THIS morning I returned to the Poona bookstore where I had previously got quantities of nationalist literature. Impressed with the pamphlets on the Punjab massacres, I hoped that I might find some other banned matter that was as interesting and enlightening. When I entered the place I was met with coldness, not by the owner but by his wife, whom I knew. I asked if I could speak to the woman's husband, but she simply stared at me, refusing to answer. I began to think that she had forgotten my face or perhaps remembered it in some false connection. Whatever the explanation, it was quite apparent that I was persona non grata from her point of view. "Don't you recall, I've been here often. Your husband has given me some excellent pamphlets." I began with a forced enthusiasm but I could not sustain it through the entire speech. "What is wrong?" I asked directly. "Why don't you tell me where your husband is?" I was growing more uncomfortable with every passing moment, as if there were something between us which I did not know.
I began browsing around the stacks of the room trying to hide my embarrassment, trying also to puzzle out the reason for the uncharitable reception I got. Wherever I went the woman followed, never allowing me more than a few yards' leeway. I decided that I might better leave the shop and search for my answers somewhere else. I picked up one volume, almost at random, and turned to ask how much it was. For the first time since I had entered the bookstore I got an answer, a loud unsteady "Take it, sahib!"
I said, "Yes, that's what I intend to do, but I want to know the price of the book."
The woman repeated, "Take it, sahib," offering no further explanation.
"Now just a moment," I cried in anger, "I want to know what is going on here. You treat me as if I were carrying the plague and now you refuse to let me buy a book."
The woman smiled, but not in a friendly manner. Then she simply turned her back on me. I slammed the book back down on the counter and walked out of the shop completely bewildered.
As I was making my way down the narrow street, a military policeman called to me. He ran up from the corner where he was apparently stationed and said, "Beg pardon sir, but didn't you just come out of this bookstore?"
I answered, "Why, yes. Why do you ask?" Then I turned to notice a large sign on the door: "Out of Bounds to Military Personnel." I began to understand my strange treatment. "Why, I've never noticed that sign before. I've been in that bookstore any number of times."
The M.P. said, "Well, I'm not surprised. The sign was just put up last week. They hustled the old man off to jail on Monday for dealing in books and pamphlets which were banned. I suggest that you find another shop, sir. We have strict orders to see that nobody enters this one.
I lost my cycle while I was in the hospital, but my water truck is due to arrive any day. It has actually been delivered to Koragoan Lines, but it must be painted dark drab before I receive it. I have learned that we must drive across India in our vehicles and I am already tormented by the prospect of that. My truck, I understand, is stripped down for combat use and is therefore denuded of windshield and roof. It is approximately two thousand miles to Calcutta and we are allowing ten days to complete the trip. In ten days, without windshield or roof to protect me, I should be as seamed and darkened as any Indian. There is at least one consolation, however; I will be accepted henceforth as a pukah sahib. At present I am a sort of pink-kneed apprentice, denied a great many of the "honors thereto pertaining."
Our Indian service troops have reported for duty so I assume that we will get under way in the very near future. A surprisingly strict security ban obscures the date of our actual departure. But if this movement is anything like the last one from Poona, the populace will be able to tell us when we leave. I understand that the shopkeepers clamped down on credit exactly three days before the men knew they were moving. The last few days in a city are the hardest, for one realizes there is so much that he has not seen. I am sorry now that I postponed my visits to so many of the near-by temples and shrines. But actually I suppose I would never be satisfied; there would always be more that I was anxious to see. Every mountain crest invites one beyond, yet no one could walk the length and breadth of this country.
This morning, as the mists were rising from the road, our convoy began roaring out of Poona. The start-up signal had been given around five and a few minutes later we were rolling across India. Our bearers, from whom this movement was to be secret, were nearly all present to bid us good-by. They waved their hands and tried to shout above the whining of motors and the clashing of gears. There was something genuinely thrilling about our departure, a contagion of energy from the massed power it bespoke. Dispatch riders added to the sense of excitement as they dashed back and forth on their motorcycles. They would nip at us here and bark at us there, like well-trained farm dogs on the heels of cattle. The enormous brute lorries would cough and rebel, then their engines would race and they would nose into line. Ponderously, and with a certain reluctance, they would turn from our driveway out onto the road. There they would pick up the proper spacings, drawing gradually into a rough uniformity. The morning sun was just breaking through when the last of the lorries was getting under way. We lumbered into motion like an elephant caravan, each goggled mahout well up in his cab-over-engine.
The road out of Poona was deceptively good, a single dirt track but fairly well graded. Through most of the morning our spirits were high as we wound back into the heart of India. A brilliant sun was shining down, but it only served to cheer us along. We were still about two thousand feet above sea level and the breeze was cool in spite of its rays. But this afternoon we reached the edge of the great plateau on which Poona is situated. Stretching below us, shimmering in the heat, the great central plains lay bleached and dry. We halted for a moment before beginning the descent, more in sheer wonder than with any clear purpose. There was time for an exchange of worried looks, then we began rolling down into the mouth of a blast furnace. The kite hawks circled higher and higher above us, then they dropped behind with shrill warning cries. About halfway down we passed between two rock pinnacles which some tommy had aptly but grimly labeled "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here."
The breeze flowed off the edge of the plateau but it soon disappeared like a stream in the sand. Even the road refused to follow us; it equivocated, then begged off into wandering potholed trails. The jolting of the trucks made our bodies ache and our fingers grew stiff a-round the steering wheels. My arms began to sting from a heavy sweat as the sun burned its salt back into the flesh. We are taking the long way around to Calcutta because, I am told, it is easier driving. What the direct route must hold in the way of obstacles I hardly dare imagine after this back-breaking day. I thought I was joking when I ventured the suggestion that the sepoys might carry this water truck in emergencies. As a matter of fact they were spared that today only because the rivers were low. We have already forded two unbridged streams which would be completely impassable at any other time of year. It seems impossible that there should be no better road between Bombay and Delhi, the most important two cities in all of India.
We have already lost one driver and his vehicle in an accident that is still almost unexplainable. One ambulance was simply seen to turn from the road and veer twenty feet to the side, where it crashed into a ravine. I suspect that the driver was probably dazed from the constant pounding he had received through the day. I have frequently felt a little punch-drunk myself from the bucking and jolting of this rough terrain. But the thing that bothers me more than this is the terrible cloud of dust which we raise. Quite often it is impossible to see ten feet ahead, so we just have to drive by guess and by golly. I have tried tying handkerchiefs around my face but the dust still gets into my nose and throat. It mixes with the streaming perspiration to form an uncomfortable crackling mask.
The dispatch riders have the hardest job of all; I know that from my own experiences on a cycle. Traveling over ground as rough as this is dangerous even when no speed is set. But when the convoy is traveling thirty miles per hour and is strung out for more than a mile and a half, it doesn't take much of a lightning calculator to add that up to a total of suicide. I watched one fellow pass me this afternoon, skidding and bounding in the gravel and dirt. I tried not to think what would happen to him if he spilled in the path of one of our trucks.
We arrived in Nasik as it was growing dark; there is barely enough light now to see this page. I must force myself to stay awake for supper though my body is sore and crying for sleep. I already had a cup of delicious hot tea and my stomach rebels at the thought of much more. But I know that I will be ravenous by tomorrow noon if I don't manage to choke down a little bully beef.
Today what I've been dreading has finally happened; I have been forced to take to a motorcycle myself. Since I had more experience than most of the fellows, I was the natural fill-in when one dispatch rider was hurt. I don't have all the facts of his accident but he is said to have crashed into a bullock cart. The yoke of the bullock lifted him off his seat and broke a couple of ribs in the process. As I buckled into my crash helmet and skid boots, a strange feeling of resignation came over me. I was nervous when I kicked over the starter of my bike, but its responsive roar sent a tingle through me. As I pulled down my goggles I tried to stop thinking and become just a functioning part of the mechanism. My narrow escapes, which I soon stopped counting, made me only more angry, not frightened by my job. For nearly five hours I rode herd on the line, shouting and swearing the trucks into order. My memory of that time is an indistinct blur, a flashing of wheels and a stream of invective.
I soon discovered that it was quite impossible to exercise any caution while "riding" the convoy. Turns must be made with a blast of the throttle, in fast broadsides to keep the road clear. In addition, the greater chances I took, the more instant obedience I got from my drivers. They realized, I suppose, that the job was dangerous and nobody wanted to feel responsible for my suicide. By the end of the day I was getting a bit cocky, and I resolved to finish with a fitting flourish. I raced out ahead of the convoy toward Dhulia, to see if the petrol point was ready for our trucks. The road was much smoother than it had previously been and in the distance I could see a stretch of tarmac. I opened the throttle wider and wider, exhilarated by the rushing and the sting of the air. I didn't realize until it was too late that there was a nasty bump where the dirt met pavement. When I hit it I was traveling about sixty miles per hour and I took off in a sickening three-foot leap. As I landed my front wheel was jarred out of line and I careened off the road, trying hard to stay upright. I crashed head down through a barbed-wire fence, breaking the strands most happily with my helmet. After jumping a ditch and grazing a tree I managed to bring the cycle under some sort of control. A number of natives were shaking their heads, quite convinced of the madness of this machine-age civilization. I stopped for a moment to steady my hand, filling my pipe and puffing for a while. I avoided the glances of the people who gathered; then I finished my run at fifteen miles per hour.
As we move farther north the days grow more comfortable, but the nights in turn become colder and colder. Though we do most of our driving in issue coveralls, when the sun goes down they feel flimsy and insufficient. I brought three blankets from Poona when we left; I've begun to wish I'd brought four or five. When the dampness settles on our open stretchers a chill runs through my very marrow. Our working day begins most dismally when we crawl from our sacks many hours before sunup. There is no warm bathroom or dressing closet to qualify the pain of that initial necessity. We slip into clothes that drip with the dew and scratch as only wet wool can scratch. Finally we draw our cup of tea, simply holding it in our hands for warmth at first. Our cocky sergeant makes the rounds, bawling the traditional reveille cry. "Rise and shine! Rise and shine! You've had your rest and I've had mine! The sun's burnin' your bloomin' eyes out. Rise and shine! Rise and shine!"
It is a sad crew of men who climb into their cabs, rubbing their eyes and munching on soya link. It is a sleepy procession that winds from the car park, wincing and coughing in the sharp morning air. As we get under way I make a vow, as regular, no, more regular than my morning ablutions. I swear that I'll find someone else to drive so that I can curl up behind and sleep. Gradually the sun begins to break through, flirting with the fringe of near-by mountains. As we wind up and down over the hilly land we feel it, then lose it innumerable times. In every declivity it is bitterly cold, just as it was when we rolled from our beds. But on every hill it is instantly warmer. We doff and don our mittens and coats.
We have passed beyond the central plains, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that we skirted them. After only a few days of hot, flat sands we began winding up into these scrubby mountains. There are no real trees or vegetation here, but dwarfed, twisted bushes pretend to maturity. In the distance we can see more impressive ranges covered with the beginnings of a promising forest.
Wherever these winding roads have taken us, no matter how primitive the country has seemed, there have always been numerous religious symbols by the wayside, minor shrines and miscellaneous Hindu masonry. Some of this art is of recent origin, but the majority of it dates back many hundreds of years. Occasionally we have come upon outstanding relics that count their age in the tens of centuries. There is a strange omnipresence of all ages in this civilization, a physical lesson in eschatology. There is, to the outsider, the uncomfortable feeling that the ancestors of the present are standing at his elbow. It is hard for me to adjust to this, native of a country so new and unencumbered. But it is all the easier for me to sense the dead weight of an infinite past bearing down on the present. Sociologists claim that the American people have very little sense of historical perspective. I can easily believe this, for our own traditions are relatively new and shallow-rooted. From our point of view the peoples of Asia are enigmatic and slow to move. Wearing as we do the winged shoes of reason, it is to be expected that our reactions are mercurial.
I cannot help speculating upon the potentialities of the Christian missions in this land of the past. On first thought, it seems that their task is impossible since they are throwing their weight against an awful inertia. But gradual development is only one form of change, reaction is another and more immediate one. When a philosophy and an outlook lag too far behind, the smallest of forces can take up the slack. Witness the Russian Revolution when a handful of Communists anticipated history. Remember the fall of the house of Bourbon, when a chicken peck collapsed its eggshell walls. A wave of new life is rising in India, borne on the restless tides of dissatisfaction. It may weaken the foundations of Hinduism in the process of destroying the institutional props of the raj. There are six million Christians in India today, a bountiful harvest for so short a sowing. But who are the Christians in India and what is the church to which they belong?
Before I left Poona I visited a missionary, one of the men who must hurl the spear and the challenge. He was a dumpy little man already tired out from endless haranguing on theology and doctrine. The purpose of his evangelism was to save people's souls; "I am not concerned with politics," said he. The weapon I had imagined aloft in his hand became a bean shooter and his warrior helmet crumpled to a dunce cap.
What do the Christian missions offer India? Do they even recognize the people's needs? No, they deal in a drug on the market. They sell "other worldly" philosophies to an overdosed populace. Why don't we meet the people on common ground and offer them a dynamic social gospel? Why don't we rouse them out of their lethargy rather than telling them to "puff on my pipe a while." Because, I suppose, we don't dare to; we cannot begin to apply Christianity. Our missionaries remain by sufferance of the raj and their tenure is more important than their God. I should like to bring my Poona missionary out here and show him these great stone rivals of his. I should like to ask him, "And now, little man, do you propose to move them with your own two hands?" I am sure that he would draw himself up to full height and announce with an impressive and stentorian tone, "Young man, my strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure." But the fact of the matter is that he could not move them. except with the help of great social change. And he not alone fails to work for that change; he even denies that it is possible or desirable. "But where is your Galilean Radical?" I would ask him. "That man could help you move these stone rivals." But alas, the good doctor is back in Poona, Probably expounding on the doctrine of atonement.
In the front row sit the young Hindu boy and his Moslem wife, outcastes from their own religions. Next to them sits the little Anglo-Indian girl who is bitterly, pitifully trying to be English. Somewhere in the congregation is the neurotic schoolteacher, out of place, misfit, going anywhere for friendship. These are the castoffs of India's religions; the great stone shrines do not miss their presence.
Day by day the food has got worse, particularly the noon meal which we take on the move. The bully-beef cans have swollen from the heat and many have burst or strained their seams. For my last two meals the meat has been rotten, but I've had to eat it because I was hungry. The stuff is greasy and tasteless to begin with; now it is becoming unbearably rank. The fruit bar fares little better in this climate; most of our supply is crawling with maggots. At one time the very thought would have sickened me, but now I brush off the majority and eat the rest. Maggots have almost no taste to speak of, and they don't noticeably alter the consistency of the fruit bar. Once you have learned not to dwell on their presence you are able to down them without much trouble. But yesterday I bit into something much worse, a bar shot through with maggot eggs. I thought at first that I was chewing on sawdust, but when I realized what it was I lost my lunch.
I tried to "buzz" a Brahman bull yesterday and almost wound up on the point of his horns. Undaunted by the monstrous size of the beast, I assumed he would react like any other bull. Normally, I have only to ride in their direction and race my motor to clear the road. But this time the bull had a similar idea, and came closer to achieving his aim than I did. He lowered his head and charged at my cycle, bellowing much louder than I could accelerate. I swerved aside and around his horns, missing my fate by a matter of inches. I assumed that he would be satisfied with this clear triumph, that he would refuse to press my ignominy any further. But with a thoroughly unsportsmanlike air, I felt, he turned in his length and was back upon me. I was last seen roaring down the roadway, casting terrified looks back over my shoulder. "The Time Muehl Was Buzzed by a Brahman Bull" may well become a part of Indian Army legend.
I am glad to be back on the water truck again, measuring out chemicals rather than pacing the convoy. But I had forgotten, for a while, the numerous difficulties attendant on even this simpler job. In addition to thwarting the forces of nature and their blind intention to disease us all, I must now contend with a newer menace, a more crafty, conscious, and clever force. The native children are growing very bold and they plague me with a constant, if minor, sabotage. They sneak up at night while I am asleep and turn on the taps at the rear of my water truck. Twice already I've been awakened mockingly by the drizzling swan song of my precious supply. And each time I have arisen only just in time to save the last few drops in the tank. Fortunately, I have been able to replenish the supply at any of the cities along the route. But I hope I can devise some means of protection before we encounter the drier sections.
Yesterday, with an audacity uncommon even to them, these urchins turned on my taps in the morning. I discovered this fact in the late afternoon after laying the dust between Shivpuri and Jhansi. The tank had been full when I got under way, but it was completely empty when I came to a halt. I finally understood the peculiar gestures the dispatch rider had been making through most of the day.
One of the chief annoyances we encounter en route are the kite hawks which circle endlessly above us. There is, in India, no other creature that less respects the dignity of the sahib. These birds swoop down toward our plates at mealtime, stealing the choicest pieces from our forks. Occasionally they will dispute the possession of bread that is being incautiously held in our very hands. I know of any number of cases wherein a fellow has had a finger laid wide open. The hawk has a set of razor-sharp talons which he uses on man and animal alike. But aside from this primary nuisance value, the attitude of the kite hawk is quite indefensible. He adds insult to injury by sailing overhead, returning our grudged offerings in digested form.
I tell their story with my tongue in my cheek, but some flaring hatreds have centered on these birds. Their casual flippancy is more than enough to send many soldiers into fits of rage. The favorite method of retaliation is to insert old razor blades in chunks of food. These are thrown into the air for the circling hawks, which usually manage to catch them in their mouths. The desired effect is instantaneous; the bird simply crumples and spins to the ground.
Less sadistic and more humorous is the tale of one man who resolved to hit one of the hawks with an ax handle. He secreted himself between two ambulances, having thrown a bully-beef bait by the side. The bait was stolen several times by the shifty, swift-flying, brazen birds. But at last one timed its pickup poorly and met the descending weapon, full tilt. A shower of feathers went in every direction and a cry of triumph broke from our driver. He repeats his performance regularly now, varying his technique with the use of a shovel.
I have discovered at last the magic word that settles all of my water problems. On arriving in each new village, I simply proclaim to the people, "American sahib." Instead of draining, the children fill my truck, fighting for turns at the pumping apparatus. The parents, rather than misdirecting me as before, climb on my fenders and lead me to the water points. This fondness of the Indians for the American sahib does not really come as a surprise to me. I have long since realized their profound admiration for everyone and everything American. But I was still not prepared for such a display of good will as I have received in the last few outlying towns. The larger cities, where I have spent most of my time, being more sophisticated, conceal their feelings. But here it is as if the circus bad come to town; the cries precede me down the streets. Old Indian soldiers in tattered khaki come to a bent attention and salute when I pass.
The Indian has a stereotyped picture of my countrymen; we are magnanimous, gentle, but a little crazy. If I dare depart from this preconceived notion I am immediately suspected of being an impostor. But once I slap the men on the back and whistle at the women I am met with smiles. The people scream, "American sahib!" and accord me all privileges of that exalted position.
Today is December the twenty-fifth, but somehow I feel that today is not Christmas. Christmas is a day when there is snow on the ground, when you can see your breath, and when mittens feel good. Christmas is the time when you are secure at home, wrapping presents and choosing cards. Christmas is the time when you are foolishly happy, when even the irreverent become sentimental about their religion. On Christmas you visit your widespread families, and the ties of blood seem most important. In Michigan the snow creaks underfoot and coats your hair and your overcoat with white. Christmas is home and church and friends; Christmas is tinsel and snow and affection.
December 25 is the day you drive more than four hundred miles over hard-baked roads. It is the day when you sit in the shade of your lorry and make sentimental entries in your journal. You think about your friends and family, and you try to imagine just what they are doing; seven o'clock here, that's eight-thirty in the morning. just about time to open the presents!
The garrison here in Jhansi did its level best to make this day seem a little bit cheerful. just as we were opening out bully-beef tins a dispatch rider came out from a near-by hospital. He approached us rather timidly at first, qualifying his invitation before he made it. "We really haven't got much," he said, "but it might be a little better than bully-beef. The fellows heard you was stuck out 'ere and they sent me to ask if you'd share our supper. We haven't been able to draw special rations, but our cook can do wonders with soya link."
We jammed all our men into two or three lorries and ferried them into town to eat. At first our presence seemed to embarrass the regulars, but after more apologies they took us to supper. The dispatch rider was right; this meal was no banquet; but I think we all appreciated the gesture. These tommies had asked us out of sheer good will, and that in itself served to cheer us up. I ate two dishes of soya and tomato, better indeed than bully beef. After dinner a basket of nuts was passed, decorated pitifully with cigarette wrappers.
We arrived in Cawnpore in the late afternoon, and this gave me all evening to see the city. I had especially hoped for some free time here, since there is someone I am very anxious to see. He is an agitator for Indian independence, a spokesman for the textile workers chiefly. I had carried a letter from a friend in Poona who insisted that I talk with him if I could find the chance. I started along before supper was ready, fortifying myself with a cup of tea. Then I hit out through the center of town in spite of the fact that it is "out of bounds." On my way through the city I crossed one square that was peculiarly quieter than the streets around it. It almost seemed as if the people were shunning it, so my curiosity naturally was aroused. It was growing dark, but as I started across I noticed a scaffolding off to one side. It was braced and unpainted, obviously built in haste and designed for some temporary use. My imagination was quick to suggest any number of purposes which such a structure might serve. I didn't rein it in immediately since I had been conditioned to the truth of many ghastly imaginings. I went over to inspect the scaffold in spite of myself; my original impulse was to run away. The closer I got the more frightened I became, for more and more grisly signs were appearing.
I climbed a steep and shaky ladder, supporting my weight on the steadier hand rails. But I never got to the top; I saw all I wanted from a lower step. A rope was dangling from an overhead beam; I wondered whether the hanging were over or coming. Then I noticed a line of congealed blood which did not quite jibe with the idea of a hanging. Suddenly I became aware of a chilly breeze which began to blow as the sun went down. I climbed back down to the ground in a hurry and wrapped my tunic close about my neck. It was almost dark when I found the street and number designated on the letter I carried.
The man I sought was not at home when I called, but his bearer asked me if I would care to wait. I retired to a small thatch shelter in the yard and read from the volume I had thought to bring with me. After twenty or thirty minutes I arose, hearing the sound of voices inside. My host came out, rather curious at first, but when he read my introduction his greeting was warm. We talked for a while of many things, each trying to feel the other out. Gradually we built-up a mutual confidence, and I broached the subject which was burning in my brain. "I noticed a scaffold in the center of the city, located just off of one of the street squares. It was rigged rather as though for a hanging, but I noticed what looked like a stain of blood. What on earth has the thing been used for? I sense a real drama in that."
My host could not answer my question at once, but after thinking a moment he felt he could explain. "It was probably a public execution. They're not too uncommon here in the North. If you say you saw blood, then almost without doubt a number of men were put to death there. Frequently, in the case of a serious crime, the culprits are made to choose their end. They draw from a box a sign which tells whether they will be hung, shot, or flogged to death." I winced as he reeled off these "choices," particularly when he mentioned the final one. I have heard of this method of execution before, but I had put it out of mind and tried to forget it.
I can hardly believe such barbarism is practiced in the middle of the twentieth century. Though flogging as such is permitted by the raj, I suspect that it is discouraged as a means of killing. But I know enough about the laxity of policy to discount that suspicion as a disproof of the fact. Any number of atrocities are practiced which are never officially reported to the Delhi palaces. Still, I can hardly bring myself to believe this awful tale of terror and pain. I pray that my host was mistaken or that he was simply trying to aid his own cause.
I have discovered that the tommy has an amazing sense of humor which he stifles except when alone with his fellows. His specialty is a parody on his own behavior, a subtle satire on his place in society. The officer seldom sees his men except when they are rigid and at attention. An advantage of my anomalous position is that I can frequently depart from this beaten track. Last night several of our warrant officers were talking over events of the day. I joined the group as casually as I could and the conversation proceeded without interruption.
"Well, Jocko comes in wif a terrific burn, and I see he's not fit for night guard," one said. "So I 'ustle 'im off to bed, figurin' to clock in both 'is time and mine. Well, blimey, I run my bleedin' feet off, up to 'is barracks and then to ours. I 'ole my breaf and come to attention and throw the officer a pukah salute. Then I wheel aroun' and run out . . and this goes on for three hours, see? Well, by the end of that dine I'm an 'oly wreck and I can jis' about lif' one boot after the other. Finally I'm runnin' about ten minutes late and 'eavin like a bloomin' cavalry 'orse when I report. The Lieutenant notices that there is somethin' peculiar and 'e stops me just as I'm about to bounce out.
" 'I say, sergeant,' 'e says to me, ' 'ow is it that you're reportin' late? The other guards usually manage to come on time, but you seem winded when you eventually get here, and that is usually way overtime.'
"Well, I figures, gor-me, the jig is up. This bloke will certainly turn me in. And I knows that while I'm standin' 'ere talkin' to 'im, I'm losin' even more time---, by the by. But I says, 'Oh, I'm just anxious to do a good job, sir, I'm guardin' this place like as never before. An' you know, sir, I've noticed any number of prowlers. I've been chasin' 'em off for 'alf of the night.'
"Well, at this the Lieutenant takes out after me, proposin' to see these prowlers for 'isself. So we're duckin' in and around the buildings, while I'm wonderin' 'ow to report for Jocko. Suddenly a terrific idea comes to me and I say, ' 'Ere goes one, take after 'im, sir. I'll go around the other side of the buildin 'and we'll trap 'im around between the latrines.'
"At this the Lieutenant lets out a yell and says, 'All right, my man, I think I see 'is shadow.'
"I disappears like a streak of lightnin' only to be detained by the other officer. Finally I pulls the same stunt on 'im so that both of these lads is chasin' around buildings. ' 'Ere goes one,' I cry occasionally, just to keep 'em out of each other's way. Well, finally it's time for the next guard to come on, and I figures I'm jist about safe at last. But gorme, if they both don't get the idea of doublin' the guard for the rest of the night. I was lucky, though, 'cause I talked one into lettin' just the regular guard report. But I tell you blokes, by the end of that stretch I was jist about ready for an 'ospital bed."
The tommy had pantomimed the entire story, coming to exaggerated attention and saluting. When he was mimicking the officer he picked up a branch and swung it about like the regulation swagger stick. His fellows joined in the fun themselves, acting the "stooge" to his major roles. All in all the thing assumed more the proportions of a play than a speech.
Wasid Ali, the oldest of our Indians, has been riding in the cab of the water truck with me. Though neither of us understands the language of the other, we are developing a strong if silent friendship. Ali is a veteran of many years' soldiery and he wears the medals of overseas campaigning. Though he is now disarmed and attached to the service troops, he still considers himself a fighting man. Every evening he shares his supper with me, or in any case he offers to share it. The rations he draws are inferior to mine, but his imagination and seasonings more than make up for that. The usual cuisine is curry with chapatty, a tasteless bread made from flour and water. The combination is unbearably hot, but it almost obscures the rottenness of our meat.
I normally draw my rations from the mess sergeant, then squat by the fire that Ali has built. I sniff at the stuff lying cold in my place, grimacing and shaking my head in despair. At no point in the proceedings do I ever dare show that I am expecting a handout from Ali's pan. I simply display the deepest dejection; I sit there registering revulsion at my own. Without a word, my friend spreads a chapatty with a thick brown layer of his native concoction. Then he hands it to me, looking quite pleased with himself and for all the world as if he had never done this before. I take the chapatty with a show of surprise, and I push the bully beef ceremoniously to one side. We both make running comments on the curry's perfection by smiling and grunting our visceral approval. Finally we draw two cups of tea and bring them back to the dying coals. Ali and I sit staring into them, thinking our own thoughts, speculating on each other's.
Three of our service troops are Hindus, I'm told, and all the rest are Mohammedan. But to judge from the general good will among them, I would never have realized any difference existed. They all eat together from the same utensils; there are no obvious factions or persistent cliques. Though arguments arise, they are usually short-lived, and the men take sides irrespective of their faith. When I asked Peermohammed who the Hindus were, he had to count noses before he could answer. It was obvious that the distinction was unimportant to him, so unimportant that it was far from immediate. Several days ago a situation arose which I expected to result in serious disagreement.. The mess sergeant had drawn beef for the Indian troops, which the Hindus might be expected to resent. There was some heated argument among the men, between two factions of Moslems, I learned later. Finally their spokesman declined the beef, out of deference to the three Hindus with whom they were traveling.
In my conversation with Poona shopkeepers I often tried to draw them out on this subject. I was anxious to sound the depths of their tolerance, Hindu for Moslem and Moslem for Hindu. I would recite the failings of each group to the other, hoping to get their candid reactions. In each case, my friends would begin by cautioning me against any facile generalization. The Indians are aware that their diversity of religions is a catch phrase and an argument for the defense of the raj. Because of that, they are doubly anxious to prove that there are no fundamental antagonisms. I could not fail to be impressed by the earnestness with which they would destroy the straw men I set up. Time and again they would pound their counters and insist, "Hindu, Moslem, both of them Indians, sahib!"
As we pass along through the countryside I almost weep at the sight of these cattle. The stock is so underfed and so hopelessly degenerate that it bears little resemblance to the American herds. The backbones and ribs protrude through a skin which is usually covered with some scrofulous infection. The round, swollen bellies sag down beneath as if the flesh were tearing loose from the skeleton. The eyes of the animals are ringed with mucus and the mouths drool lazily on a frothy saliva. The udders are ridiculously, pitifully small, and the beasts have hardly the energy to graze.
There is almost no selective breeding in India, certainly none out here in the hinterlands. The immediate needs of the people are so great that any and all mating in the herds must be encouraged. Hence one single strain has developed in place of the many that should have been kept separate. The Indian bullock must work in the fields while the female counterpart is expected to give milk. In addition, both are occasionally slaughtered for the meat which neither produces in quantity. No enlightened farmer would ever choose to raise one strain of cattle for all of these purposes.
The fact that there is a herd at all is traceable to the Hindu worship of cows. I suspect the taboo was originally begun to serve the purpose which it still serves well. If the Indians killed their herds for food during famines, they would provide only scanty and temporary benefit. But as it is, they are permitted to live, producing the milk which is more constantly needed.
The problem of the herd is typical, almost symbolic of the general problems of Indian progress. The dilemma between the needs of the moment and long-range policy are as clear and cruel. A people who may starve if their stock diminishes are in no position to practice selective breeding. And people whose poverty of the moment is so grinding find it hard to set aside much money for investment. The gaunt forms of bastard-bred, ill-begotten cattle bear ugly witness to the truth of the first maxim. And the bony hand that grasps the anna is as painful a proof of the more important second.
I had a strange experience this afternoon, but I barely missed a tragic one. I was riding a cycle and I had dropped behind to minister to the needs of a burned-out lorry. Another dispatch rider was with me at the time, but I soon sent him on to report to the convoy. A few minutes later, after fruitless first aid, the truck made clear its intention to remain, and 1, hoping to retract my first statement, roared after the other dispatch rider who carried it. It was growing dark and the road was rough, but I was very anxious to stop the fellow. Forgetting my previous experience on the bike, I cleared the holes in fast running jumps. Suddenly my carburetor began to suck air and I switched from the right to the left-hand gas tank. But before the engine could draw up the petrol I had rolled to a sputtering, cursing stop. I bent down to make some adjustments in the lines, and when I straightened I was startled by a beggar at my elbow. He had emerged, I assumed, from behind one lone tree that stood near by on a landscape that was otherwise desolate. His face was streaked and white with ashes and I could not help but recoil at the sight. He extended a gaunt hand and muttered, "Baksheesh," but I could see that this was no ordinary beggar. His garb and his ceremonial make-up denominated him a Hindu holy man. I was so angry and ashamed of having been frightened that I dismissed him with a few ill-chosen phrases. He backed away with a singsong muttering; I somehow understood that this was a curse.
It was darker now, and though the incantation didn't frighten me, it left me with a certain irrational uneasiness. The appearance of the beggar, his sudden presence, and his chanting all served to jangle my nerves. When I got under way I proceeded slowly, having lost all my taste for speed and thrills. Around each bend I imagined monsters, waiting for despoilers of the faith to appear. Each dip and hollow made me feel more uncomfortable, till I reduced my speed to a virtual walk. When I began climbing one irrigation ditch, a most impossible fear took hold of me. What if the bridge were washed out? I thought. I shifted into first gear in spite of myself. But just as I neared the crest of the hill my confidence seemed to return to me. I opened the throttle and began shooting forward, when suddenly I found broad water below me. I spun the cycle as quickly as I could; it tore at the bank and plunged into the ditch. I sprawled in the sand, clawing for a hold, and managed to avoid following the vehicle. What if I had hit that washout full tilt? What if I had hurtled into it with the cycle? I might well have been knocked out or dragged down by the bike, cut up and burned by the white-hot cylinder.
When I caught up with the convoy, long since at rest, I told the tale of my curse and my crash. Brennan, the driver of the regular staff car, seemed to find the episode most mysterious. "Good Lord," he said, "that's really remarkable. Have you heard what happened to the other D.R.?" I confessed that I hadn't and I couldn't help wondering what bearing that had on what I was telling. "Tom met the same holy beggar as you, but he gave him four annas and received a blessing. About two hours ago he went into that ditch and was almost killed when his cycle fell on him."
WE DREW into Calcutta this afternoon, whence we shall be taken to the front by train. Fortunately we have a two-day stopover, long enough to warrant a room in the hotel, a hot bath, and a night between sheets. The town has been virtually appropriated by GI's, the first American troops I've seen in quantity. The city has adapted very quickly to their tastes. The teashops have been replaced by ice-cream bars. Most important of all, though, is the casual way the troops here treat their officers. They are respectful and disciplined, but in an easy-going way. Sergeants and lieutenants compete for the girls. There are just a few places that are out of bounds to all enlisted personnel. In most of the hotels, cafés, and restaurants you can find every insignia between a stripe and an eagle. At first this surprised me very much, as it is so different from the behavior of the British troops. But now I am getting used to it and I cannot see that it is harmful to morale.
I went into an American hospital yesterday, to see the surgeon general of the Indian theater. I had expected the usual battle with red tape, and I had supposed that it would take at least an hour to get to him. But to my surprise I stated my business and was ushered into his office with no delay. Still blinking from this unaccustomed efficiency, I was further staggered by the officer's informality. He waved aside the salute I began and produced a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. "Here," he said, "take it easy. Now tell me what I can do for you, young fellow."
I stated my business as briefly as possible, still surprised by the officer's attitude. The surgeon general stopped me at one point to check an answer to one question in his files. "Jim," he called, addressing his sergeant, "bring in the records of X-ray screening."
Within ten seconds he was scanning the sheets which the sergeant had produced from a cabinet by the door. Good Lord, I thought. If this had been our outfit that order would have taken five minutes to accomplish. Ten seconds to go through the essential motions. Four minutes and fifty more to click heels and exchange salutes.
This mania for efficiency has taken root in Calcutta; it is everywhere in spirit if not in effect. Even the ricksha boys are following the trends, providing express service with two men to the carriage. I doubt if the speeds achieved are much greater, and I doubt, in addition, if the American sahib cares. He is rich by our standards and prepared to pay just for the pretense of superservice. The merchants of Calcutta are racking their brains, devising ways to harvest American money. The bazaars are bulging with elephantine merchandise, tribute to the "bigger the better" philosophy. In the abstract I am against this supermaterialism, but in India---well, it is all for the best. It is a welcome relief from the semiascetic attitude which is partly responsible for the country's physical backwardness.
This enthusiasm over things American is not a pose, but a genuine reaction. The natives' preoccupation with efficiency and speed is not adaptation, but acceptance of a philosophy. I have seen bearers here taking pride in their jobs, striving for the American sahib's generous praise. I have seen them working at fantastic speeds, getting things done as never for us. And most of all, I have seen the GI manner and attitude that is responsible for this, in the jovial blustering caricatures of themselves who manage to pretend that work is fun.
As I entered the hotel two American soldiers were riding down Chowringhee Road in rickshas. The coolies who pulled them were old and tired out, and the soldiers chided them gently about their slowness. Finally one fellow hopped out of his seat and demanded that the coolie climb in his place. After several minutes of explanation and arguing, both of the GI's were between the bars. There was a clatter and shriek as they came down the street, running as fast as their boots would allow. The last I saw, one fellow was gaining on the other, yelling, "I'll beat you yet, you long-legged bastard."
The window of my room opens out on a court where, down below, some people are dancing. The music has been unbearably bad until recently and I've just discovered the reason for its improvement. The regular paid orchestra is composed of five Indians who have no real feeling for American jazz. They tootle away at syncopated rhythms as if they were charming cobras from a basket. But a moment ago five Negro GI's approached the bandstand and spoke to the director. After some consultation and wagging of heads, it was agreed that these impromptus might try their skill. They slipped into place with a becoming modesty, but it was apparent that they had played together before. The music was folded and put away; trousers were pulled slack over the knees. The drums established a lazy tempo, then the horns came in on a minor key. Fingers stiff from heaving boxes were limbering to long-lost, much-missed skills. The fellows loafed through a moody, blue chorus, just casually trying notes on for size. Then their touch came back and stiff lips loosened; the music took a more confident, rocking turn. The Indian musicians tried to return to the stand, but the dancers swarmed in to protest the attempt. At length it was apparent, if never agreed, that the GI's would play for the rest of the evening. The music has got better by the note; it is symphonic to the ear of homesick Americans. And I suspect that even in objective terms it is jazz of a rare authenticity and appeal. The musicians have lost a measure of their technique, but they have gained a directness and sincerity of statement. They cannot establish speed or fingering or arrangement, they can only blow clear unadulterated feeling.
We are waiting in the Calcutta railroad yards, loaded and ready for the trip to Assam. All of our vehicles have been driven aboard flatcars and chocked preparatory to getting under way. We are on a meter gauge at the moment, but we'll have to detrain and reload several times. Somehow the engineers of the raj have never got around to standardizing track. We are expected to sleep out here with our lorries, and for most of the men that will not be too bad. They can simply curl up in the backs of their ambulances and sleep on the stretchers as they have always done. But I am separate from the rest of the convoy, isolated here on a flatcar all my own. I've begun to pitch camp underneath the water truck, hanging my mosquito net and spreading some blankets. The cook truck is located just a little way forward, but the mess sergeant has distributed emergency rations. If we stop for long enough, he will cook up some food, but otherwise we'll just have to gnaw at cold bully beef. I laid in a supply of bananas and oranges with a half dozen coconuts thrown in for good measure. I expect that between this stock and our issue, I will be able to sustain life on my little island. I don't expect to get much sleep, however, perched as I am over the wheels of this car. The springing is rusty and bad to begin with, while the grading of the roadway seems terribly bumpy. When I lie down to rest my ears are, by accurate measure, just three feet and a half from the axle. And it will probably groan a duet with the sprung connection between the cars.
When I awoke this morning we were standing on a siding and I immediately assumed that we were still in Calcutta. I had slept through the night with an amazing soundness, even more amazing than I first suspected. When I poked my head from under the netting I looked out upon a foreign scene. We had apparently traveled for most of the night while I lay here quietly in a state of short death. I jumped from the blankets and dressed in a hurry, hoping to get some tea from the cook truck. But just as I began making my way up toward it the train started moving, and I had to hurry back. Some of the men have bought eggs from the farmers who are occasionally standing beside the tracks. They have soft-boiled them in the steam from the engine; all this, of course, while I was dressing.
The farther north we go in Bengal, the more oriental the scenery becomes. Long, low plains and dry, baked land give way to rolling pasture and trees. Farmers are working, knee-deep in rice fields, cultivating and digging in the crisscross paddies. They wear round, slanted hats, volcanic in shape, and reminiscent of "mission-pamphlet" Chinese. I was amused to see one fellow wading in the muck, drawing what seemed to be a net behind him. But I was far more surprised than amused when, at last, he raised the net with several fish.
I finally managed to get my breakfast by climbing from one car to another while we moved. At first I was rather afraid to try this, but everyone else seemed to be undertaking it. I have lately learned of one near accident which occurred as we were pulling out of the last siding. One of our men was jarred off balance so that he fell between the cars as they started rolling. Fortunately, though be struck his head on the rail, he was barely able to roll out of the way. Another fellow flagged down the train so that we could take the unconscious man aboard. I'm glad I had my breakfast before hearing of this, for I am sure it would have discouraged me from getting it. I've been glued to my seat for the last two hours, afraid even to get out of the truck.
We have just retrained on a wider track, an operation that took six or seven hours. As if it weren't bad enough to make these transfers, everything must be unloaded and replaced by hand labor. Just a few good cranes could complete the process in a quarter of the time it takes this way. But the coolies run back and forth over the siding, balancing freight on their turbaned heads. There was one string of cars ahead of us when we arrived, and another waiting just behind. The last train in line will probably be delayed two or three days by this silly inefficiency.
I talked to one of the stationmasters here, trying to convince him that this was bad economy. But he answered, "Son, you'll soon find out that labor is the cheapest commodity out here."
I protested, "Yes, perhaps labor is, but time is expensive here as elsewhere. You are tying up rolling stock for days at a time, just to save a few thousand dollars' outlay." But this is the way they did it for Queen Victoria and this is the way they will continue to do it. The raj is as suspicious of change and progress as the most ignorant, superstitious native village.
I am told that when the American Army wanted airports in India, they asked the British if they would be able to build them. "Yes," answered the raj, "but it will take a long time. Probably eight or ten months at least. And the cost will be high, extremely so. Well up in the tens of millions of dollars." The American Army declined politely and said that it would build the airports itself. The fields were finished in record time, many months less than half the British estimates. The cost was high, as the raj had predicted, but just about two-thirds the price it had set. This "miracle of modern engineering" was simply the application of twentieth-century methods. Bulldozers took the place of women with baskets, and dynamite was employed rather than children with grub hoes.
We have finally come to the end of the line; we rolled off our flatcars late last night. We arrived in the station around one o'clock, so we were routed from our blankets to detrain and make camp. Most of us managed only three hours' sleep, but I haven't heard anyone complain too bitterly. From this point forward our fortunes are the fortunes of war, and we might just as well begin getting used to them. I am grateful that we've been quartered comfortably for so long and I suppose that in the future we may lose more than sleep. In any event, we have one consolation: the food cannot get much worse than it is now.
It is a thousand miles from here to Imphal, our original base and present destination; a thousand miles over rugged Chin ridges, two days' travel if luck and lorries hold out. We have already begun to see signs of the enemy, harmless Japanese reconnaissance planes circling overhead. They are barely specks on a broad horizon; I hope we maintain this distant association.
This morning we crossed the Brahmaputra River and one of my secret suspicions was destroyed. I had always believed that it existed only in geography books, but there it was, broad and wet. Our lorries were ferried across on barges, rickety things listing low in the water. I was almost afraid to drive aboard, but after watching some others I edged on slowly. The vehicles were jammed in close-packed rows, bumper to bumper and wheel to wheel. Just to be on the safe side I elected to ride on a little tow tug, rickety as it was.
The "head" on this tug, or lavatory if you will, was hung out over the starboard railing. It was held in place by strapmetal fasteners, but it shook and sagged with the engine's vibrations. The little closet was about four feet square, probably a ship's locker adapted to the need. I could too easily imagine the thing breaking loose and carrying some unfortunate occupant to the bottom. I had bought some bananas from a fruit wallah on shore and I expected to eat them as a breakfast snack. Byron Kelly couldn't understand my generosity when I gave the entire lot to him.
I am disappointed to find the roads up here little better than those in India. On the central plains bumps and washouts mean only inconvenience; here they are a tactical disadvantage. This battle, they say, is a battle of communications in which strong supply lines are the first prerequisite. Speed of transport is so vital and imperative that stalled lorries are sometimes pushed off narrow ledges. And yet the grading and bridges are so bad that literally hundreds of cars go over the edge. Unbanked hairpin turns and unattended washouts slow down speeds and take their toll in lives and cargo.
It is not as if there were nothing to be done, as if we could move in no grading machinery. But it is the infuriating inertia of this great bureaucracy that not even a war can prod into action. The men who are building the Ledo Road have brought bulldozers, rock-crushers, and steam shovels in here to do a job which we called impossible. But true to tradition, the raj refuses to learn, refuses to admit its most obvious errors. There is an old adage which warns against the practice of sending a boy to do a man's job. How much worse to send women and girls to do the work of steam engines and gasoline!
We arrived in Demipur this afternoon, the northern terminus of the Manipur Road. Early tomorrow we will get under way on the final leg of our three-week journey. This road winds uphill from here to Kohima, then it gradually drops to the Imphal plain. Our convoys will operate between there and the front, evacuating battle casualties from Tiddim and Tamu. "Front" is an inappropriate term to use in describing jungle warfare. It is better to talk of the strong points and "boxes" and of the no man's land that lies beyond them. Out in the jungle patrols interweave, constantly prodding and contacting the enemy. And even a half mile beyond our bases the incautious may walk into a well-laid ambush.
There is no rear area here on the road; we could meet a barrage around any turn. For weeks at a time the routes are blocked, cut and held by Japanese patrols. This is a continual source of discomfort for our drivers. Every delay is a cause for anxiety. Shouting or rifle fire, low-flying Spitfires make us stiffen and involuntarily slow down. Actually we enjoy a certain immunity, since all of our lorries are marked with red crosses. I have been told, by officers in the Medical Corps, that this sign is generally respected by the enemy.
Once again I have a place to lay my head (even if it is just a stretcher cot) and a shelf on which to place my books (a wooden plank beneath the cot). I suppose I could add that I am finally at rest, if I wanted to stretch the terminology. Actually I feel as if I were still on the move, though that might be simply wishful thinking. On the road I could always sleep in one of the ambulances, consoling myself with the idea that the inconvenience was temporary. But now all the drivers have set up housekeeping, having folded and hidden their extra stretchers. In addition to this, I have been advised to dig a slit trench somewhere near my cozy basha. Perhaps if I throw myself into the digging I'll wind up with something more comfortable than the hut.
Each of the bashas is raised from the ground on a little dirt platform about two feet high. I understand that the purpose of this architecture is to provide protection against the monsoon rains. The roofs are thatched and apparently well tenanted with vermin and insects of every description. I'm told that during the rainy season these beasties move in to the shelter of our rooms. It becomes quite an involved question of disputed occupancy, with reptiles, animals, and bugs claiming squatter's rights. I think when this happens I'll relinquish all ownership, moving to one of the near-by trees.
I bought a machete in the bazaar this morning, determined to set up housekeeping in earnest. I've already cut half an acre of bamboo, trying to find material to make a bed. The natives are able to work miracles with the stuff, twisting and tying it into any known shape. But unless the pieces I selected were especially perverse, there is some sort of esoteric skill connected with their achievements. I thought at one point that I had succeeded grandly; my stretcher was well slung across a rough lashed frame. But when I threw my machete down on the "bed," it collapsed with an almost malicious suddenness. Now I have settled for a simpler arrangement. My cot is supported on two piles of wood. This not only provides a safer roost, but gives me the perfect alibi for having cut so much bamboo.
Next door to our hut is a native brothel; "Laundry," says their sign, but they won't wash clothes. The girls lean over the fence between us, laughing among themselves and making suggestive motions. All of our fellows have been warned against them, or more particularly, against their husbands. These Manipur women are a passionate lot, but not half so passionate as their well-armed husbands. The men go away for weeks at a time, up into the hills to work on the road. They return on the most unexpected days; "We lose more darned men that way," cracks one of our soldiers.
Our shower is placed in back of one basha, just a few yards from the aforementioned fence. It is a simple petrol tin mounted, bell-like, on an axis so that the water can be dumped at the pull of a cord. At first we were all too self-conscious to use it, since the women came running whenever we tried. But by the afternoon we had grown more reckless and we did need baths after a week's dirty driving. "Cleanliness is next to godliness," yelled one driver, vigorously peeling off his shirt. "That's what they say," agreed another. Here he hesitated before dropping his trousers. "I wonder how God's going to feel about this."
I expected that it would probably be quite a while before we received our "baptism by fire." But Bartley has had his already, though from his story it seems to have been less than total immersion. He was out on the road between here and Tiddim, waiting to clear with a dressing station. A roar of machine guns could be heard in the distance and Bartley became more nervous by the minute. A Ghurka sentry was walking his post, apparently oblivious to the muffled shooting, and Bartley, hoping for some consolation, tried to strike up a conversation. But the sentry apparently spoke no English and even Urdu was relatively useless. "Still," says Bartley, "I assumed that this fellow would know enough to look frightened if we were in danger.
The gunfire began to draw closer and closer; this war was becoming much too much of a reality. Our driver arose from the rock where he was sitting and approached the Ghurka for another try. This time he resorted to the use of pantomime and managed to solicit a little comfort. The sentry made a number of expansive gestures, intimating that he by himself could stem a large-scale assault. "But even so," Bartley tells us, "I didn't like the looks of things. The sounds were getting closer all the time and there was I, armed only with my Geneva card."
Finally, the most ominous sign of all, a bullet whined close above Bartley's head. At this he turned again to the sentry. But the sentry was no longer walking his post; he was flat on his back with his eyes wide open, blood spurting out of a hole in his forehead. Bartley, amazing in his professional zeal, rushed to the fellow to give first aid. But by the time his hair had been cut away, the Ghurka was quite beyond all help.
As I came out of my basha this afternoon one of our drivers was standing by the steps. He was slapping his hip as if drawing a gun, and I thought at first that he must be playing cowboy. But he repeated the performance again and again till I felt that it must be a serious undertaking, so I stopped in the doorway to watch for a moment, hoping to discern some method in this madness. The longer I watched the more mystified I became, which reaction seemed to be rather general. As time went by a number of us gathered, staring alternately at the performer and at each other. "What's he doing?" someone would ask. A hoarse whisper would answer, "Damned if I know." Finally one of us hit on the obvious and yelled, "Say, what in the hell is this?" The slapping went on and the slapper was silent. The thing was getting to be interesting.
Some of our fellows were greasing their lorries; they appeared in the square with grease guns in their hands. One or two of the Indian service troops stood in the doorway of the kitchen, watching. At length I broke the silence again, shouting, "Perkins, what do you think you're doing?"
Perkins wheeled around and pointed his finger at me. A silly grin came over his face. "I'm practicing my draw, that's what I'm doing. We're pretty close to the front now, so I'm practicing my draw."
Someone yelled, "Perkins, don't be so stupid. You know that we aren't allowed to carry guns."
Perkins turned around to view the offender with an expression of studied and cruel disdain. "I'm not practicing to draw a gun. I'm practicing to draw my Geneva card in a hurry."
Imphal has been very boring to date; it is hard to believe it is close to the front. Most of our ambulances are just where we parked them on the day we rolled in from Demipur. One of our sections is rather active, running regularly and carrying casualties. But some of our group have been assigned to hospitals where they are working on a sort of detached service program. I've been forward of here only two or three times and then in anything but an official capacity. If I die in this war it will probably be from an attack of malignant ennui.
Apparently things aren't always so quiet. Imphal itself has been bombed to dust. I wandered back into the native sections, but there was little to see but craters and debris. The whole population has moved, bag and baggage, back up into the hilly land. What few are left are nominally attached to one or another army group. The cultivated fields have gone to seed and the bamboo is already encroaching upon them. Unless the tenants return very shortly, there will be nothing left of the farms they owned.
It is a pathetic sight to see all this land untilled and yet fertile enough to grow by itself. What the skinny peasants of the central plains would give for just half an acre of it!
Farming up here is careless and haphazard, chary of labor but costly in land. Yet, rooted by ignorance to the dry lands below, the plainsmen sweat their lives out for lack of such soil.
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