Memoir of an old Indian Infantry Officer of the British Raj


Uncle Kanai is outside again.
He’s slung his shoes off – great wooden boats
that sail the sea-road. When he visits Father
he hails us, marching up the path . . .
then soon heaves to, a hero in a chair.
I sit on a nearby bench to listen . . . and dream
of wrestling-matches with his zamindar’s friends,
of Jats he shot in the Punjab, of man-eaters
that ate the railway coolies of Bengal.
Look brother look – here comes the cigar.
Out of the mouth – and while he sips his tea
it’s lodged between his big toe and the next.
Three hours have passed. I have not moved. Again
he turns to go, a huge man in a dhoti.
And seventy years have gone, I have not moved,
and still a small boy cries out Uncle Kanai,
Uncle Kanai, can I be like you?

A street in mid-Calcutta. A three-house one-house
assortment of brothers, brothers’ wives and children,
brothers’ rules. A sea of order. And I
a younger brother’s son, sea-following
was not afraid, and found my freedom there,
and let it take me out far out, for I
had always known it.
The stars over the sea,
the good land to the side, all in a moment
as if life-touched to my hand, were known to me
beyond appearance.
I was early to the sea,
the sea of order, in a far chaos-swell
early to trust to a strong hidden working.

Do you know I see birds
when I shut my eyes birds here birds there
in my childhood home and on opening
to the present sometimes I hear women’s voices
flying through the early rooms of my mind. Mother
I am still your son. I have obeyed in my time. Auntie
auntie auntie auntie auntie my dears
this old man still tastes your food still shivers
to your strange stories

My eldest aunt is in the store-room now.
She lights the lamp, sings puja-prayers, and shouts
“Children!” We are all around. Stories
of lost-at-night, of cries-in-the-forest. Widow
from girlhood, she has given a life to God
and going on far-off pilgrimage. Her face
is old and holy as the Himalayas themselves.

I sit by the window for days at a time.
Sometimes when the sun breathes its first line of poetry
to a deaf world, I can go back
to an early morning of the fostering land.
More still than a tree is still, I see
in a shade-lessening, a great birth-agony,
Earth washed in lava-flow, and in a sky-crash
triumphant harsh rock levering itself up
to gods of stone. Within their guardianship
a plague of insects, drifting angry mindless
coasts on airways unpredictably stirred
this way and that. I am swept away
as I learn and know what a particle of time
lodged still inside has always known. I am old
and little more than a shadow now, and yet
my day is dazzle-filled

“These bastards will get me one of these days”
said Rai Bahadur Chatterjee: sure enough
a terrorist shot him the next day, politely
informed the house and was gone

Perhaps in receipt of a Freedom Fighter’s pension
a ninety-year-old still savours the magic of it
but since when did freedom need magic?

just this
is enough for now, to sit at a window,
to come to a question, feel the sun on the mind.

Round about then I was boxing on the sly.
My father knew but looked the other way.
But a blow on the nose made hot news, and the word:
“Bipin’s son has become a goonda.”
I was instructed to stop. I stopped. No “dialogue”.
At that time the elders were in command.

And I was off on a flight of light
chasing and tracing the sun as it looked down
on faces half-known and on figures half-shown
I clicked as I waited and guessed, hesitated
and hoped, and my camera’s blind touch that groped
to the sun, drew its blessing. Was it mere guessing
that sent me in youth on a half-truth, to jot down
surprises of light? The sun in its kindness
whispered a name to a boy and his blindness,
one of a thousand names, start-word to chase-names
of camera-sight in the quick flight of light

A frog’s-eye view of two balconies
my father on the lower, and top left
a cloud I waited twenty minutes for

and sixty years back it took a first prize
in Berlin. Meanwhile like blackbirds in green leaves
that perched and danced in my college days
I discovered the poems and plays that keep rich
the tree of English. That very tree
is part of me, let me tell you . . .

Christ mother my chest is blown away
I heard a voice cry a young man’s voice
and I awoke with a shattering pain
on the right side of my chest and the news fresh news
of slaughter in a livid field of France,
his words of English on my lips . . .

However it may be, an illusion
from reading a chronicle of the First World War
he is with me, some poor fellow
who died young. Why should it not be?

Long before, as a boy. I could trace the shires of England
on a mind’s map. And I have loved the song-and-dance
of an English poem. I think in my time
I have had half The Golden Treasury by heart

India is a land with poetry on the air.
The passion of the Ramayana cries out on
the sustained notes of hawkers passing the door.
Nothing is ever forgotten. And one who
by name is a king of the sun, with the sun’s words
lightened the modern land. To sing Rabindranath
(not read or recite but sing, for his poems
sing themselves in one) is to inherit wealth,
come into ownership of the royal day.

Not that I was one to make poems.
Doubtless I could have cobbled word-contraptions together,
hacked phrases about, but that invisible surge,
the wave of being that breaks on the shore of a poem,
is not in me. I followed what I knew:
and so my first profession was in filming.
My mother was displeased – but I ignored that.

I’m Franz Osten’s right-hand-man, Mother.
The famous German camera-man of course.
Camera-work, you know. And I write scenarios.
Let me tell you about – Who else is there?
“International Pal”, the great director.
But let me tell you about – Who else?
Well, there’s Debika Rani. But let me tell you –
Yes yes, the “Dolores Delrio of the East”,
but it doesn’t mean – Mother, it’s an art-form.
Acting. Camera-work. Timing. ‘Bombay Talkies.’

Let me tell you, Mother, once again –
though then you did not hear and now you cannot –
of a scenario from Saratchandra.
Indranath is calling to Srikanta
from a boat in the river of the moon. Flute-music.
Soon Srikanta in the boat is lost
in light and dark. Behind him Indranath
says “Don’t look round.” “Why not?” “You’ll be frightened
though there’s no need to be. There is someone,
a spirit, riding with us in the boat.”

That was the start. I set out all the novel.
The manuscript was lost; it did not matter.
I wrote the whole thing on an inspiration.
The poet says, “These things are not lost.”

And by then I’d decided to quit filming.
For you had heard me, Mother, and I heard you.

An old friend of my father’s cast my horoscope.
“He’ll travel, see the world, and on his birthday
in two months’ time, he’ll land a job.” “Senile,”
my father said. An interview soon came
for a commission in the Indian Army.
Colonel Robertson gestured to a chair,
offering me a 3A cigarette.
What to do? I took the cigarette –
but I never smoked in the presence of an elder.
I took one puff and kept my head down. Forms,
questions. And a letter came. Training
to start – and a commission an exact year later –
on my day of birth. “Not senile,” my father said.

The régime was hellish. Brigadier Jack Peterson
liked my boxing. Each day up at 4.30
to do PT. The Officer Training School
made day itself an order. Sometimes I slumped
so tired, to bed, I slept with my boots on.


What you don’t know till you’re in the jungle
is the size of it. And then you never know.
Words say less against an argument
that’s carried on by other means. What noises –
I have listened all my life since then to the sounds
I heard for three years at the edge of Burma.
And words, when set against such other languages
say less, and savagely more. This was the game
in and out of the monster trees, the actual
non-stop job, an absolute stand: we would not
allow the Japanese an inch of India.

Mostly checking. An observation-post
to visit once. Six miles of pathless forest.
A Naga scout to take me, parang in hand:
he shouted at me, “I’ve killed the camp commander!”
Should I shoot him? Am I next on the list?
I asked him why. He said, “He killed me first!”
It turned out “killed” meant “slapped” to him. To think
he might have died because of an English lesson
from some high-minded missionary! A casualty
the less, as we shadow-fought for the Arakan Road.

Mostly shadows. But a shadow has a body.
I touch a military shirt. An old tear,
stitched up, across the faded olive green . . .
that burning again, I managed to shoot back . . .
here under the shirt, a bullet half-an-inch deep
in my abdomen. It was spent in the air. But he
lay on the ground with his samurai sword
and splayed-out thorax. My Webley-Scott 45
and a soft-nosed dum-dum bullet (then not forbidden)
had seen to him. There again, burning hot . . .
it is memories we live with, after war.
Stiffly I put the shirt back in its drawer.

That was out on a solo recce, Again
in the companionable silence of the evening
outside the tents, a friend suggesting a smoke,
the same ridiculous point was made. He lay
just where I’d been sitting a moment before.
I went for matches – heard a noise – turned round –
a shape, that had been talking. A sniper’s target.

Oh God, the argument, the argument!
The forest too took part. On a training course
outside Allahabad, in the depth of night
from the next tent a cry came. We rolled the boy over –
a jet-black scorpion under his leg, unkillable
till we poured petrol on it and lit it to death –
and now to race him sixty miles to hospital.
I had to hurtle the truck over the hill –
the driver could not face the road. In the back
the boy’s screams told us he was still alive.
Somewhere I am still rushing that great truck round
over a hill of death. The doctor said,
twenty minutes more, he’d never have made it.

War is a whisper in the argument,
no more. But what we said and did
is loud in that time. Once I gave an order
for a group to knock out a road-block – the Japanese
were blasting away with machine-guns now and then
and no-one could pass. The British commander asked me,
“Who have you put in charge?” “It’s Captain Joshi,
he’s the best man.” “He has a wife and children –
why not yourself?” “Right sir, I’ll change the order.”
“No – once you’ve given an order, you should stick to it.”
Captain Joshi had no trouble at all –
the Japs were drunk with rice-beer, all asleep.
But I remembered the commander’s words.

And there was the British sense of humour.
My motor-bike conked out – I had started to walk –
a jeep whizzed past, backed up, I was told to “hop in” –
and the high-ranking officer soon dismounted
to an almighty salute each side of the road.
I asked the driver, “Who is he?” He replied,
“Fuck me sir, don’t you know your own general?”

Three years I was in the Fourteenth Army.
At length the Japs were pressed right back to Mandalay.
But early on, in a pagoda one night,
I had my first clue as to the deeper terms
in the inevitable life-and-death discussion
conducted past us, through us, in, around.
Someone rumoured to spy for the Japanese
was said to have his base there. I came there at night,
slept on the floor, and woke to see a tall person
going from pillar to pillar in the moonlight.

I sat up soundlessly but he came towards me,
a bearded gentleman in an ochre robe,
and said in perfect English, “Why have you come here?”
“It is my duty to go from village to village – ”
I started off on some concoction. “No,
you are here to apprehend me.” Silence.
Then is easy quick accent, “Apni-to Bangali?
Are you Bengali?” “Yes,” I said, “I am,
and you speak it as well as I.” “I am Bengali.
I had a business in Rangoon. My wife died
in childbirth. I took our baby daughter
to an ashram in Rangoon, and sold the business
to give them funds to rear her. And since then
I have gone round the villages on welfare work.
That is my history.”

He knew things of my life I did not know,
that had not happened yet. The details are tedious,
a wounded eye, a bleeding foot. They happened
together with associated events
which he could see a shape of, not announce
but give a warning. And my first thought of him
when I woke on the pagoda floor and saw him
had been that he might kill me. But there are some
(as I soon knew) who belong so deep in life,
it is as if a corner is revealed
at times, to their hand. I reported back:
no spy. And reported back to myself:
in the near-blind account of living and dying,
there is more to be seen than I thought. I would like to know.


Yes. There is a great clock
which we read as nine planets and twelve houses.
We do not “see the future” but tell the time.
It is as it must be. Who can prevent it?
A science, an art, a knack . . . a way of learning
and more. An exact pure being. Offspring
of a marriage of deep study and self-restraint,
it has its own indigenous powers. Some
can instantly divine, manoeuvre the elements . . .
and many things better beyond our ken
to these adepts come easily together.
But do not think their preparation is easy.

Such a man, in whom this knowledge is born
after a consummate discipline, when all
that was unfit to know, is now not there –
such a man has a child in him playing.
Father told me, Gondhobabaji
(the Holy Man of Fragrance) would take something –
a book, a glass, whatever – and with his finger
stroke a rose smell from it. There is a sweetness
of such, at heart, it is as if they might take
a fellow human in their hand, and sifting
through a blind shell, come upon the love there.

Gondhobabaji, Gondhobabaji
the wheels are rolling of the Punjab Mail
you said it would crash, your doubting disciple
went to the station, the news was just in, his face dropped –
“Is a relative dead?” they said. “No – I am dead.”
Later he railed at the guru, “Why didn’t you stop it?”
Gondhobabaji laughed. “Who can stop nemesis?”

Once with a razor he gashed his forearm
in the Calcutta ashram. “He is safe now,” he said.
On a mountain over Simla a disciple fell –
to be caught, he felt, and laid down by the master –
who bled a thousand miles away. Later
disciples found the fall and the cut arm
to be clock-partners.

No, do not ask me how this wind blows.

Professor Guha once –
friend of my father’s, vanished for twelve years,
re-appeared in the same three-piece suit with a pocket watch
that he had left in – somewhere in the Himalayas
at the feet of a holy man, with Tantric knowledge
had acquired a quickened sight – often passed on
to my anxious parents the fact of my safety.
Once he advised me – I was on leave,
it was my last day – “Don’t take that train.”
“I’ll be court-martialled.” “Then go in the last coach.”
I found myself accompanying six mules.
I gave the muleteer a cigarette,
he gave me some sweet munda. I had to eat it.
I dozed. In the small hours of the morning
there was a heavy jerk, I rolled into the mules,
the train came to a crashing halt. The front part
and the middle coach for officers – my coach –
had been de-railed. More and more were killed.
I walked to Lalmai, to the army headquarters
a few miles on, and every step of the way
I walked alongside Uncle Guha.

Yes, if you like it has the look of
an exception – not a change – an intervention.
But do not ask me how this wind blows.

After the War for three years in Madras
in charge of Intelligence – in my own time
I followed a similar but all-separate path.
From a clean slate I came to know a little
of the theory and the practice of astrology.
My guru first prohibited meat: then since
I had to attend the Officers’ Mess, relented
if I would leave it when I left the Army.
I did. Again, at no time later
should I set down his knowledge in a book.
(He himself consulted, on occasion
an ancient manuscript, handed down.)

At birth
the disposition of the planets; so
the houses’ jurisdiction through a cycle
of heavenly atoms . . . gradually I took
the means to trace, and hold in shape, a shadow
of sharpest outline.
I have been content
to hold a camera in this careful way.

Ah, what there is in a river of light.
As if sound vanished and one were left with
impulse of colour, a travelling magnificence . . .
as if, in a great beam, one might see
the jewel of chance winking . . . as if one could sense
somehow, the spin and turn of the kaleidoscope
of change . . . as if one had reached out a hand
to touch the immortal stones of the spectrum
a moment ago, in a different order . . .
so one may hold a camera still enough
to allow oneself to be taken into play.
Then there is a certain knowledge of symbols
and trust in their necessity. So that
whatever happens, is no strange experience . . .

Ram Ram
scrawled on the pantry wall in red ink
to ward off ghosts
an intolerable on-and-off knocking
all night on the window of the shunned house
in Ambala Cantonment in the Punjab
where I lodged against advice
on a final military assignment decades later.
Hush-hush dossier work, India’s 3rd War with Pakistan
in the first two I had been an Interrogation Officer
now interrogating dossiers I needed room to work
but Ram Ram
stared at me. After two nights of listening
to something-in-need I found a local priest
to propitiate Kali. He gave me holy water.
I sprinkled it outside, inside, everywhere
and that night the knocking came only once
and after that subsided

Nor was there anything strange in a huge black dog
that visited me earlier every evening for scraps
in my quarters in Murshidabad where for a time
I was a Recruiting Officer for West Bengal.
It appeared only to myself and my uncle
(who had come to see me), an astrologer also.
He called it Cerberus. No-one else knew of it,
no-one else had seen it, to no-one else
did it declare its existence. And in truth
it may have been a Cerberus. My uncle said:
“This is not a dog.” But it was nothing strange.

This uncle showed me, when my father was dying,
how Jupiter might yet keep the Lord of Death,
Jamaraj, a further week at bay:
for Jupiter was fierce in him. It was so.
And then in him time’s tussles were all over.

The conversation I had with my father
stays on. It has become a poem of stars.
Not everything encountered by a mind
is for a mind to know. I have gathered a little;
and from my father, who had ample faith,
inherited a sense of guardianship.
Behind all driven urgencies is a care,
an accuracy that one life in its turn
can come towards, acknowledge in its working.
Much have I seen and little understood:
but sometimes age itself can find its tuning . . .
and sometimes it has seen, as if sun-given,
exactitudes of light in dance, in song.
But do not ask me.


The kites are back
chee chee again in the early sky
and they bring back the tall tree and the faraway vistas
on my morning walk from one pace to the next
and they bring back my bride and they bring back the wedding
and the American officers with their Camel cigarettes
chee chee
the trees came down and the neighbourhood hardened
houses shops roads in a blind crescendo
and now kites nest on the high-rise buildings
chee chee

Does she too hear them and remember
woman of the house, mother, schoolmistress
the kites are back after a long absence
now in the gathering silence of old days
less than ever is said but does she hear them
who came to me as a girl in my father’s house

between one call and the next do the years hesitate
for a grandmother, guardian of love?

chee chee

Sometimes when I walk where trees were tall
I am in a prison-of-war camp debating poetry
with Colonel-General Loblein. Hostilities were over
and I was in charge of the German Officers’ “hostel”
outside Jessore. As part of my duties
I re-interpreted the Geneva Convention on canteen rights.
Their senior officer repaid me by teaching me German,
I him Bengali. And we would fire off poetry
in German, English, Bengali into the night.
The gods were with us.

Later, in the mundane drama
of jobs and a family’s food, I worked for Germans:
though in my army life I had been content
to see them fail. And as liaison officer
for the Rourkela Steel plant with Siemens
at times I was an honorary German.
And Siemens asked me, when they left Calcutta
to be with them in Munich, and from there
chief delegate to Asia. I did not take it.
My old parents were here. My son was at school.
For a time I ran a photographic studio.
And then my last job, TV camera-man.

With a 16-millimetre Bell and Howell
I shot film for CBS of New York.
I was their East India chief. These days
a video-camera’s clichés of pan and zoom . . .
but then a news-event spoke for itself,
a sentence clearly framed of words of light.
I touched on India’s pain and beauty. And then
a resignation issue. I was to film
a Jain-led protest at the slaughter of cows.
B.C.Roy, Chief Minister, disallowed it:
“Why should we wash our dirty linen in public?”
I agreed. But CBS sent their man,
a Mr Bloom, from India’s west side, here
to over-ride me and obtain the footage.
He was refused. And I, who had not been informed
of his arrival, entrusted him with the news
that his employers were no longer mine.

Since then I have been free in my attention
for the practice and the teaching of astrology.

Oh God, it is sweet to watch the rain!
Thundering on the window as if the worlds danced
it has youth, life, my next life, my last:
it has the wild wit of Nature that chanced
on human expression: it carries our past
and holds the future in a moment of passion:
it is Burma where I slept in a tent near the trees
rather than bunk in an officer’s basha:
it is do-as-you-will, it is be-as-you-please:
it is love, and new life: it is longing fulfilled:
and this above all, it is what must be:
it is Nature’s chance; it is Man free-willed;
but it is, in its own intensity:
Germany America India Japan
and Ancient Greece and China-to-come,
from the first stage of what never began
to the end of which there is no final sum
is the hard fact, the driven force:
as the thud of the raindrop is broken and gone
so a life comes and goes of its course:
it still goes on, it still goes on:
and all must have been as it is. Not long
shall I sit like this. For now I can hear
in the loudest downpour the loveliest song.
To hear it is sweet: and sweet to sit here.

And see my land. Soon it will throw a party
for fifty years of modern self-rule. Netaji
if you had led, if you had been returned
I would see more to celebrate now than this.
If militarily weak, your purpose shone –
new India fearless. Yours was the Muslim trust,
an incorruptible aura, and the strength
to raise a flag high. But it was not to be.

Often as I sit in shadows I hear music:
a rag for the hour; one of Rabindranath’s songs;
and violin tunes, some that I used to play,
and some quite new, coming from God knows where . . .
and often, too, I see a dancing Baul
who sang where I would sit out in the evening
to talk with friends. I would give him one rupee.

The portrait of my grandfather on the wall
reminds of the intricate skill of teaching.
He was a most renowned headmaster. Down
the family, and across, the business flourishes:
a didactic clan! To lay a path for the mind,
to see the person freely upon it: this
is a satisfying thing. Once, by way
of his horoscope, I was able to tell my son
that teaching and the theatre were his strong suits.
The hand he plays is richer and richer now.
And my own teaching of astrology,
a 33-lesson course, has been a path
opened again as new, down which I have gone
with more and more delight, these many years,

My family, my son, my grand-daughter . . .
and all here now, with those who were, and will be
within these walls, I dedicate these words
to the dear treasure of a family house.
It is my all. I have been drunk in it, raged,
fallen downstairs. But always the household sense
has righted me. And it has spared me room
from which to trace the wider goings-on
of many lives. For I receive requests
from many states and lands for information
which from a reading of the horoscope
I can supply. It is a privilege
to do this work in this house, and this household.

I go out at dusk.
Children are scrapping with pi-dogs playfully.
When I was seven or eight I made a friend
of a stray dog. I gave it my cup of milk.
When my mother knew she gave me two cups of milk.
Tonight the air itself is prowling-restless.
Here is a tree bursting apart an old pavement.
The stronger force is not in doubt. I recall
a bare patch once, no sign of either. By it
one Sunday morning, a great commotion. Screaming,
barking, crying. A large Alsatian was upset,
zig-zagging, leaping. He ran at me. I said “Sit”,
he sat. The owner drove up. “You’ve got him!
But he’s ferocious – how did you tame him!” “I didn’t –
he tamed himself.” I find myself back in my house.

Words. Words of an old infantry officer.
Darkness rises with the wind. I had a vision once –
I was on Highway 34. “There will be fighting
both sides of the road.” There was no reason
in view. A peaceful highway, by no border.
That second was itself. All other time
drab by its brilliance. Twenty-five years on
the Bangladesh War took place. There was fighting
both sides of the road. I was not involved.

That second was itself. And life –

O Baul, come here
sing India to me
outside my door.

Come, O Baul
and sing a song of love outside the house
at summer dusk.

O Baul, dance
dance sunset, dance the dawn
and let the one-stringed instrument sound

into the dark.
O Baul
sing on, sing India outside the door.

‘Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.’

Shelley, Adonais

When in some trepidation I handed The Undefeated to the gentleman whose reminiscences had provided the source material, I did not know what to expect. He had consented to its being written but the final product might jar. Suddenly, the writing done, it seemed an intrusion. A few days later I saw him for his opinion: it was favourable, and at the bottom of my note to him he had jotted down the above quotation from Shelley, which he showed me. He had seen the essence of my poem better than I myself.

The subtitle was added at his request.

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