Chapter 22. The Green Fields of Beautiful Bengal

On arrival at the transit camp in Rangoon I was made to undergo a  medical examination. The doctor found that I was suffering from a chronic skin disease and sent me to 58 Indian General Hospital which was meant for Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers. It further delayed my return home and I did not know how long I was to be kept in the hospital..

So near and yet so far! I was almost a prisoner once again as I was not allowed to leave the hospital at any time. Worst of all, I was given medication all day long until I went to sleep at night. My only consolation was that I was provided with plenty of writing paper and pen and it was possible for me to send letters to India. I devoted as much time as I could to writing letters — to my parents, brothers and sisters, family and friends.

The one and only letter that I received in reply, was from my friend Sadri Ispahani. He wrote that his uncle, Ghulam Hussain Shirazee, who was in Rangoon would be getting in touch with me. And it so happened that Mr. Shirazee very kindly came to see me at the hospital the following day, and obtained permission from the hospital authorities to take me home for dinner where I met all other members of his family who had lived in Rangoon throughout the war.

I have such a vivid recollection of my first meeting with Sadri in December 1938 in Calcutta. His proper name is Mirza Mehdi Ispahani, and I was introduced to him by his sister, Mehrangese, when he came to collect her one evening from the fete organised by All India Muslim Women’s Association, where she and I were working to assist the ladies.

I was in the hospital for a week and my general health improved. I was given permission to go out for a couple of hours every day. One evening I decided to explore the dock area hoping to meet a Dufferin cadet aboard one of the ships in port. Walking along the quay side, my eyes spotted the Jalayamuna, a ship belonging to the Scindia Steam Navigation Company.

The Dufferin had a monopoly in it and I was certain to meet a Dufferin cadet. On approaching the gangway, I asked the succani (Helmsman) on duty if I could see the third officer. He said that the officer was asleep but the ‘apprentice sahib’ was on the other side of the deck. I went over and was pleasantly surprised to meet Kundu, a junior (1941-43) during my last year on the Dufferin. While I was talking to him, someone came from behind me and gave me a big hug.

It was D.S.Chimney, a Sikh, a year senior to me (1938-40). He was now the fifth engineer aboard the Jalayamuna. He was very emotional as he said:”We had heard you were lost, what a great relief it is to see you alive!” The news about my return ‘from the dead’ spread all over and in a short time I had met many more cadets who were aboard other ships in the harbour. I visited them every day. On the night of divali (the Hindu festival of lights), I was permitted to go out with my friends for dinner.

One night some of my friends wanted me to go out with them and came to the hospital at 9 p.m. They knew the hospital regulations did not allow me to leave the hospital after 7 p.m. They were charming to the nurse on duty and she realised that I was meeting my friends after so many years. She promised not to betray me if it was found out that I was missing. We went out to see the famous golden pagoda of Rangoon. They dropped me back to the hospital at 11 p.m. and I slipped though a window which the kind nurse had left open for me!

I had been in Rangoon for 12 days and there was yet no sign of my discharge. Then, one morning a couple of European civilian officials came to the hospital to see me. I was informed that instructions had been received from the military high command in India to arrange for my repatriation immediately. My whereabouts had been discovered from my letters home. I was quite certain that Uncle Nazimuddin had used his influence to get me home for the wedding of his daughter, Zaffar Bano to my brother, Wasiuddin on November 18, 1945.

Efforts to send me by air did not materialize as no seats were available on any flight leaving for Calcutta. I finally got a second class berth on S.S.Ethiopia, a sister-ship of the Chilka which was sailing the next day with wounded P.O.W’s and men and women of the armed forces on home leave or transfer. I shared a cabin with a Gurkha and two Punjabi Viceroy Commissioned Officers.

Lucky for me, the third officer on the.Ethiopia was F.A.Douglas, my term mate in the Dufferin. Both he and I had joined the B.l.S.N.Company on the same day. He was on the Erinpura and I, on the ill-fated Chilka. Whenever he was off watch, he would take me to his cabin and we would talk. He fattened me up on chocolates! I spent many interesting evenings with the ship’s doctor, Dr.Austin, who was very kind to me and gave me sound advice about the way I should adjust myself to a life of freedom.

The three days that we were at sea were very pleasant. The war was over and there was no black-out. As each day passed, I was nearing home. My excitement knew no bounds when on the night of November 12, 1945 we lay anchored in one of the reaches of the Hooghly River waiting for daylight and flood tide to proceed up river to Calcutta. I could not sleep so I went up on deck and stared at the river bank, smelling the air of the green fields of beautiful Bengal. After morning prayers, I was back on the upper deck. The ship had now started moving up the Hooghly river, known to be the longest and most dangerous river in the whole world for piloting ocean going vessels

Finally, we arrived. The pilot had handed the ship over to the harbour  master who slowly brought it into the berth alongside Princep Ghat. I was quite sure that my parents had been informed that I had left Rangoon aboard the Ethiopia. They had been kept informed about the ships arrival by Lt Hussain the Seamen’s Welfare Officer, brother of the late Begum Mohammad Ali of Bogra, a former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S.A. and Prime Minister of Pakistan.

While the ship was still berthing, I saw a car drive up and a few ladies alight. I saw my eldest sister, Tahera first and then I saw my father and mother. I started waving a handkerchief to draw their attention. I was in tears. I could not believe that I was actually seeing my family standing on the shore.

The Ethiopia took a very long time to berth, and to me it seemed an eternity. In the meantime other cars had arrived, and I could recognise uncle Nazimuddin, conspicuous with his red ‘fez’ cap, and his walking stick. That boy must be my younger brother Shahed, and the girl, my sister, Hushmat. They had all grown so big for me to recognise them properly. And there was my sister Bilquis.

I was so engrossed in looking and waving to all my near and dear ones, that I did not realize that the ship had finally berthed until my attention was drawn to it by a gentleman who introduced himself as Lt.Hussain. He must have been the first person to board the vessel and he had all the necessary papers which enabled him to take me ashore immediately. He gave me the news that my brother, Wasi was getting married and that my elder brother, Zakiuddin was married to Binoo. He told me that many of my relatives were waiting on the jetty to welcome me.

As I approached the group of relatives, my father rushed forward and clasped me in his arms. His grip was so tight that I thought my delicate body would break into pieces! Then, my dear mother hugged me and kept saying:”No one but Allah, no one but Allah, could have brought you back to me”. It was into God’s hands and protection that she handed me when I sailed away on the Chilka, and now she thanked the Lord Almighty for bringing me safely back to her.

I then hugged and kissed my sisters, Tahera , Bilquis and Hushmat, and brother Shahed. It was when I saw my elder brother, Zakiuddin that I could not control my tears. I wept freely in his embrace. I remembered the advice Dr.Austin had given me on the Ethiopia. He had said: “do not hold back your tears when you see your near and dear ones”.

After the emotional welcome everyone went home except my parents who accompanied me, along with Lt. Hussain, to the Viceregal Lodge where arrangements had been made to receive and register the particulars of all recovered P.O.W’s. I completed the necessary formalities and went for a medical check up. The words of the British army doctor, when he saw my skin disease, are still fresh in my mind. He said:”Young man, I am afraid you will have to live with this ailment all your life as there is no cure for it. You will get temporary relief with medical treatment”. (His words were prophetic as I continued to suffer until very recently when modern treatment has given me some relief.)

My safe arrival home to my parent’s house produced a flood of visitors who were anxious to hear my story. It became tiring repeating over and over again the story of my capture and captivity. My brother Wasi’s return from duty for his marriage was another emotional reunion for me. The wedding festivities continued for days and it was a grand reunion for the family.

Once all the feasting and celebration had ended and life returned to normal, my parents — particularly my father — realized that I was not the same young man who had left home several years ago. My father made me aware that it was not necessary to keep a long beard to show my religious feelings. He advised my brother Zaki to take me to the barber a few days later and I had my beard shaved off.

Returning home to such extreme comfort and luxury dazzled me. The difficult times that I had gone through seemed like a dream. In Calcutta, time had not been standing still and I began feeling that I had been left far behind. It made me feel uncomfortable to take part in any conversation as I had no idea what everyone was talking about. What I needed most at that time was peace and quiet so that I could gradually adjust to my new surroundings. That was not to be as all around me people were keen to hear me talk.

Although everyone was kind and affectionate, I found myself in a state of shock. I did not seem to be able to do the right thing at the right time. I was unable to settle down and drifted along without any aim in life. I made no effort to visit the offices of the British India Steam Navigation Company after my initial visit soon after my arrival in Calcutta.

After my dues were paid, I was instructed to get in touch with them in a month or so for my posting to a ship as an “uncertified” third officer. According to Board of Trade regulations, I would still have to serve at sea for three years before appearing for my second mate’s ticket to become a qualified officer.

However, the Lord Almighty, for reasons He knew best, decided that I was not meant to be a seafarer sailing the seven seas, as, a letter that I received from a friend, unexpectedly, brought about  a sudden change and I never had the opportunity to visit the offices of the British India Steam Navigation Company which would have taken me back to sea.

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