Clarence, a conscientious objector during World War Two, is stranded in India. He has volunteered to work for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in China, but dysentery holds him back. A year passes before he can fly over the ‘Hump’ via Japanese-occupied territory into China. Meanwhile, he experiences the changing seasons in India.
Calcutta 1943At first Clarence was dismayed at the sight of countless cesspools, drains teeming with rats, cow dung and human faeces on the roads. In time, however, he saw beyond the wretchedness and lost himself in a world of mystery where snake charmers kissed cobras, fire-eaters swallowed flames and sadus walked on live coals.
Around March, at the Hindu festival of Holi, Hindus in white clothes with bright red stains, danced and sang in a spirit of abandon. They threw coloured powder or water on others – their hair and clothes a mottled red.
As the year progressed, Clarence experienced the seasonal cycles within the vast continent. In March, a bank of dark clouds appeared. Violent winds tore up and tossed giant trees to the ground, stripping and carrying off top soil. Dust seeped through closed shutters, assaulting his eyes and mouth. His skin shrivelled and eyelids grew paper-thin. The earth became a breathless furnace. Perspiration beaded his forehead and ran in rivulets down his face. He consumed copious amounts of water with a teaspoon of salt, surprisingly refreshing on a hot day.
Even late in the evenings, the heat was stifling. Fans whirred above but he tossed in bed at nights. He slept beneath the fan and threw off his sheets. Perspiration drenched his pillow.
He found the dirt, dust and lust unbearable.
During the Unit’s first medical check in India, the doctor had warned, ‘Whatever you do, don’t get the clap,’ but needs outstripped caution and latent carnal cravings grew uncontrollable.
Some members of the unit visited the marketplace where pimps accosted likely customers.
‘You want boy? You want girl?’ the pimps asked. ‘Very beautiful. Very clean.’
Young Indian girls made themselves available.
At the end of the month, the sky turned to a pewter grey and trees appeared dark and solemn. Then a flash of lightning zigzagged across, followed by a clap of thunder. The first few raindrops sank into the dust, devoured by the thirsty earth.
‘Indra, the god of thunder, has loosened his arrows,’ Indians said.
The weather remained hot between bursts of rain, with humidity even more unbearable than the dry heat. The thermometer crept up and prickly heat covered everyone like a hair shirt. Soon, a dank odour arose in houses, shoes gathered mould overnight, and, in cupboards, clothes turned a mossy green.
One morning, a gale battered the windows and rain poured down in sheets during a coffee break at the office of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit. Angus, a member of the unit, entered the room, holding a soggy newspaper. Wind swept papers off the desk, and his mackintosh shed pools of water on the floor.
‘The streets are like a torrent, and the basement has flooded,’ he explained, handing Clarence the mushy mess. ‘We’ll have to dry this before we can read it.’
Clarence relieved him of the papers. Painstakingly, he peeled off each page, laid them out on the carpet and, falling on his knees, he read the headlines:
Gusts of wind over a hundred and ten miles per hour tear down trees. Tidal waves break Hooghly River banks. Rice fields flood. Seawater flows into dams and rotting carcasses pollute them.
‘Well. Well. Get ready for emergencies, lads,’ Angus said. ‘We may soon be back on to ambulance duties doing the job we’ve been trained for.’
Nearly fifteen thousand people and two hundred thousand head of cattle perished in the floods and cholera epidemic that followed. India had already been short of rice when Japan occupied Burma. Soon after, the price doubled from its pre-war level and, by the middle of 1943, famine gripped the State of Bengal. The starving population moved from rural areas to urban centres, increasing the multitude of beggars already clamouring for aid.
His heart sinking at the sight of such suffering, Clarence joined four others from the Friends’ Ambulance Unit. They boarded a launch with medical supplies for the sick, and sped down the Hooghly River, hoping to bring some relief to the starving.
Normally half a mile broad, the river had broken its banks and flooded low-lying fields and villages. Families had taken shelter on the roofs but even these could be covered if the water continued to rise. Villagers shouted and clasped their hands together, begging for succour.
With a little toot in reply, the launch swept past.
A wave of pity overcame Clarence, but he realised that he was powerless to help. Stocked as they were with essentials, there was no room for anything or anyone else.
Corpses of cattle and men drifted towards the ocean. Flocks of vultures tore at the carrion. ‘They won’t starve from the famine,’ Angus said.
Clarence’s mind went back to his journey on SS Strategist, when bodies of his fellow countrymen had floated among the debris of torpedoed ships.
In October, when the golden hues of autumn turned into a fairyland of falling leaves in shades of red, orange and yellow, the famine was over. His thoughts flew home. It pained him to think of how well he ate while his family lived on meagre rations. A sense of guilt overcame him at first, but in his heart he knew his mother would never begrudge him the luxuries he could obtain.
He posted home some tins of butter and a dozen eggs that had been preserved in lime to prevent them from going off in transit.
At Ramadan, Muslims kept the strict Ramadan fast. Winter ushered in Dewali, the Hindu Festival of Lights dedicated to the goddess Kali. Clarence and his friends visited her temple, curious to know more about Hinduism. He marvelled at the differences between the two major religions. No wonder Muslims and Hindus often fought among themselves.
The atmosphere in the temple reeked with the stench of blood from animal sacrifices. Pilgrims queued before a half-naked sadu who held a bowl containing saffron-coloured powder and imprinted their foreheads with it.
Clarence paused before the black-faced deity who held a severed human head dripping with blood.
‘It’s not uncommon for humans to be sacrificed to Kali, even though the practise has been banned,’ his friend informed him. He’d been stationed in India for several years.
Clarence shuddered and turned green. ‘Their god is more like a devil, with her bloated tongue and ravenous mouth. This place gives me the creeps. Let’s get out of here.’
They left, revolted by the stench of blood.
That evening, Clarence only had a bowl of soup for dinner. The sight and smell of blood had made him lose every vestige of appetite.
At nights, during the five-day festival, buildings were illuminated, firecrackers spluttered, rockets streaked across the night sky and Hindus celebrated. They devoured rosgullas, a speciality of the city. Mixed with milk, wheat and lentils, the dessert was shaped into balls and fried, then drenched in sweet syrup.
Clarence indulged his palate and developed an instant liking for them. They slid down his throat. He loved the cloying sweetness of the reddish brown balls. As he bit into them, he recalled the high teas he had enjoyed on a visit to Scotland.
Would England ever return to normal?
Excerpt from The Chocolate Soldier:story of a conchie by Hazel Barker
Published in Carindale Writers’ Group ‘Seasons Anthology’ 2013