very new and looked very unstable, but we reached the bottom quite safely, and arrived at Siluguri after dark where the Calcutta train was waiting already packed. I managed to get on it somehow and using my tin trunk for a seat, spent a very uncomfortable night.

I hope you find this letter interesting. I have written it in bits and pieces, so please excuse the mistakes.

Your loving son,

Jack

Impressions of India

On March 15th 1943 I sailed from Liverpool with thousands of other service men and women in a convoy of ships 40 or 50 strong. We didn’t know where we were going, of course there were plenty of rumours doing the rounds. Had one taken any notice of them we were about to visit every war front in the world, provided we arrived safely, considering we were carrying such a vulnerable load of explosives. At least that's what some of the rumours said. It’s amazing how at a time like this, every rumour is most unpleasant, for instance, no one seemed to insist that we were going to America or Canada.

Well, for days and days we steamed out into the murky, cold, grey Atlantic and apart from the comforting sight of the other ships in the convoy, there was nothing to be seen except a Sunderland or a Catalina Flying Boat keeping constant watch over us, until we got out of range for them. If you’ve ever watched a convoy of ships, I think you’ll agree with me that it’s a very fascinating sight with the Commodore ship leading and all the others in their correct positions, no matter how much it is necessary to zig-zag or turn-about to avoid enemy action.

Well, after 12 days sailing, during which time we must have almost touched America, we called at Freetown on the N.W. coast of Africa From there we went on down across the equator until one Sunday morning, when we went up on deck, Table Mountain was looming up out of the morning mist in front of us. There is no mistaking this famous Plateau and during the morning we passed quite close to Cape Town, nestling below it. We rounded the Cape of Good Hope and in a day or two put into Durban, where we were taken ashore and put into a transit camp. This is a very lovely city with its miniature skyscrapers, beautiful gardens, glorious climate and plenty of everything which was so severely rationed at home. Could it be true that we were going to stay in this land of plenty.

No, after a week we boarded a Dutch boat, and this time made our way up into the Indian Ocean, across the equator again and after a voyage of 8 weeks, docked in Bombay, here once again we went into a transit camp. At last we were getting near our destinations, and every day we all anxiously awaited news as to where we would be posted. Perhaps it would be Ceylon or Central India, maybe the N.W. frontier or the Burma Front. Ah, the Burma Front! that was a hot spot then as the Japs were doing pretty well, so of course most of the rumours centred around this. I think the worst one was that 2 or 3 squadrons had been wiped out with malaria there and we would almost certainly have to replace them.

At last our posting came through and with quite a number of other chaps I was posted to a place called Kanchrapara, in Bengal. Now Bengal is the next province to Burma, but we decided it wouldn’t be too bad as our camp wasn’t far from Calcutta. To get there meant a journey right across India and this we did by train, sleeping and eating on the same wooden seats for 4 days. It was during this journey that we really had our baptism of heat, for it was May, the sun scorched plains were dried up, the breeze which came into the carriage was hot, and we were all horribly uncomfortable with perspiration, soot and grime. We eventually arrived in Kanchrapara, and felt pleased that we now had a definite address and with reasonable luck could expect some mail within a few weeks at the most.

For the first few days we had to tolerate some of the old sweats, who seeing that we were just out from England, [to use RAF terms] insisted on shooting the time - airing their Hindustani to Indians who would probably have understood English better - telling us how to get into Calcutta free on the trains and so on. Well, we soon settled down and began to get used to our surroundings.

Now, to give anyone a reasonable impression of India in a few minutes is a hopeless task. I was out there for 2 and a half years and it still mystifies me, so the best thing I can do is to mention one or two of the things that stand out in my mind regarding India - things that I do not associate with any other country. Such things as the host of diseases - malaria, dysentery, the railways and stations, the over-crowding causing such disorganisation, seeing snow-capped Everest before breakfast and last but by no means least, Sudder St Methodist Church, Calcutta.

Now, to take these one at a time - the diseases, the most common of which in the part of Bengal where I was stationed, was malaria and dysentery. I was always rather scared of getting either of these as in may cases there is not a positive cure. Considering that about two thirds of the chaps at Kanchrapara had had either or both of these complaints, I consider myself very fortunate, especially as I didn’t always observe one of the most important anti-malaria rules. As I expect most of you know, malaria is carried by a certain species of female mosquito and as these appear after dark, it is an order on most camps that long sleeved shirts and long trousers must be worn after sundown. In my job this was practically impossible. I worked in the testing section for aeroplane engines which were turned out from the maintenance unit to which I was attached and I was on night shift most of the time. Well, in the terribly humid summer and monsoon seasons, it is uncomfortable to say the least of it to work with anymore than a pair of shorts on before 11 o’clock.

Looking back, some of the malaria precautions were quite funny, though we didn’t think so at the time. Of course we all had nets suspended over our beds and quite often you would see a fellow get on to his bed and laboriously tuck his net in all around him, satisfying himself that no mosquitoes can get in, but there must have been one in waiting for him because no sooner had he settled down and he hears one buzz past his ear. He immediately flashes on his torch and begins searching for it like a searchlight looking for a bomber. Now and again he gets it in the beam of his torch and muttering something under his breath makes a grab at it, but misses. This goes on perhaps a score of times, until with patience almost exhausted the fellow makes his victorious grab, opens his hand and there finds his enemy, squashed.

Another malaria precaution was the spraying of billets every week, and this annoyed those of us on night shift immensely. For this job a team of Indians was employed and at about 10 o’clock on the spraying morning, you would be rudely awakened by a petrol engine, to which the sprayer was attached being wheeled into the billet. Needless to say these unfortunate men were most unpopular, for they weren’t at all particular about what they sprayed and if you didn’t get out of bed, cover your belongings up and get out of the hut you and your belongings would smell of Flit for evermore.

Unlike malaria dysentery is mainly carried by flies so the best precaution against this is to be very careful as to what you eat. Of course, food tends to become absolutely covered with flies in the hot season and unfortunately they seemed to like foul matter as much as they like our food, though quite often we ourselves could see little difference. From this if can be seen that the best way to minimise dysentery is to keep the flies off the food and all foul matter well out of the vicinity of the cookhouse.

The railways and stations. On Indian railways there are 4 classes, 1st, 2nd, inter and 3rd, the first being less comfortable than our 3rd and their 3rd being just wooden seats, always very overcrowded. Railway journeys in such a vast land as this often consist of 3 or 4 days and nights travelling and if you are travelling in 1st or 2nd class and are not too crowded you may be lucky enough to get a bunk at night-time, but as far as other ranks were concerned you usually had a little bit of a wooden 3rd seat. The large stations are very similar to ours in lay-out, but add, usually, the scene of filth and squalor. Many people seem to live on stations and in order to get from the station entrance to either of the platforms you must pick your way amongst people who are sitting and sprawling all over the place. At night these people just wrap themselves completely in a sheet, and sleep on the hard concrete platform.

The tremendous over-crowding of the cities must be seen to be realised and everything seems inadequate for the population, the greatest problem in this direction nowadays of course being food.

In Calcutta the tramways run quite a good service but these are always packed to capacity with people hanging on outside to anything they can catch hold of.

In Bengal it was customary for the servicemen to spend his leaves in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the climate is more comparable to our own. One of the favourite places being Darjeeling, the famous tea centre. I went there 3 or 4 times and although it involved a journey of practically 24 hours, it was well worth it. It was from here that my pal and I walked 17 miles before breakfast one morning to see Mount Everest. The reason for going so early was not our lust for early rising, but it was only visible at sun-rise while the air was clear as it’s 100 miles away. It was well worth going for, not only to see Everest, but the grand panorama that we had of pert of the Himalayas was a sight to be remembered.

I have said nothing of Missionary work out there, but when I saw the difficulties in such a land as this, the people, the climate, the terrain, my admiration of the missionary certainly grew. I saw something of Methodism in Calcutta as I always attended Sudder St. Church when I could. Here I enjoyed some of the best services I have ever attended and at the evening service it got absolutely packed out, mostly with servicemen and in order to get a seat for the 6.30 service it was advisable to be there by 6pm. The Methodist Churches in the cities are very much like the English ones except for the whirr of electric fans overhead and the much more comfortable seating arrangements. They nearly all had a service sing-song in the hall afterwards.

I have deliberately avoided saying anything about the present communal troubles for two reasons.

  1. It is far too involved a subject to tackle in a short paper like this.
  2. I am in no position to tackle it as that is a job for those who know a lot more about India than I do.

It was just coming to a head when I left and rioting had begun, so much so that we had to double the guards not a very popular idea.

The Taj Mahal

When I went to India the name Taj Mahal didn’t mean much to me, in fact, had anyone asked me what it was my answer would have been to the effect that it’s a famous building erected by a man in memory of his wife. I’m not even sure if I knew it was in India, but after I arrived in that country and looked around Bombay and Calcutta, there remained little doubt in my mind that it’s definitely Indian and that the Indians are very proud of it, for they make sure that it’s displayed in front of the visitors in all sorts of forms, worked in coloured beads on table cloths, inlaid in marble trinket boxes, painted on ornaments, in fact after walking around and bazaar or city one sees it in practically all forms imaginable.

Naturally it was not long before I felt I would like to see this building and after hearing glowing reports of it from some of my pals who had seen it, I decided to spend a leave in New Delhi, from where I could get to the Taj Mahal fairly easily. Going to Delhi involved a train journey of about 900 miles and that would be rather trying on British railways which are really de-luxe when compared with the dirty, uncomfortable trains which operate in India, but I decided it would be well worth it as there are plenty of temples, mosques, tombs and many other buildings of interest in Delhi, being the capital of the country.

I stayed in the same hostel there as two fellows from the same camp as me so we spent quite a lot of time together. We decided that we would attempt to get to the Taj Mahal and back in the same day contrary to many people’s belief that it was impossible as it is situated in Agra about 90 miles from the capital. We set off early one morning in a train which was running an hour late and arrived at Agra station about mid-day. Here a taxi driver approached us and, taking it for granted that we were going to the Taj, told us how much he would take us for, and that he would wait an hour then bring us back to the station. This seemed to suit us, although his price was a bit exorbitant, but as time was not on our side we hired him. Of course he guessed our circumstances and knew we didn’t have much option as we had to catch a train back at 4 o’clock and in any case the distance to the Taj from the station is about 2 miles and to walk that under the Indian sun would have just about spoilt our day out.

After quite a pleasant drive through countryside similar in many respects to that of this country, we arrived in a little village, the most important part of which was quite an elaborate building of red stone, inlaid with marble. This building is a masterpiece in itself, but is only the gateway to the Taj Mahal. There is a minaret on each of the 4 corners and in the centre is an arch through which the gateway passes.

I think at this point should tell you why the Taj Mahal was built. In 1629, the Emperor Shah Jehan was going to the Deccan to fight and, as was usual, his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, for whom he held the greatest affection, was travelling with him. In the camp one night she was taken ill and as she felt she was dying, made 2 requests of her husband. One was that he should not marry again and the other that her tomb should be built of such a style and pattern that its equal could not be found in the world. The Taj Mahal takes its name from this queen, as it means, Tomb of Mumtaz Mahal. The building was commenced in 1648 and reports say that 20,000 men worked on it for a period of 18 years. This is fairly feasible, as of course, there was no mechanical help and the huge pieces of marble had to be manhandled in to position. It is said that a road was built to the top of the building in order to get the material up there. A good many of there men were undoubtedly employed in transporting the material as bullock-cart, the only means available beside river transport, is painfully slow and many of the precious stones which go to form the inlaid mosaic work which must have taken most of the time, were brought from all parts of the world.

We mounted some stones steps and passed through the gateway which I described just now and in front of us was one of the most magnificent sights I have ever seen. Stretching away for 2 or 3 hundred yards was a garden through the centre of which ran a series of pools of water, and rising at the end, glistening white in the sunshine as though made of icing sugar, rose the Taj Mahal. As we approached it through the garden it seemed to change form its icing sugar state into a solid mass of marble. It is built on a terrace and after mounting the steps on to this, the first thing we were required to do was remove our shoes and leave them with an attendant. The outside of the building was very richly inlaid with gold and all sorts of precious stones, though unfortunately from time to time it has been looted and much of the inlaid work is now artificial. Around the huge entrance arch writing from the Koran (Mohammedan Bible) is inlaid with black stone, and as an example of the details into which the fine work goes, the writing gets slightly larger towards the top of the arch so that from the ground it all appears to be the same size.

As we entered the building a guide attached himself to us and he explained in parrot-like fashion some of the stones inlaid into the marble wall in the form of flowers. In the centre of the building stands an imitation tomb of the Emperess, and by the side that of the Emperor. There again the workmanship is unique. Surrounding these imitation tombs is built a marble screen each panel being one piece of marble about 5 ft square and delicately cut like lace. The original screen was gold but was removed for safe custody. The actual tombs themselves are immediately below the imitations in a kind of cellar where the only lighting is a hurricane lamp, These being the originals are profusely decorated with stones and jewels inlaid in such a manner as to make the most beautiful designs in flowers. I don’t think anyone could describe this building properly and I don’t think anyone knows how much it cost, but of this we can be certain – Emperor Shah Jehan spared nothing in order to fulfil his wife’s dying wish and don’t think even she could have visualised anything as exquisite as this.

When we returned on to the terrace, we climbed one of the 4 minarets which stand one at each corner. This was similar to climbing a lighthouse and from the top got a grand view of the surrounding country. At one side of the Taj Mahal, on the edge of the terrace, Shah Jehan built a large Mosque, but as this would have looked a bit odd, he put another building exactly the same at the other side of the Taj just in order that it should look symmetrical. Obviously there was no shortage of money, material or labour where Shah Jehan was concerned. Well, we collected our shoes and returned through the gardens to our taxi. The little village by the entrance derives its living from the Taj Mahal by selling souvenirs, photographs etc to the endless stream of visitors. We returned to Delhi that evening very satisfied, having seen one of the wonder of the world and certainly the most elaborate monument to affection.