One Hell of a Life by Stan Blackford
Thank you, Adrian and friends, for giving me this opportunity of sharing with you something of my life in India, and the book I have written, entitled, One Hell of a Life.
Generally speaking, life has been good to me. Here I am, 82 years of age, enjoying excellent health, living in one of the finest countries in the world, and I have enjoyed more than 50 years of marital bliss - all with the same woman, I might add.
So life has been good. But, while life has been good to me, it has not always been kind. You see, I was a backward child. At the age of 4, I had not yet started talking. So my mother sent me off to a boarding school. She knew that boys bullied each other mercilessly, more so 80 years ago than they do now. And she knew that a boy who is different becomes a magnet for the worst bullies, and a boy, like me, who did not talk and was the smallest boy in the school, just had to become a magnet for bullying of the worst kind. And she reckoned that, if there was no one to stand up for me and protect me, I would just have to learn to kick and scream and swear and shout and articulate something - and in the process, I might learn to talk. Well, it worked like a charm, and after two years when I left that school, I was talking like a book. And my wife says that I have never stopped since.
But learning to speak did not solve my problems. It soon became apparent that I was retarded, and during the next 5 years I was dragged through no less than 9 more schools. No school wanted to keep me. And then, when I was 11years of age, I was sent to still anther school, where things changed and I became quite a ‘bright’ boy.
Looking back in hindsight, it became apparent that my problem was not so much that I was retarded, as that I had peculiar parents - especially a peculiar mother! Let me tell you of some of the things she did to me. My mother’s favourite words of endearment for me was, ‘You are Mummy’s little ugly duckling and you have elephant’s ears, but I love you.’ In accepting this description of my appearance at face value, I acquired an inferiority complex, and I started to stutter - two afflictions that blighted my life, and it was not until I was in my 60’s that I learned to control them.
When I was 8 years of age, she decided to send me to Victoria School at Kurseong in the Himalayan Mountains. Now the school had sent my parents a comprehensive prospectus which specified that the school uniform included black boots. My mother, however, thought that brown boots looked ever so much smarter than black ones, and brown was what she ordered the mochee or cobbler to make me. When my father saw them he was furious. A stickler for rules and regulations, he raged, 'You silly bloody woman, when they say black boots they mean black. Get rid of those bloody brown boots and get him black ones.'
My mother was full of bright ideas. She took them back to the mochee and had them dyed black. They passed my father's inspection. The boys' boots at Victoria school were polished by servants every night, and one week's assiduous daily brushing by an Indian bearer was sufficient to start wearing off the thin veneer of black dye, leaving suspicious-looking lighter patches. By the end of the month my boots were definitely piebald, black and tan, to the delight of 400 jeering fellow boarders.
The prospectus also specified that all boys would have four neckties. This was the era of such good-looking movie stars as Roman Navarro and Ivor Novello, who always sported bow ties, and my mother thought that her Ugly Duckling too would look just as handsome in one. And so to boarding school I went, equipped with similar elegant neckcloths - not pre-tied bows on elastic neckbands, or ones to be affixed to shirt collars with clips. No. Nothing so plebeian. My garniture was worthy of the most glamorous of film stars and had to be tied with dexterity and precision. But in the 1920s no one in the manly ambience of a school such as Victoria was foppish enough to know how a bow tie should be knotted, but that did not stop them from trying. Each master tried his hand, with conspicuous lack of success. Then every prefect and every school bully tackled the task with gusto, but in vain. Hardly a day passed that someone wouldn't bellow, 'Blackbum, come here.' He'd stand on the toes of my piebald boots to prevent my escape, while many pairs of eager hands would hold me to restrain my squirming. A ring of spectators would roar encouragement with all the passion of a mob at a lynching as the self-appointed vigilante would endeavour to form the appropriate knot. The effort invariably failed, whereupon the disappointed would-be enforcer of sartorial excellence would vent his frustration by pulling the two ends of the offending item of habiliment tight enough to almost choke me, tie a knot, any old knot just so long as it was tight, and, with a push, send me sprawling to the ground. The circle of onlookers would close in to kick and thump me for good measure. It was considered good, clean, manly fun by all - except me. They were only two of the numerous difficulties I encountered at Victoria School. There were at least a dozen more that I had to contend with.
As most of you know, boarders in Hills Schools in India stayed in school for nine months continuously, and then came home for three months holidays. The Principal of Victoria School quailed at the thought of having me in his care for nine months. Wherever I went, there was a large, noisy crowd, like a mob of rioters, milling around me and trying to torment me. He asked my parents to remove me from school. In other words, I was expelled.
My mother looked round for a boarding school that had a caring, compassionate ambience. Someone suggested that she try Mount Hermon School in Darjeeling, run my American Methodist Missionaries. It was a co-educational establishment. About half the children were American and we referred to them as ‘The Yanks,’ and they called us ‘Limeys.’ The missionary educators were fine, but I swear they must have borrowed their kids from the Mafia. They outnumbered us limeys, and they bullied us unmercifully.
Some kind soul also told my mother, ‘Darjeeling is very cold. Make sure that your little Stanley has plenty of warm underwear.’ My mother always had to be ‘better’ than others, so she imported from a mail order firm in England Morley’s neck-to-ankle, woollen, chill-proof combinations - called long-johns in this country. Remember, I was an eight-year old schoolboy wearing short pants! My mother’s idea was that on chilly, winter evening I could pull the legs down to keep me warm, but in the daytime, especially when playing, I should tuck the legs up under my shorts. But, when I did so, I seemed to have yards and yards of woollen fabric wrapped around each thigh, forcing them wide apart, and causing me to saunter like a constipated gorilla!
My parents sent me on the overnight journey from Calcutta to Darjeeling in the company of adult friends. We were met the following afternoon at Darjeeling Station by a servant from Mount Hermon who took me to the school in a taxi. We arrived there just as the boys and girls were coming out of class, and they all just stopped and stared at the sight of my being escorted to the Principal’s office. They had never seen anyone walk in such a peculiar manner. Their curiosity was immediately sparked by my peculiar gait, and they could hardly wait to explore the secret of my apparent deformity. No sooner was I released into the tender care of Hank Swan, a senior boy, than he and a horde of his friends whipped me into the nearest empty classroom and proceeded to ascertain why I stood and walked in such a beguiling manner. Once the secret was revealed, even the girls wanted to lay their eyes, and their hands, on my wonder garment. They stood around me in a circle laughing and giggling, tugging at the legs of my combinations and trying to stuff them back out of sight again. They undid the top buttons of my shirt and peered inside my collar, back and front, so as not to miss one single detail of this intriguing sight. Thereafter, whenever the children were at a loose end and wanted some innocent amusement to pass the time, one of their favourite games was to 'pull Blackie's combies down and make him cry.'
Mount Hermon's prospectus had clearly specified that each child should possess a metal mug, to be used when cleaning teeth and to be taken on picnics for drinking cordial or cocoa. My mother, in her usual ostentatious manner, ensured that her Stanley was 'better' equipped than children from less fortunate families: all the other children had sensible, utilitarian, small enamelled mugs of one cup capacity, but I was equipped with a spanking new, shiny, monster, two-litre aluminium dipper.
This utensil soon lost its pristine condition. The very sight of it seemed to drive the other boys into a frenzy of excitement that could be assuaged only by using it for playing soccer. It was often smuggled into the classroom when the boys at the back would urinate in it and place it tenderly beneath my seat, where the teacher, usually Mrs Britton or Mrs Bull, would find it and punish me for being 'addicted to the filthiest habit I have ever encountered'.
I attended a scouting jamboree soon after my introduction to this strange new world of American boarding schools and scouting (I was a wolf cub). As we tramped along to the jamboree venue, each cub had a small enamelled mug dangling from his backpack. My appendage, on the other hand, was a dirty, big, battered and bent, misshapen article which doubled as a football and a drinking vessel. The Darjeeling roads then were favourite trails for horse riding and, consequently, were prolifically littered with horse droppings. A Machiavellian piece of mischief, which would enter the mind only of a Yank, was to persuade one of the servants, with the offer of generous baksheesh, to pick up a huge lump of horse dung and deposit it in my mug, which dangled so invitingly on my innocent back.
Then at lunch time, when hundreds of scouts and cubs, and girl guides and bluebirds (due to the sensitivities of the native population, the term 'brownies' was changed to a less offensive designation) were lining up for their delicious drinks of hot cocoa, I tried, shyly as it would appear to a scout master or cub mistress, who was no doubt also perplexed by my peculiar stance and gait, not to mention my lack of social skills and my appearance of mental retardation, to drop out of the queue. My friends, however, would not dream of letting their shy, backward mate forfeit his comforting warm drink. With a display of caring, nurturing concern which was most touching to behold, they dragged me back into line and made me present my utensil.
'No. No,' I protested and struggled. 'I don't like cocoa. I don't want any cocoa.'
'Of course you do,' the rest of my cub pack insisted. 'Don't be shy.' And to the cub mistress they explained, 'He loves the stuff. That's why he has brought such a large mug, so that he can have a double helping.' And the mistress helped me overcome my apparent shyness, while my mates stood over me gloating and made sure that I swallowed my refreshing hot drink.
Being marked as different, whether in appearance or behaviour, is to become a magnet for bullying and the target for pranks, as I was to discover in yet another school: St Vincent’s conducted by the Irish Christian Brothers. The Brothers were noted for the strap, and each brother carried one: a heavy, tough, leather weapon, specially designed for chastisement, and reinforced with a wooden stiffening rod running down the interior of its spine. I was in Brother Michael's class. He was a very young man, and what he lacked in age and experience, he made up for with the enthusiasm with which he wielded the strap as an educational tool. His method of teaching was very direct. He would shout, 'What's the capital of Germany?' and then bellow the name of a boy. The designated pupil rose to his feet and responded. If the answer was correct, Bro shouted the next question while the boy sank down in his seat with a sigh of relief. If the answer was wrong, or not forthcoming immediately, a wave of Bro's hand indicated that the dolt should join a queue standing against the wall as Bro yelled another pupil's name. When the correct answer had been elicited from some smart lad for the edification of the unlearned, the queue of ignoramuses, with both arms outstretched and palms facing up, filed solemnly past Bro who instilled knowledge with a sharp cut of the strap on each extended palm. Thus enlightened, each boy resumed his seat, usually sitting on his hands to ease the stinging, and awaited the next question with trepidation.
Bro soon learned that there were two dolts in his class who needed considerable extra input of erudition, so he altered his method of questioning. Now he shouted something like, 'What's the capital of Denmark? Blackford, Phillipe, MacDonald.' In other words, he always called on us two numbskulls first, never wasting time in giving us the opportunity to answer for experience had shown we couldn't, before nominating his next victim. So Phillipe and I seldom sat down. We just kept going round and around as in a continuous game of musical chairs for morons, heading queues on a more or less permanent basis, to go past Bro for constant educational lathering. Poor Phillipe used to screw up his little face like a wizened monkey, wring his hands and blow on them while we followed our circular itinerary. I grew accustomed to this educational input, my hands having developed calluses.
My father returned to Calcutta when I was 10, and so a change of school was forced on me. On the advice of friends, my parents decided to send me to St Xavier’s College, Calcutta, which was run by the Belgian Jesuits. The effect was immediate, and I became one of the bright lads. This was caused by two factors. First, bullying and corporal punishment was not allowed, as they had been in the 10 previous schools I had attended, and for the first time I felt safe from violence. I no longer passed each moment anxiously waiting with fear and trepidation for some misfortune to befall me.
The second factor was that, while I had been in Standard 5 the previous year (in no less than five different schools in the one year), the Rector of St Xavier’s College, instead of putting me up to Standard 6, put me back to Standard 4. I was now doing work that I had done 2 years previously and, consequently, I seemed to know it all. St Xavier’s had weekly assessments, and for the first 5 or 6 weeks I came top of my class. Thereafter, I was always among the top 3 or 4 boys in classes of over 60.
My parents went through a messy divorce which dragged out over some 4½ years, and the case was being heard before an English peer, Lord Pakenham. At this time, my mother had left home and my young brother was in boarding school, and I was living alone with my father. When Lord Pakenham heard that my father used to travel in the country for about 2 or 3 weeks in every month, and that I used to live alone cared for by about 6 servants who used to cut my lunch and see me off to school each day, he was horrified. He thought that this was intolerable and ordered that I be sent to a boarding school. Seeing that I was doing so well at St Xavier’s College in Calcutta, the natural choice was its brother school in Darjeeling, St Joseph’s, known as North Point, some 7000 or 8000 feet above sea level in the Himalayan mountains.
By the time the court order to send me to North Point was given, the school year had already started, and 400 boys had settled into their dormitories. Now I arrived about four weeks 'late'. This delay made me 'different'. When people move overnight from warm regions at sea level to such high altitudes, especially in cold weather, their bladders are adversely affected for a few days and they need to visit the urinals frequently. Discipline was, in consequence, relaxed and boys could leave classes without asking to be excused for the first week or ten days. I was unaware of this fact, and suffered much embarrassment as the result of being the only boarder among 400 suffering at the time from, let me call it, 'altitude syndrome'.
At North Point the whole college attended Mass every morning before breakfast. As soon as the reveille bell sounded, 400 boys swarmed en masse via the toilets to the wash basins and locker rooms, where they dressed in monastic silence under the supervision of Fr Binje. Then, each boy, as soon as he was ready, made his way down to the chapel independently and assumed his allotted place in the pews.
On my very first morning, when Binjie saw that I was dressed, he instructed me to go down and wait outside the chapel entrance until he had rounded up all the slowcoaches, when he would come and allot me a place. I was apprehensive of doing the wrong thing and making a fool of myself, so now, as I stood outside the chapel door, I observed that some boys put their right hand in a water container at the door, touched their foreheads and seemed to wave their hand in a circular motion in front of them, while others did not. Suddenly a familiar face appeared: Freddie Unwin and I had been class mates at Madhupur and again at Mount Hermon, and I knew that he was not a Catholic, and I was not too shy to ask him if I should perform this mysterious rite. He said, 'No, only Catholics do funny things like that.' (I should mention that more than half the boys at North Point were non-Catholics).
At last Binjie appeared, told me to follow him and walked briskly into the chapel. I followed close behind. He suddenly stopped, turned toward the altar and genuflected. I stumbled over his out-stretched leg and sprawled on to the floor, to the great amusement of the rest of the school. My embarrassment was by no means allayed by Binjie’s broad grin. I had never seen nor heard of genuflection (as this strange action was called) and half wondered if he had deliberately tripped me up for the fun of it.
Early in the Mass a boy left the chapel through a small side door, only to appear a few minutes later with a satisfied look on his face and resume his seat. Then singly, a succession of boys did the same. This was of particular interest to me: my bladder, afflicted by 'altitude syndrome', was now uncomfortably stressed. When I observed the trickle of boys disappearing through the door and reappearing shortly after, looking smug, I kept thinking what a good idea it was to have the 'little room' so handy. Fortunately, I was too shy, on my first morning in this strange environment, to walk to the toilet so prominently in the middle of the service - I had not yet quite reached bursting point. This was fortunate for, I learned later, the 'little room' that the boys were frequenting was not a toilet, but the confessional. The practice of confessing was, of course, something I had never heard of.
At last Mass concluded and the boys filed out toward the refectory for breakfast, and I dashed after two lads who broke ranks and made a bolt for the toilets, they for a quick smoke, the toilets being the place for surreptitious smoking; I for a more legitimate purpose.
I was particularly good at Latin. My class teacher, Fr Dennis Laenen, addressed me in Latin and I replied in the same language. He than turned to the other boys and say, 'Urr Mon, Stanley is a genius.' I believed him! I never stopped to query his statement. I just accepted the compliment as my due. My subconscious mind accepted the fact that, despite being an ugly duckling with elephant ears, I was a genius!
Suffice to say that North Point was the crowning glory of my school career. In my final year I was dux of the college and established a record by winning all three of the most coveted trophies that the college awarded. These were usually won by three separate boys.
A year after leaving school, when I was 19, I was working at the Indian Standard Wagon Company, in a large factory at Burnpur, a few miles outside of Asansol in West Bengal. Within three months of joining the firm I had been promoted to an executive position and had under my control three Bengali English-speaking clerks or babus and a coolie force of about 200 men. My tindal, that is supervisor of my men, was a fellow named Parmeshwar. The name Parmeshwar meant Almighty, Powerful One, or God. It aptly described the power he wielded, though it belied his physical image. He was a small, bow-legged, wizened old man of unprepossessing appearance with steel-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his hawk-like nose - a most unlikely candidate for a name that hinted at Divinity in any shape or form.
Parmeshwar used to come to me 5 or 6 times a day for orders, and as he got to know me better, we would chat about the War, food prices and rationing, football and other matters. 'Sahib,' he said one day, coming straight to the point. 'how is it that in cold countries like England newly-born animals do not perish from the cold?'
'Ah!' I replied wisely. I saw here the possibility of pulling the old fellow's leg. 'When a baby tiger or elephant is born in the jungles of England, it would, as you realise, freeze to death in a matter of minutes because the ground is always covered with snow and ice. But nature makes animal species adapt to their environment, doesn't she?' I continued, like a teacher patiently bringing extra-curricular learning to an enquiring student. 'So in cold countries, all creatures, apart from humans, have evolved to the stage where their young are hatched from eggs.'
'Bapre bap,' he burst out in wonderment. 'Then tell me, Sahib, how big is an elephant's egg?'
I extended my arms to indicate a size of about one metre.
'Arre bap. And what colour is it?'
'A dirty gray colour.' I spoke with authority. Using my three babus to interpret, I gave a dissertation on the sizes of tigers' eggs, and added by way of good measure that they were a pale yellow colour with black stripes.
'Sir, what about camels?' my head clerk asked pedantically.
The contours of camels' eggs, I explained, were broken by either one or two little humps, depending on whether they were from dromedary or bactrian camels.
Another babu asked about horses. I expanded my discourse to cover, not only horses' eggs, but also the shapes and colours of the eggs of cats, dogs, giraffes, hippos, monkeys, whales and other sundry mammals. The babus, usually serious, seemed unusually lively, and my discourse was punctuated by the incessant 'bapre baps' and 'arre baps' of astonishment from my audience.
Parmeshwar allowed me to take the situation to full absurdity by asking, 'What about kangaroos' eggs, Sahib?'
'They're the funniest of them all,' I laughed. 'You know the prodigious tail that kangaroos have? Well, their eggs have an extension twice the length of the egg itself to accommodate the tail.' And so the discussion went on to the great enjoyment of myself and my babus. It was some three years later that I accidentally overheard Parmeshwar talking with my Head babu. He was saying, 'The Butcha Sahib’s (Baby executive, for I was the youngest executive in the firm) head is getting too large for his boots. What question can I ask him now to take him down a peg or two?' It was then that I realised that the leg-pulling for the previous three years was being done by them, not by me. They were all having a laugh at my ignorance - and my arrogance!
When Japan entered the War, I managed to get released from my job. I went to the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun, and from thence I was commissioned to one of the most famous regiments of the Indian Army: the 13th Frontier Force Rifles. This led to a life of much excitement and adventure. Time permits me to mention only one incident.
The police rang my colonel one day and asked if he could send someone to shoot a panther that was menacing some villages. This was a common practice. Panthers, leopards and tigers initially prey on jungle animals. Then they may grow bolder, come closer to villages and seize a goat. If the predator is not shot, its next victim could be a human. And once the wild animal tastes the salt in human blood, it is no longer content to dine on animals. It turns man-eater. Hence the need to kill any wild animal that lurks around human habitation.
Thus it was that the colonel summoned his Second-in-Command, Major Carrick and said, 'You've always wanted to shoot a panther, Bob. Here's your chance. You'll need back-up. Take young Blackford with you. He’ll be a good bloke to have in an emergency. Also take Jemadar Mir Jamal. Bit long in the tooth, but a sound fellow.'
Next afternoon, we three met our shikari or guide, who had with him two young villagers, each leading a young goat on a string for bait. None of us had ever seen a dangerous animal in the wild before, but the Major kindly sought to remedy this lamentable deficiency by giving us the benefit of his wisdom and experience. Having read a number of books on big-game hunting, he considered himself quite an authority.
From the crest of a hill the shikari pointed out to us a dry nullah, or river bed, running through a small clearing, where, the shikari said, the panther appeared before dusk every evening in search of food. He also indicated two spots about four hundred metres apart where we would tether our goats to entice our victim.
'We'd better eat our sandwiches here,' announced the Major. 'No food must be taken with us, otherwise the panther would smell it and detect our presence.' When we had finished eating, the Major insisted that we all relieve our bladders before descending into the panther's domain. Any smell of human urine would betray us to our quarry. Carrick was a fund of knowledge. Then we rapidly went down to our chosen shooting spot, moving through really dangerous jungle at an hour when the big cats start roaming in search of prey, and in our excitement not one of us had thought of loading his weapon!
The sun was about to set within the hour and it was turning chilly. We pulled our battle-dress trousers on over our shorts and climbed into the branches of the tree after telling the villagers where to tether one of the goats. Carrick checked that he could draw a bead on the tethered goat with his rifle and then tied the weapon so that it dangled on a short piece of twine from a nearby branch, leaving his hands free. Perched precariously in the tree, we were ill-prepared for a long wait. Finally the remainder of the party cheerfully wished us 'good hunting' and disappeared round a bend in the nullah bed, with the second goat in tow, on their way to the other site.
The panther, meanwhile, as later investigation showed, lay behind nearby bushes watching our antics, but failed to spot the Major and me lurking in the branches of the tree. The jungle was becoming a patchwork of filtered light and dark shadows as the sun sank. The glare from the sunlit patches made it difficult for our eyes to penetrate the screen of foliage and focus on detail in the shade behind. I decided to load my pistol and had just chambered five of my six rounds when I happened to glance up. My God! Were my eyes playing tricks in the dappled light and shade of the jungle? No! It was the panther alright. A fine specimen had bounded out of the scrub and pounced upon our unfortunate goat, holding it securely by the neck! Fear twisted my stomach into a knot.
Carrick was oblivious to the new arrival. I nudged him and pointed. 'Shush,' he warned. Hardly necessary: I was frozen with fear. It took several moments for the major and myself to recover from our surprise. Carrick was having difficulty in untying the knot of the string with which his rifle had been fastened to the branch. At first he was quite cool, but gradually became more and more flustered as his efforts failed. Finally I lent him my penknife to cut the knot.
What followed was unbelievable. Holding his rifle in one hand and balancing with difficulty, Carrick undid all the fly buttons of his trousers. Finally, to my surprise, he started pulling his trousers down. I don't know if any other person in the world, lodged insecurely in the branches of a tree with a rifle in one hand and with a hungry panther sitting below with a goat in its jaws, has ever tried dropping his strides, or whether this is one for the Guiness Book of Records.
The reason for this pantomime finally penetrated my panic-stricken brain: the fool had kept his bullets in the pockets of his shorts and had forgotten to load his gun before pulling on his battle-dress trousers! Pulling his trousers down to get at his shorts entailed shifting position on our flimsy and precarious perch, but he succeeded in accomplishing this somewhat difficult feat without creating any undue noise. The Major was now getting really flustered. Having loaded, he tucked the butt into his shoulder, took careful aim, and held the rifle steady for nearly a minute. Nothing happened. Then he lowered the weapon and examined it hastily, disengaged the safety catch, took aim once more and squeezed the trigger. The report of the rifle abruptly shattered the spell that seemed to have paralysed us all. Leaping high into the air, the panther flashed off like a rocket down the stream-bed, in the same direction the rest of our party had taken barely two minutes previously. The brute made no sound whatever.
The horrible thought suddenly dawned upon the Major and myself that our companions were in grave danger. We surmised (correctly, as we later discovered) that they would hear the report and, in view of the short time that had elapsed, conclude that we had loosed off a round by accident. They would have no inkling that an angry, wounded beast was bounding toward them less than two hundred metres in the rear. I suggested firing a couple of shots, but Major Carrick rejected the idea. Instead, borrowing my whistle, he spent the next two minutes blowing it like a madman. This, we learned afterwards, had the desired effect of putting them on their guard. They shinned up trees like monkeys, leaving their poor goat to fend for itself.
As we sat in our tree there ensued an awful period of uncertainty alternated with attempts at mutual reassurance.
'Did you notice the panther stumble as it ran?' queried my companion.
'Yes. I did.' I replied. 'And did you hear it groan?'
'Yes,' he declared. 'It must have been very badly hit, because all the books I've read state that a wounded panther immediately springs at its attacker unless it is severely injured.'
After an interval of silence, seeking further consolation, I remarked, 'I fancy I saw a reddish patch just behind the left shoulder-blade.'
'That's right! agreed the Major, eagerly. 'That's where the heart is. I aimed for it!'
Major Carrick broke abruptly into my thoughts.
'Have you read Jim Corbett's book Man-Eaters of Kumaon?' he asked.
'Well he expounds his theory of the "dangerous side". According to Corbett, wild animals imagine men possess as keen a sense of smell as themselves. So, when stalking human beings, they always approach from down-wind. He calls the leeward side the "dangerous side".
With this scrap of jungle-craft in mind, we spent the next few minutes endeavouring to establish which was the dangerous side so far as we were concerned. First of all we resorted to the old trick of sucking a finger and holding it above the head to determine the direction of the wind. This failed: for the life of us we could not decide which side of our fingers felt coldest! Even fluttering our handkerchiefs proved useless, so we finally resumed the previous routine of keeping a keen lookout all round.
While we were considering our next move, suddenly, the silence was broken by the cry of a baby, followed immediately by loud shouting and banging of tin cans. The awful truth dawned on us: that damned fool of a shikari had chosen a killing spot near a road, and a group of peasants were returning along it to their village after a day cultivating their fields. The terror-stricken villagers had known that we had come to shoot the panther and, hearing the shot followed by deathly silence, presumed that we had fired at the beast and missed. They had tried to keep still and quiet so that the animal would not detect their presence and attack them, and one poor mother had been almost smothering her baby to silence it but had been unable to keep the frightened infant shushed any longer. Now the only hope these poor people had was to make enough noise to frighten the animal away.
'Come on, Blackie,' shouted the Major. 'We have to track it down and finish it off.'
'Now?' I cried in alarm. 'Do we really have to do it now? It'll be dark soon, how can we track her in the dark? Can't we wait till morning?'
'Damn it, man. We can't leave an angry, wounded killer on the loose out there with all those villagers. Down, man. Now.'
The next ten minutes were the most terrifying of my life. The beast was quiet, which indicated to us that she may not have been too badly wounded, if at all; that she was now in control of the situation; that she had the initiative and was even now silently stalking us. The hunters were now the hunted.
I holstered my revolver and clambered down. The Major followed while I covered him. Panthers are more cunning and devious than tigers, and therefore more dangerous. A tiger would charge madly from the front. A panther would hide, possibly in a tree, let you pass and then pounce from the rear. Carrick whispered, 'I'll lead. You cover the rear.' With nothing but a pistol, I felt that I was now the bait.
I can still picture the scene quite clearly. Carrick, rifle at the ready, led at a slow pace; I covered the rear. My pistol hand was none too steady, my breathing was laboured as if I had just run ten kilometres, and my brow clammy with perspiration. Creeping cautiously down a narrow glade leading toward the stream-bed along which our quarry had vanished, we anxiously scanned the dense scrub on either side. Presently a particular bush aroused my suspicions, and as I peered closely into it over my shaking pistol there was a sudden movement. The whole bush quivered; then something streaked swiftly past us and disappeared into the vegetation on the farther side. The incident startled us nearly out of our wits, but fortunately we recognised the creature just before it was lost in the foliage: a large jungle rabbit!
Rounding a bend in the nullah, the Major abruptly halted.
'Good heavens!' he exclaimed. 'There she is.' Less than ten metres away, lying peacefully on its side, head toward us, was our victim!
'I wonder if she's dead?' muttered my companion, doubtfully. I suggested putting a
bullet into its skull, just to make sure.
'No,' he said. 'I don't want to spoil the pelt. Throw a stone at it; I'll cover you.'
I threw several stones, but failed to hit the target.
'You cover me. I'll see if I can hit it.' growled my comrade impatiently, but his aim was as bad as mine.
'Get closer and kick it,' he said at last. 'I'm covering you.'
Both of us crept cautiously closer, and Carrick held the muzzle of his gun about an inch away from the panther's massive head while I thrust at it with my boot - lightly at first, and then gradually harder. There was no response whatever. Then he made me feel the animal's heart and roll back its eyelids before we were finally satisfied it was stone dead and could not possibly harm us.
We had been two blundering fools and were lucky to be alive. Major Carrick, nevertheless, was a courageous young man who had not hesitated to put his own life in jeopardy for the sake of the hapless villagers.
As for me, I made an immediate decision to leave big-game hunting to the experts. I have settled for writing my memoir!
I should say something about snobbery. Both my father’s parents came out from England and settled in Calcutta. My father was born and educated there, but went to England to sit for the Bengal Civil Service examination and returned to India as a ‘covenanted hand’. He was thus one of the ‘heaven-born’ and occupied a position that was not available to Anglo-Indians or Indians. My mother’s father was a British soldier who had taken his discharge in India and married an Anglo-Indian girl. Thus, as defined by the Government of India Act of 1935, we were Anglo-Indians, but my mother preferred to refer to ourselves as Domiciled Europeans, though the Act had made no reference to this term.
When I was about 11 years of age, my mother grew quite alarmed that my brother and I were turning quite dark due to playing in the sun. She therefore ordered that we had to stay out of the sun as much as possible, and she made my brother and I sponge our faces with hydrogen-peroxide daily to ‘preserve our fair complexions.’ My father soon put a stop to this nonsense, though he was ambivalent as to whether we were Domiciled Europeans or Anglo-Indians. Later in life, my father came out openly and said that we are Anglo-Indians and we should consider ourselves to be natives of India. He was very much in favour of such schemes as the McCluskiegunge settlement. When I joined the Army, he made me show my domicile as India, whereas most of my school friends claimed England as their domicile. Consequently, I was commissioned as an Indian officer in the Army, while my friends received British commissions. I had to accept the situation.
An aunt of mine by marriage wrote and suggested that I call on her young sister, Sheila, who was employed as a governess with a Mr and Mrs Harley in an exclusive suburb of Calcutta. A liveried servant showed me into an elegant drawing room, where I was received by an aristocratic-looking, silver-haired lady who asked me my name and business. I was attired as a Captain of the Indian Army. This tended to blur arbitrary class distinctions; or rather it posited me on the side of the upper crust, and she felt it her bounden duty to protect an apparently lonely and vulnerable British officer from the machinations of an Anglo-Indian nanny, fair and attractive though she may be, but nevertheless below the class to which we belonged.
'Captain Blackford,' she said in cultured tones when I had introduced myself. 'What a coincidence! My maiden name is Blackford. What is your father's name, and what part of England do you come from?'
When I told her my background, she exclaimed, 'Why, you must be Edward's son. Then I am your Aunt Dolly - Dolly Harvey.'
'And how is Edward keeping these days?' she continued. 'He had such a promising career ahead of him in the civil service. What a shame it was that he broke ranks and married that terrible Anglo-Indian girl from one of the railway colonies.' Her disgust at miscegenation over-rode her sense of tact and polite behaviour!
I encountered a degree of hostility among Indian officers when I applied to attend a Staff College course and on other occasions. This made me thoroughly disillusioned with life in the Indian Army, so I took my passport, which showed my domicile as India, to the UK Trade Commissioner, together with copies of my grandfather’s and father's birth certificates, and claimed British nationality. This was granted immediately and I received a Certificate of British Citizenship. Armed with this document, I went next to the Passport Office and had the words, 'Domicile: India', on my passport altered to 'Domicile: UK'. My next port of call was the Australian Trade Commissioner, who granted me permission to immigrate. I found a Norwegian freighter at Calcutta about to sail to Fremantle in Australia. I paid the Captain Rs1000, and ten days later I arrived in Australia as a British migrant.
No one ever took me for an Anglo-Indian, and I never volunteered the information. But, Brigadier Geoff Thompson of my regiment, who had settled in Adelaide, one day lent me a copy of Gloria Moore’s The Anglo-Indian Vision. Reading this remarkable book changed my life. I realised then that the glory of my microscopic community’s history and its achievements outshone anything that England or any other country could boast of. We were, I now realised for the first time, an extraordinary people, a people of unique courage, talents and attainments. I decided to ‘come out’ and declare that I was an Anglo-Indian. Two years ago I published my memoir One Hell of a Life: An Anglo-Indian Wallah’s Memoir from the Last Decades of the Raj. It became an instant success, and I have had to have it reprinted 14 times.
I urge you all to take pride in being Anglo-Indian and to talk about our history and our heritage. Since my book came out, I have given more than 60 talks to various clubs and associations on the topic One Hell of a Life. And I urge you all also, to do what you can to promote books and literature written by and about Anglo-Indians.