Unknown to Amar, his onerous passage through a Naga backyard was reported by the night-prowlers to the head of the tribesmen. A freshly baptised Christian who had foreclosed the skull-houses of his territory, he decided with a twinge of regret that the intruders be returned to the camp of white soldiers somewhere in Ledo. The task must be performed the same night before women got to look at them. So, the jamboree of Nagas zipped through the terrain, taking turns hauling the cot-ridden soldiers over their heads, and delivering them to their stunned colleagues at the first light of dawn.
The squadron doctor had had a torrid day extricating the charred human form from the crashed Skytrain. It was clear he could do nothing for Charlie’s eye that had caught a shrapnel from the exploding plane but he was going to live and see the world with the other one. So, he focussed his skills on the shrivelled, baked primate instead, that once was a wily Lt Mark. How he was always drawn to the inscrutable hulk of this enigmatic man!
And now here was the next instalment, a case stinking of gangrene and imminent amputation. What a nimble boxer he had been, Lt Brown, and what a dancer! He was never going to do the polka again, or tango, ever. Not with a cadet, nor with the brunette he kept waxing about. Since he was still unequipped for a surgical emergency, he recommended a quick airlift to Calcutta. Fortunately for Vernon, a flight was to leave Dinjan shortly for Dum Dum. He was rushed to Dinjan in a jeep.
The debate that Mark could have saved himself pulverised the detachment for days. Charlie did his best to whip up the mystery around Mark’s suspected harakiri, before he was sent to Shillong.
Mark had loomed large in the cockpit till the bitter end. Mark ruled his mind even now. He had all but flown back the kite to the base. He had perished in a combat mission that was what flying over the hump was. The troopers would find their way back eventually. Or they may not, but that was what the war was all about, mister. You were no more than a fly and the whole wide world out there was a fly-swatter. The Japs to GI’s and vice versa. The British to Japs and vice versa. The Russians to Germans and vice versa. The Germans to French and vice versa. And then there was ‘friendly fire.’
Mark and Charlie were able to steer the flaming plane back to Dinjan but failed to align it correctly to the runway. Repeated attempts to extend the landing gear had failed. Mark had pushed open the cockpit hatch provisionally for bail-out but decided to ditch the plane in a nearby pond instead. They bungled the descent and the plane screamed past the surface, careening into a dense clump of trees with a deafening roar. Mark’s side of the nose took the brunt of the shock and convulsed into junk. He seemed suspended waist down in a crack next to the rudder pedals.
‘Get gone, get gone!’ He was yelling at Charlie.
‘What about you?’ Charlie was in utter panic.
‘Don’t lose a second hero! Be gone!’
It dawned on Charlie that Mark was not about to extricate himself, assuming he was trapped in the mess, which he doubted. Highhanded, arrogant and suicidal but Mark, all the same. In a flash Charlie pulled himself out and ran towards the tail, except there was none. He threw himself to the ground and scrambled pell-mell for a few seconds before he heard the blast. Instead of ducking, he turned to look towards the plane with Mark still in the crumpled front.
A one-legged pugilist is a bow without a string. His quiver is full of crosses and uppercuts and hooks and haymakers but he can swoop no more than a wingless buzzard. And he can flit no longer around the ring like a dragonfly.
Vernon, the gazelle-footed slugger of yesteryears, was splayed like a crucified moth on a hospital cot, handcuffed to the side rails. His brain was a jelly of morphine and grief, his right foot a stump, tapering just below the knee. The boxer was just a memory, the man just a ghost of the powerhouse he once was. He howled in his sleep and bellowed when awake. He was refusing to touch most of his meals, sure that the Japs had blown away the Golden gate, and pounded the Market Street into rubble, and Joe had returned from his watery tomb but Hazel had perished in the fire that had rained from the sky. His mother had come unhinged and had thrown out the little twins on the street. Butterheads were running amok all over San Francisco and he was dying day by day in a ditch called Dum Dum. Or, was it Calcutta?
He grimaced and wailed. He grinned and laughed. He spat and soiled the bed at will. If only he could pay it back bullet for bullet, bomb for bomb, dead folks for dead folks; if only the fools hadn’t sawed off his leg —how could they? There was nothing wrong with the foot, his golden foot, it just had a scar. He simmered with an inner rage so intense that his inside was a molten lava, shrouding the rest of him in fiery soot. He hurled food trays after food trays, vials and tumblers, hissing that the attendants were eying his other leg too. He had broken the jaw of a nurse who was clearly an agent of the enemy and was trying to put him in a coma. He had nearly slaughtered a doctor with his bedpan one evening. The poor soul had needed dozens of stitches all over his face.
Discharged and stranded, Vernon was quarantined and labelled ‘dangerous’ by the medical staff at the Army Station Hospital in Calcutta. What was not lost on Dr Miller, the clinical psychologist, however, was the fact that in between the vitriolic explosions, Vernon had hours of calm too. That which he exhibited when he remembered his mother, ‘Hazel’ and her twins, and the city where he came from. The city of ‘fogs and sweetness’, the ‘City and County of San Francisco’. He would also remember a sepoy called Amar, whom he kept telling to jump off the plane immediately, and wait for him down there, and also to leave the apes alone. It prompted Dr Miller to write a letter to the C.O. of the American detachment, requesting him to spare Pvt Amar Singh for a matter of few weeks, if Mr Vernon Brown’s life was to be saved. “He is not fit for being transported to USA in his present state. We must put some life back in the fast fading amputee. Sepoy Amar Singh may be the last ray of hope for him.”
Not only was Dr Miller’s advice accepted, The C.O. promptly sent a memo to the Strategic Services Office, recommending that Pvt Amar Singh be permitted to escort Vernon Brown, discharged due to disability, to San Francisco via sea, in view of latter’s mental instability as well as his knowledge of the affairs at Ledo.
Vernon squinted hard at the face leaning over his cot. He let out a hateful snort at the intruder but jumped up as far as he could when he realised it was Amar. Soon, he was shaking with a noiseless, rasping laughter that lasted for minutes, ending into a grating cough. He laughed still, tears running down his cheek; his face turning red and then purple till he started sputtering. The air seemed to have stuck in his windpipe and the veins of his neck started bulging, gasping for breath. Amar ran to the nurse’s cubicle, alarmed and blabbering. Vernon had to be put on oxygen support for the rest of the day. He slipped into a fathomless sleep, his face like a child that had wept to his fill at last, or laughed.
Amar requested to be allowed to sleep on the floor by his bed. When he woke he found Amar awake and sitting, smiling at him. One of his hands was freed. He looked emaciated like a street cur; his breathing was laboured. But contrary to what Amar was told about his madness, he was quite well behaved, even affectionate. ‘Look, what they did to my foot, my friend!’
That very evening, he asked for crutches and insisted on using the lavatory down the corridor. His grey-white face started putting on colour within a fortnight. He was penitent of his atrocious behaviour but he couldn’t quite forgive the hospital for severing his foot. ‘They should have tried to save my foot, not me. They have saved me to die a bit every day.’
He was pained to learn that none of the paratroopers survived the disaster in Patkai Hills, except Second Lieutenant Paul Barker. Some other bodies were found, one mauled, clearly without a head. Paul had no clue.
Other than the sting of phenol, Vernon was annoyed by the food they served at the hospital. ‘Better give a man poison than lentil soups, insects they call fish and watery stews!
‘If you go to San Francisco, you will get the juiciest Crab Louie. You know what Crab Louie is?’
‘I’ve never eaten crabs.’
‘Oh, all you eat is rice and spiced water or leathery fish. Where do you get the best Dungeness crab but the Fisherman’s Wharf? They are the juiciest, finest thing you have ever eaten. It’s served with boiled eggs and chow-chow, dressed in Worcester and chilli sauce, chopped tarragon, shallots and parsley, seasoned with salt and pepper, and there you are, Amar. Never die before you have eaten Crab Louie.’
‘I will not, sir!’ Amar was happy for his friend.
‘Don’t call me sir. Ever.’
One morning the bread served with tea was stale and musty. Vernon threw it in the pan under the bed. ‘If you go to San Francisco, you’ll get the tangiest, springiest sourdough bread that smells like heaven. They are fragrant and they fill your heart as much as the belly. Never die before you have eaten sourdough bread from Boudin’s at the 10th Avenue by the Geary Boulevard.’
And he kept talking about this amazing city of hills and wharfs, swept by wind and fog, its maze of streets pulsating with cable cars and streetcars, Golden Gate Bridge that swayed and tooted, Market Street that bustled by the day and glittered in the night. And the lemon bottlebrush tree in the backyard of their house at Marina.
Vernon also spoke about the little twins, Carrie and Ronnie, every now and then. It writhed his guts that they will never see their father again. Yet, there were any numbers of Carries and Ronnies who would never see their fathers, and some their mothers too, thanks to those Japanese vipers, and German and Italian too, and who was to take stock of that? One-legged fighters?
Dr Miller kept reassuring Vernon about artificial legs that were nearly as good as the ones gods gave the humans. He told him about Marcel Desoutter, the English pilot who had lost one of his legs in a crash, but was able to fly again with an aluminium leg. He was sure Vernon would get an equally modern limb in San Francisco.
Vernon got his discharge papers on 7th of December 1942, along with travel vouchers for train from Calcutta to Bombay, and for ocean liners departing from Bombay to Sydney and further to San Francisco. The papers said he was to embark at Bombay on the New Year’s Day. It was inevitable but a rude shock still. An official stamp on his impotence.
He felt further crestfallen that there were no instructions for Amar. Communicating with the detachment was limited to postal services that seemed to be competing with snails. The ‘Tea Research Institute’ had no telephone number. The telegram they sent remained unanswered as if a stone were dropped in some deep, dry well. Since Vernon was in possession of some money, they moved in a hotel on Alipore Road. Vernon was overcome by the bone-tiring stench and squalor of Calcutta. Hordes of grovelling, half-naked beggars on the streets, depressed him further. He couldn’t help but exclaim how San Francisco was an infinitely saner place to be, time and again and then again. Sometimes though, he just stammered, ‘If you go to San Francisco –If you go to, well-.’
Limping about on crutches was eating away his innards.
They turned to whistling new tunes. Amar was quick to catch up on ‘Begin the Beguine’ and he kept practicing it, flying kites on the terrace in the mornings and teaching Vernon the tricks of the trade. Amar would whistle it every day as he’d go to the Station Hospital to collect orders for himself which were never there.
Then the Japs started pounding Calcutta with bombs one evening. They continued the air raid till the Christmas Eve. Vernon was sure Amar was going to be recalled to the detachment after the ammunition dumps. Japs were redrawing the map with each new day. The unit’s combat duties had only begun. They went to Saint John’s Church on the morning of Christmas, dreading it could well be their last day together. Vernon was to board the train for Bombay the next day. Back from the mass, they came upon a grim looking Paul Barker, waiting for them in the stuffy lobby of the hotel with an envelope in his hand.