This year marks a century of the withdrawal of Indian troops from the East African campaign during World War One. Two hundred thousand of our sons took part, fought bravely in hellish conditions, and yet, no one sees fit to remember their contribution any more. So, a sad caveat: A nation which forgets its past soon forgets itself.
1957 was a trying year for Mr. Achuthan. The Greek secretary in the office had decided, that paisley tops ending just above the knees didn’t merit trousers as an accompaniment. The Gujarati clerk in finance still referred to him as a Madrassi. The old black janitor still hissed at him as he entered the office every morning. And he had a new boss – an Armenian – who had taken the concept of mutual dislike to astral heights. The Armenian saw life in only commercial terms, whereas Achuthan preferred to believe it included re-reading works of The Triumvirate at least every week. There was something about the lyricism of Kumaran Asan [his favourite] that transcended the sale of a car. But the fat Armenian was the boss-man who tried to cover his profligate handling of the showroom’s expense account by increasing Achuthan’s monthly targets, and those demands trod heartlessly over any love a man had for Modern Romanticism. It didn’t help that sales targets, naturally, had risen, while sales had fallen. Hadn’t they heard of the Suez crisis in Armenia? Where was Armenia?
Nevertheless, he had met every target thrown his way. He had cleared both the Ford Skyliners – sold to a pair of Bohra brothers who ran a jewellery shop on Zanaki Street. The month before, he had blessed the French attaché with a Thunderbird solely on a wry grin and a weary look. The extra pink stripes down the middle had been the clincher, managed deftly with an after-hours call to his cousin Rajan at the Patel Motors garage. But this month he had drawn a blank. What could be worse, he wondered, as he munched on the crisps in his brown paper bag? Being castigated by your boss for not doing an impossible job, or becoming more unpopular with your co-workers because they had lagged behind on targets?
A lot, he decided with a sigh, quite a lot. He could admit that he hated this land. There was something venomous, he decided, in the name Tanganyika. Black hearts, black skins, black moods; and the daily taunt of the coconut trees, bobbing their frizzy green tops down at him as he walked to work, reminding him of his Cochin state. The town too was named wrong, he told himself, munching down some more crisps. Haven of Peace? No, he hadn’t felt that particular sentiment since he got off the boat three years ago. All he had felt then was the baleful stare of his cousin Rajan, piercing thru two weeks of steaming, at the bright blue cotton shirt he had worn on disembarking – over a flashing white mundu. Now what was wrong with a cotton shirt that it could not be worn with a mundu? No, Rajan had patiently explained again after the third peg; no, you did not wear a mundu off a steamer. So it would have to be the damn trousers day after day, chafing away at the very areas his mundu would have ventilated so luxuriously. Abrasive clothes, abrasive colleagues……….
The bag of crisps ran empty, and served to break Achuthan’s morose train of thought. He sighed again, took a deep breath, and decided to get back to work. There was the inquiry from the Dutchman who ran the library, which he had to work on. But to get to his desk, he would have to navigate the vile looks the Greek woman gave him every time she caught him looking at her. Kanji the Kutchi would surely be sitting in the adjoining desk leering at her, keener to chat and gossip with anyone who cared to waste some time, than to drum up inquiries. And the Armenian would also be back by now, from one of his business lunches, fuelled by a string of Margheritas to keep the office open till well after 8 pm.
Damn, he thought. Damn. Damn. Damn. Crumpling up the little paper bag in a jerk of controlled fury, he chucked it away and turned to leave.
“Hey”, a loud voice barked, “Have you no respect for the dead?” Achuthan turned to look at an old white man leaning heavily on his cane. Perplexed at the query, and not even sure if he had understood it right, Achuthan paused in mid-stride.
“Pick the damn thing up you fool”, the old man barked. There was an unmistakable military demeanor in the old man that seemed to brook no dispute, so Achuthan quietly went to a white stone where the crumpled bag had fallen. As he stooped to pick up the paper ball, he made out the faint markings on the stone:
“Major George Clarke Denton
Killed in Action 9th October 1916
12th Indian Pioneers”
He had been coming to this park in front of his place of work – The International Motor Mart – every day since he joined. It was situated at the junction of Azikiwe Street and the road that ran inland along the west bank of the Kivukoni inlet. He had always meandered thru the white slabs, searching for a quiet tree under which to rest his mind; had always known these upright slabs served as remembrances for the dead. But he had never thought that there would be an Indian connection in “his” park. The excitement gave him a boldness he could never have conjured up outside of the showroom, when conversing with a white man. But now, Major Denton of the Indian Pioneers spurred him to walk squarely up to the old man and ask: “May I be asking what it is that you would be doing in this botanical park?”
The old man grunted, his eyes squinting to condense and digest Achuthan’s long-winded query. For a moment the young Malayalee feared the cane would be transformed into a deadly weapon, and he took a step back, his mouth slightly open in nervous anticipation. Still, the old man stared silently, and for a full minute, both men faced off one another. A loud blare rumbled over them [signaling the departure of the daily afternoon schooner to Lindi], and the old man lifted himself off his cane to his full height. He was over six feet, with a white moustache, and stood at least a head over Achuthan. A second blare, closer now, rumbled around them again, and in the intense quiet that followed, the old white man softly spoke: “I have come to see my father”.
“I am not following, Sir,” Achuthan replied. To which the old man merely raised his cane and pointed to a white slab by them. It read:
“Capt. Philip Norman Gurdon
Killed in Action 9th October 1916
14th King George’s Own Ferozepore Sikhs”
“He was Indian Army, like his father and grandfather before him……..” the old man seemed to lose the thread here, and the cane flinched with emotion ever so slightly, before he continued, “And so am I”. Here, Achuthan’s naïveté saved the day:
“But this is not India. Was he lost?” The Englishman looked up from under his Solar Topee, his eyes blinked rapidly before they wrinkled into a maze of Crow’s Feet, and then unbelievably, he burst out laughing. Kanji, walking back to the showroom after some postprandial Konyagi, was shocked to see the sight. Within the next quarter hour, he had sequestered both Vipul-bhai of Finance and the Greek goddess [or so he thought of her, for those were the days when a little cellulite was still deemed to be a mark of both health and beauty] at his own desk, and informed them of the shameful goings-on. Imagine that! Courting a client in a cemetery! And laughing? Shameful indeed. The Armenian would have to be told.
The old man took some while to control his mirth; Achuthan waited patiently and silently, a hundred questions racing thru his mind. In the end, the old man merely became somber again, and looked away towards the waters. The afternoon lull had set in, and the flow of people out of the post office had reduced to a trickle. The Kinondoni ferry had no vehicles to load, and rolled gently with the incoming tide. A haven for ships, at peace.
“He broke from van Deventer’s 2nd before they took Kilosa, to join Hoskins’ 1st. He should have stayed on to take Morogoro, but pushed east to Dar for the main landing. Still, he died of his wounds happy with the knowledge that Vorbeck was south of the Rufiji”. Achuthan heard the words without understanding them. Only the word Rufiji was familiar, a river probably – Rajan had spoken of an island at its mouth, with a lone road, and a lone car.
“No,” the old man continued, “He wasn’t lost, and neither were his Sikhs”, and with a nod, walked away. Achuthan, crumpled paper bag still in hand, too turned and walked back to the showroom. The icy glares sent his way found no mark. He was lost in thought. That evening, crossing all known limits of bravery, he closed his desk at 5 pm, and walked back home. Up Azikiwe Street till the pharmacy, after which it was left onto Jamhuri Street, and his little one bedroom attic apartment rented from the Vazifdars below.
That night he foreswore his poetry without a second thought. Instead, he sat at the tiny balcony, a rare self-poured brandy soda in hand. Mrs. Vazifdar’s dhansak [she knew it was his favorite, and regularly put an extra helping into his dinner container] lay uneaten on the poker table. Even the last bells of the Hindu temple on Kisutu Street, usually a signal for him to turn in, rang unheard tonight.
So, he mused, an old man had undertaken a long journey to pay his respect to his dead father. One soldier had traveled across half the world to pay homage to another. Forty years were made to seem like no more than a fleeting interregnum, as the memory of the one who had served and passed before was brought back to the fore; brought back to life, in fact, by the simple expedient of standing before a white tablet with a name chiseled into it. No pyre, no immersing, no wake. Truly, Achuthan marveled, the English honored their dead very well.
As the brandy slowly took effect, and the night moved West, Achuthan fell into a doze. It was a vexed sleep, so no sleep at all, and a single phrase streamed thru his mind, like the chants he had been taught as a youth: “The ones who came before”. He woke up fresh, the chant still churning him, but now additionally, mixed with the faint memories of a story he had heard as a boy. Of a man who went insane…or was it of a man who chose to go insane? Slowly, as the day draped its humid blanket of routine upon him, Achuthan smiled for the first time since he had landed in Tanganyika. Could it be? Well, between the buxom Greek beyond his reach, and the misery he called life, he now had a plan – a plan to travel without moving. Grinning broadly now, he reached for his shaving mug, and surprised himself by whistling while he shaved. Oh, he definitely had a plan.
The first victim of Achuthan’s charm was the Dutch librarian. A pre-order for a Skyliner, with delivery promised within two months, was wrung out by Achuthan – on the weight of a copy of de Vries’ lusciously illustrated pamphlet on Vermeer. The Armenian cursed roundly for a week, but was forced to have a cousin on his mother’s side, residing in The Hague, mail out a copy of the recently-released pamphlet. Next for shaving was the British chargé, who allowed the young man’s letters to the CWGC to be slipped into the weekly diplomatic bag for London; such “slippage” being contrived by a radio added free of cost to the chargé’s new Fairlane. The fact that the British colony of Tanganyika had but a single radio station broadcasting no more than four hours each day [when the transmitter was not under repair], was no deterrent to the chargé, as he wheeled his prize into the Gymkhana with much pomp. And finally, the battle-hardened commandant of the local British Army garrison [ex-Grenadier Guards, ex-KAR, ex-Anzio, Africa Star, Italy Star, DSO, and on and on], succumbed to multiple injuries without a fight. For a reduced value annual service and maintenance contract, for personal vehicles of the garrison personnel, and offset against a non-compete clause with Chevrolet on future purchases, Achuthan procured glowing letters of introduction for initiation of correspondence with both the India Office and the War Office.
In the first instance, he ransacked the surprisingly well-stocked library. The Dutchman, impressed with the Indian’s zeal, ordered in more titles on the subject from Salisbury and Nairobi. These volumes Achuthan devoured at a rapid pace. Much to the chagrin of Rajan, his cousin had become a recluse, and along with the handful of other malayalees in Dar es Salaam, decided the poor man had gone quite fey.
The next part took much longer, but when the visiting senior functionary of the FCO asked the Governor, Sir Edward, to have Achuthan on the list, Kanji surprised the showroom by having an uncle stitch Achuthan a suit within a day. At the gala dinner, he was introduced to the blue haired lady from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission by none other than the Governor himself. The next day, the Armenian allowed him to borrow a fresh piece from the stock yard to drive the lady around. They visited the park near the post office, and spent an entire day noting down the details on the white stones. From the Motor Mart entrance, many pairs of eyes glared across the road to the park. The Greek secretary announced that all this new-found attention was nothing more than the result of some well-cast Indian voodoo. “I should know,” she declared loftily, and left the rest of her words testily unstated.
The third act was the longest, taking more than a year, and even had embarrassing ramifications across the waters. He had to endure some hard questions from his uncles in 1959, when he went home to get married. Instead of getting answers on why Travancore and Cochin had been clubbed with Malabar into a single state, he was in turn asked leading questions on his life in Tanganyika. It took a frank solitary chat with his mother’s youngest brother [himself preparing to board a ship the next month for Dar, to take up a teaching position in a school in a place called Arusha] to get to the nub of it. There had been a Subedar of the Madras Regiment it seemed, a local, who had been sent to check the district records for a list of names. As his inquiries led to queries, and local officialdom reeled under the weight of the orders he bandied about, tea shops found a new topic of conversation. They were recruiting for the Malabar Special police, some said. No, others countered, for the hush-hush brigade. Those supposedly in the know said it was an anti-Communist push, the first step before the draconian police state swung into action. Bits and pieces even made the local rags. Until finally, the District Magistrate was forced to douse the fires one evening at the club: “Some chap named Achuthan. Yes, yes, a Pisharody from Mulagunnathukavu. Seems to have lit a fire somewhere about missing persons. Know him, do you? Rum chap?”
Pressed for more details, the administrator shrouded his ignorance in official secrecy. “Sorry, can’t say too much more. You know the form, right?” But in private, he too was at a loss to figure out why Delhi needed to know the whereabouts of these men, many of whom would be ninety if alive today. For once ignorance was not bliss. One wonders how he would have reacted, if he had known that other Subedars had fanned out into at least half a dozen other districts of Kerala – all with the same imposing sheaf of letters of authority, and all with the same line of inquiry. As the Subedars retreated to their cantonments, and the District Magistrate to his languid pace of work, Achuthan set sail back to Dar, though this time not alone.
Over the years, Achuthan rose to become a leading luminary of the ever-growing Malayalee community in Dar es Salaam. With his wife Seeta, their home in Jamhuri Street became the first stop for bewildered Keralites disembarking in a strange land. The Vazifdars had shifted to the cement factory that had come up at Wazo Hill, and the Achuthans descended to ground level. The attic room went first to the Thilakans, then the Koshy’s, and then the Oommen’s before we lost track. The Armenian was forced out by a management change, and because of his skills, it was Achuthan who was selected by the new Ismaili owners to head the showroom. And Seeta slowly came to stop questioning her ever-cheerful husband about the contents of very-official-looking envelopes that would often arrive in the post.
In 1968, Achuthan was invited by the Commonwealth Office to attend a function in London. Together with his wife and two young daughters, they boarded a BOAC jetliner for London. The British Library, whose guests they were, put them up very well indeed. He spent three days with the researchers going thru all his old letters, and cross-checking their responses with the list. The only downside was when he failed to recognize the Duke of Kent, but no one mentioned it again. The Duke was secretly amused at the mortification of the researchers, and went off to a do with one hell of a story to tell.
The function itself was a very grand affair, and when it was over, the British Army officer to whom he had made his request, escorted Achuthan to a stately-looking car. The trip to Kent was uneventful, and the local constabulary having been informed of his arrival, had a Panda waiting to escort the visitors to the right cemetery. There, Achuthan walked up to the small stone and paused, reading the inscription with a slight tilt to port:
“Major General Edward Temple Leigh Gurdon
1st Btn, Black Watch
Capt. Philip Norman Gurdon
14th King George’s Own Ferozepore Sikhs
d. 9th Oct. 1916, Dar es Salaam”
A hint of a sigh came back to haunt him, but it was quickly stifled by a gust of bitterly cold wind. Wrapping his scarf tighter, Achuthan bent down and placed an open piece of paper under a stone. It read:
“We too honor those who came before us. From the 1968 conclave of the CWGC, and possibly the first Malayalee in East Africa:
Gopalan, Son of Kittunni Nair, Varkala, Travancore
Sapper [Service Number 722]
2nd Queen Victoria’s Own Sappers and Miners
d. 9th Oct. 1916, Dar es Salaam”
This short story was written in 2012, and is based on names listed in the war cemetery at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.