Dum Dum was as humid as a Turkish Bath. We never stayed here long enough to become acclimatised to it, if that was a possibility. Many of the Staging Posts along the route were hotter than Calcutta, but with low to medium humidity. Calcutta topped the humidity league. The sweat oozed from our pores as we drank and drank but never seemed to satisfy our thirsts. The drinks were cooled by ice and this wasn’t any good for our stomachs, but who wants to drink liquid at tepid room temperature? It was not that we didn’t remember the warnings about consuming ice-cold drinks, but to stop was like asking a chain smoker to refrain from cigarettes. The locals drank their water from chattis, which are earthen-ware containers where the cooling is done by slow evaporation, but never iced or on ice.

The constant sweating tired us, and after picking at a meal without appetite or enthusiasm, we would go to lie down on our charpoys under mosquito nets. Completely without energy, we could lie but found it difficult to relax. Under the punkas set in the ceilings, whirring above and rotating the oppressive luke warm air to create a slight stir, we would doze off; but there was no regeneration from this shallow sleep. I would wake in the silent, windowless room, almost benumbed with ennui. ‘It’s just too boring here; shall we go to Calcutta?’ There was a long silence from ‘Tash’ lying in the other bed and I thought he was either dozing or too exhausted to answer. ‘I think I could just about drag my carcass there. What do you want to do?’ ‘Oh, we’ll find something,’ I answered, momentarily recalling the West Virginia fiasco. ‘Come on then,’ said Tash. ‘There were no takers when we looked into the other crew rooms. ‘Bring us back a stick of rock,’ Johnny called out.

We had seen a permanent line of taxis waiting outside the guard house and a squaddy had only to step beyond the barrier to raise a persistent vocal chorus – ‘taxi, sahib, taxi, sahib, taxi, sahib.’ ‘How much to Calcutta?’ ‘Thirty rupees, sahib.’ There followed an energetic and confused bargaining session, from which I detached myself to go over to the guard house. ‘It’s fifteen,’ said the guard without being asked. There were plenty of the 30 rupee drivers eager for the business at 15 rupees. ‘Let’s take this one,’ I said, indicating a proud looking, black bearded contender who carried himself with confident ease, and wore a fine blue and white pugree on his head.

Comfortably settled in a large, old American car, we drove through areas of great contrast. First, across an enormous open space which the driver told us was called the Maidan; there was a large fort within the grounds. The Chowwringhee residential location for European and wealthy Indians was like nothing else we had seen before with vast mansions set in tropical gardens. It was hardly a place to walk around, aloof, reserved, silent, sombre and isolated. Here lived the Government officials, wealthy merchants and the Military caste with their multitude of servants discreetly hidden away in the native quarters. Finally we came to the part of India we were becoming used to, narrow roads filled with teeming humanity moving between the bazaars lining each side, where wandering holy cows competed for space with rickshaw cyclists, pedal cyclists, vendors of food-stuffs pushing small carts and everywhere, beggars, beggars, beggars; beggars deformed, beggars whole, beggars appealing, beggars grotesque, beggars squatting, beggars standing, beggars thrusting, beggars detached. The heart had to be hardened to so much poverty, misery, suffering and pain. Can we, as individuals, take on the problems of the world? I thought. As Westerners living in a more affluent society we tend to hide from sight the non-standard products of the race; but in India, such people live as one with the rest, out in the open, put to use in a practical way to help the daily struggle for survival that here is so much nearer to the border of non-survival than we in the West can ever imagine.

Almost without perceiving it happen, we were in the midst of a demonstration. There were crowds of people all around our taxi, chanting, waving and stamping. To begin with we were ignored; the taxi driver moved slowly and carefully along at the pace of the moving crowd as though we too were part of the procession. This was like having central place, a vantage point from where we could view the activity and passion of the participants from very close range. But this feeling gave way quickly to a more apprehensive one as, with impending concern, we noticed the volume and density of the crowd grow, so that every where we looked we could see only the dark faces of the demonstrators, faces that had relinquished their sovereign identities to merge with the uglier, composite raging mood of a crowd losing all restraint – curious, amoral, volatile.

At times, in the gaps between people, we could see other cars, immobilised or stranded in the midst of the agitated crowd which was fast becoming a mob. For so long as the cars were ignored, there was no reason to act in any other way than to maintain a low visible profile, and merge as much as one could into the scene. There was, however, a driver whose impatience overcame his caution, and because the crowd appeared to be indifferent to any vehicle along the way, he must have gained confidence enough to have started hooting to clear a way. Our taxi driver immediately began growling to himself in his language. The response to the hooting was not immediate, and other cars, unseen, joined in to try and force a way out of the melee.

It seemed to take ages for the crowd’s attention to be directed against the cars; but once it had, matters became very frightening. A driver wearing a Gandhi hat was hauled from his car and disappeared, tussling against his assailants, while his car was promptly turned over. I could see through the windows on his side that the crowd’s responses were not individual ones. No one appeared to touch our taxi at first although faces were now pressed up against the windows, peering inside. I felt a tenseness in my stomach, like a large undigested stone was in it. Hands were fumbling for the outside handles, but these had been hurriedly locked by the driver and us, his passengers. Then the car began to rock, pushed from side to side, as the crowd sought to turn it over, with the occupants inside. It was at this point that the driver showed his mettle. Winding down the window in the stifling car he spoke to those on his side, outside, in a hard, commanding but controlled voice. Someone in the crowd picked up his words, and there was a dialogue, which resulted in those to whom he spoke calling off the others from the attack on the car.

We returned to Dum Dum drained, our clothes damp against our skins from the heat and tension of the ordeal, and lethargic in our re-action to the escape. The driver, no doubt anxious to explain his part in ensuring that his car had been allowed through, whereas many of the others had been overturned or otherwise mishandled, spoke as we cleared the Calcutta confines. ‘They Muslim men. I say, sahibs in my car and Muslim man take care of sahibs. Great shame to Muslim men to hurt sahibs in car of Muslim man.’ His English was enough to understand what had got them through but not enough to sustain a flow of questions that needed unlocking in my mind, after he had spoken. So we used the newly learned Urdu words to express our appreciation. ‘Bohrt acha, bohrt acha. Teik hai, teik hai.’ And what was given to our driver as we stepped out of his taxi at the guard house was more than the contracted 15 rupees, even more than the originally requested 30 rupees; we paid a gratitude premium for our escape.

That night in the Mess we related the episode to a group who seemed to Tash and me singularly unimpressed. ‘We get ’em demonstrating all the time,’ said a rubicond Station Warrent Officer. ‘It’s the run up to independence and they’re manipulated by the Muslim polititians who want a separate Muslim state. It’s lucky for you that you picked a Muslim driver. If he had been a Sikh, a Hindu or a Christian you wouldn’t have got off as you did. There have been plenty of deaths in the rioting since August, but Europeans are generally left alone. As long as it stays like that, we don’t get too involved.’ Our little affair, having been relegated to a proper perspective by the local WO, was followed briefly by a discussion of the great upheaval that was going on everywhere across India as the imminent departure of the British drew nearer.

Afterwards the talking turned to the more serious channel of when they were likely to get back to Blighty, and Tash and I being out of that sort of speculation, did not have much more to say. Although Tash had the last word about our recent exploit. ‘I think I’ll stay behind next time some squaddy asks me to go to Cal.’ he said as an aside to me. ‘Come on, let’s have another iced lime juice, even though we pay for it tomorrow.’

October 1946