I write this from self-isolation. Our elder son has Covid, luckily a mild case. We’re not going near him and wear masks when leaving food at his door. So far, the rest of us are healthy and testing negative. But it has reminded us, once again, how scary and drawn-out this pandemic is proving.

While we deal with our son’s illness, I’ve been reading family history. My maternal grandfather, Philip Coleman (1912-1997), was a doctor who, during the Second World War, reluctantly became a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, with the King’s Own Royal Regiment Lancaster, 7th Battalion. From March 1943, he was based in Lahore. His battalion was not deployed in active service, but handled “internal security.”

My grandfather, Philip Coleman | Photos courtesy Claire Chambers
My grandfather, Philip Coleman | Photos courtesy Claire Chambers

Late in his life when I, his only granddaughter, was teaching English in Pakistan (1993-1994), I remember his enthusiasm for my year out. Although Grandpa’s time in the army was unhappy, he clearly had fond memories of the place that would become the Islamic Republic.

We recently discovered a journal and photo album Philip kept of a three-week holiday he took in summer 1943. He departed Lahore for Kashmir nine days after my mother’s birth — my granny was left holding the baby at the home of her in-laws (Philip’s parents) in Blitz-era Britain.

Houseboats on Lake Dal in Kashmir
Houseboats on Lake Dal in Kashmir

Meanwhile, with a friend named Jonah, Philip embarked on the expedition of a lifetime. Partly out of guilt and boredom, and partly because he wrote well and relished self-expression, Philip kept a daily diary. Entries telling my granny of his adventures were accompanied by drawings of the more remarkable things he saw and did along the way.

At the journal’s outset, he declared: “I hope it will amuse because it is the first chance of giving you a real narrative of my doings without the intervention of censorship. The war will have nothing to do with my holiday in Kashmir.”

The trip began with Philip and Jonah climbing the Murree Hills, before trekking in the Great Himalayan valleys. On their way back, they passed through Pahalgam, which felt “exactly like Hampstead Heath on a bank holiday.”

This noise and bustle was because the Britons’ arrival coincided with the annual pilgrimage of Hindus intent on seeing the holy cave and snow lingam of Lord Shiva at the Amarnath Temple. Philip commented: “There are literally hundreds of tents here and after the solitude of the past fortnight it comes as a bit of a shock.” The medic in him worried about germs and cholera from the large crowds.

During his journey, Philip saw some spectacular sights. After a hike traversing the Zoji La pass, words failed him. “I do not think the description of the day will be a success,” he demurred to his wife, “because I seem to have used up all the superlatives and you must be tired by this time of the adjectives marvellous and wonderful as applied to scenery.”

To read this is to feel wistful. Despite my many years travelling to and from the Subcontinent, I’ve never been able to go to Kashmir because of the violence that erupted in the Valley from the late 1980s onwards. Yet, here is my grandfather to sketch a shikara and describe these houseboats “like Noah’s Ark” on Lake Dal. The boats, he recounts, “advertise Best Spring Cushions and have names like ‘Rolls Royce’ or ‘Margaretta the Best Flower in the World’.”

A page from his diary
A page from his diary

Philip’s trip must have seemed idyllic to his wife in England as she navigated her baby’s needs and the niceties of living with her in-laws. But for a few days, her husband and his friend experienced a thunderstorm that made life at high altitude treacherous. Philip noted: “It rained all night and it rained all day. ... The first part of the morning I kept Jonah amused by reading him passages about the deluge.”

The Bible (especially its flood narrative) and an old, badly-written guidebook were their sole reading matter. Boredom meant that my less-than-pious relative had no choice but to make “an extensive study of Holy Scripture” during his tour. The men also committed their guidebook to memory: “certain phrases stuck in our minds and could be answered as a catechism long afterwards.

Q. What will the villagers of Sonamarg do for the traveller?

A. They will point out the ruins of the old church.

Q. What must ladies in jampans be prepared to do?

A. Ladies in jampans must be prepared to walk!

Q. What must we do when crossing the Yamahair pass?

A. Give rassad to all.

The book did not explain what a jampan was nor the meaning of rassad but we rather concluded that the first was a sort of sedan chair and the rassad was tips or extra wages.”

Striking here are the references to sedan chairs and servants’ wages, as well as the inaccurate Hindi–Urdu. This further exposes the glaring fact that, during his sojourn, Grandpa occupied the privileged bubble of the white sahib.

He and Jonah were accompanied by an “excellent” factotum named Ahada, who managed 13 “coolies.” Even atop a glacier, Ahada and his staff made familiar English fare, including tea, scones, tomato soup, chicken stew, apple fritters and coffee. Ahada also seems to have always been ready with local knowledge and home comforts to help the homesick Brits.

These private musings on a vacation aside, my grandfather’s only published writing focuses on his clinical work; he wrote a short article, ‘Revaccination of an Army Unit’, for a 1944 issue of British Medical Journal. Despite its age and dry academic prose, the piece is resonant today.

In it, Philip tells the cautionary tale of a British soldier in India who caught an ultimately fatal case of smallpox during brief shore leave. As the medic in charge, Philip traced the soldier’s contacts, then set about enforcing “the isolation of the company concerned [and] disinfection of all fomites.”

The essay centres on the subsequent revaccination programme, and patients’ physical reactions to the precautionary inoculation. Encouragingly, while some men had more side effects from the vaccine than others, no one else contracted smallpox and the disease was quelled.

Reading his words, I hope for containment of the current pandemic too before long. Of course, a jaunt of the sort Grandpa enjoyed in 1940s Kashmir would be next to impossible right now. Yet his journal has lifted the spirits of this armchair traveller at a tough time.

The columnist is professor of Global Literature at the University of York, and author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 22nd, 2021

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