Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Out in the street, a troop of heavily armed Sikhs was marching, five abreast, down the center of Notting Hill Gate. Gavin nudged me in the ribs, as if I didn’t see them.
“Look at the colonials,” he whispered without real circumspection. And indeed, they were an impressive fighting force. Purple turbans piled atop swarthy heads, faces set in a permanent poise between callousness and an angry scowl. In a minor concession to regional custom, it seemed the Sikhs were permitted to carry largely ceremonial daggers, really small swords, encrusted with various exotic jewels, a veritable rainbow of colors. No doubt this was the traditional Sikh martial accoutrement.
And I discovered, as Gavin I tramped down the street, that the British military establishment went to great pains to allow their colonial counterparts as much leeway as possible in terms of traditional dress. As the troops marched orderly down the center of the avenue, the Sikh swords jangled and disappeared around the bend. They were replaced, in quick order, with the dark chocolate tone of the Bengalis, wafer thin men sporting, without exception, waxed handle bar moustaches that must be some sort of national symbol of warlike virility. Across their tan kakis, a green and red sash, almost checkerboard in pattern, breasted their chests and nestled under their slim shoulder blades.
Following them, their blue-black skin gleaming in the sunlight, the South African Corps, a small patch of leopard skin displayed just below their characteristic emblem of a prancing cheetah, sprinting, it would seem, over a high dry velt. Bobbing behind the Corps, with their customary high kneed trot, which made them appear to be running on earth that trampolined slightly under the pressure of their gait, the Kashmiri Troops, attired in the streamlined felt hats of their mountainous region, slung rakishly low over drooping North Asian foreheads.
“I know some of those chaps,” Gavin nudged me for the fifth time that day, believing, erroneously, that every verbal revelation must be accompanied by a physical jostle, “these are crack troops from Kashmir, and some are from Nepal, if memory serves me correct.” He placed a finger on the side of this nose and rubbed rigorously, as if he were trying to conjure familiar faces from the crowd of exotic troops.
“There they are, for heaven’s sake,” Gavin burst forth like bird suddenly released from a confining snare, fluttering briefly about in a sea of confused faces. There was a great deal of momentary mutual cross conversation, and a peel of hearty laughter, and the pat-pat-pat of hands rhythmically patting khaki and leather. Then Gavin’s white hand, fluttering in the sunshine, beckoned me into the tumult.
“This,” he sputtered, short of breath, “is Abdul Ramalla, of the Kasmiri Mountain Division,” I took the hand of a small, almost completely round man with saucer shaped eyes and a mustache perched above his wide, expressive mouth, which was opened slightly, as if it were not possible to draw breath through his long, broad proboscis, which, oddly enough, was browner in hue than the caramel color of the remainder of his face.
He bowed slightly, and for a split second all I could see of him was the flat olive green top portion of his mountaineer’s high broad hat. His well-fleshed hand vigorously pumped mine, and then, in quick succession, Gavin introduced me to his other acquaintance, “And this is Ramjana Pupesh, of the Gurkas, I believe.”
“Oh-no” Ramjana chirped in the soothing cadence of the South Asian, “I’m afraid we are forbidden to tell the specifics of our units….”
Abdul cut in “…. and that includes muster numbers, the geographical make up of our units, how or why we have been reconfigured, what our past missions were or what our present mission is or could be, over even if we are on a mission or what our future missions could possibly entail.”
“So,” Ramjana continued, “please do not put us in a compromising position by asking us too many questions of a direct nature, we do not….”
Abdul again, “… in the slightest sense wish to insult our old friend with verbal intransigence.”
Ramjana, a slighter man than his counterpart, also firmly grasped my hand. It was as if they had purposely shed the more hygienic and socially logical namaste sign of greeting (the two hands clasped as if in supplicating prayer) and sought to prove, by mauling my mitt, that hand touching did not insult their sense of ritual purity.
“Ahh,” he shook his head and smiled, exposed a perfect set of gleaming choppers, arrayed in his firm jaw, “I do not have ritual purity concerns, at least not Hindu ones. Sahib Captain Veendemark,” he answered, as if he could read my mind, “I am not a Hindu, but a Mohammedan, Sahib Captain.”
I shook my head in mute comprehension.
“I, on the other hand, do,” Ramjana explained, his squat body rippling with peels of largely silent laughter, as he raised his hand in the air for added emphasis, “for although I am Nepalese, I am a devout Hindu. Indeed Sahib Captain, I am a minority in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country. But it is not as if there is an unbridgeable doctrinal divided between the tenants of Buddhism and Hinduism, oh, indubitably not.”
“Ramajana and Abdul attended Oxford with me,” Gavin stated definitively, “and I’ve seen them flitting around London for the last month or so; you see, Langley, both their units, the Kashmiris and the Gurkas are crack special forces units, trained to operate in the harsh climatic conditions at high altitudes.”
Ramjana and Abdul were noticeably blushing, a crimson cloud passing over their collective cheeks.
“Why I once went for a little jaunt with old Abdul and Ramajana here on holiday, when I was stationed in northern India, in the Hindu-Kush mountains, and by nine-thousand feet I was feeling giddy, by ten thousand I was getting queasy, and by eleven we had to turn round because the tunnel vision was so severe that the entire world was funneling toward a black spot on the horizon line.”
“You were positively green” Ramjana remarked, smiling broadly at the reminiscence, “I thought I would have to give you the kiss of life!”
“Quite so, quite so,” Gavin smiled back.
Then it started with me: I felt a twitch at my ankle, and the sensation that a hand was just beginning to firmly grasp me. I could feel the pressure of five digits, four in a row about the front and one thumb at the rear. The hand yanked, then pulled; I resisted as best I could, but it doubled its effort, and I felt myself, quite against my will, in spite of doubled-up volition not to fall, sliding toward the cobblestoned pavement. For a moment of absolute lucidity I could see the pleasing toad colored, mottled surface of an individual paving stone: it had liver spots on it, as if it had aged under the discoloring influence of the irregular British sun. Then a dark pooling oil slick started to congeal in the mortar between the stones: a bubbling viscous smear that seemed, by the very nature of its viscosity, to be dimming the outer edges of my field of vision, to be darkening my sight irrevocably.