I have never been to India, but that country featured significantly during two very different periods in my life.
My father was a regular soldier. He had joined the British Army in 1936, and served in the Royal Artillery. When war broke out in 1939, he spent some time with coastal defence artillery. Then when Japan entered the war in late 1941, he was transferred to India. It was believed that Japan would try to invade India, and my dad’s job was to train Indian Army soldiers to use combat artillery weapons.
As we know, India was not invaded. As a result, my dad enjoyed a happy war. With the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major, he lived a comfortable life as a Warrant Officer. He travelled around many parts of India, living in style in his own bungalow with servants looking after him. He played Cricket and Football for the Army teams there, and went on many hunting trips, shooting almost every known animal in that country.
When Japan surrendered, he stayed on in India becuase he was a regular, not returning to England until after the partition of India in 1947.
Once I was old enough to understand, he would talk to me about India constantly. He taught me about the different cultures and religions, gave me his opinions on the soldierly qualities of Sikhs, Punjabis, and other ethnic groups. He spoke about the wonders of the ancient temples, the extremes of weather, and also the poverty and caste system. Using the big map in my atlas of the world, he traced his travels around India, describing each different region to me in great detail. He also spoke highly of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and how he would dearly loved to have settled down there.
To accompany his talks, he used four albums of black and white photos he had taken whilst living there. They were small prints, carefully attached into the albums using ‘photo-corners’. They showed snake charmers, temples, dancers, festivals, numerous animals, and photos of my dad and his comrades doing all kinds of things. He also gave me some of his souvenirs, including a Gurkha Kukri battle knife in its leather case. Other souvenirs were animal skins from Antelopes of some kind, and a deerskin. They served as rugs for many years.
Pride of place was for a stuffed leopard’s head, and its full skin. That trophy was in front of the fireplace. I am talking about the 1950s here, so at the time such things were admired, and there was no talk of how bad hunting was or how cruel it was.
Because of those years being enthralled by his descriptions of this exotic land, I resolved to visit India as soon as I was able.
Fast forward to late 1984. I had been married for 7 years, and I was living in Wimbledon. I was an EMT in London, and my wife was a University Lecturer in Biology and Ecological Sciences. She came home from work one day and told me she had been asked to go on a trip for the British Council For Overseas Aid, leaving in a few months. She would spend six months in India as part of a group of lecturers, taking along a large amount of used school scientific equipment, including microscopes and soil analysers. The team would tour India helping trainee teachers learn how to use the equipment in schools, later donating it to them. She added that she had accepted.
I was excited. The destinations reminded me of many places my dad had told me about. Bangalore, Lucknow, Kashmir, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur.
For the next few weeks, I spent all my free time doing research. I bought detailed maps of India, checked on necessary vaccinations, purchased travel guides for each region,and even bought a large zoom lens for my camera. I went to my Area Headquarters and asked my Ambulance Service manager for time off. I was told I could use all my paid leave, then be unpaid for the remainder. But I could come back to my job as long as I was not away for longer than six months.
My wife was aware of all of my research, and she also knew about my dad spending all those years in India, and my lifelong anticipation of visiting that country. We were quite well-off financially, and a few months unpaid leave would not affect our situation. Besides, she would be getting paid by the British Council, in addition to her University pay. It was considered to be something of an honour that she had been asked to go.
One evening as I sat surrounded by maps of India, she told me that it was not considered to be ‘appropriate’ for spouses or partners to go. Hotel accommodation and flights had already been arranged, and she would be working up to 10 hours a day. I saw no problem in that. Hotels were cheap, we could easily afford my return flight, and I would not need much money while I was there. I could get a hotel nearby, and meet up with her when she was free. Meanwhile, I could explore the area, and take photos.
When I explained that, she seemed exasperated. She said she did not want me to go, adding that it would be ’embarrassing’ for her husband to keep appearing. I was surprised that she had not mentioned that from the start, saving me the preparation and anticipation. I felt incredibly deflated, and her best answer was “I knew you wanted to go there, and didn’t know how to tell you that you couldn’t come”.
So I never made it to India, and we split up in 1985 just before she was due to leave England.
I suppose I could have gone on my own later in life, but my heart was no longer in it.