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Karachi — 1940

I was enrolled in St. Patrick’s High School, Karachi, and the girls were enrolled in the Convent. Each day we walked to school across the maidaan and the parade ground, a distance of about a mile or a little more. The Convent was only a little nearer to the house than the High School. At lunch-time I would sometimes come home for a meal and then go back for the afternoon’s lessons. It was blazing hot and one tried to walk in the shade as much as possible, even though we wore our solar topees religiously. I used to wear tennis shoes because they were cheaper than normal shoes, costing only twelve annas a pair or so. But they had very thin soles and on more than one occasion, trying to stay in the shade, I stood on a thorn, which had fallen off an acacia tree and it would go right through and into the sole of my foot. When the war was in full swing and paper-clips were not readily available, the acacia thorn was used like a pin to hold papers together. They were very sharp and very strong.

As youngsters, our transport was usually “Shanks’s pony [1] ”. Once you had learned to ride a bicycle, you were a little better off. However, if our parents needed civilian transport, there was always the “garry”, a horse-drawn vehicle. In Karachi and Delhi you could get either of two different types.

There was the “Victoria” or, the “tonga”. The Victoria was a four-wheeled vehicle with the driver sitting high and the main carriage behind. Naturally, it had a hood - usually with a pram-type mechanism — which could be raised and lowered according to the weather conditions. It was similar to some of those vehicles which one rides in when on holiday in resort towns on the Continent. At the back of the vehicle there was a carrier-platform for luggage. If you fancied a free lift or a bit of mischief, you crept up behind and ran and jumped onto the carrier with your legs dangling below ready to leap off when you had reached your destination. Unfortunately, the driver carried a long flexible whip and, if he suspected that a joy-rider was on the back, — though most often, he knew — he would deliberately flick the whip over the top of the passengers and deliver a sharp crack to the miscreant.

The tonga, on the other hand, is a much simpler two-wheeled vehicle. It is like an Irish jaunting-cart except that the seats are back-to-back facing fore and aft rather than sideways. It was the vehicle most commonly used in the old days — nowadays, it has mostly been replaced by the motorised rickshaw. Passengers sat facing rearwards and the driver and an additional occasional passenger used the front seats. The pony which pulled the contraption was installed between the shafts which were continuous with the vehicle itself rather than with a flexible connecting joint, meaning that if the rear passengers were weighty enough, they would be inclined to see-saw the unfortunate animal into the air! In these circumstances, the driver perched himself along one shaft and counterbalanced the weight. My constant memory of a tonga pony is one akin to the emaciated wreck which is so often depicted as Don Quixote’s beast “Rocinante”.

The pony’s backside was immediately in front of the front seats and, since while awaiting a fare they nearly always wore a nose-bag of damp oats, you can imagine that they were inclined to fart often and at regular intervals - proop, proop, proop, — and worse still… right into your face! But all of us kids used to think that the funniest thing was the way in which Mum used to give the unfortunate tonga-wallah a telling-off if his horse dared to fart while she was a passenger. It was as though the driver could somehow have restricted the gastric activity of the poor animal.

Nowadays, besides the motorised rickshaw, personal transport is the scooter and the lightweight motorcycle. Even the dhood [2] wallahs load up their scooters with 20-gallon milk canisters, and families of three or four persons somehow manage to clamber aboard and cling to motorbikes and scooters. The bullock- and camel-carts of the pre-1980s have given way to trucks and hundreds of buses which, as they speed, very often crab-wise, along the trunk roads, are enough to frighten even the bravest of western travellers. They would have good reason for their fear. It is almost impossible to endure a journey of even thirty miles along a trunk road without witnessing the scene of a major accident.

Indians are ever resourceful. When we travelled by road a few years ago during the mid-nineties, we noticed that villagers used to throw baskets of grain into the paths of the frequent lorries and trucks which passed. Though I had done a lot of travelling by road in the days of the Raj, I could not remember anything like it — not that there were many trucks or lorries in those days. I thought it was some sort of religious action until we figured out that the villagers were “milling” the grain under the wheels of the early vehicles and then signalling later vehicles to avoid the grain and create a wind which blew the husks away. Clever!


In Raj days it was not unusual to have one or two battalions of a particular regiment stationed in one town. We had the 1st. and 2nd. Battalions of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry stationed in Karachi. They had a marvellous band and each morning, before we had had our breakfast, they would be on the parade ground and blaring out their marches. It was a lovely sound and sight in the early morning sunshine. Sometimes, in the early evenings we would accompany Mum and Dad to the Sergeants’ Mess and listen to the regimental dance-band playing waltzes, foxtrots, tangos and the new “swing” music. We used to sit as near as possible to them and soak up the atmosphere. I loved it.


There was a lemonade bottling plant nearby, in fact, actually in the lines [3] . It was a peculiar place, particularly in view of the fact that the bottles were of an uncommon and, I am sure, now discarded shape which had a shoulder section which prevented the glass-ball stopper from falling right into the bottle. When the bottle was filled with its gaseous content, the glass marble would be pressurised to sit in the neck of the bottle inside a rubber ring. The method of opening the bottle was by the use of a special bottle opener which fitted around the neck of the bottle and had a kind of “finger” pressing against the marble. It just took a sharp stroke on top of the opener to dislodge the marble and free up the contents.

After use the bottle was sent back to the bottling plant for refilling. Quite often, I guess when the gas pressure exceeded the safe level, a bottle would explode and millions of shards and splinters of glass would fly around, tearing an awful hole in anyone who was struck.

So there were several protective strategies for safety. One was that the operative re-filling the bottles would wear protective clothing, a thick wire-mesh face- and head-mask. He also wore a thick rubber apron, rather like a surgeon’s gown, plus thick rubber “welly”-type boots for his immediate body protection. Additionally, he was equipped with, and permitted only to manipulate the bottles with a 5- or 6-foot long device with a pincer-action claw at the end of it. The other was a great big tank, like a small swimming-pool full of water where operative could dump any bottles which looked as though they were already, or were going to become, unstable and explode. I went to see the bottling plant one day and having seen the dangerous conditions in which the poor blokes worked, and a few broken bottles in the tank, I really felt sorry for them. No wonder that peculiar type of lemonade bottle eventually went out of fashion.

I must tell you this other story while I am on the subject of aerated drinks. You will probably be aware that, there is a caste of people called Parsees, who have made India their home. They are descended from the Persians (Iranians) and are very astute business folk. Many of the bigger businesses established in India are owned and run by Parsees. When they came to India they created a fashion for naming themselves according to the work they did, much like “Jones Butcher”, “Jones Baker”, and “Jones Milk”, in Wales. Eventually, the name would stick, and there would really be no way of knowing what the original family name was, except perhaps, to the family itself. However, this vogue caught on quite well and was, of course, very helpful in getting business from foreigner, particularly the Brits, who couldn’t have pronounced the Parsee names anyway, leave alone remembered them. Hence it was, that such “surnames” as Engineer, Contractor, Rotiwallah [4] , Kekwallah [5] and a host of others, became fashionable and remain so to this day.

There was a Parsee soft drinks wholesaler/supplier who had apparently wanted another more elaborate and descriptive name with which to do business. He asked the warrant officer, who was in charge of supplies and purchasing to the regimental mess and who would be instrumental in giving further orders to the supplier, to suggest something. The story goes that the W/O, totally fed-up with the constant knocking on his door and sucking up for orders by the wholesaler, said, “Well, if you want ME to remember your name, you should name yourself and your business ‘Bumsuckerwallah’.”

The Parsee, unaware of the implication, replied, “Then sahib, it shall be so”, and duly had the name painted in enormous letters over his warehouse. That was a stroke of luck for the trader because everyone in Karachi must have, at least, heard of the name of the trader and smiled. There were many jokes about it and so while laughing, people had remembered and whenever the occasion arose had done business with the supplier.

I had often wondered, when Dad told me the story of the origination of the name, whether the trader had known it was a hoax and a leg-pull but had feigned ignorance and gone along with the joke because it was so outrageous that nobody could forget it. In 1940, Bumsuckerwallah’s was easily the largest and most successful wholesale soft drinks business in Karachi. It’s a true story. I saw, with my own two eyes, the name writ large over the premises.


From where we lived, you could take a straight road to Karachi airfield. It was called Drigh Road and I believe the new airport still bears that name. Drigh Road was a fascinating place for me because there was an enormous shed built there and a high tower alongside it. It had been built to receive the ill-fated airship, R101, which crashed in France on its, I think, maiden trip to the East. Each time we went by it I would think of how grand airships were becoming until the awful accidents of the “Hindenberg” and the R101 in the 1930s. The nearest I had ever been to seeing a real airship, which wasn’t an airship anyway, was when we were in London during the war and I saw so many of the barrage balloons (otherwise known as “Blimps”) which were in place to foil any low flying aircraft of the Luftwaffe.


While we were in Karachi, Mr Crowell had said to Dad that they were going on a week’s holiday to Manora, an island off the coast and asked it we would we like to go along too. God knows how he got Dad to agree to go on the trip with us tagging along, because even at the age of, I guess I was ten years old, I had never been on a pukka holiday in my life: this was going to be the first one that I could remember and the last one I ever spent with my family other than at home during the school holidays.

In Karachi, the best we were ever able to manage was an afternoon trip to Kemari harbour, with Dad and Mum, to see the “bunder boats”. These were tall-masted fishing vessels operated by the local fishermen who always carried a ten- or twelve-year-old waif aboard and got him to do the hard and dangerous work of clambering the heights of the mast and tying or untying the sails. But, by golly, it was some holiday. I remember all those days of sunshine, sand and the sea, and of having Heinz Sandwich Spread sandwiches for lunch on the beach every day. They were special and always tasted so good. Even to this day, I often creep into the grocery store and buy a jar of Heinz Sandwich Spread, and the memories come flooding back.


On holiday at Manora with the Crowells — 1940

I acquired a mongrel puppy while I was in Karachi. He was a cute little black fellow with a lot of spaniel in him, and I was glad when Mum said I could keep him. Mum and Dad were going out that night and so, after they had departed, I thought I had better feed and put the pup to bed. We didn’t have anywhere special to house him so I put him in one of the spare godowns with a blanket to lie on, and left him quite happy.

I had not been in my own bed for more than a few minutes when I heard the little blighter crying, so I tip-toed down stairs and across the yard to the godown. The pup continued to cry and I thought he must still be hungry. I went and got a jug of milk and a saucer and poured out a generous portion for him to drink. He started lapping immediately and seemed to be happy enough so, I left him again and retired to bed with one ear peeled in case he started to cry again. Sure enough, he did. So the same routine was re-enacted, the jug of milk, the saucer and a generous drink. Again he seemed happy, but I was hardly in bed and the yapping started yet again. So down I went and carried out the same performance as before. This happened several times and then Mum and Dad came back.

“Oh, Mummy, the puppy is so hungry. He keeps on crying and I have just given him more and more milk, but he never seems to be full. He must have been starving when I got him.”

“Let’s go and see.” said Mum.

But when we went into the godown, she drew back, almost in horror, and said:

“My gosh, you’ll drown him in milk if you give him any more. Look at the size of him: He looks like a football.” And sure enough, he did look more than a little rounded, like a black football.

Mum told me that he was probably suffering from stomach pains due to over-feeding, but in any case he was lonely because it was only the first day that he was away from his mother. I took the little tyke up to my bedroom and he slept peacefully on my bed — no more crying — But he piddled all over the bed while I was asleep and the next day I thought better of the exercise and gave him away.


For the animal-loving British ex-patriate, pets, especially dogs, have always presented their owners with a threatening problem for the future. They grow attached to them for a time and then, when the time comes to leave India or wherever else, they might be stationed outside India, for instance, they have to seriously think about what they are going to do with the pet. Many of the dogs, mostly mongrels, were just taken to the rifle range and put down with a 12-bore or .303. Often the poor little blighters seemed to sense what their fate was going to be and would whine or yelp while they were tied up to the stake.

In the days of the Raj, there could have been very few people who brought back their pets to the UK ; it was far too expensive to pay the shipping costs and then the quarantine period kenneling. Most posted owners would give their pets to other servicemen whom they knew would treat them kindly, and then hope for the best.

There was a contemporary of brother, Sean, sometime in the mid-60s. The couple were childless, but they had acquired a mongrel dog along the way and were absolutely besotted with the animal. As a couple without children, I suppose they were prime candidates for overseas postings and they got them on a regular basis ; one, two or three years at a time. They took the dog everywhere with them and spent an absolute fortune on his six-month quarantine kenneling and transportation. While the animal was in quarantine, they would go to visit him at least once a week and take him some special food treats and toys to play with. But the animal used to get more and more depressed each time his “parents” left him, and he would sulk like a human being for months after he was let out of quarantine, bringing tears and much sorrow to his owners. When he was eventually put down due to failing health and old age, the couple were heart-broken but never again kept pets.

We were given several dogs. There was “Dilly”, an overgrown cocker-spaniel, in Karachi. He became Mary’s favourite. There was “Jumbo”, in Quetta ; a Lance Corporal with the 3rd. Battalion The Lancashire Fusiliers, due to be posted to the war-front and who knew that I was the son of an officer, and would therefore be able to feed the dog correctly, had given him to me. He was a huge animal weighing something like 160 lbs. who could pull Dad, at 16 stone, off his feet when they went for walks. But “Jumbo” was as gentle as a lamb with the kids.

Then there was “Derry”, an Alsatian, my favourite. Dad brought him up to Mount Abu and left him in the veterinary kennels because the poor animal had contracted tick-fever. I used to go and see him every day by special arrangement with the Principal, and I could see he was very ill. But the poor little blighter would still wag his tail when he saw me, even though he could not stand up and just lay on the floor, unable even to lift his head. After about three weeks, he died, but I always suspected that the vet had put him down secretly and humanely. I was unable to come to terms with how I felt about that for many weeks after.

Then there were “Socrates” and “Joanna”, brother and sister bull-terriers, but I’ll tell you more about them later. Yes, we always seemed to have dogs, probably because it was the custom and for guard-dog duties ; it wasn’t hard to keep them, because it was usually the sweeper’s job to ensure that they were fed, watered and exercised.


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[1] On foot.

[2] Milk

[3] The area of the cantonment which housed the regimental troops.

[4] Breadman. Wallah by itself means, person or man.

[5] Cakeman. Note the variation in spelling “Cake”.


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