Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Chapter 9: "Ram-ram!"

"Did you ever find any evidences of espionage or sabotage on any of your patrols?" I asked Sellers and Silverberg.

These two men were members of a mortar platoon in the 148th Infantry, and they bunked next to me on the States-bound ship, the Fairland. I was referring to the reputed activities of the Indian population in Viti Levu. Their reply was in the negative, "Although," added Silverberg, "as we'd approach one of their homes we would hear a radio going, although we couldn't tell what the program was. When we did get near enough to hear, the radio would go off. So we never found out. We would go inside, and the people would not object to showing us their radio. Sometimes they even pointed it out to us before we asked, but we were never inside a house when the radio was receiving anything. We had our suspicions, you see, but we couldn't prove anything."

I told about the reports I had heard to the effect that Indians were deliberately plowing huge arrows in an otherwise unplowed field, and that these arrows pointed to an airstrip (or other Army installation) not far away. Anything to that rumor? I asked. Sellers chuckled. "No," he said. "We heard that one too. Somebody went to investigate it and found that the plowed strip did resemble an arrow, only you had to be in a certain position to see it, and even then you needed a little imagination. It was just coincidence that it looked like an arrow at all."

This information interested me, for during the eight months we were on Viti Levu, a common remark heard was, "I wouldn't trust those Indians as far as I could throw them. I don't like them hanging around here." Consequently our manner was something less than warm whenever an Indian, on a friendly impulse, would drop in on us. The much-uttered dictum was somewhat tempered in the cases of Rami, Matiah, and old Mohammed Abdul. Rami was practically one of the gang. Quite against his religion (he protested), he played poker with members of the wire section -- and usually lost. Matiah, like Rami, called for and delivered our laundry. He was an alert man in his thirties (a little too alert to suit me, I thought) and very pleasant. I was cautious of him. Alert, and seemingly with a good education, he might be dangerous, from a military point of view, that is. Mohammed Abdul was quite old, very garrulous, and probably harmless. He spoke with such broken English I could not understand more than one word in fifty, but I'd laugh when he'd laugh, and nod my head and say "Yes, yes," as though understanding his little joke, and he would look immensely pleased. But for Indians in general, I was prone to subscribe to the attitude of suspicion. The opinion, often expressed, was: they are resentful of both their status here in Fiji and the unsettled question of the political future of India and her peoples. Having little love, then, for the British, the Indians, it was supposed, would jump over to the side of the Japanese if there were ever an invasion. Whether their hostility ever would have attained such extremes now seems doubtful, but at the time, the possibility seemed sufficient to warrant the detailing of some infantry men to patrol work. The work was quietly investigative, not the spectacular raid-type which was done in post-war Germany by the Constabulary to ferret out the pro-Nazis.

Just as we seldom saw a morose Fijian, so we seldom witnessed any display of cheerfulness, either inherent or superficial, in the Indian. Perhpas they are still brooding over the unhappy fate of some of their forebears, who, so the saying goes, being the first Indians in Fiji, were set upon and devoured by the then cannibalistic Fijians. I suppose the fear of a meat famine constantly haunts them, not for their stomachs' sake, but for the sake of their whole skins! Whatever might be the cause of their apparently perennial gloom, they are, without question, the greatest example of mass dejection outside of Brooklyn when the Dodgers lost the Series. We could not drive anywhere without seeing a crowd of Indians squatting solemnly in the shade of a big tree at the roadside. Returning by the same route a half hour or even an hour later, we would find the picture unchanged apparently. The same leasn men squatting as before on lean haunches, wearing the same glum expressions on their dark faces, some rolling a mournful eye up at us, others keeping their gaze groundward.

It would not surprise me if the Indians considered us as menaces to their security too. One day the wire and instrument sections were returning from some operations problems in Nandi, and, spying and Indian store with more than the usual stock of fresh fruits, we stopped and descended on the unsuspecting proprietor. The sudden rush of business caught him completely off balance, and distractedly he ran from customer to customer who were all clamoring for service and declaring their preferences. "How much for this melon?" someone would as, "six pence?" Dazedly the Indian would reply, "Yes, yes." "I'll take it!" the former would shoot back. "Here's a shilling. No, wait! How much are these papayas? Three pence each? I'll take two then." The customer would pick up the two papayas to make the total purchase come to a shilling. A few moments later, after waiting on tow or three others, the proprietor would return, giving the man change. Meanwhile, we were all whooping and shouting and creating general confusion, not out of deliberate malice, but just as a release for pent-up spirits after the long, tiresome, and dusty ride from Nandi. If that Indian proprietor came out even on that deal, it would be surprising.

Perhaps something else which gave the worrying Indians pause was the fact that nothing, apparently, was sacred to the Yanks. We had many playful men in our battery, and one of the must playful was a zany, roy Brombaugh, a six-foot farm boy from Ohio. It was he, I am sure, who, in a prankish mood, committed a most atrocious breach of tabu. Seeing a little Indian boy in the street of a town, Roy became fascinated with the boy's hair which was braided into a little pigtail atop his head. As roy began to examine it closely, making wisecracks all the while, the boy shrank back in alarm, and begged Roy not to touch his hair. It was against his religion, apparently. Roy is the kind who takes his own religion very lightly, so the boy's pleas did nothing but stimulate Roy's thoughts into more diabolical channels. Knowing Roy, one could see the end only too clearly, and the inevitable happened: Roy cut the pigtail off. Paralyzed for an instant in speechless horror, the boy was afraid to go home, but he did not wish to linger near Roy, either. Screaming frightened imprecations, he went off down the street.


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