For four unforgettable days in Amritsar I have had the honour to meet the descendants of not just one but two of the soldiers alongside whom Tom fought in France 1914 – 1918.
Dinesh Rana saw the first post about Major Tom’s War in the Chandigarh Tribune in September 2018 and got in contact immediately to say that Arjan Singh, a dafadur who worked for my grandfather after he became a military policeman in 1916, was his grandfather. After a very long delay caused by a glitch in my website (I was so mortified!) I responded and plans were quickly hatched to meet up.
I travelled by car (ably driven by the unflappable Mandeep, driver to the Sandhu family, who kindly loaned him to me) through flat farmland chequered with fields of pale green winter wheat, golden mustard, and bamboo-like sugar cane. The peas were being harvested too, farm workers in brightly coloured clothing cramming them into tall grey sacks. Back-breaking work. In one grassy field a tractor driver ploughed seemingly random curved furrows, apparently for the sheer joy of watching the snowy cattle egrets settle on freshly turned soil.
There is great beauty in this place. There is also rubbish and squalor. This is not the semi-synthetic glory of the Golden Triangle. This is real India. This is Punjab, the divided land, which straddles the border between India and Pakistan. Partition cut right through its heart.
I had agreed to meet my host, Dinesh Rana, at a midpoint in our ‘journey in’ and there he was, beaming a wonderful welcome, carrying a flower garland which he placed around my neck. Lots of smiles and selfies. We proceeded to journey towards his little village. I felt like royalty greeting his charming extended family, friends and neighbours.
The villages we passed seemed leisurely places where much transport was still by cart. Street dogs, some with tiny puppies, lay curled up by the side of the road and cattle ambled past chewing as traffic eddied around them. Motorbikes beeped as they ripped past us, driven by the husband, with the wife sitting neatly perched side-saddle behind him.
Dinesh’s home in the rural village of Mojowal is huge, beautiful and spacious. Here was the first surprise: there was a beautiful shrine to Lord Ganesh in the corner of the reception room. I had supposed that Arjan Singh was a Sikh but clearly he was a Hindu. A detail to be corrected. My book may be a novel but I still like to get my facts right!
Water and delicious snacks were served and I watched my chai masala (a boiled and sweetened tea fragranced with ginger and cardamom) being prepared. I am now addicted to this delicious stuff!
I then attended the local school where they gave me the most magnificent wooden plaque and I enjoyed a superb entertainment of dancing and song out in the playground.
I liked the bhangra most of all, and I suspect the kids did too from their gleeful faces. There was also a race or two and one lad in blue ran like the wind, a good arm’s length ahead of the others.
As a thank you I sang for them. 2000+ wee ones were sitting under canopies around the massive sports ground, all hanging on every word of The Skye Boat Song – which has come very much in handy this visit as its melancholy melody and lost prince theme appeal to my audiences in Punjab. Then I told my schools version of the Major Tom’s War story – or Four Soldiers Named Singh as it has now seems to have become! – to the senior pupils. When I got to the part where Arjan Singh saves Tom’s life, they all applauded loudly.
Arjan Singh, it turns out however, was indeed a very strong man: he became a a wrestler. Just the sort of fellow a rather slight Assistant Provost Marshal would select as his right hand man. Arjan Singh was so strong that he could bend a silver coin between his fingertips – so easily tough enough to hoist my grandfather on to his shoulder and to run with him to safety across no-man’s-land as bullets whipped around them. I was shown Arjan Singh’s medals – battered and some attached to the wrong ribbons – but still proudly kept.
Truth and fiction have a habit of merging in Major Tom’s War. Tom wrote little in detail during the period he was gassed or during his convalescence (either that or Evie destroyed letters she viewed as too personal or argumentative). I have therefore pulled together and embroidered over some rather fragile threads.
There is a shrine to Arjan Singh too in one corner of the room – as very sadly he survived the war only to meet a very sticky end. Arjan Singh became a moneylender – one way of making your army pension grow – but in 1942 some men to whom he had lent money decided there was an easier way to avoid paying it back. They spiked his drink and then pushed poor Arjan Singh over a cliff. He was so strong he survived the fall, dying only some days later.
The tragedy left his family without a source of income but they survived, his widow doggedly refusing to seek revenge or compensation. It would not have brought her man back to her, after all.
I looked at the shrine to Arjan Singh and thought how he had changed in appearance since the photo of the young officer in Tom’s war diary. In his later days he looked more like the great-grandson who tried on Tom’s specs on this occasion. And then – then!- two more of his great grandchildren walked through the door. These two are so like Arjan Singh in his younger days when he assisted my grandfather with his duties that it made my hair stand on end.
It turned out that the elder was none other than the lad in blue who had won the race – so a real chip off the old block. I returned to the hotel laden with gifts and overwhelmed with the kindness of Dinesh and his lovely family.
Right at the end an elderly family member came forward, sadly disabled after a fall, but still loved and cherished by all. He gave me this beautiful hand of bananas from his own garden.
They were so sweet – just like the whole extended family and friends of Dinesh Rana in Mojowal.