blog 81 counter attack

We wrapped the candies in small paper cones and Son # 1 in his fancy red tunic trotted around the camp delivering them to absolutely everybody. The predawn attack had commenced! My family slithered about and reported the candies were devoured on the spot and no one waited until 4:00 tea to commence feasting!

The common soldiers of the camp were building my bungalow which was already half done. My Indian family had been treating them to lunch every day. Apparently our curry was much better than their curry. Soldier mess meant a pound of meat (counting bone and gristle and muck) and a pound of bread plus lentils and any vegetables in season all dumped into a communal copper boiler and boiled half of the day with some premixed curry spice dumped into the unsavory stew half an hour before ladling out. Without offending the quartermaster’s mess cooks my family now plotted how to offer to cook a grand Indian feast for the soldier mess. I ran everything passed the quartermaster explaining I wanted to thank the men and food was the only thing I could afford to offer (all but reading the carefully worded speech off the palm of my hand where it was written in neat ink). He nodded. For Saturday night we offered to cook an Indian dinner. Then my Indian family and I ran though menus and plotted the logistics.

Meanwhile my Indian Uncle dug the wool tunic out of the bottom of my trunk and I tried it on. I had not worn it since Fort William. Now topping almost six foot three inches tall I could not fit it. “Uncle! You can cut this down for Cold Season tunic for Son # 1! Now what do we do for Sunday night?”

The trouble was I was dreadfully underfinanced. A cadetship was tiny and initial expenses were horrifying. The gear to move upcountry was unbelievable. And paying for my Indian family bled me dry. An officer was suppose to have at least 6 different uniforms including parade, drill, evening, hunting, and field. It was advised to bring at least 200 outfits to India including 12 dozen shirts, 50 trousers, 70 pairs of stockings, 50 neckcloths, 50 waistcoats, 10 pairs of underwear, 540 handkerchiefs, 2 pairs of boots plus dress boots. And that was just for the first few years alone! I have scarcely anything and all of it was used, bought off officers back at Fort William. My Indian Uncle was always repairing it to conceal the wear and tear. And because I was growing and growing I had to buy here in India. So it was all Indian.

Uncle grinned as he set aside the poshteen winter jacket he had been working on. “I have talked with all of the other dirzi tailors Sahib! I know the fashions ‘coming up’ from Calcutta and ‘going down’ from the Frontier! We will copy the ‘going down’ fashion! Then he unwrapped an Indian alkalak tunic of red cotton. The deeply curved and overlapping front panels created a bib like effect of a mock vest. The sides and back were slashed to the waist. The tunic, like all Indian tunics, ended at the knees and was cut loose with the tunic flaring out almost like a skirt either to accommodate trouser overalls which were cut fuller than uncomfortable pantaloons or else Indian pajama trousers with their looser cut around the hips counterbalanced by their tighter cut around the ankles.

The alkalak tunic had ornate embroidery along the curved front seams and slashed hem. The wider sleeves had ornate embroidery on the lower part of the sleeves by the wrists. The mock vest was dense with gold. There were plain mail chains instead of shoulder straps. I had been robbed of my expensive epaulets in Meerut. I grimaced. I could not help myself. I inclined to plain kurta tunics that just buttoned straight down the front from the low and comfortably loose barely there collar to the waist.

“Probyn Sahib wears this!” my Indian Uncle exclaimed. He said the magic name!

“What?” I exclaimed. “The officer from the Frontier I met!”

“The officer from the Frontier sent by the great Henry Lawrence Sahib! The officer you admired at the gunnery range Sahib! The officer who seemed the model of the Frontier Officer Sahib! [I had rather lied about meeting Probyn. I stood four feet away from the fierce Northwest Frontier officer as he debated the prototype gun with General Hearsay.] “ I asked around!” my Indian Uncle continued proudly . “The other dirzi tailors say when Probyn rode through he wore an outfit just like this to the mess. The shoulder mail chains instead of shoulder straps. Cashmere cummerbund sash and silk scarf at the throat and matching sword knot. Red alkalak with gold embroidery. Officer shoulder belt with fancy pouch. And dress boots. And fancy poshteen! The sleeves at the elbows to show off the gold embroidery of the lower sleeve! Yes Sahib! And turban! He wore a turban!” Everyone cheered!

“That means I don’t have to wear that stupid helmet and fluster when to take it off and when to put the damn thing on! And I hate those pill hats! They make me like an overgrown Eton schoolboy twit!” A turban stayed on the head. Period.

“And Sahib! Look!” My Indian Uncle produced gauntlet cut gloves. The leather covering the wrists and the leather covering top of the hands was covered by fine Indian mail. “Probyn wore Indian mail sleeves Sahib!” the sight filled me with awe. I loved those mail gauntlet sleeves on sight! To bad I could not wear them Sunday night!

“And Sahib!” my India Father exclaimed. “Your feet at least have not grown! You can still wear your black dress boots!” Everyone sighed in relief. “And your dress shoulder belt and waist belt is still very, very good condition Sahib!” My Indian Father held up the matching black leather belts with their silver clearly polished so the pricker plate, boss, and chains gleamed brightly.

“The great Probyn Sahib also wore a dark blue felt tropic helmet with visor and brass spike too. With a matching blue paggri mock turban!” my Indian Uncle continued. Everyone gasped but then sighed in unison. I had no money to buy one at the bazaar.

“Besides!” I replied. “I would have to agnize when to take a helmet off and where to put it and then where to find it and put it on and not forgot it and leave it behind! And my black hair stands up like a banshee unless I grease it down!”

“True! True Sahib! A turban is wiser! And I know exactly the best tie for evening!” my Indian Father and Uncle replied in unison.

“Not flashy!”

“No Sahib! ‘Classy’!” my Indian Father insisted. Everyone oooohed and aaahhhed in unison.

“Sunday night! At least one Sunday night will be done!”

“Ah Sahib! Every Sunday!” Then my Indian Uncle held up the tunic and simply unbuttoned the mock vest and removed it and then buttoned in another mock vest of different embroidery.” We all applauded his cunning! No one would ever guess! It was a triumph over adversity such as my mother would have admired!

“Face is saved!” I said. I have money to pay mess for this Sunday night at least! But all of the memsahibs will be there! It is monthly quadrille night! The mess silver and regimental totems will be on the table! And there will be dancing! I cannot dance!”

“Bridge cards?” my Indian Mother suggested.

“I cannot play cards!”

“Sahib! You can play the piano. You said so!” my Indian Brothers all exclaimed.

“Well! My sister did try to teach me some piano…” I confessed.

“And you can sing almost very, very well! We will rehearse the songs Sahib! And you can stand by the piano when memsahibs play and turn the pages of the music just so!” the aging munshi explained as he gestured turning a page of music.

“And I know a telegraph man is coming Sahib!” my Indian Brother # 1 said.


“Yes Sahib! A representative from Cooke and Wheatstone! Surveying for a test line!”

“I could talk to him!” I said. That at least was totally feasible. The amazing new telegraph was a fascination of mine. I thought the telegraph could revolutionize communications. I even dreamed of telegraph lines running like a sort of magical ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ connecting every single cantonment and hill station and fort throughout India keeping the military potentially linked up to instantaneous communication. The telegraph scientist down in Calcutta even had a word for it: ‘Real Time’ Communication. The way he envisioned it every single station and fort could potentially be able to talk up and down the wires potentially simultaneously! As if men all over the extremes of the Indian subcontinent could chat as if facing each other across the mess table over port! Sunday! I both looked forward to it ( the telegraph expert) and feared it (the memsahibs)!


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