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The International Writers Magazine
: India - a half century

First Impressions
Mike Branson

Our passage to India aboard a 10,000-ton troopship, that had seen better days, took almost four weeks. Given that there were at least 1,800 soldiers on board, we were crammed into every minute space available, consequently the voyage was most uncomfortable and very tiring.
India 1945-1947

The closer we came to Bombay, the greater our impatience to arrive. About a day’s journey from Bombay we became conscious of a new smell in the air and one coming from the land instead of from the obnoxious stink from below deck. This new smell was that of India; a mélange of dust, open drains, of things rotting - all counter balanced by the pleasing aroma of spices. I had noticed the philosophical change that occurred as one journeyed East of Suez : the ties to Europe weakened and those of Asia began to be felt. It’s as if you had entered a completely new way of life requiring some social and behavioural change. It was a good introduction to India.

The troopship approached the "Gateway to India" (Bombay harbour), at about 1 p.m. – the siesta hour. The ship rounded a point and moved slowly to its berth which was in some remote part of the harbour where the normal gathering of well-dressed officials and disgruntled dock hands awaited our docking. Among the officials was a grand fellow, all of six feet with a huge moustache and beard that just about hid his face. He was wearing a brilliantly white Nehru style habit and sported a shiny stove-pipe shaped hat on his head. A small boy accompanied him holding a very large umbrella and stretching up on his toes to shade his master from the fearsome sun. They looked like two caricatures. I later learned that this official was the Port Medical Officer. I was amazed at the large number of officials that came aboard. What were the needs for this surfeit of bureaucrats? I and the other officer cadets (we were the last to disembark) saw them go below deck but not reappear. Quickly I became aware that a country with 'only' three-quarters of a billion people back then, quantity was de rigueur rather than quality throughout officialdom in India.

Bombay Harbour and its surrounding area is imposing and sharply obvious were the impressive and imposing government buildings built by the British during Queen Victoria’s reign. On looking more closely at the city streets teeming with people, animals, carts, buses, etc…, I wondered how this mass of moving objects were somehow able to get to where they intended to go for the apparent confusion seemed chaotic and endless.

On disembarking there was no time to visit Bombay itself, instead we, the officer cadets, entrained for the Kalyan Acclimatization Centre about forty-miles north-east of Bombay. The journey was slow even by Indian standards; either the old steam engine was incapable of going faster or the engine driver was showing his displeasure at having to work during the siesta hours. Whatever the reason, our slow passage gave us the opportunity to view the scenery that was naturally fascinating in its utter difference from the green English country side. Here the land was flat, mainly clear of trees but with here and there, some cultivated land being worked by women. Far less attractive was the extraordinary and sickening sight of hundreds of unfortunates suffering from diseases and deformities such as elephantiasis, huge and open cancerous wounds, thyroid problems, faces and bodies caved in from some accident, armless and legless beings who lined both sides of the track for several miles. They were obviously derelicts whom no-one was interested in helping. They all begged for bakhshish, but we had but a few English coppers to offer and no food. The sight was a rude awakening and affected all of us when we reflected on the comparison between our lives and theirs.

We reached the small nondescript town of Kalyan. It was said that visitors staying in Kalyan would surely die of malaria or cholera. An odd place to send new recruits unless it was a test the survival of the fittest.
It was at Kalyan that I first became acquainted with the pace at which things were done. In India, speed is not as important as it is in the Western world. An Indian would think: "By running we may reach an unimportant destination a little earlier. We cannot reach the ultimate destination one second in advance." There is no way to hurry an Indian. The reason for hurry is not understood. As I became familiar with this different sense of time, so I revised my conception of time it would take for an Indian to complete a given task.

It was also at Kalyan that I first met the "Indian Servant" – a being unknown in any other part of the world. The servant I was allotted was a Moslem from the Punjab who was knowledgeable with such needs I might have and he looked after me adequately. Despite my limited Urdu and his very slight grasp of English, we were nevertheless able to communicate well enough. It turned out that each "servant" had a number of helpers, these being members of their respective families or friends. The helpers cleaned the room, did the laundry, ironed the clothes and did other chores as requested by the Sah’b. The ironing was done by a man. Given that you changed clothing four or five times a day this extra help was needed. Your servant was ‘head-man’ who organized the helpers and made sure everything needed was ready on time. The camp itself was kept relatively clean by the sweepers who came from the no-cast "Untouchables."

And so, within 24 hours I was given an initiation to Indian life. A rigid caste system, incredible poverty and disease, an endless mass of humanity within the cities, a politeness missing in Europe, extraordinary heat, an impossible bureaucracy together with a maddening slowness of pace and written all of this a grace seldom seen elsewhere.

© Mike Branson November 2004
bransonshirley at

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