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Highlights In The Shadows: 24 - Our Last Days In India

Owen Clement recalls a most mysterious incident at the railway station in Madras – then he breaks down in tears as he and his family say farewell to India.

For earlier chapters of Owen's colourful life story click on Highlights In The Shadows in the menu on this page.

After the Victory celebrations, we made another trip to Calcutta to once more organize our passage to Britain through Thomas Cook's Travel Agency. Because of Dad's foresightedness and quick action we were allocated berths on the Empress of Scotland, formerly the Empress of Japan, the first ship to leave India after the war with a consignment of civilian passengers.

A few weeks before our departure from India, we made our final farewell visit to my grandparents in Bangalore.

A mysterious incident occurred during our overnight stopover at a railway restroom in Madras before we were to travel on the next leg by train to the Cantonment station in Bangalore.

I was sleeping on the bed farthest away from the door in our railway station restroom. My parents’ bed was nearest the locked glass-paned doors. In the early hours of the morning I awoke and looking across Gloria's bed saw an old man dressed in white clearly visible in the light coming through the glass doors leaning over my mother. I lay there and watched him for some time apparently unafraid I turned over and went back to sleep.

On the train the next day I told my mother of what I had seen. She pooh-poohed my comments saying that I must have had a dream. I was certain that it was no dream, but I did not argue with her. A couple of days later Mum called me aside and told me that the night we had spent in Madras happened to be the anniversary of her father's death and that he was buried in Madras. In the late 1980’s, just before she died, I reminded Mum of this incident and she told me I had imagined the whole thing. If I had imagined it, I said, then why had I remembered it so clearly all these years later? She was not convinced. Rather than make a big issue of it I dropped the subject.

During this visit to Bangalore Gloria and I befriended some of the neighbourhood teenagers. Half a dozen of us would gather either at our friend Simon's home or wander around the nearby Mud Tank at the end of our street. In Simon's garden we chatted or listened to popular swing music on his wind-up record player. For some reason he only wore the bottom half of his pyjamas. As he did not appear to be ill I took it as some sort of affectation of his. Not long after we returned to Kharagpur, we got word that our pyjama wearing friend Simon had died after stepping on a bougainvillea thorn. The thorn had worked its way through the bloodstream to his heart.

Despite this sad event, I have many pleasant memories of our trips to Bangalore.

We were invited to spend our last night in Kharagpur as guests of Mum's friend, Daisy Newman. We politely declined, as we did not need to board the Bombay Mail until late in the afternoon and would have enough time during the day to rid ourselves of the last remnants of furniture and other bits and pieces and to say goodbye to our friends, neighbours and servants.

I had been corresponding with June Hoogstraten, whose family had moved from West Cowes to Birkenhead, ever since I knew that we were to stay with her and her family. As the weeks passed June's and my letters became more and more passionate, as only lovesick juveniles do. I did not know it at the time but I was dealing with fantasy rather than reality. As I meandered through our home for the last time, I had June's last letter in my pocket with the enclosed studio photograph taken of her wearing the silver filigree butterfly broach that I had sent her

This time I truly believed that I would never return to Kharagpur. Today would positively be my last day. Up to that moment the full realization of what was about to happen had not struck me. My mood suddenly became a mixture of deep gloom and seething anger at the thought. I had no idea what lay ahead. I selectively remembered England, especially London, as being a sooty, grimy, cold and miserable place

It also brought back memories of my wandering around our other house at 404/A Fourth Avenue, almost exactly eight years before.

I watched my sister and parents closely to see if they too were showing signs of the way I felt. I was annoyed to see that they seemed bright and cheerful by comparison.

Its new owner had picked up my much beloved Raleigh bicycle the day before. My hockey stick, tennis and badminton rackets, books and other paraphernalia were just given away. My hunting high-powered rifles a 250/3000 Savage and .256 Manliccher Chinaut were sold. They were really more Dads’ toys than mine. Dad had bought them for me as target rifles when I was about fifteen. He must have been disappointed, as I never proved to be the marksman that he had been with many trophies to prove it. The only gun I did use regularly was my air slug pellet gun when Vivian Flanagan and I hunted with almost every afternoon for green pigeon in the nearby jungle behind his home in Japatapur. I never remember shooting a single bird. I have no idea what happened to that gun.

Hamid (Dad's driver) brought a lorry to the house to take our luggage to the station. By the time Dad, Hamid and I arrived at the station that morning I seemed in better spirits and got busy helping them unload the our luggage and take it to the station's baggage room.

Mum and Gloria had been picked up and driven earlier to the Newman's where we were to spend the better part of the day saying goodbye to them and to other friends in Kharagpur.
It was sad saying good-bye to Hamid as he and I had become close friends after he taught me how to drive in Dad's car.

Gloria and I then wandered over the road to the Institute where we were both chided and envied by our peers.

Late in the afternoon we were driven to the station to board the Bombay Mail.

As I entered our Second Class compartment I broke down completely. It was a very embarrassing experience for a seventeen-year-old to lose control especially in front of our family's friends. Some of the crowd laughed in sympathetic embarrassment while others told me to pull myself together. I do not remember actually saying goodbye to anyone, nor do I remember who came to the station to see us off. I do remember hearing some of the other men tease Dad by calling him a "Jackal" for running away.

When the train passed through the cutting at the end of our street where I had watched people foraging for food a couple of years earlier, my feeling of sadness intensified, as there standing on the bank, where we often stood waving to passengers, were our neighbours and our weeping servants.

My family and Les and Ivy Tapsell with their young son Leonard, our fellow companions in the compartment soon cheered me up.

© Clement 2006


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