Bricks • Mortar • Imagination • Words

The text Chattri

Black Pepper Dreams

I keep Surinderpal awake by telling him stories. For him, I let myself remember another life, a faraway, sacred place. The 1pind in 2Vaisakhi. The wet ground, the vapour whisper of breath in the early morning. The hot, sweet 3chaa and parathay my mother made. And later, the bright sun, how she smiled and shone on the fields, row after row of 4chalia, tall and proud, marching into the horizon like young soldiers. The precious protection they offered our aching bodies, while we ate our communal lunch of 5missi roti and lassi, our feet cooling in the wet ditch. And at dusk, as the field fires dampen, the sky melts to soot. And my mother huddles around the 6rosoi fire, her fingers quicken with motherlove, and soon, the reviving taste of 7saag and makhi ki roti. Fresh from my mother's fingertips and served by my younger sister, her hair damp from her evening bath. With my words I paint for him, try to make a window for Surinderpal to step through, away from the beckoning bright light. I try to lead him home, sensually, taste by taste. It gives me much pleasure and I feel hope when I see him lick his lips. The taste of imagined 8ghur in his mouth. The song of flirtatious village girls, bright and succulent as sweetmeats, as they sway their way past on their way to and from school. All these moments wrapped around a simple story, a time when our mothers' and sisters' hands were close by and our fathers' voices rang in our ears. A time when we were not drowning. A time when the sun warmed us. When we were not 9like grain thrown into the fire twice.

In the end, it is I who fall asleep as we cross the black waters again. I fall asleep even midst the violence of these dark waves; how is it that the body can outwit the mind? I awake, a slumped deadweight in the corner. I notice that they have covered Surinderpal's face with a dirty sheet. I think of his lips tasting my dreams and crawl towards him. The sea takes a deep breath and exhales, I roll back, and knock myself out against the cold metal panel.

I awake to the smell of figs and the voices of women. I am lying in a cot again. The sun is trying to reach me, her fingers tentative, like the nurse on the 10hospital train to Le Havre. She unwinds my turban, and runs her fingers through my hair , sighs and whispers,'Si beau, si beau.' She takes my 11kangi and gently combs my oiled hair and beard. I am a broken doll in her hands. Just before she leaves, she raises her fingers like a greeting, a distant adaab, smells her fingers, kisses them and then blows a kiss. The sun's heat increases, I feel her desire against my skin, but I'm too weak to enjoy this ardour. I turn my face away and fall again into sleep.

I am moving to the sound of a metal roar. I am travelling on parallel lines that diverge and cross, and come together. My throat burns and my body feels full of metal. A cool hand brushes my brow. I open my eyes and she tells me we have just left Havant. 'Not long now,' she tells me, 'Not long now.' I do not know what we are waiting for, or why we are travelling, or where to.

We are slowing. I can see the shapes of the others beside me, hear them above me. I have been moved. From here I can see the quiet blur of leaves. They veil the sky in copper reds. Drawing suddenly to reveal a shot of lifeless grey.

'Look at this, the great English countryside. This is what we have been fighting for.'

The brother above's voice falls like a stone against my temple. The sun rips through the grey and I see red leaves. They are caught in the lighthands of the sun, their bodies glowing, burning, falling. Tearshapes in shades of blood. I imagine the leaves congealing around my feet and wonder if the mud will bury them, and if the wind will whisper the funeral rites my brothers lacked, their dead bodies still continuing to offer protection to this bloodred land. Hair, nails and limbs layered and built into parapets.

A loud, metallic sigh and a jolt. We are stopped. I am awake and aware of English voices. 'Brothers, so many women, and all wearing lace collars and 12topees.' A brother has limped to the window and his bent back blocks my view. I want to see. I am anxious to see this place and more of these people that we have bled for.

We are in the palace of a great Rajah. A generous king who offers us shelter in splendour. We sleep in high beds and some mornings the sun seeks me out, flooding through the coloured glass. At night, light finds us through the clusters of crystal glass. Sometimes the light arches into rainbows over me. They turn out the chandeliers at the same hour each night and for minutes afterwards I can see the ghost of the crystal flowers hovering above me. In the balconies overhead, I can see glimpses of women in white roaming - restless spirits. When we arrived there were women and children in the street. They waved hankies and smiled and shouted. This is Brighton.

Each and every night is filled with my brothers' voices in pain but somehow, thankfully, sleep favours me.

I awake to the sound of retching. The brother by my side is vomiting again, he says he can't keep anything down. He says he can still taste the beef he had to eat when the 13caste rations ran out. 'They tricked us,' he says, his lips trembling. When he's not being sick, he prays, trying to cleanse the pollution away. I remember the biscuits we'd eat at eighth watch and guilt and shame floods my bed. By then desperate with hunger, we had turned our minds away from their unholy content, said a quick prayer, and drank the weak tea as 14amrit. Hoping for renewal with each sip, our feet and legs numb with cold, our putties and frayed cotton khakis damp with frost. I think that God must forgive us, for surely we have suffered enough.

Today I have taken my first steps. This is a large place, but we have managed to make it full. Everywhere the eye turns there are weak and broken brothers, all at different stages in their healing. Many make light of their wounds and gently tease the ones unable to move anything but their eyes and mouths. There is always much activity. Brothers conversing, joking, playing cards, praying, singing 15ghazals, reciting prayers, lifting their voices in unison with folk songs and snippets of ancient 16quawali. We are broken but together we make a resounding whole. The sisters try to shush us, their hands sternly gesticulating a sombre quiet. But we tease them, serenade them with tales of their legendary beauty. Some of them smile and laugh, others are as unfeeling as frostbitten limbs.

Each day I try to walk a slow, careful circuit of the room on crutches. I want to be well enough to join the brothers who exercise outside on the lawn, perhaps even be one of the lucky men who have seen outside, walked by the sea, which they say is the deepest blue, like Indian skies. I play games with myself, encourage and urge myself to walk just that little bit further. Today I am concentrating hard, experimenting with my balance, when I feel myself falling backwards. I'm caught by a strong, gentle pair of hands, that set me firmly on my feet. I crane my head around to see who's held me, but see no-one there. When I turn my head back round I'm faced with a warm, broad smile from an Englishman.

'Mera naam Andrew Munro hai.'

It's strange to hear Hindi from his lips; I introduce myself also, but in English.

'I'm glad to see that you're up and about.'

His English sounds odd. It takes me a moment, but then I place the music in his voice, and recognise that he must be Scots. Like the few 17goray who'd been sent to join us at the Front. Surinderpal called these Scots 18'Red pepper': small shots, sharp and explosive. The speckling of red pepper that had been thrown in the sea of black pepper on the Front. We were the ones right out on the front, pushing the enemy lines back. Sinking slowly, while shielding the ones who come up behind us.

'Where are you from?'


'Yes, I can see that, but whereabouts?'

His smile is warm, and never leaves his face.

'Punjab. You're Scottish?'

'Born and bred, from Inverness'

I nod vaguely.

'North of Scotland - in the Highlands like.'

'I'm from the North also.'

I catch myself mirroring his smile

'You Sikh?'

I nod affirmatively. He gracefully brings his palms together.

'Sat sri akal.'

I am beginning to tire, need to sit down, but manage to mirror his greeting.

'My Grandfather was in India. Told me all about you boys. Fine warriors, like the Scots.'

'Thank you.'

I shift my weight a little.

'My God man, listen to me 19blethering on. Lets get you back to bed.'

When we reach the bed, he waits until I settle before he leaves. I fall swiftly into sleep and wade into muddy dreams, submerged under relentless rain and snow, overwhelmed by the stench, rats and rot. Sharing trenches with the Red Pepper men in their strange patterned clothing, their bare legs in kilts and berets. With their love of song and laughter, how Punjabi they seemed. Sometimes, it felt almost like we were all brothers together, brothers in arms, fighting for a common cause, fighting for this great island. I awake, my head swimming in red, full of questions.

20"No-one here says that he will return to India. Even the English do not speak thus, but say that every man will be killed. They say that the war will only begin next month and that in any case the Germans will destroy all of us utterly. When the Germans attacked Russia they drove her back for they are very powerful. We are now in the same trenches in which we were at the beginning?"

The brother beside me is reading from a letter from the Front. He continues, his voice small and fading, I have to quieten my quickening heartbeat so that I can listen.

"?We black men suffered heavily. They put us in front. I have no confidence of being able to escape death."

Blood rushes and spirals inside my head. I have to lie back down. A brother speaks up in a brittle voice:

'They will send us back, as soon as we are fit.'

A quiet wraps itself around me. The usual sounds of prayer, laughter and song still. I sail away relieved by exhaustion, into the deathly quiet.

The sharp snag of hands pulling at my hair. I awake abruptly to a small gathering around my bed. A sister has a gloved hand in my hair. She announces loudly that my hair will have to be cut, her hands gripped around the roots. I struggle and try to sit up, my objections muffled by the effort of trying to get upright.

'Be a good boy now and sit still. This won't take a minute!'

An orderly approaches my bed with a pair of scissors.


My voice stretches and takes flight, it almost reaches the coloured glass. Tiny pieces of broken rainbows are starting to gather in my eyes. I blink them away and try to find more strength to protest.

'You can not. This is not holy. This is not true. You are killing my faith, my religion.'

I surprise myself with the sound of my own voice. I notice the brothers gather. One of them, a lofty Pathaan, slowly shakes his head, and reaches towards the orderly and takes the scissors. The orderly steps away and backs into the sister.

'Now don't be so silly! You're causing such an unnecessary fuss!'

Her voice has an edge to it.

'You have no right?' I begin, my sentence forming like ice, when I see the Scot approach my bed. He takes the sister's elbow.

'Can I be of assistance sister?'

'This fellow objects to having his hair cut.'

He unwraps his smile.

'And is this totally necessary?'

'It's a matter of hygiene. There's been an outbreak of lice on the wards, as you well know, and we simply must take the necessary precautions.'

'I see. Could I have a word? In private.'

He manoeuvres her to one side. I can't make out what he says, but I hear her laugh, and see her play with her hair. He squeezes her hand and she looks over at me and slowly walks away.

He turns to me, smiles and winks. Some of the brothers thank him, shake his hand and pat him on the back. I close my eyes and turn back to sleep.

I am dreaming of a dirty-white dawn that fills with a strange sunlight that stinks. A sharp mustard haze that dilutes the sky. My eyes burn and my throat begins to constrict with a serrated itch. Around me, dying eyes and lolling heads. I awake in the middle of the night to the sound of myself, screaming.

I have just finished my prayers when Andrew arrives with a chair on wheels.

'I think it's about time you had a change in scenery.'

'Sat sri akal'

'Sat sri akal. It's a beautiful morning. Perfect for taking in the air'

I'm bemused.

'Time for a wee jaunt in the garden'

He pats the chair.

21'Chalo! Chalo!' The brother opposite encourages brightly.

Andrew holds the chair steady as I ease myself into the chair. I'd just wrapped my shawl around me when he pushes the chair with great speed towards the door. A boyish giggle escapes from my mouth.

'That's more like it. Lets really have some fun! Yee hah!' With that, Andrew takes a sharp turn and detours, weaving the chair in and out of the beds. I am breathless with excitement. Laughter fills the air and we narrowly miss the sister as we exit through the door. I close my eyes as he propels me through the corridor. I open them just as the lawn, a lush Persian carpet, unfolds before me. I float out into the light, the air soft against my skin.


2Harvest Festival

3Hot sweet Indian tea and hot, flat bread with butter inside


5Bread made with a corn and wheat flour mix and a yoghurt drink


7Savoury spinach and corn flour bread

8Crystallised sugar cane

9In their correspondence, some Indian soldiers would refer to themselves as grain that 'was to be thrown into the fire twice' - the poignant fact being that grain cooked twice will only burn, it cannot survive.

10A reference to Sister Luard, who was attached to train No5, and who wrote in her dairy about the Sikh soldiers, with 'their fine, dark hair under their turbans, done up with yellow combs.'

11Comb, but in this instance is also one of the miniature combs an orthodox Sikh would carry as part of the 5 symbols of the Sikh faith.


13Indian soldiers were given rations in relation to their religious dietary requirements. To break these strict dietary requirements would mean that the soldiers had compromised their faith, and would clearly have made them feel vulnerable.

14Sacred symbolic cleansing.

15An ancient poetic form created using precise, aesthetic couplets. A ghazal can be recited or sang.

16Sacred mystical Sufi song.

17White men/people

18When the soldiers realised that their letters were being censored, some of the soldiers devised code, 'Red Pepper and Black Pepper' was part of that code between Indians.

19Going on without focus.

20Here I quote directly from letters sent by Indian soldiers from the Front.


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