My great parade finally arrived at Ferozepore after almost 6 months of marching. It was moving into Hot Season and the heat was ratcheting up. I was in the Northwest Frontier at last! And it was batta! Finally my paycheck might actually produce some little surplus to finally mail home some to the family back in Ireland! A soldier lived for Salt & Gold. He was paid the Queen’s coin and ‘John Company’s’ Salt to fight and die. And if he was posted in the Frontier or the front lines of battle then he was paid Batta: fighting wages! And if his Iqbad or Luck held out he might live to Loot or see his ration of Prize Money which was institutionalized looting. This was the economics of soldering! Throw in the Perks of being a soldier and the job quite good — as long as your health and your iqbad or luck held out!
Ferozepore was both brigade headquarters and a desolate cantonment in the middle of nowhere. Brush and scrub stretched as far as the eye could see. The Punjab was famous for it dusty wilderness and parched hills and patches of tawny forest quaintly called jungle. Ferozepore was not far enough to allow one to see the famous snow covered Himalayan mountains. The land had potential, especially if irrigation canals could be dug to augment the five rivers of the headwaters, but the extremes of climate had potential too — to blow you away. Only in the Punjab could you endure temperatures from 120 to freezing plus monsoon floods!
The Punjab was the headwaters of the Indus and five great rivers merged into one great river, the Mother River Indus which gave India it’s name. But the Indus also skirted an infamous Thar Desert and was edged by the equally infamous mountains of Afghanistan. Legends said the Thar had once been a paradise until the Rajput nomads over farmed and over herded it, turning the fragile land into a desert of towering sand dunes which buried lost cities forgotten to time. But the Northwest Punjab also possessed jewels: the rich valleys of Peshawar, Lahore, Kashmiri, and Amritsar. Most of the rich lands and jeweled cities of the Frontier were owned by the Sikh Empire who also controlled one side of the infamous Kayber Pass, the traditional door of invasion for every single invader of India since Alexander the Great to the Muslim Mughals. I was joining the men who were trying to firm up a border and shut that door to invasion in order to stabilize the Punjab and finally and at last make Delhi safe.
I arrived too late and the victim of robbery so I faced Hot Season in a hill tent while doing the grunt duty as th low man on the totem pole. I would run the pickets and check posts that provided the invisible security for what appeared to be a defenseless cantonment of bungalows, mess halls, officer quarters, hospital, stables, commissary, armory, magazine, treasury, parade grounds, cricket and polo fields, and latrines. Surrounding the cantonment and fringed by the pickets and check posts was the killing ground or maidan which was an open space set up for guns to spray forth death and cavalry to trample. But wild animals could and did rampage through the cantonment up to and including tigers which were feasting on picket guards almost every night!
I met my commanding officers and then the quarter master where I put down an IOU for a bungalow: one room for me, one for my family, kitchen, stable shed, well, service work area, fire place, and family altar. But I had no money now to pay for it. A hill tent in Hot Season was dire. That meant the thermantidote could not be set up, nor ceiling punkah fan, nor wet tatties. In the Punjab the Hot Season ran from mid April through Mid July followed by two months of monsoon rains and floods which would mean the hill tent would be sitting in mud and rain! And if I did not get that bungalow built by December I could actually face frost, freezing hail, or even the occasional bout of snow from December through January!
“When will you attend Mess Nicholson?” my commanding officer asked.
“Never. I don’t have the money for mess fees and I don’t have the money for a bungalow. I was robbed. A bungalow is more important than mess privileges.”
“But as the newest officer you are expected to ‘wet the colors’ by buying champagne for everyone at the mess.”
“Without a bungalow I will fucking die. So who gives a fuck about fucking champagne? I don’t even drink Sir!”
“Gentlemen do not speak like guttersnipes Nicholson!”
“Yes Sir! Give my excuses to the Mess Sir!”
“How will you make up to the Mess?”
“Every Sunday one officer can come for dinner at my hill tent Sir. Between my Indian Sister, my Indian Mother, and myself, we cook a damn good curry! Sir! And I make a mean turkish delight!”
“But no liquor?”
“No Sir! I don’t drink Sir. Son of a Mother of the Kirk Sir!”
My commanding officer stared at me frustrated that I was willfully refusing to be sociable. “Nicholson! An officer mess is not just food or cheap booze! The mess includes a small library and billiards and bar and drawing room for social amiability! Meet and confer with your fellow officers and their memsahibs — who you have yet to meet. Big social mistake! They may be harpies but they guard their status with their talons!” It is a big social mistake!”
“Not leaving my calling card or letter of introduction with the memsahibs or not getting drunk and gambling with my fellow officers? The ritual high jinks and ritual passing of the port and chitchat about the ritual mess silver and cricket and polo —- an’t my style Sir! I am not witty. I am not funny. I don’t have social graces. At Fort William and on the march here I was pointedly told my presence at the mess was so depressing I caused them to contemplate suicide. And I don’t own six types of fancy dress uniforms. And I don’t give a damn about memsahibs and their obsession with antiquated social rites considered passee back in England or cricket or polo or pig sticking in lieu of fox hunting. But I can speak in four languages plus Sanscrit and I am learning two more. Isn’t that my job Sir? And I am learning Urdu Protocols and Punjab Codes of Honor Sir!”
“But you won’t bother to learn British Codes of Honor eh Nicholson? Respectability? Good breeding? Gentility? Simple social grace?”
“I long ago flunked the ‘One Of Us’ course Sir! And I don’t fucking have time Sir! And ……”
At that point I inelegantly passed out on the floor of my commanding officer’s digs. I had malaria for the next two weeks. In fact it became my cue to welcome in this and every future Hot Season. My annual bout of malaria. The adjutant actually had to get orderlies to haul me to hospital. My Indian Family had to pray at their little shine overtime that my fever did not bring on a spell of poltergeistus demontosis. That really would have set my reputation back and nailed the final nail in my coffin as far as being ‘One Of Us’!
By the time I was able to walk with the shivering shakes I retreated to my hill tent beside a small construction site. “What lucky bastard has a bungalow going up?”