By the end of my first week I have traced down a bungalow being leased by an officer heading out for the Mofussil. The Frontier. A chap named Hobson. We struck a deal for me to buy out his unexpired lease. He was a horseman so he gave me a lead both for the best Indian ponies and for a camel. In the Great Trunk Road that ran like a backbone through the whole of India, a camel was essential. A horse you treasured. A camel carried you everywhere with the possible exception of the front lines of battle. Hobson taught me about Indian ponies too, the best ones, the ones with the oddly curved cupid’s bow ears. They were small as polo ponies but bred for the Indian climate. Only a fool or a griffin bought a thoroughbred. Hobson advised me to keep my pony in my tent when on the move too. Thieves were audacious. And Hobson told me to always tie the sling of my rifle around one arm and sleep with my revolver’s safety neck loop around my neck and the revolver under my saddle which I should use like a pillow. I should also sleep with my sword belted with the sword in it’s sheath under the saddle. Sleeping on the move was clearly not going to be comfortable!
Hobson gave me some other leads too. Officers coming down to Calcutta often sold their equipment, tents, camp gear, to officers heading up country. That was where Hobson found his kit. He introduced me to the mess where I could contact such ‘incoming sahibs’ fresh from the Frontier. I ate at the mess as Hobson’s guest. I hate mess dining but Hobson was such a chatterbox no one noticed me. Everyone assumed I was finishing my ‘holding’ and gathering my gear to go upcountry as an ‘outgoing sahib’. I was in civilian dress because I only had one uniform at the time. I did not know rather or not to confess I was only a cadet. I towered over Hobson who was a rather short but cocky young man with baby blue eyes. He always wore blue tinted spectacles against the bright light which caused him migraines.
An officer at the mess asked ‘Is he one of us?’ I was about to stammer ‘Ok! You have found me out I am only a fucking cadet!’ when Hobson replied ‘Of course and I hope you dreadful chaps will keep him that way!’ Then the officers in their red dress uniforms all turned to me. Half of me wanted to grab the damn table and turn it over confounding the officers under a tonnage of food and liquor. The other half of me suggested that would not be a diplomatic move. Then Hobson smiled his dazzling smile of the naughty boy and everyone simply laughed. ‘But do you think he wants to be one of us considering who WE ARE?’ Hobson smiled that dazzling smile and every officer up and down that table roared with laughter. God. I wish I could be like that. Like Hobson. I never knew a man who was more popular or beloved by his fellow officers. Everyone adored him. I could not imagine anyone ever remotely admiring me in any capacity whatsoever!
Hobson then introduced me to the Indian NCO’s (Native Company Officers). We started with the top. The Subedar Major was an apparently elderly man in an odd mixture of uniform, pajama trousers, turban, what looked like bedroom slippers, an the crown insignia of a major. A griffin might take him for a valet or batman. In fact the grand old native officer served as the liaison and personal advisor to the Regimental Commanding Officer and his Adjutant. Hobson explained that the Subedar Major was the alter ego to the Commander. In fact, he was the second most important man in the regiment and basically ran the sepoys. “A good Subedar Major is the best friend you can ever have!” Hobson explained. The man was apparently elderly, the NCO often being slow to rise in promotion because of ‘John Company’ policies which resulted in generals being 60 or 70 years old and majors needing ladders to mount their steeds. But I quickly found out that the Subedar Major had forgotten more about the army that I probably would ever learn. He gestured to a rocking chair by his rocking chair and we talked as Hobson grinned. He grabbed a rocking chair and he ‘raced’ us, using his riding crop to ‘whip’ the rocking chair onwards across the finish line.
“We forgive Hobson Sahib” the elderly NCO replied blandly, “because he has been touched by the gods – or as you say — he is mad as a hatter.” Hobson roared with laughter.
I was too intense to laugh but then realized I should have laughed because by not laughing I offended the NCO. Then I froze up even more. In the end all I could say was “Sahib! I want to be a good soldier. Will you teach me?”
Oddly, he nodded yes. “You are touched by the gods.”
“My gods or other gods?” Hobson asked.
“Unquiet gods.” Then the aging NCO dipped his finger in some water and then the dirt and he drew three horizontal lines across my forehead.
Then Hobson introduced me to the Subedar who was the adjutant to the Subedar Major. The Subedar had a huge mustache and the red dot that told the world he was a Brahmin. I asked if he could find the time to teach me anything that he felt I should know. Rocking back and forth on his heels, he nodded as one hand tugged on his huge mustache. “What do you feel you need to learn?” he asked as one hand gestured in that way Indians did.
“Everything” I replied.
“Good! One hour each night after evening mess. 7 o’clock. My office. Here.” He pointed with his riding crop. He was a bowlegged old cavalryman.
Then Hobson introduced me to key Jemadars who were basically subalterns ie lieutenants. They were my temporary superiors and as such I saluted them and referred to them as Sahib or Sir. Unlike white officers who would not be bothered with cadets, these middle aged Indians were bastions of crucial knowledge and as long as I respected them they were quite willing to share that crucial knowledge I needed to learn as quickly as possible. In short. They were military munshis – teachers. I was completely frank about my need to learn everything. By the end of the morning I found military munshis willing to teach me rifle and revolver gunnery, artillery, regimental knowhow, snapper and engineering logistics, Indian customs which impacted the military, riding a horse and camel, and telegraphy. The latter I quite insisted on to Hobson’s bemusement but the Jemadars were amused. There was only one experimental telegraph line strung. No one took it seriously.
Through these allies I also found a lead to a munshi who taught advance Urdu and Hindustani and Sanscrit. Most of the griffins just needed munshis who could teach them how to swear at servants. But if I was to get a job as Political Officer I would need to speak at least 5 and up to 7 languages and dialects. For instance my Hindustani was Rajput and not Bengali so I could scarcely understand the natives despite speaking a type of Hindustani. And once I reached the Punjab I would have to learn Punjabi and Pashto Pathan as well.
I also priced my shopping list of requirements for heading out to the Mofussil. The frontier. It was unbelievable. A 100 items of clothing alone. A top notch Adams revolver, even used, would be expensive. A pin rifle was essential. A musket was absurd. And I needed the rifle and revolver as soon as possible to commence target practice under a Jemadar who worked at the range. The standard issue sword was dull as a poker. Our sword master kept bellowing ‘Point the damn thing! Point! Point! Point! Stick the bloody pig!’ Why? The damn thing was so damn dull you could not slash with it to save your life.
I shopped around and found leads for an Indian tulwar, a type of saber which came in a wood and soft kidskin sheath to protect the edge. It was not Wootz Steel alas. No one seemed to own genuine Wootz Steel anymore. No one knew why. The tulwar and matching katar set appeared so damn authentic. But in fact it was a 1712 import from Sheffield designed for the Indian market. But it was still good steel. ‘Sahib! Sahib! Never use a metal sheath or scabbard! It dulls the edge — especially during drills! Treat the tulwar like a beautiful woman Sahib’ the Jemadar said gesturing with his hands the silhouette of an Indian woman and kissing his fingertips. Then he taught me how to use the matching katar dagger which you welded by holding it’s unique grip in a fist for a fast, powerful, punching blow. Which was infinitely superior to any European dagger.
I was told by my commanding officer that I would be put in a ‘holding position’ for at least 6 months before moving upcountry. It was fortunate. I watched Hobson on his last day in Fort William displaying his skills on horseback. The rival officer came at him with his bamboo sword at the ‘point’ as Hobson rode by. Incredibly, Hobson simply arched his nimble little body back on the saddle as if reclining on a soft bed, his head to the tail, his feet toward the head of his pony, and let the bamboo sword ‘point’ pass right over him! Missing him completely! Then, as he rode by he slashed the poor man from behind with his own bamboo sword in an elegant backward slash. I could not see how I was to learn everything I had to learn in 6 months.
Nevertheless, armed with specific information, I descended on Calcutta and appeared at the office of Hogg Number 2. I tried very hard not to see his elephant trunk. His nose was conspicuously big. I presented my letter of introduction from Hogg Number 1. Hogg Number 2 was not impressed even if he was my uncle and I was his nephew. I presented him with my shopping list while explaining the deals I was able to secure. “Laddie! You are suppose to be here to make your fortune! Not to spend my fortune!”
“But Hogg Number 1 assured me I could count on you. My cadetship income is too little. The tent alone is 400 rupees. Used.”
“Moneylenders are two blocks down.”
“Hogg Number 1 advised me to never used a moneylender. They charge 50% interest.”
“Hogg Number 1 used a moneylender when he first arrived.”
“Hogg Number 1 advised me that he was the exception to the rule about using a moneylender.” Hogg Number 2 did not seem keen to know me, much less help me. So I went for a gamble from my gut. “Constantinople” I said. Hogg Number 2 sat upright in his chair with both hands on his desk at the uttering of the magic word.
“Does India House think the Ruskies are going for the Gold Apple of Catherine?”
“De Lacy Evans ‘Sudden Death’ is deemed fit for the circular file” I replied. It was not that much of a lie. As far as I was concerned it was fit for the circular file: the trash can.
“I knew it” Hogg Number 2 exclaimed pounding his desk with one hand. Then he leaned over the desk toward me. “Any insider intel from Kabul?”
“I am to be posted with the 27BNI at Ferozepore and then I am to be assigned to a unit at the Northwest Frontier when I head upcountry! Into the lion’s mouth! Unless I can’t raise the funds to outfit myself….”
“Oh damnation!” Hogg Number 2 blustered as he pulled out his checkbook and wrote a check. “But I expect juicy insider intel you whippersnapper!” I tried very hard not to see his very big nose quiver like an elephant’s snout…..