Journeys and Resting Places

Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved.
The moral rights of the author and editors have been asserted.

Chapter 11: Despatched to Delhi

Someone once said, when speaking of the Frontier Mail, which leaves Victoria Terminus at Bombay at about 6.30 each evening and takes about 24 hours to reach Delhi, that, without ostentatious haste it covers the distance with the resolution of a mechanical bullock-cart. It is certainly a steady journey with the usual stops for meals and refreshments at selected stations. When it did stop at stations there was much of interest to see. There always seemed to be crowds of people living on the platforms waiting for trains, eating, washing and begging, although there were not as many beggars as had besieged the troop trains. As well as these people there were sellers of tea (dispensed in glass tumblers) and sugary cakes, which they carried in glass cases attached to shoulder straps. They called out “Gharam cha-a-a!” (Hot tea!). Another call was:- “Hindu pani pine wala!” (Hindu drinking-water!). Others sold curry and rice served on leaves, or betel nut chews known as pan, which consisted of a pasty mixture containing lime wrapped in a leaf of the betel plant. Continuous use of this mixture had the property of turning the teeth black and the saliva red, with unpleasant effects on the paving. There were also sellers of bidi, or Indian cigarettes. These, selling for about one anna for 10 or 15, were made by rolling a pinch of tobacco in a piece of the leaf and rolling it up into a narrow cone. They were smoked through a clenched fist, the bidi being inserted between the knuckles and the smoke drawn out by the thumb. I have frequently seen normal cigarettes smoked in the same manner by our signalmen. Bidi had a characteristic pungent aroma which was immediately noticeable within some yards of a smoker.

I think it was on this journey to Delhi that the train stopped for the usual half-hour at a station where I had booked a meal. I had to cross the line to the refreshment room where I sat by myself and was served with a very tough and rubbery boiled chicken. Just as I finished the meal, the train guard appeared to tell me to hurry as the train was waiting to depart. As soon as I had got on the train, he signalled the driver and we were off. I seemed to be the only European on that train, and was certainly the only person having a meal at that station, so felt rather important to have a train waiting for me!

When the train stopped at Muttra (now known as Mathura), several groups of monkeys came to the train looking for food and I took a photo of two of them climbing on a carriage. I reached the main railway station at Delhi in the early evening and telephoned for transport to Palam airfield (now known as Indira Gandhi International Airport), about eight miles to the south-east. There was a small airfield to the south of New Delhi at Willington but here the runways were short and large aircraft could not land here during the hot weather as lift was insufficient, and it was chiefly used by the Delhi Flying Club.

Figure 11.1: Monkeys climbing on the train at Muttra in search of scraps.

When I reached Palam, I was given a room on the ground floor in one of the large concrete blocks of the Officers quarters. There were a number of these large, two-story blocks, each having many rooms, and with a large shower/latrine room in the middle of each floor. All the rooms opened on to covered verandas designed to keep the sun off the rooms in the hot weather. A short distance to the north-east was the Officers Mess, a roomy, single-story building, the dining room having a lofty ceiling. It had a verandah in front and opened on to a grassy lawn, well equipped with cane easy chairs, where we spent many a pleasant evening after dinner. The lawn had to be watered regularly to keep it green.

Figure 11.2: The Officers Quarters at Palam airfield, in which each block was of individual rooms on two floors with a central ablution and toilet room.

Farther away to the north was Flying Control and the aircraft aprons where passengers alighted, and close by was the Air Transit Restaurant which catered for people passing through the airfield. Our quarters were simple back-to-back concrete rooms, each having one door and one window opening on to a covered verandah. The rooms were furnished in the usual spartan manner with a charpoy, wardrobe, table and chair. I made my room more comfortable by putting down a numda, a Kashmiri felt rug, and a dhurrie, a cotton mat, which I carried round with me on my travels. The room had a large ceiling fan with a speed control, and something I had not seen in India before - a small fireplace! The need for this was soon apparent as it became quite chilly in the evenings. Although the temperature never fell below the middle forties Fahrenheit, I felt it cold, especially as I had just come from the warmth of Bombay. Although Palam was only at an altitude of 720 feet, the climatic difference between here and the west coast was very marked. I even wore my serge battledress for the first time in India and continued to do so until the weather became warmer.

Some of the other officers also complained of the evening chill so a few of us set out to look for firewood. Just to the south-west of our quarters, but still inside the airfield perimeter, was an area of rough ground which was crossed by a poled telephone line. As this was no longer in use, the cable had been recovered leaving the bare poles, so we set our sights on making good use of the nearest pole for firewood. As a few of us were busily rocking this small pole to uproot it, a rather agitated and indignant bearer came rushing up to protest. We were apparently standing on a small flat area of ground that the Muslim bearers had cleared of stones in order to use the site to say their prayers, which they did five times a day. He declared it was his “church”! By this time we had the pole down so apologised for our ignorance and left him to tidy up, while we carried the pole back and got our bearers to chop it up into suitable small pieces for fires. We had nice warm fires in our rooms in the evenings for some time. It wasn't long before the weather warmed up and we did not need this extra warmth in the evenings.

To start with, I did not have a bearer of my own and shared one with one of my nearby neighbours, Lt. Ashfield, who employed a very efficient bearer named Tara Chand, a rather plump, short man with a pleasant manner who spoke reasonable English. For a time he looked after me as well as Ashfield Sahib in a very competent manner until I was able to get my own bearer. Although not so good, this man, Ram Lal, was quite satisfactory and looked after me all the time I was at Palam, dealing with the dhobi, waiting on me at meals, looking after my room and clothes and arranging for a barber to come and cut my hair when necessary.

The headquarters, offices and barracks of No.1 Indian Air Formation Signals were situated about a mile or so to the north of the living site, almost on the southern fringe of the Delhi Cantonment, which occupied about five square miles of Army barracks, offices, hospitals and parade grounds. Permanent military stations in India or cantonments were usually sited well outside the large towns and were usually self contained with shops, married quarters and often a small Indian bazaar. During the cold weather we travelled to work after breakfast by stationwagon, returning for a midday meal before returning to the headquarters for a further period of work until tea-time. When the hot weather came, the routine was changed and we started very early in the morning, returning about midday and spending the rest of the day in trying to keep cool!

I shared an office with the Adjutant, Captain Charles Tuck, and as it was a fair-sized room there was plenty of space for our two desks and some filing cupboards. A door from this room communicated with the next one which was occupied by the C.O., Lt.Col. F.W.Mullholland. He had a large office in which he sat most of the day in an elaborate air-gunner's seat salvaged from a large bomber. In this seat it was possible to swing completely round and move up and down by the use of levers. It was quite comfortable as I found out when I tried it once in his absence!

To begin with, I was given a number of jobs of a nominal nature, and got the impression that there was a lack of anything definite planned for me to do. For a short time I was M.T. Officer but the duties were nominal as the small amount of transport we had was very well organised and run by the N.C.O.s. I was also supposed to be Lines Officer, dealing with airfield communications at sites in R.A.F. 227 Group which covered North-west and Northern India, although my line diagrams included such airfields as Chittagong which was really in R.A.F. 228 Group. I must confess that apart from keeping the teleprinter and telephone line diagrams up-to-date, I have no recollections of doing very much work of any practical importance in this job! Of course, at this time, the whole R.A.F. and Army systems were being run down and most line communications were being, or had been, transferred to the Indian Civil Post and Telegraph Department, and our responsibilities were greatly reduced. Another duty I was given was that of H.Q. Security Officer which was also very undemanding and has left no impression in my memory.

The daily routine started with a Work Parade held by the C.O. and then everyone was dismissed to their duties. I spent much time in the office where there was the usual Army paper warfare, interrupted during the mid-morning and afternoon by a visit from the cha-walla with his brass tea-urn and his glasses of tea (not cups!). Indian cha-wallas always poured their tea into the glass from a great height so as to produce a foaming top. He also carried a large brass box of sugary cakes to accompany the tea. I took my regular turn of duty as Orderly Officer with the others, when, for the day, I had to be always on call, inspect the messrooms and barracks and deal with any problems that arose. The unit contained about two dozen B.O.R.s, and similar groups of Sikhs and Madrassis, and were a very well disciplined crowd.

Apart from my near neighbour, Lt.Ashfield, I became friendly with another young officer from the Unit, Lt.Jones, who had a room in an adjacent block. He was in charge of 289 T.E.Section which was made up entirely of Madrassis, and later, on the 18th of March, I took over this section from him before he was posted elsewhere. We had also a number of R.A.F. officer friends who we used to go about with when we were off duty. We would often go into New Delhi on a Saturday afternoon, hitching a lift on a truck. Usually we visited Connaught Circus which had a number of good shops and one favourite cafe where we invariably called for cups of coffee and the special meringues for which it was famous. There was one fascinating shop which dealt in ivory carvings of great complexity and beauty, and other works of art, and we often went in to admire the chess sets and carved tusks, beautiful but very costly. There was also a very good bookshop. After a leisurely browse round the shops we would catch a truck back to Palam for the evening meal. On the way through what was then called Parliament Street in New Delhi, we passed the Jantar Mantar group of observatory structures built in the 1720's by Maharajah Jai Singh, a Hindu prince in the court of a Mogul Emperor.

The Jantar Mantar consists of a number of complicated astronomical structures built of masonry, plastered over with lime mortar and painted a brown-orange colour. Jai Singh was the governor of Delhi and ruler of Jaipur State in the reign of the Mogul Emperor Mohammed Shah, and not only was he wealthy and influential, but he was a mathematical genius. He was asked to reform the Indian calendar and in 1710 he set about designing and constructing suitable instruments to measure the positions of heavenly bodies. To check on his results at Delhi, he built another similar observatory at Jaipur and a possible three others at other cities of which there is no trace today. In 1734, Jai Singh produced a record of all his observations and star tables. Accuracy of naked eye observation was obtained by building the instruments on a large scale, and the present day remains are most impressive, despite wear and tear and damage.

Although we stopped to look at these structures, I never had a chance to examine them in any detail. On the east side of the road, just outside the airfield was a small squalid village which we passed every day on our journey to work. It was called Mehrum Nagar and occupied about one third of the inside of a rectangular Mogul Fort, badly ruined but with good sections of battlemented walls and at least one large gateway which was walled up with rough masonry. There was also a small white-washed mosque with three domes and two minarets, but the village was such a maze of narrow streets between mud brick houses that we never got to it. We were always the centre of much interest when we walked into the village. There was an open-fronted hut which served as a shop with an outside counter, where I was amused to see packets of English cigarettes of dubious age on sale. Outside the wall on the east side of the village was a stretch of open ground which was usually covered with pancakes of cattle dung drying in the sun, and I often saw women from the village making these flat pancakes by hand and spreading it out to dry in the sun. In some cases, the cakes were initially plastered on the wall of a hut to dry before being peeled off and spread out on the ground.

Cow dung was the chief fuel of the village for cooking and heating, as the few trees in the area were protected and were usually numbered with paint. A few thin cattle from the village roamed about living on the sparse vegetation and small thorny shrubs, and young children followed them round to collect the dung. I once saw one young girl collecting dung from a cow before it had reached the ground!

Figure 11.3: Making pancakes of cattle dung to dry in the sun for use as fuel.

During the cooler weather in January it was very pleasant and I often took a walk over the rough ground to the east. I explored a small deserted and ruined Mogul settlement named Muradabad Pahari, about two miles to the east of the airfield. Most of it was completely ruined but there were several domed buildings, perhaps part of a mosque, remaining. The most interesting feature was the remains of a baoli or step-well which lay to the west of the site. It was quite dry and dilapidated but a very unusual structure which I had never seen before. These wells are sometimes called jumping-wells and I later saw one in use on the outskirts of Delhi. While I was exploring this site on one occasion, a local herdsman with some goats, came along to see what a solitary sahib was up to, but only kept an eye on me from a safe distance! Farther away from this site, towards the road were several large, shallow pits where material had been dug out for road making or repairing, and I examined the exposed rock faces in these extensive pits, which were perhaps up to ten feet deep. At one point in the volcanic rock I found some fine quartz crystals and broke a large one off for a souvenir.

I managed to interest Lt.Jones into exploring the surrounding countryside and on Sunday, the 19th of January, we had a walk of about six miles away to the east of the airfield, over rather rough trackless country to visit the Kutb Minar. It was a nice sunny day but we needed to wear our warm clothes. 0n our way we came across a friendly man with two camels which turned their noses up at us. (In my Signals Tropical notebook it states that “animals bought or hired from native owners may be very nervous with Europeans at first. The fact is they dislike the smell, but they will get over it in time so don't take it as a personal affront” - I suppose the reverse is also true!).

Figure 11.4: A friendly camel driver with his animals in the rough country to the east of Palam airfield. They obviously didn't like my smell!

We could see the Minar in the distance; it is 238 feet high, so we made our way towards it and eventually came to a road near the small town of Mahrauli, having passed over the mounds of earth covering the remains of the city wall of the original earlier Hindu city of Delhi known as Lal Kot. We came to the large Mogul tomb of Adham Khan on the west side of the road as we approached Mahrauli and stopped to examine it. Adham Khan was one of the nobles at the court of the emperor Akbar, who, when the young emperor was in his late teens, committed a number of crimes, finally assassinating the Prime Minister in the palace where he was working. He then attacked Akbar who knocked him to the ground and had him thrown from the battlements. This took place in May, 1562. The tomb of Adham Khan was built by his mother; in later years it was used as a travellers rest house, and then as a police-station for a time before being preserved as a monument. From the roof we had a good view of the Kutb Minar standing in a complex of other buildings and courtyards. We started by climbing to the top so as to get a view of the surrounding area. There are 378 steps, the width of which decreases towards the top to such an extent that there is barely room for two people to pass in the uppermost section, due to its height and steep taper.

It was built in five stages, the four lower ones having balconies, each with a rather low stone balustrade; the flat top has a higher iron railing around it. It is said to be impossible to reach the ground by jumping from the top on account of the steep outward slope of the walls and the presence of the balconies, and this has apparently been proved as the Minar is said to be a favourite place for suicides. We were told the story of an unfortunate Delhi taxicab driver who got into serious trouble with the police after taking one young lady to the Minar. She apparently gave him some gold jewellery to cover his fare and then threw herself off the top. He was the prime suspect when the case was investigated.

On returning to ground level, we noticed a number of glass plates cemented across stones at points around the building. These were to monitor the effects of earthquakes on the structure and I saw that several of the plates were cracked, some having a marked gap between the broken ends. It had been damaged by earthquakes, the upper two stages having been replaced after such an event by Firoz Shah (1351-1388) and there have been a number of other repairs since then. Even so the Minar is no longer quite perpendicular. Firoz Shah also built a small pavilion on the top which was later replaced by another in the late 18th century by an English engineer, but in 1848 this was removed and now stands in a nearby garden.

From the Minar could be seen the lowest stage of an even more grandiose monument built by another Sultan of Delhi, the megalomaniac Ala-ud-Din (1296-1316), who planned it to be twice as high as the Kutb Minar, but died before it passed the first stage. He also started work to extend and enlarge the nearby mosque but only the Alai Darwaza, an imposing gateway was built. The Kutb Minar and the adjoining Kuwwat-ul-Islam mosque were built over the years 1199-1230 by Kutb-ud-Din Aibak, a native of Turkestan, who conquered Delhi in 1193 and became the first of the Sultans of Delhi. These Moslem rulers were religious fanatics and the history of the Sultans of Delhi is a terrible account of cruelty, treachery and the complete disregard for human life, especially where the Hindus were concerned. The Kutb Minar itself, is built in five stages, the lower three in a hard reddish-brown stone, with vertical fluting and having horizontal bands carved with Koranic quotations in Arabic script. The fourth stage is built in smooth marble and the fifth stage is in red-brown stone with decorative marble patterning. The cornice under the balconies on the three lower sections is heavily carved with the “stalactite” types of decoration, which, like the fluting, is a feature of Persian architecture.

We walked through the Alai Darwaza into the courtyard of the Kuwwat-ul-Islam mosque which was built in 1198. This was the first mosque to be built in India and stands on the site of an earlier Hindu temple which was destroyed for its stones. The colonnade around the courtyard of the mosque is made of columns from a destroyed Jain temple and an Arabic inscription on the east wall states that 27 temples were destroyed to provide stone for building the mosque. Local Hindu masons were employed on the work and the Arabic texts carved on the stones are interlaced with floral designs, animal and human figures being forbidden by Islam. An interesting feature is that, as these masons had no knowledge of the arch, the doorways are built up with overlapping courses of stone in order to give a similar effect. In the centre of the mosque courtyard stands the famous Iron Pillar which was made in the 5th century during the reign of the Gupta king Chandra Varman. A most remarkable feat of early technology, this wrought iron column, 24 feet high and said to weigh 65 tons, remains rust-free after all this time. The slightly tapering cylindrical pillar has a series of decorative mouldings at the top and bears some engraved lines in Sanscrit describing the king's victories. It is set in a low stone plinth on which people stand with their backs to the pillar and try to clasp their hands behind it. If you can do this, it is said to be a sign that you are legitimate! When we were there, numbers of Indian families were visiting the area, the womenfolk brightly dressed in beautiful saris, and several family groups were trying out this exercise.

On the far side of the mosque looms the 87 feet high first stage of the proposed giant minar of Ala-ud-Din surrounded by lawns and trees, which we did not visit. The last monument we looked at was the tomb of the Sultan Altamsh 1211-1236, in one corner of the mosque area. This is one of the earliest Moslem tombs in India and is extremely well preserved. It is a roofless stone building, the interior being intricately carved from top to bottom with crisp Koranic inscriptions and geometrical patterns in red-brown stone. We noticed that nobody seemed to want to go inside the doorway to look at the interior, and on inspection we found out why this was so; on one of the arches was a large nest of wild bees and there were many buzzing about inside the building! The Indian wild bees are very dangerous and wise people keep well away from them. I was content with a photograph from a safe distance.

Figure 11.5: Lt.Jones in the doorway of the tomb of Iltutmish to the west of the Ktb mosque.

We were both quite tired by the time we got back to Palam, but had enjoyed the outing, so much so that Lt.Jones went again the following Sunday with a few friends who became interested; I think he was more interested in seeing the young Indian girls than in the architecture! As I was on duty as Orderly Officer I wasn't able to accompany him. Although I knew a little about Indian history, these local outings aroused my interest and I bought some books on Indian history and archaeology in the Delhi bookshop. Having read these I wanted to see other historic places round Delhi and resolved to do so as soon as I could. The “cold” weather was the best time for this.

As another room had become vacant nearer to the Mess and on the north and shadier side of a block, I moved into it. My neighbours were R.A.F. officers but I didn't see very much of them. My bearer, Ram Lal, also appreciated the move as he did not have so far to walk, so everyone was happy. On the 22nd of January l947, the U.K. fresh meat ration was reduced from 1s.2d. to 1/- per week and the ration of corned beef and other tinned meat increased from 2d. to 4d. per week to compensate. This was due to the food shortage in Europe where large numbers of people in occupied countries had to be fed by the Allied Military Powers. I had managed to send some large tins of butter home after sewing them in calico parcels, as we were allowed to send a few duty-free parcels from time to time, but we were not really aware of the food shortages in England at that time. We had always fed very well, breakfast, lunch and a fixed-time dinner in the Mess every night.

On Mondays we had a formal “Dining-in” night which was in the nature of a compulsory parade. We sat around a long U-shaped table with the Station Commander (the Mess President), and the senior officers on the top table. The remaining officers sat at the sides of the two arms of the U, with the Junior Officer, nominated as Vice President, sitting at the end of one arm facing the top table. Our bearers supplied us with the various courses of the dinner and after the sweet course and coffee had been served, decanters of port wine were passed round the tables, always to the left. If you wanted a refill you had to wait for the decanter to pass round the table again before getting more wine. After filling our glasses we waited for the Mess President to knock on the table with a knife handle and call out “Mr. Vice!”. At this signal, the Vice President would push back his chair and standing up, would announce “Gentlemen! The King-Emperor!”. We would then all rise, say “The King Emperor!” and drink the Loyal Toast. After a short interval the Mess President would say “Gentlemen!, You may smoke!”, which was the signal for general conversation, smoking for those interested, and some light-hearted joking. Cigarettes and baskets of fruit and nuts were available along the tables.

I remember one occasion when a remarkable animal was passed along the table; it was made from a banana with matchstick legs and a head made from a snapdragon flower from the table decorations. An attached note proclaimed it to be an “Antirhinoceros”! In April, the King, Queen and Princesses sailed on a warship for an official visit to South Africa. Just before the Loyal Toast on a “Dining-In” night at this time, a note was passed along the table to the Vice President. The message read:- “Add to the Toast - And a safe passage for the Royal Family!”. The Vice President, an Irish Flying Officer, was unsure whether this was a leg-pull or a genuine request from the top table, so when he rose to propose the Toast, he added the extra words in a fairly quiet voice to be on the safe side. Immediately, there was a roar of laughter from all at our end of the table as the message sounded like:- “and Saint Patrick for Old Ireland!”. The Top Table was not amused, although they couldn't have heard what he said. After another short interval, the Mess President and a few of the senior officers would leave the Mess, a signal for a further relaxation of discipline, tables being pushed together to crack nuts, and other high jinks. As it got more rowdy the quieter elements made their escape.

The only way to avoid the “Dining-In” night was to have the duty of Orderly Officer, when one was officially excused attendance. On these occasions it was the custom to go over to the Air Transit Restaurant and have a meal there. This was much more peaceful and relaxing and quite enjoyable. When I did this one Monday evening later in the year, I was surprised to see George Lister in a small group at another table in the restaurant. I went over to see him and found that he was acting as an R.A.F. adviser to a small group of Army officers who were passing through Palam. One of these was a General (possibly Slim of Burma). This was the only time I met a General during the time I was in the Army, and George introduced me to him. After a short chat, I left them to their meal and that was the last time I came across George.

After our Mess dinners, we would sit in cane chairs out on the grass in front of the Mess and have drinks and lots of conversation on all sorts of topics until it was time for bed. The serious drinkers never left the bar and became noisier as the evening went on; our usual drinks were fairly innocuous, nimu-pani (lemonade), narangi-pani (orangeade), tomato juice and a liqueur which was very popular, creme-de-menthe frappe! This was cold and refreshing, a small glass lasting a long time. We were attended by mess servants and signed chits for our drinks, the costs of which went on our monthly mess bills. I remember these lazy evenings in the warm Indian night with great pleasure.

On our frequent Saturday trips into New Delhi, we sometimes got a tonga, a small, horse-drawn, two-wheeled cab which would just hold two of us, and travel along some of the long, straight roads to a point from which we could have an interesting walk. One walk was quite a long way, along Kingsway from the Secretariat Buildings to the War Memorial Arch built to commemorate the Indian Army dead of the First World War and on to the Irwin Ampitheatre. This Central Vista area with its lawns and side canals was laid out on a grand scale as a processional route. It is now renamed Rajpath. Just past the stadium was the old city of Sher Shah, a capable Afghan adventurer who defeated Humayun, the king of Delhi at that time, and who then reigned for about five years before he was killed in 1545; a length of the old wall and a fine gate are the best remaining parts of his city.

Just to the east of the Sher Shah Gate is the site of the ancient, if not mythological, Indraprastha, the capital of the Pandavas in the great war of the Mahabharata. It is probable that the impressive 16th century Moslem fort known as Purana Kila stands on the site of the ancient citadel. The fort is entered through an impressive gateway and the interior of the fort is full of interest so we spent a long time examining it. The chief feature is the beautiful mosque of Sher Shah built with different coloured stones, and the other important building is the Sher Mandal, also built by Sher Shah. This is a two-story, octagonal stone building which was used as a library by Humayun after the death of Sher Shah, when he regained power. One day in January 1556, Humayun heard the muezzin making the call for prayer and hurrying down the steep stone stairs, fell and was fatally injured. The stairs certainly are not ones to hurry down! Inside the fort are also several temples and the ruins of the royal baths. Humayun was the son of Babur, king of Kabul, who invaded India in 1525 and rapidly took over Delhi and Agra. He was the father of Akbar, the first of the line of Mogul Emperors who reigned until 1857. Akbar was born in 1542 after the defeat of Humayun by Sher Shah, and while his father was a hunted refugee. The whole area in this part of Delhi is rich in relics of early Moslem and Mogul buildings, tombs, mosques and other buildings.

When the new city of Delhi was laid out in the 1920s by Sir Edwin Lutyens, care was taken to preserve existing old buildings, some of which sit awkwardly in their modern surroundings. For example, on the south boulevard of the Central Vista, not far from the War Memorial Arch, is a small ancient mosque, set at an angle to the regular lines of the roadways and canals. New Delhi is laid out on geometrical lines, an entirely alien and incongruous style for an Indian city. The whole area for miles to the south-east of the Memorial Arch is littered with small mosques and small domed tombs as far as the grand tomb of Humayun which is set in a large walled garden.

On one of our visits to this part of Delhi we came across a fine baoli or step-well in good condition. It was still full of water and as we were looking at it, some young men came up and offered to jump into the well for a few rupees. Step-wells have a vertical, masonry-lined shaft perhaps 4 or 5 feet across and up to 50 feet deep, built into one end of the terraced, rectangular tank, and it is a recognised sport for enthusiasts to jump down these shafts for reward. The bottom of the shaft ends in a fair depth of water and arched openings enable spectators to see the diver on his way down and let him out from the bottom into the main tank. This activity gives rise to the alternative name of diving-well and must go way back into Mogul times as a spectacular sport. The secret seems to be to jump up in the air and aim to land in the centre of the open top of the well, as any lateral movement would result in the jumper crashing into the masonry sides of the long narrow shaft on the way down. It looked a very hazardous feat, and the water looked very soupy, but our volunteers were quite keen to jump for a few coins. It looked so dangerous that we were concerned that someone would get hurt, so didn't encourage them to try it.

In the case of the previous Old City of Delhi, Shahjahanabad, with its original east-west main street known as Chandni Chauk, and the maze of bazaars, narrow streets and alleyways leading from it, was not considered a healthy place for British troops to visit and was generally out of bounds. There was considerable political and religious unrest in India in 1947, especially in the cities and in many places painted slogans such as “Quit India!”, “Jai Hind!” and “Pakistan Zindabad!”, etc. could be seen. On the 20th of February, Lord Louis Mountbatten was appointed Viceroy to deal with the move towards Indian independence but this didn't have any noticeable effect as far as I could see. We did travel through the Old City at times, however, but only on a direct route through the Delhi Gate and along Elgin Road to the main railway station. Elgin Road passed between the Red Fort and the large mosque, the Jama Masjid, both built in the 17th century during the reign of the emperor Shahjahan. Elgin Road runs through a wide maidan or grassy open space with scattered trees which extends for about three-quarters of a mile and separates these buildings. Perhaps the Emperor didn't want the common people building their houses up against the walls of his fort!

Figure 11.6: A Harvard training aircraft at Palam airfield.

One of our regular evening diversions was a visit to the Camp Cinema, a large hut on the northern side of the airfield. This operated several nights a week with a change of film every night; the entrance charge was Re.1. We didn't know what the film was going to be until we got there, so, in this way, I saw lots of films, many of which I would never have bothered to see at home. They were a mixed bag, comedy, war, horror, thrillers, epics and musicals. Usually, I travelled with a crowd of others in the back of a truck but sometimes rode pillion on a motor bike with Captain Frankel who liked to travel independently.

On one memorable occasion I drove a truckload of Airmen and Signalmen to the cinema and brought them back. There was a 15 cwt truck standing conveniently near the Mess but when it was time to go there was no driver for it. I offered to drive and soon found that, although I was not familiar with the model, I was able to drive it and managed to get there safely. However, the pedals in the footwell of the truck were rather cramped owing to the wheel arch coming in farther than I had been used to, so on the final return approach to the living quarters I had some slight difficulty in finding the footbrake. As we seemed to be approaching a crosswall by the rooms at a brisk speed, everyone started shouting out, for the truck showed no signs of stopping. Along the ground outside the rooms on our right was a row of large, unglazed earthenware water pots or chattis, and I was unable to avoid running them down. I must have smashed about four of them. I found the footbrake not a moment too soon and we stopped rather abruptly. The pile of bodies in the back were not amused and some rude words could be heard. I slipped away quietly before everyone could get out and see who the driver was!

I think that news of my interest in Indian history and local outings must have got round for I soon found myself given the job of Education Officer for the B.O.R.s and got involved in a number of interesting schemes. One of the duties that this job entailed was to conduct discussion sessions based on the pamphlets issued by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA). The Army issued a regular series of pamphlets on diverse topics of the moment and these were supposed to serve as the basis for officers to lead group discussions on a weekly basis. There was no set programme and I was responsible for deciding the topic to be discussed at each session. This was not at all my cup of tea and many of the signalmen were not really interested, but fortunately there were some who were more garrulous and these could be drawn into an argument so I usually managed to get a discussion going. As a last resort, I would give them an impromptu talk on some subject like the Atom Bomb, or ask them what they wanted to do on release from the Army, which provoked some response.

I was much more interested in organising outings, and while the weather was reasonably cool, took a party one Sunday morning on a very interesting excursion to see the deserted city of Tughlakabad, the fourth of the ancient cities of Delhi, which lies about 12 miles south-east of New Delhi and five miles east of the Kutb Minar. We started from Palam in the early morning and as quite a large group of men wanted to come, I organised one of our larger trucks with a Sikh driver; instead of going to New Delhi and south-east from there, I planned a southerly route along a country road which brought us to the small town of Mahrauli from the south. Here we had a spot of trouble. The narrow main street was crowded with people and the wayside shops obtruded into the thoroughfare with piles of goods, rickety temporary counters and projecting awnings on light poles. As we reached a particularly narrow part of this street, the side of the truck caught one such awning and brought it down, demolishing the stall below. Other shopkeepers in our path hurriedly pulled in their awnings as we approached as we didn't stop to inspect the damage. When we reached a wider part of the street, I thought I ought to go back and do something about the wrecked shop but the Sikh driver insisted that it wouldn't be safe for me so we carried on out of town and left the shopkeepers to sort out the mess. I decided to return to Palam by another route!

Less than a mile to the north of Mahrauli was a road junction in a wide expanse of open country and as there were no road signs I wasn't sure which road to take. I took a chance and we drove on to the east. After travelling a short distance along this road I saw two men standing some distance away on the rough country to the left; I walked over to them and asked in my best Urdu for directions to Tughlakabad. They didn't understand anything I said and I couldn't understand them either. However, by repeating the word “Tughlakabad” in as many variations as I could think of, and pointing along the road, I eventually made them understand and they eagerly agreed with me that we were on the right road. Some Indians tend to waggle their heads from side to side when they mean “yes”, which is rather disconcerting when we are used to a nod!

Eventually we reached Tughlakabad, the road running under the massive ruined walls of the fortified town on our left, and drove along until we came to a ridge across our path which connected the town wall to a subsidiary fort, Adilabad, on our right. This ridge was formerly an artificial bund which held back the waters of an extensive lake creating an additional defence for the town on the south-east side. We stopped on the ridge and walked along it to the fort. From 1944 to 1945 much conservation work had been carried out here, masses of fallen stones had been cleared away and trenches dug to investigate the interior.

We were able to walk through an arched outer gateway and up a wide ramp to the entrance of the fort, where, apart from the jumbled heaps of stones, the remains of ancient buildings, there was not much to see. After a look around, we drove back down the road about half a mile to a point where a narrow stone causeway led out across the old lake bed to a large tomb inside a fortified enclosure. This was the resting place of Tughlak Shah, the builder of the city. Leaving the driver with the truck we walked over the causeway into the fortified tomb, and here, standing on the sandstone ramparts overlooking the surrounding wide expanse of the former lake bed, now cultivated land, I gave the party a short talk on the history of the site. Tughlakabad was founded by Tughlak Shah or Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughlak, an adventurer of Turkish descent who seized the Delhi Sultanate after killing the existing ruler in 1321. He founded the city as his new capital in the same year, and as it is said to have been completed by 1325, only four years later (some records say two years!), this was a most remarkable feat even with the plentiful labour available, as the city covers some 300 acres (about the same as the City of London), and is enclosed by great walls, 30 to 50 feet high. For the building of the city, the Sultan commandeered all available labour including the men of a well-known Moslem saint, Shaikk Nizam-ud-Din, who was building a mosque only six miles away. As a result, the saint cursed the Sultan and foretold that he would never enjoy his new capital. This turned out to be the case!

Before the city was completed, Tughlak Shah went campaigning in Bengal, leaving his eldest son, Muhammad bin Tughlak, to complete the building work. After a victorious campaign, Tughlak Shah was returning to his new capital when his son Muhammad asked him to enjoy some festivities before entering the new city. Muhammad had a special pavilion built from which his father could watch the ceremony. This included an elephant parade and fight which was so managed as to push over the pavilion, causing the deaths of both the Sultan and his younger son Mahmud, either in the “accident” or in the “rescue” attempts. Tughlak Shah and his son were both buried the same night in the fortified tomb which he had already prepared near his city, and Muhammad-bin-Tughlak became the new ruler in 1325 and reigned for another 26 years with a tyranny as bad as any in Indian history.

A few years later, Muhammad took offence at some insults and criticisms offered by the inhabitants of the city and decided to destroy it. He founded a new capital at Daulatabad in the Deccan, about 630 miles away to the south, and ordered the population to leave Tughlakabad within three days on pain of death, and move to the new site. This was reckoned to involve a journey of forty days. The few people who remained in the city for whatever reason were summarily killed and the site was abandoned and was never repopulated.

Walking back along the causeway and across the road, we climbed a steep ramp to a ruined gateway in the city walls and passed through into the palace area. Here was a wide space of rough ground covered with piles of stones from destroyed buildings, some of which had been of large size. None of this area has ever been properly explored. The whole city, in fact, is at present a vast waste of ruins inside the crumbling city walls, with only a small Gujar village built around the remains of the ancient mosque. There was far too much to explore in time time available so I decided to just look inside the citadel area which was walled off from the rest of the city and had even stronger defences. Some of the walls of the citadel still remained, in some cases to a height of 90 feet, and I led the way inside through another large gateway. As we were looking around, a small boy appeared from nowhere and came to see what we were doing. He followed us round through the masses of crumbling ruins (there were only low walls and rubble).

I knew that there was an underground passage leading from an inner room which was designed as an escape route for the Sultan as a last resort if the city, palace and citadel were captured by an enemy, so I asked the boy about this. He understood immediately. “Ae! Nichi-wallah!” (underneath-thing) was his reply and he led us through the ruins to a secluded corner in a small room near the city wall. Here, in what must have been a most secret inner apartment was a rectangular hole in the paving, still with clear-cut ledges round the top where a stone flag must have fitted to conceal it. A flight of stone steps led down into the blackness.

As I had some slight worries that this underground passage might harbour the odd cobra, I had come prepared with a tourniquet and a clean, new razor blade with some idea of a desperate treatment for snakebite; fortunately, this extreme remedy wasn't needed, much to my relief! I led the way down the steps into a narrow and very low tunnel, so low that I had to crouch down to pass along it. A gleam of daylight came from the far end about 15 yards away. The passageway was fairly clear of debris and I emerged on the broken ground just below the outer wall of the city. At one time, the exit must have been concealed, if not buried, in the rocks and scrub of the steep slope at this point, but now it was laid bare. The passage was closed by two thick stone door leaves, still intact, and beautifully pivoted into the solid masonry of the tunnel.

I scrambled out and was followed by the rest of the party and the small boy who seemed pleased with a few coins I gave him for his help. Alas, for Romance!, history does not record the flight of any Sultan with his officials and harem to the boat which was no doubt kept in readiness on the lake below. Our driver was surprised to see us emerge and took us back to Palam by a route which avoided going back through Mahrauli and its irate stallholders!

This little jaunt wetted everyone's appetite for more, so I became more ambitious and started to plan a weekend visit to Agra to see the many famous monuments in that region. There were so many places of interest that I had to restrict myself to visiting the most accessible ones in the limited time that we had available but wanted to make the most of such opportunities for serendipitous sightseeing.