In December 1940 we were living in Ranchi, a two-day train journey north of Calcutta. I was just turned six. Our Christmas season began with the arrival of the quarterly catalogue from the Army and Navy Stores in Calcutta. In the sleepy little town of Ranchi anything that was not ordinary everyday stuff had to be ordered from this catalogue, including tinned hams and tinned butter and tinned cheese. My mother, my brother David and I would count the days till the arrival of the catalogue and the chance to enter the wonderland of its glossy, illustrated pages, for it was from this catalogue that we chose our Christmas presents. All the best toys were in it like the pistols which could be loaded with coils of caps which came in little round boxes. The caps made a loud bang and gave off a gratifying sulphurous smell when the black dots were struck by the pistol hammer. And there was plasticine, a putty-like substance for modelling, which was fairly new then. It came in ribbed strips, six different colours to a pack. We spent hours rolling out coils to make pots or modelling figures. Disappointingly, our plasticine sausages and eggs, placed in front of my father at breakfast, never did deceive him. Plasticine under our fingernails, entangled in our hair and sticking to the soles of our shoes was the norm. All too soon the colours became pressed into one mottled lump and we would start angling for another new pack with its six fresh colours.
My absolute favourite were the toy soldiers. There were boxes of Grenadier Guards in their scarlet jackets and black busbies or in their long, grey, winter overcoats, charging Arabian horsemen, Highland regiments with kilts and bagpipes, plumed cavalrymen with silver breastplates and lances astride glossy black horses, soldiers in khaki with bayonets at the ready, the band of the Royal Marines in tall white helmets and best blues. I would parade my army for hours. I would divide my soldiers with David and challenge him to battle. The rules were roughly that, after digging in, building defences and manning the barricades, each side had ten shots with a lump of plasticine. A heavier lump could be used for canon or artillery and must be thrown from where the guns were positioned. At the end of an agreed number of rounds, the side which had the most soldiers standing was the winner. I don’t think David really had much interest in these games, he was merely indulging his younger brother. Before long some of the soldiers had their heads joined to their bodies by matchsticks; and three-legged horses were ridden by armless men.
May parents’ present to themselves was a radiogram, a combined gramophone and radio, built into a mahogany cabinet. The gramophone needles were made from thorns. They were supposed to give a better tone than steel needles, but had to be changed every two records. I remember listening to Paul Robeson and to Noel Coward; and the special waxy smell of the shiny grooved discs.
Next to the radiogram in the drawing-room was our Christmas tree. December was in the middle of the dry season, when the trees shed their leaves to preserve moisture. Our bare-branched Christmas tree was whitewashed and then hung with Indian garlands.
As part of the Christmas festivities my parents decided to hold a dinner party.
It was the accepted practice on such occasions to borrow extra plates, cutlery etc. from those who had been invited. All morning, servants from various households would arrive carrying these items, or a horse-drawn tonga might trundle up the drive, stacked with chairs.
I was in bed by the time the party took place. I was woken by cries of alarm and the sound of people running about- high-heels, booted and bare-foot. There had been an invasion of ants – a black column, about 100 metres long and three metres wide, on the march, moving in a straight line over whatever was in its path - in this case, the laden dinner table.
My mother’s parents and sister were in England. Their longed-for letters arrived in the form of an airgram. To save precious space on the few planes that flew out to India, all letters were opened and photographed, so that hundreds of letters could be put on one micro-reel of film. When the roll of film reached India, it was developed and printed, at half the original size, on photographic paper - which is how we received our letters from England, and the news that my uncle Bolo had finally been officially pronounced ‘missing,’last seen on the beeches of Dunkirk six months earlier. For me, though, the adventures of my toy soldiers were somehow more real than the actual men and women who were caught up in that strife-torn year of 1940.