When time who steals our years away.
Shall steal our pleasures too.
The memory of the past will stay
And half our joys renew.
My first vacation leave in India was coming to a close. I set out to say farewell
to my village Moron, literally, abode of the peacock. The day I alighted on
Mother Earth, these birds of paradise descended on the roof-tops and danced. The
dance continues with their rainbow plumage fluttering in the aromatic air. It is a
spectacle to be witnessed to be believed. I returned to Sunetra where I grew up. Its
history goes back 5000 years. The original place is now ruins. The Greeks,
Scythians, Parthians, Kushans and Yodheyas once held sway and had their mint
sites here. There is a mound where I have often sat. In the seclusion, silence and
emptiness, I have tried to listen to the rattle of swords and footsteps of the ancients.
It may be I inhabited the neighbourhood in a former incarnation!
A 1000 miles long train trek from the vast plains of Punjab brought me to
Bombay. And then drifting for ten blue days on the bosom of the great and wide
Indian Ocean, the ship cast anchor at Mombasa. It was the 6th day of May, 1946.
I was on my familiar terrain, amongst smiling faces and was glad to feel the
tossing sea breeze. Alas, the analogous days of sailing ships are no more. A
representative from the Crown Agents boarded the ship and handed me instructions
of my posting to Kabale in Uganda.
My wife Kaushalya, whom I had met and married during my holidays, was
hesitant to accompany me to the dark continent. Uganda, specially, was considered an arena of mosquitoes, malaria and black water fever. She had belonged to Lahore,
the most beautiful city of the Orient. It is said that who has not seen Lahore, is not
born. As I had spent my first tour of service in Kenya, cruising from office to office,
almost all over the country, I was not pleased with the transfer and felt distressed.
We took the train to Kampala. When it halted at Nairobi, Mr. Sethi from
Postmaster General's office delivered me another communication, telling me to
proceed to Iganga instead of Kabale. We went to the General Post Office to try to
have the transfer altered to Kenya. Unfortunately, the officer concerned was not
available. We therefore returned to the railway station and proceeded to Nsinze the
railhead for Iganga.
To my surprise, at Nsinze, I saw Shankerbhai Patel, the station master, whom I
had known during my tenure at Miwani in Kenya, greeting me at the platform. He
telephoned his friend Dayabhai, the owner of a cotton ginnery at Iganga to put us up
with him till we could move to the Postmaster's house. I took over from Yusafali,
who sadly left this world years back. The Post Office was in the wilderness, away
from the township, next to the small Police Post. As usual, the Postmaster's house
was attached to it. The accommodation had one bedroom, a drawing or an all
purpose room, a verandah and a large compound. Our long-drop lavatory was some
200 feet from the house. During the night, if my wife needed to visit the loo, I
would stand with a tilley lamp in my hand. In the pitch dark, the mango trees sighed
and swayed. The wind wept, wailed, shuddered and shrieked. The twigs and leaves
would fall from the trees over the roof of the latrine with a clatter.
The staff comprised of the Postmaster, a telegraphist cum telephonist and an
office boy named Rajabu. Rajabu was a cheerful fellow in his late forties but looked
far older than his age. Besides all the services generally offered at a Post Office, as
it was post war period, we had to deal with an abnormally large number of Savings
Bank withdrawals. Hundreds of men who went to different battle fronts in various
capacities were due their lump sum gratuities. The authorities had seen to it that the
money paid to them should last for a reasonable period. They were thus issued with
Savings Bank pass books with the amount due to them, duly entered. It varied from
person to person but as far as I can recall, was in the region of 2000 shillings.
In the early morning the King's warriors, after walking long distances from their
villages, would begin converging at the Post Office. They would sit, squat or lie
down on a patch of green grass, some smoking a pipe. They had tales to narrate
about their exploits from distant war zones. As the day advanced, a hawker with a
giant teapot would appear and take it around and sell them a cup of hot tea. The
combatants' comings and goings went on. The assembly reminded you of a scene
from a Persian bazaar.
No sooner had we opened at 8.00am, these tall, hefty soldiers would make a
sprint at the counter window which measured 18 inches high and 15 inches wide.
The money book issued by the Serikali in hand; there was glare in their eyes and
alacrity in their stride. Their fortnightly withdrawals usually amounted to twenty
shillings. At this pace, their savings could last for some four years. To be honest, to
attend to some 40 persons a day for one specific class of transaction and satisfy
yourself about proof of their identity which was not easy to establish, I must say,
was a tough and exhausting task. However, it was part of the game. I would have
missed their company if and when they had exhausted their deposits. By the time
we were shut, they had turned their backs on us and trickled homewards, walking
majestically, with the wage packet or mshahara in their pockets. Their big day and
excursion were over.
Wherever I saw service in East Africa, I had a habit of rummaging to find old and
obsolete records in a forgotten comer or a tiny forsaken store. During my quest at
Iganga, besides other interesting material, I came across an old Post Office guide. It
bore the name: Churanji Lai Phakey - 1927. I leapt up at the discovery as the writer
was my maternal uncle. When I met him in his village Katani in the Punjab, he
related to me the saga of his days at Iganga. He had manned the Post Office from a
tent. It was not an uncommon sight to spot a leopard skulk or a lion roar in the
vicinity. Incidentally, three of my uncles worked for the Posts and Telegraphs
Department. A number of my relatives were employees of Kenya Uganda Railways
and Harbours. Their ashes, in some cases, have become part of the African soil
without name, slab or stone.
When the shadows of darkness fell, we were left on our own in isolation.
Occasionally someone would enter the premises to clear his Post Office letter box.
Otherwise there was nothing to disturb the stillness and solitude. There were times it
rained throughout the night. In the morning, the environment was pellucid, fresh
and fragrant. The smell of crisp, wet African earth and the foliage is a bliss to
experience. A peculiar sensation passes through your veins.
We had twenty mango trees and two gulab jambu trees. The latter bears a
greenish-white fruit about two inches square and is thought to help in heart-related
ailments. At lunch hour, our house boy would climb the highest branch and pick the
sweetest, orange-red, ripe mangoes. In a fairy tale it is said that if you pluck a
pomegranate or a mango from the top branch and, of course, if the luck is with you,
a princess would emerge from the fruit, kiss you and wed you! In real life or stretch
of your illusion, if you travel to Iganga, remember the royalty is looking forward to
kiss her prince charming!
At certain Post Offices there was a custom of minor local perks. At Iganga, the
Postmaster was eligible for a full lorry load of kuni or firewood which was delivered
as and when required, and any quantity of cotton from the local ginnery for
mattresses, quilts and pillows.
There did not used to be tapped water in the town or at the Post Office. A month
before my arrival a hand pump was installed by the town committee, where a four
gallon debe was sold for 20 cents. The Postmaster was allowed 20 complimentary
I remember my young servant fetching water from half a mile away. He would
balance the tin on his head on a roundish cushion, made of grass, in such a fashion
that both his hands remained free. His whole structure would swing and fly in the
crunchy, invigorating, unpolluted surroundings. There was elasticity in his gait and
he would hum a song of wild Africa in his native Busoga. The ecstasy of the music
from the days glided away comes back to me from afar and I feel glum for the
passage of two score and ten years.
There were about 100 Indian shops or commercial establishments which met all
your needs. They included three provision stores, a garage, a photographer, a
carpenter, and a barber. Lalji Jutha's was the best well-stocked shop. The off-license
was owned by a Goan, Mr. Cota, who was a real gentleman. There was a cotton
ginnery and a mission.
Some 15 miles away is Bugiri, a hamlet where you could buy sweet, juicy
superior quality tangerines. Another place is Kalaki, 22 miles from Soroti. In
subsequent years, I used to make a deviation from the main road to call there. An
Arab who knew me from my Postmastership at Soroti would make an exceptional
endeavour with his long bamboo pole to get for me the best fruit.
The Education Department appointed my wife as a teacher. I handed over the
office to Mr. Swami and we prepared to go to Kampala. It was a sparkling morning.
The ex-troopers had begun gathering. I had a last, lingering look at their camp and
the mango grove. I was leaving magical moments of dawn of spring in my life.
With all our worldly possessions at the back of the vehicle, the lorry started with a
jerk. A bird hovered overhead to say goodbye.
I had dreamt of retracing my steps to areas where I had worked. In 1996 my
desire was fulfilled and I was able to travel to Kenya and Uganda for two months.
To begin with, I decided to traverse the road to Iganga. From Kampala, we followed
the old trail. Our car went at a leisurely pace through landmarks we recognized. It
was a joy to look at baskets of bananas, passion fruit and avocadoes on the wayside.
Memories of half forgotten incidents came surging back with the sweet smell of
smoke ascending from homesteads. We passed by the well-known Mehta and
Madhwani Sugar Mills. As we came nearer to our destination, I was in my realm of
fantasy. At last Iganga, a sleepy town, was there. Because the Post Office was the
first building, we entered its grounds. I closed my eyes and the time took a reverse
turn. I felt I had arrived on my first posting. I was but a ghost of my yesterdays.
My Post Office had disappeared, a new one had come up. I could notice the
vestiges of the old foundations. The telegraph circuit was no more. There is a
camaraderie amongst the Post Office crew. The staff gathered around and greeted
me - a milestone of a vanished age. They wanted to hear a story of a by-gone day. I
was pleased to meet a retired member who remembered me from my term there. I
thought I was still a fragment of the Post Office.
Out of twenty mango trees, only four were left. Fortunately, the one where the
damsel royal still dwells was there. I stood in its shade, looked above and felt she
was awaiting her beloved. Perhaps her wait is eternal.
Iganga had developed and changed. Indian traders whom I knew had left and
were replaced by the indigenous community. Some 25 Indians, incidentally all
Patels, new to the country, had opened their businesses. Their attitude to life was
different from their predecessors.
In retrospect, hundreds of miles away from Iganga and with the distance in time,
a thought arises in me that the band of Postmasters scattered all over the up-country
stations in Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika belonged to a distinct breed. It occurred
so often, the Postmaster was the only individual who represented the Sovereign. He
played a pioneering part in opening the three territories. Their species is now extinct
and their turbulent world dead. I saw it depart. In another twenty years, nobody
would remember or be left to recount their story. A short chapter of East African
history would be lost to posterity.
The day was dying and I had miles to go. I looked at the tract where the old
servicemen used to assemble. They had dispersed and no longer come that way. The
reverberation of their chatter looms in the vacuity. The site looked reticent, dismal,
dreary and derelict. We left the mango land behind and turned towards Kampala.
There was a lump in my throat.
Turn wheresoe'er I may.
By night or day.
The things which I have seen,
I now can see no more.