Wednesday, June 10, 2009

IN THE CAPITAL DURING THE WAR



Towards the end of World War II, there was a real probability of Japanese air raids and Delhi was under strict blackout. A sharp whistle from the street would send us scurrying to check the curtains.

When we arrived on a fine spring day in 1943, Luteyn’s New Delhi was a revelation. Built to commemorate the British Empire, it was a poem of symmetry and sovereignity. The wide boulevards and avenues lined with flowering trees were interlinked by roundabouts of greenery. Built in sandstone on the site of seven fallen cities, it was meant to last forever. As the jewel in the crown, the British kept it immaculate.

My husband had been loaned by his firm to the Government for the war’s duration. Our first accommodation was in Western Court, a temporary shelter for civil and defence officers. I still remember its large rooms, standard government furniture and terrible cuisine. The war was in full swing. New Delhi was crammed to capacity.

Soon we were desperate for a place of our own. The food didn’t suit our little son and he was clearly unhappy. Then someone in my husband’s office hesitantly offered to rent a part of his house in Karol Bagh. We went to look. It was new, small and seemed all right. The rooms were tiny, the kitchen a disaster. Maria and I looked in dismay. Sitting on a low school and cooking with firewood had not been my vision of life in New Delhi. Parsi girls were usually sent to cooking and sewing classes after finishing school.

Weeping into the wood smoke, I thought viciously of the sunrise puddings and cheese souffl├ęs I had wasted my time on. If only they had taught us basic meals, I wouldn’t have felt so helpless now. Maria took over and we ate from her limited repertoire. Fiery Goan cuisine was forbidden.

HOME SWEET HOME

At last we were allotted a small bungalow on Keeling Road within easy distance of Connaught Place. A little front garden, two bedrooms and a kitchen separate from the house. Then miles of wasted space at the back before reaching the servants’ quarters. If we needed someone we trudged this length before getting within hailing distance. No tenant had installed a bell because government bungalows were never considered home. A couple of years’ stay, then the next posting. The furniture was standard Government issue. Wives made curtains and cushions to make it habitable. However to us, after Karol Bagh, Keeling Road seemed like heaven.

One evening my husband mentioned casually that he had engaged two servants and had interviewed them in the office. I was suspicious. Right so, as it turned out.

The duo came punctually next morning. I stared in shock and awe. The bearer was a burly Pathan, loose pyjamas, embroidered zari jacket and distinctive cap. The cook was a handsome Moradabadi with a gorgeous complexion. Both were over six feet tall. I was appalled at the thought of being in charge of these worldly giants. They would make rings round me.

The bearer didn’t last long. His body odour was so pungent that we tried to stop breathing when he was near. Poor man, he must have lost many jobs for no fault of his own.

The cook requested an oven to be made for his kitchen. We were unprepared for the culinary masterpieces that he produced in his iron tandoor. He was such an excellent cook that even left-overs tasted fabulous. We had few friends, seldom entertained and the cook lamented that his superb cooking was wasted on just us two. I wondered why he stayed. Perhaps free lodgings for half of Moradabad may have been one reason.

New Delhi was lovely in winter. The bracing cold, flowering gardens and parks, proximity of Connaught Place and Janpath brought everyone out in the sun. The different uniforms of the Commonwealth troops and their enjoyment of the brief R&R made the strolls more interesting. One gained an idea of India’s immense diversity while lingering among the pavement sellers: Plump smiling Tibetan women selling prayer wheels, scrolls and turquoise jewellery, Kashmiri’s extolling beautiful embroidered shawls, bronze idols from the South, handicrafts from the north-east – all dressed in their regional best.

I chatted with a Banjara woman whose mirror-work embroidered costume and heavy silver jewellery were strikingly colourful. Towards the end, she demanded two rupees. I asked, “What for?” She answered, “That’s my charge for a photograph.” But I didn’t have a camera. “That doesn’t matter. I talked to you, didn’t I?” I laughed and paid up.
BLACKOUT EVENINGS

The evenings were very different. The strict blackout forced an early exodus homewards. Streetlights were so dim as to be useless. Car headlights were screened and it took hours to find an unfamiliar neighbourhood. We found this out to our cost when, one evening, we decided to drop in at a friend’s house. When we finally located the place and slowed down before the closed iron gates, two sentries sprang out from the shadows, their bayonets glinting. “Have you an appointment?” We said no and beat a hasty retreat.

After that we spent most evenings listening to All India Radio, BBC and VOA. What the government omitted was sure to be found on other channels. Nothing but bad news. Apart from the war, pre-partition riots were springing up everywhere. With their forces and resources diverted east, the British were hard put to control the country. The Treasury was empty. They could no longer afford an Empire. What had been unthinkable so far, Indian Independence, was now under real consideration.

One momentous day, the world electrified by the shock of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the Americans. The Japanese surrendered and suddenly the war was over. There was a rush to go home. Within a short time we were back in Calcutta trying to pick up the thread of our normal lives.
--SILOO MEHTHA