The Nagas

Hill Peoples of Northeast India

Project Introduction The Naga Database

book - 'Naga Path', by Ursula Graham Bower, published John Murray 1950

caption: Chapter twenty-three. Refugee Canteen
caption: refugee trains
medium: books
person: Graham Bower/ Ursula
text: Early each morning the refugee-trains rolled in loaded to the roof. In theory, they passed through during the night, reaching Chaparmukh or Pandu in time for the morning meal. In fact, they spent the night in sidings while troop-trains went up, so that it was into our arms that, hungry, thirsty, exhausted, numbed with shock, the refugees fell out at any time between five and eight next day.
text: To all of us, I think, the main impression of those weeks was one of physical exhaustion. Let no one suppose that dealing with thousands of uprooted and demoralized human beings, against time, and with improvised equipment, is a kind of Church Tea. It is a dirty, sweaty, frantic navvy's job; one is hewer of wood and drawer of water, coal-heaver, stoker, scullion, constable, nurse, all by turns and all at once, and dustman to wind up with. One's taskmaster, the hardest I know, is the crying need of hundreds of fellow-beings, displayed daily in all its nakedness. But, as conditions improved, both on the railway and in our own organization, and our hours dropped from eighteen a day to sixteen (a very great improvement, believe me), we had time to notice something of what passed.
text: In spite of an initial coolness we joined forces early with a Nationalist organization which was running an Indian canteen at the far end of the platform. We arrived at an active, though unofficial, co-operation. Where the serving staff were (171) concerned, it amounted to integration, for latterly supplies were drawn impartially from both kitchens and their workers, in their off-time, sometimes gave us a hand in serving troops.
text: Mrs Rankin left ten days after we came, her husband being posted elsewhere. We moved then from her house into the vacant half of the small rest-house. There was no quarter for the men, so they came in with me. There was a tiny extra bedroom, which Namkia took, a bathroom, which I had for a dressing-room, and one bed-sitting-room where I ate and wrote and where I and the three remaining Zemi slept at night, in a complex maze of mosquito-nets hitched to bed, table, chair and any projection which offered. It was hard on the men, for they had no privacy; waking or sleeping, they were under my eye; but it was undeniably convenient for getting promptly to and from our work.
text: Our day began at half-past two in the morning, when a messenger knocked on the window and gave me the day's figures. Generally there were two thousand or so all told - so many Europeans, six to sixty of them, for whom sandwiches must be cut; so many Indians - the other canteen would feed them, and tea would be drawn from both. At 3 a.m. I roused the men, and, in the only cool hour of the twenty-four, we made our way down in the dark with loads of kindling and the bread for the sandwiches. Here were the tracks, shining a little in the starlight. Over them we trudged - here and there was the familiar glow of red or green lights; we came to know the night aspects of Lumding well - then the small bulk of our newly-built canteen, a little thatched shed, and a cookhouse behind it. (The Yenangyaung contingent, I remember, came through when the cookshed was building. They sat about on the half-built fireplaces and ate sausages fried over our stoves; asked the day of the week; and decided it was " the second Sunday after demolition ".) Then there were sixty gallons of water to carry, at eight gallons a trip, the fires to light and the water to boil, and while it heated we cut the sandwiches and set out the mugs. (172) Somewhere between four, when the first smell of dawn came in the air, and five, when the birds were waking and the night cool fading away, there came, with any luck, one or two of our faithful contingent of helpers - usually the Hogermeer family, the only Europeans to tackle the early shift. Then day came. And with it, clanking in over the points, the expected train - dull, brownish paint peeling and sun-bleached, the high, old-fashioned carriages packed, jammed, with weary people.
text: The next two hours were one whirl of serving and pouring, of fetching, washing, dishing, handing out; of crises and scalds. We leaned at last on the counter among the dirty cups and debris, the crumby plates, the spilt tea, the stains, the odd, wet tea-leaves, to watch the train pull out, and then washed up, swabbed, cleaned, swept, and went home in the growing heat to breakfast.
text: Ten o'clock, and, armed with baskets of bread and buns, we came down to open again for the wounded.
text: For some reason their train always stopped at the far end of the platform, giving us a hundred-yard dash with each lot of tea. Most of them, too, were stretcher-cases, unable to come to the canteen. Others, whose wounds were foul or clothes bloodstained, would not, from an innate delicacy, come up to the shed for fear of upsetting the lady helpers. They were amazing. Tired, thirsty, in rags, some with reeking wounds, some with first field-dressings still on, packed into filthy compartments, often without a doctor, an orderly or a bedpan on the train, they grinned, and said : " Please," and " Thank you," and " Take it easy, miss," and carriage after carriage went out with windows solid with waving men : " See you on the way back, miss ! Thank you for the tea. See you on the Road to Mandalay ! " The Naga is an emotional creature, quickly responsive; to see the men who, in Namkia's phrase, were " putting their bodies for a shield between us and the Japs " brought the war home to them suddenly. It became a personal matter, a debt to be (173) discharged. Instead of following me, they began to work furiously at the canteen on their own account. By twelve or twelve-thirty the wounded were gone. The station baked in the heat, in a glare of sun. A pi-dog or two wandered about the glinting metals, sniffling and scavenging. Behind the sidings, the 'gul-mohur' trees were in flower. But the sunlight swallowed their colour, ate it up in yellow heat; one had to wait till evening to see them in all their blaze of scarlet, of bunches of bloom floating against deep, cool, green leaves. We washed up and closed again, and went back to lunch.
text: The little house was stifling by then. It was too hot to sleep. The men bathed; so did I. Then at three o'clock, when the heat was at its thickest and most stuffy, we went down to the third shift, for the Up Mail, and those stray trains, loaded with trucks, ambulances or mules, which trickled through from time to time on their way to the front. Generally, we were through with that by seven or eight. Then there were accounts to do, and correspondence, while the fan clacked overhead and the men slept on the floor round me. At nine or nine-thirty I switched off the light and rolled into bed myself.
text: And at half-past two in the morning it all began again.