Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dateline: Bombay 1953

A Garden Party to Remember

The main guest of honour at an afternoon garden party in early 1953, on the grounds of the Colaba officers’ mess in Bombay, where I had been given splendid accommodation, was the newly-appointed Chief Minister of Bombay State, Moraji Desai, who later on was to become Prime Minister of India.

One of this ascetic gentleman’s quirks, or maybe attributes (he maybe proved his point by living to the age of 99 years) was his belief, by no means unshared by other natives of the 'Jewel', in the healthy effects to be gained by daily drinking a little of one’s own urine. Mr Desai was at that time also famed, rightly or otherwise, for bringing the prohibition of alcohol into effect for the whole state.

Thus though being honoured to be engaged by the chief minister in a surprisingly lengthy stand-up tête-à-tête chat on the crowded lawn that afternoon, I was exceedingly careful to take only the tiniest of sips from the glass of orangy-lemony-amber-coloured, liquid handed me by a bearer. There was nothing else for it. I had to. Because though, thank goodness, the officers’ mess still had a bar serving strong spirits and beer, it was prudently keeping its services tightly closed up until the Chief Minister departed the festivities.

So I have often wondered. Of what was my drink composed? And for what reason did Mr Desai keep me in such close company and conversation for so long a time that afternoon? After all I was no dignitary. No visiting moneyed businessman. I was just a young man, John Ough, undertaking a hydrographic survey of Bombay harbour, and a portion of the Gulf of Kutch, and the employee of a British consulting engineering firm from London.

After his eminence finally left the party I found myself amid a group of senior Indian Army officers. As the other generals and colonels listened, one of them said to me: “You British left us three very good things when you left in 1947. One, you left India with an excellent army. Two, you left us with a very efficient and extensive railway system...” Then, after a long pause, when I asked the obvious question as to what was the third good thing we left, he came back with his, no doubt oft-practised, punch line:

“You left us.”

Everybody roared with laughter. And of course, so did I. And we all had another drink.

A week or two earlier, in January of 1953, as our Air India plane was approaching Bombay, some type of official landing declaration forms were handed out to be filled in by the passengers. As a colleague and I were licking our pencils over this task one of the most graceful of the Indian female (there was absolutely no doubt about her delicious gender) flight attendants came over to us. She looked at the forms we were holding and said: “What are you doing? These forms are not for you, they’re just for foreign people”. And she tore them up. It was, and still is, one of the nicest things ever said to me.

Twenty minutes later we were smoothly ushered through customs with just a cheery “Good Morning”.

Actually, whenever the subject of the ending of the British Raj, just a few years before, was raised it was seldom or never at all acrimonious. One very senior civil servant whom I had cause to visit in his office told me that because the British system of colonial government was so generally very benign the changeover from British to full Indian administration had been very smooth. He used his own experience as an example. He was already the vice-director of his department (and thus did most of the real directing) and so when his boss took off for Cheltenham Spa or Bournemouth or wherever, he, as the vice-chairman or vice-minister, just moved up one step to the top rung of the ladder. And all the people below him smoothly moved up a another rung. This lack of any animosity was widespread. I wandered alone through the night time streets of Bombay and elsewhere with no fear for my personal safety at all.

That’s how it was and how it is that India today is an increasingly important, powerful, and burgeoning democracy.

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