A week later I was the steamer Camden sharing a cabin with other griffins off to India to make their collective fortunes. The cabin had canvas walls because there were pirates which meant in theory the ship might have to ‘beat to quarters’ for battle. Our hammocks actually hung over a cannon. We were packed in like sardines which I found unpleasant being an antisocial bastard. The other cadets were 16 but they seemed very green, pimply, and callow. They all eyed me suspiciously because I stood head and shoulders above me. “A tad old aren’t you old chap to be cadet?”A few boys had taken the 6 month course India House offered cadets to help them locate India on the map, knew where the ports were, read James Mill’s 8 volume History of British India, and learn enough Hindustani to order servants about and perhaps some Sanscrit.
I had spent Christmas Breaks and plus summers with Ranjit Sahib learning Hindustani and Urdu which was the Muslim lingo along with as much Sanscrit as I could cram. I had already ‘enjoyed’ if that was the word, Mill’s opus to Britannia so Uncle Hogg had me reading India House reports and no longer classified dossiers. I was also suffering through the Mahabharata in the original on the theory that if I knew the key myth then I could ‘understand’ the India Mind. It made sense. The Iliad was the key to most educated Brits and the Bible, regardless of morality, or the lack, formed the core of both literature and thinking of most Westerners. But reading something nearly 5 times as large in the original was as hard slog. Ranjit Sahib had gotten me started last year. Projecting the length of the trip I divided the monstrosity up into quotas and forced marched my way through.
Fortunately Uncle Hogg found a piece of Urdu that was much more enjoyable:
The Collective Poems of Mirza Ghalib. Though Muslim, he lived and wrote with an ironic eye and a flare for satire. ‘How can Sahbai be a poet? He has never tasted wine, nor has he ever gambled, he has not been beaten with slippers by lovers, nor has he ever seen the inside of a jail….’ I wondered if I would ever meet him. He lived in Delhi on a ‘John Company’ stipend at the Court of Zafar the ‘King of Delhi’ ie the Emperor of India depending if you still believed the Mughals ruled or not.
The steamer was crammed with young griffins like myself, officers returning with brides (‘John Company’ required 10 years service before allowing anyone to go back to Britain to find a wife), businessmen, young girls looking to score in marriage to rich nabobs, and in the lower troop decks, soldiers being shipped out in the hundreds to replace soldiers who had died in the hundreds – mostly of disease, bad water, and the climate. The newlyweds kept to themselves savoring the time they had. The griffins flirted with the young girls who flirted back. I could not blame them. The boys were naive. The girls knew this would be the only time they could fantasize marrying young men their own age rather than decayed old men buying pretty young things to fondle with their decayed hands. The cynic might say they were sailing to India to prostitute themselves no less than any spoiled dove trolling the Haymarket in London, the only difference being a small gold band called a wedding ring. But I pitied the girls. Or at least I did.
One started flirting with me. I don’t know why. I didn’t look pimply. Being in a foul mood from translating Sanscrit I cruelly asked her if her sights were aimed only for nabobs of Calcutta or if she would compromise for an indigo or tea plantation owner, and if she would resist the siren call of a dirty old man aged 70 if he was a millionaire. She slapped me and after that I found myself, as usual, a pariah. Even the griffins in my cabin cold shouldered me. I did not particularly care. I did not like them. They had pimples and kept saying ‘Old Chap’ and ‘Tallyho’ as if trying to con people into thinking they were older and sophisticated and they were not handsome by any stretch of the imagination. Shit. Even I looked better and I would not win the beauty prize by any stretch of the imagination.
The trip was tedious except when we were sailing through gales which were rather exciting. For some reason I was one of the few who did not suffer from seasickness. Forewarned by Uncle Hogg, I paid the quartermaster a penny bribe each night to sleep on deck where it was cool. Within a week the lower troop decks stank of sweat and the heat. I did not envy the poor soldiers below.
Most of the people on the upper decks flirted, fornicated, drank, and gambled. The drunkenness was appalling. One thing did stick to me from Mother’s kirk: the abhorrence of alcohol and gambling and fornication. The going- ons on the ship was quite venal. I rationed my pennies to enjoy the coolness of the deck at night, and on alternating evenings I enjoyed either a penny bun from the cook house or else a Bombay Fizzer. That was quite good. It was gingered and quinine spiked seltzer water with a lump of sherbert. I could not believe the ship could nurse their ice in any part of the hold as we sailed toward the heat of India but every day they offered sherbert. Bombay Fizzers were, I honestly confess, my venal weakness during that cruse but compared to almost everyone else, quite a mild pinch of venality.
Some nights I pondered my life ahead as I watched the sea at night and I wondered what fate had in score for me. Apparently, considering my circumstances as I write in this journal, it is not to be a very long life —-