blog 74 moving out

Jock predicted I would not be assigned upcountry in the mofussil until after Hot Season. And indeed it proved true. I endured my first Hot Season at Fort William. And hot it was! Unbelievably. From mid afternoon to sunset even I had to retreat either into one of the cool rooms of Fort William College to read in my underwear or else sprawl before Thermantidote on my cot covered with wet towels. It was so unbelievable I could not believe it. 100 degrees. Then 110. Then 120. Sometimes it reached 125! Our Commanding Officer gave a whole lecture on heat stroke and how to not die literally cooked to death in the heat of Hot Season!

Alas I managed to get malaria instead! I sweated and shivered for weeks, occasionally raving, then simply prostrated. Apparently I so scared my Indian Family they sent for my NCO. One day after a feverish night I woke to see Jock and Syn by my cot. They were taking turns pressing wet towels to my brow.

“Laddie! Laddie! Take it easy.”

I could see everyone was scared. “Was it something I said?”

“You have been off your head laddie. Malaria. You went a little freaky.”

“How ‘freaky’?” I asked.

“As in moving all of the tatties and punkah and some of the furniture all around the room like a cyclone.”

“Not a poltergeist!”

“Fortunately Indians have different words for it and they just did a bunch of rites on their family altar in the kitchen while sending for your NCO who sent for us.”

I pulled my thin cotton sheet over my head. “How can I apologize to my Indian Family?” I whispered from under the sheet.

“This is India son! Weird things happen every day! In my barracks a fella went delirious with malaria and changed into a werewolf right before our eyes. Poor fella did not know he was one. Our lieutenant heard the howling and came to check! We stood straight faced and announced we had a new mascot! Big! Hairy! Howling! Lieutenant was not entirely persuaded so we tossed a cricket bat through the door and yelled ‘Fetch’ and by the gods! Guess what? Howe fetched it! So our officer just nodded and left! When Howe recovered he found out he had been promoted to mascot each full moon! Hey! This is India John! It is the Land of Weird!”

Everyone nursed me back to health but unfortunately when malaria gets into your blood it stays. I have had bouts of the damnable thing since! Fortunately none so badly as to send things flying! However I did get my date to move upcountry into the mofussil and a posting at the 27th Native Infantry at Ferozepore 600 miles up the Great Trunk Road. I prepared to move out as a newly minted lieutenant.

I wrote a long letter in Sanscrit to Priest Deekshithar Sahib and said my goodbyes to Sammy, Jock, Syn, Uncle Hogg Number 2 , plus my NCO’s and my commanding officer. I did not care about the other griffins, nor they me. But I would miss my NCO’s who had treated me very well. I asked my commanding officer what gifts were appropriate and he said ‘Simply become a good officer worthy of your munshis. Your teachers. However the bazaar that sells anything and everything here that a soldier wants or needs issues certificates. You can buy gift certificates for everyone.” I did accordingly, using up my entire tiny cadet pay.

Moving upcountry into the Mofussil was an amazing thing. The 600 mile trip was slated to last nearly the whole of the Cold Season. I guesstimated I would see my 18th birthday at Ferozepore. A whole wing of the army was moving up to release a whole wing moving down. The army on the march would stretch for over a mile. We spent one day just lining up in preparation for the march. A lot of the men were callow like myself. I was determined not to appear the total griffin so I questioned everyone who had traveled before and took notes and drew up to-do lists. I then announced a week of rehearsals! “Dear Indian Family! We are all griffins! New to the Frontier! We must not lose face and appear bumbling! So we will not leave it to the gods! We will rehearse!” And indeed we did – most comically. Even the cow laughed at us. Even Jock and Syn who came just in time to laugh! But then they most kindly helped my Indian Family and I rehearse hoisting a hill tent and packing and unpacking bullock carts for a 600 mile journey to the Mofussil Frontier! I filled sheets of paper with notes.

“Oh laddie!” Jock laughed. “How we will miss you! Only an earnest laddie like you would take notes like that!”

“Will you miss me?” I asked. “I will… I…I ….well….” Then I pompously shook their hands stiffly and felt the perfect fool.

I finally hired yet another munshi in all of the Punjab languages two days before moving out. He was a grizzled ex-courtier of a Principality recently decommissioned by ‘John Company’ and looking for a job. From being a secretary to a Nawab to being the munshi and secretary to a lieutenant might be a come-down but he did not reveal his emotions. My new munshi was an elegant 55 year old gent of noble face, Urdu refined voice, worn court clothes, slippers with holes in the soles, a turban of faded elegance, and a lifetime of memories of the vagaries of India. Was it the decline and fall of Mughal India? Or the Rise of British India? Or just another year of vagaries of invaders who came and went only to be forgotten in the dust of next year’s invaders?

“Sahib! I have worked for many royals who have begged and wept for their ‘John Company’ pensions. Even our Emperor, Zafar the Most Illustrious, clings to a pension no less than me! But I can still teach you everything you will need to know in the Punjab. From how to recite the most refined Urdu poetry, to how to sit on a divan during an audience, to how to woo a lovely lady below the orange trees at midnight, to how to sing songs to greet the dawn! And I am a secretary Sahib! I will keep your writing desk!”

“How about ducking slippers?”

The old man was momentarily nonplus but then smiled. “Oh Sahib! A reader of Urdu already! I may be an old man now but I can still remember the very best way to duck slippers being thrown by lovely ladies!”

“Good Sahib! Because we are marching out tomorrow! 600 miles straight north!”

“Good Sahib! As long as we are not walking!”

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