During the time of the British Raj in India, my grandfather Boris moved to Kolkata (then known as Calcutta) to work as a lawyer. He regaled us as kids with stories about his time in India and we never tired of hearing them.
When the Second World War broke out, my grandfather joined the army and waited for the Japanese army to arrive across Burma – they never did. He was then sent to a vast British military camp at Deolali, not far from Mumbai, to work as an artillery ballistics instructor.
My mother and uncle were both born in the camp’s military hospital (their older sister was born in Kolkata) and so I went to have a look. From Pune I got a bus to Nasik, a pilgrimage city of which Deolali is a satellite.
Nasik is a remarkable place where some of the big Hindu stories are said to have taken place – Sita was kidnapped by Rawan there, prompting Rama to go off and try to rescue her (as told in the Ramayana). The name Nasik actually means “nose” and relates to a story in which Lakshmana cut off Surpanakha‘s nose and threw it in the local river. It is also one of the four Kumbh Mela locations (the world’s biggest festival). The place is jam-packed with temples and tourists from all over India flock there to visit them and jump in the bathing ghats. Amazing scenes.
Deolali is a few km up the road from Nasik, so I hired a wallah and his autorickshaw and pootled along there at about 8am. It’s about 500m elevation above sea level, giving it a nice climate – chilly at night, crips and hot in the sunshine – and there were quite a few sanatoria along the road to Deolali, along with some decomposing mansions that were obviously once very grand.
Deolali itself is pretty unremarkable, a small place with a market square at its core where there are a few stalls, people hanging around and minibuses, autoricks etc.
The army base is just around the corner and is absolutely humongous. The camp at Deolali is at the origin of the phrase “to go doolally”, or go nuts. It received British soldiers arriving in India before they got their onward marching orders, but the documentation for some unfortunates got lost, so they were never redeployed and stayed there for years going slowly demented.
We showed up at the main gate and the soldiers asked us which zone in the 50 square km complex we wanted to visit. Obviously I had no idea, I just fancied having a stroll around, but we weren’t allowed in anyway.
One officer said we could drive down a road a bit and have a look around some of the civilian installations, so we did. There was a railway station leading to the main Mumbai-Delhi line and various compounds dealing with artillery-related functions – equipment testing etc. Lots of soldiers walking from one place to another.
I went wandering around and took a load of photos, which predictably led to me being intercepted by a nice career soldier called Satish and taken to an office so the guys could find out what the hell I was doing.
I gave them the whole spiel about the family history during the Second World War but they were unimpressed and they got more suspicious when they saw the Chinese visa in my passport. In the end they made me delete all the photos of the base that I had – as expected – and then a sourfaced officer told me to “push off”. I think that was the first time I’ve ever heard anyone actually use that phrase in real life, pure “Boys Own” English.
What I saw was a lot of old-looking barracks-style buildings, quite a nice architectural style, two storeys high, big sloping roofs… There were also a few big houses with signs at the front showing that they were being lived in by Indian brigadiers and so on.
A lot of the buildings seemed to be a bit dilapidated and overgrown with plants, but they were obviously still being used one way or another – a game of basketball was going on beside one, for example, and there were a lot of people strolling around. There was a fence between these installations and the artillery base proper.
We went up a little hill nearby with a small temple on top. I was hoping to get a photo from there but there were a few soldiers lounging around up there so it was a no go. The only shot I did get was of a billboard bearing the slogan “Power flows from the barrel of a gun”, taken from Mao Zedong’s famous line: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. Underneath the big picture of a huge gun firing was the line: “Please keep Deolali clean and green.”
I and the driver went to the marketplace for a tea – the owner of the shop next to the tea stand turned out to have just come back from Dubai. He worked there for 10 years in the hospitality sector, earning about Dh1,000 ($270) a month but said the economic downturn in Dubai meant he was better off in Deolali, where he made about 10,000 rupees ($220) a month from his shop. It’s less money, but presumably some of his overheads are lower and he is near his family. Every Deolali family had had at least one family member in Dubai, he said (18,000 people shuttle between India and Dubai every day, with Mumbai-Dubai the most popular route).
There was a big mosque nearby and I was invited to another tea by a group of guys who said that their ancestors had been Buddhist kings but that the Hindus being in power meant that their wealth had been taken from them and they were now very poor. I commiserated. Everyone seemed to agree that Deolali was a pretty poor place. I took a few more snaps and then went back to have a look at Nasik (photos below).
Later in Mumbai, where I was staying with a friend, I got talking to the neighbour, a Hindu who ended up in Pakistan after Partition. He never had any trouble there, he said. Like my grandfather, he was full of terrific stories of days gone by. Human stories have a timeless quality, but the textures of the times they take place in are just the opposite, rich but ephemeral.