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Maria van der Linden
An unforgettable journey
(1992)

 

11. Life in Panchgani

Individual liberty and independence
Are both essential far life in society.
Mahatma Ghandi

The name Panchgani in Hindustani means five hills. This township with a relatively stable population of 15,000 inhabitants occupied five hills, each of which ended In an almost level plateau. These were known locally as tablelands. The hill resort of Panchgani is located in the Western Ghats, Inland from the city of Poona where a large British army garrison was stationed In 1945-1947, the period of our residence in Panchgani.

      We enjoyed the mild, cool climate of the wooded Panchgani hills. Many trees were covered in wild fruit, which provided ample sustenance for family groups of white and gray, black-faced langur monkeys which were a frequent sight. Some monkeys were quite cheeky; they loved to snatch bananas, biscuits, bread, cakes and sweets from people, as well as bright items of jewelry and clothing. These were usually Impossible to retrieve as they were carried from one tree top to another with great speed. My brother recalled seeing a group of monkeys eating a supper which had been carefully covered with muslin cloth to protect the food from insects. Someone had accidentally left the door slightly open allowing the uninvited guests to enter and to enjoy an unexpected feast. Langur monkeys moved in troupes of about 15 animals, though larger groups of between 30-40 monkeys were not uncommon. Usually a male leader of the pack glared menacingly, in a feigned attack aimed at scaring people away. These animals were harmless, timid creatures unless cornered or teased.

      At the beginning of the monsoon season around mid-May, the tablelands were carpeted with wild violets, yellow buttercups and lilies-of-the-valley. This was a magnificent sight to behold. The Panchgani hills were composed of very hard, porous rock. They contained several subterranean caves, often inhabited by large black bats called flying foxes, which were fascinating to holiday-makers and curious children. Wild bees, snakes, scorpions, leopards and tigers also used these caves as shelter. The overpowering body odour of the wild cats determined their presence and the caves were then avoided by exploring children. During the wet season a couple of small lakes formed on the tablelands. They dried up once the monsoon rain retreated.

      A large tropical jungle extended some 16 miles beyond Panchangani, on the outskirts of which was a small British army garrison situated near a lake. This environment provided good training in jungle warfare for the British forces facing the advancing Japanese in Burma during World War II. The tropical forest was also a hunter's paradise, as leopards and tigers were plentiful game. Beautiful orchids nestled In the trees and the many brightly coloured parrots competed for food with troupes of monkeys.

      Panchgani township had a large grocer's shop, the Panchgani Store, which supplied tinned fruit, meat, sardines, herrings in tomato sauce, soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, confectionery, milk, bread and other necessary items. There was also a post office nearby. Several hotels catered for the needs of the many holiday-makers during the dry, hot season, which extended from October to mid-May. There were five high schools in addition to a local primary school and kindergarten. The secondary schools included the Parsee and Hindu High Schools and two Anglican missionary colleges, namely, Kimmin's High School for girls and St. Peter's High School for boys, also the Roman Catholic Girls' College, St. Joseph's Convent High School. The last three missionary schools catered for a mixture of Indian, European and Anglo-Indian pupils and the Catholic college also catered for several abandoned children, mainly Anglo-Indians and British. That school was staffed mostly by Irish and Indian nuns. A small farm adjacent to the convent provided some revenue for the care of these abandoned children. The nuns grew their own vegetables, and some fruit such as oranges, lemons, grapefruit and mangoes. They also kept cows for milk and Angora rabbits for their fibre. Fowls provided eggs. Ducks and geese were reared for poultry meat. This enterprise made It possible for the school to meet Its charitable obligations In addition to admitting fee-paying students. Many Polish girls benefited from the education received at the St. Joseph's High School, where they became fluent In English.

      Panchgani also contained a large sanatorium, caring for 1,400 tuberculosis patients. My brother Alek with some 30 Polish boys received treatment there. It was supervised by only one fully-qualified medical doctor, the Portuguese Doctor Da Gamma, who visited the patients once a week. There were six trained nurses and several Indian nursing aides, both male and female. My brother spent 14 months at the Panchgani sanatorium. He received monthly blood tests and fortnightly injections, which was the accepted medical treatment for tuberculosis. Patients slept in large wardlike dormitories where they were encouraged to rest as much as possible. They rose at 7.30 a.m. and retired by 8.00 p.m. An afternoon rest was considered essential. The standard punishment for leaving the sanatorium grounds without permission or authorised supervision was confinement to bed for three weeks.

      The food at the Panchgani sanatorium was much better than at the Polish camps in Balachadi-Jamnagar and Valivade-Kolhapur. For breakfast Indian chapatees were served with butter and a raw egg with a cup of milk or two slices of bread with a cube of butter, fresh fruit mixed with a raw egg and tea with milk. Lunch usually consisted of Indian curry and rice with dahl. Dinner was around 6.00 p.m.. when rice, dahl and curry gravy was served with either two slices of bread or chapatees. In addition to these three daily meals, snacks were served in between; at 10.00 a.m. a drink of buffalo milk, and at 3.00 p.m. following the midday rest, tea with a banana, an orange, a guava or a pomegranate.

      Boys and girls were accommodated In a separate section of the complex. Each part was equipped with communal toilets, wash basins and Iron tubs, into which Indian servants (metranees) poured hot water for the weekly bath. The Polish boys In the sanatorium received no formal education. Once they felt stronger they played hockey in the court yard, using primitive, self-made hockey sticks, usually banging empty tins and occasionally tennis balls if they could get some. They also enjoyed card games and marbles. The girls wore gray skirts and white blouses and the boys gray shirts and shorts. Both wore brown Roman sandals. This was also the standard uniform for Polish schools at the camps in Balachadi and Valivade.

      When the children were discharged from the Panchgani sanatorium, they convalesced In one of the Polish villas at Panchgani before returning to the Valivade Refugees' Camp. These villas were, therefore, halfway houses, where the children's health was closely monitored and where their daily routine Included some basic formal education. Because of the lack of a school at the sanatorium, many of the convalescent children were unable to cope with the lessons of the others of their chronological age at the Polish Camp in Valivade-Kolhapur.

      When our mother accepted the position of school nurse at Kimmins Girls' High School, she was already familiar with the Panchgani township and its small Polish community, having previously worked at one of the halfway houses, nursing convalescent children there. She had also nursed three cases of typhoid transferred from Panchgani to the Poona Hospital. Among the three were two Polish girls and the head sister from the St. Joseph's Convent in Panchgani. It was she who later recommended Mother for the nursing position at Kimmins High School.

      Our mother's desire to provide Alek and me with a formal English education was no doubt the draw card in accepting this position. As she could not afford to have us educated at English boarding schools, the generous offer of free education for her children was most appreciated. Having now decided we would not return to communist Poland after the war, Mother wanted to equip us for life in the English-speaking free world, where she hoped we would be given a chance of a new life, without political oppression and fear of persecution.

      At St. Peter's Boys' High School Alek had the company of 12 other Polish boys to whom he naturally related well. I felt a bit strange and lonely at Kimmins High School, being the only Polish girl there. All the other Polish girls attended the St. Joseph's Convent High School at Panchgani.

      Kimmins High School consisted of a complex of buildings constructed in a rectangle, with a well landscaped and colourful garden in the central courtyard into which all doors opened. Senior dormitories were situated upstairs next to the Principal's self-contained apartment. Miss G.E. Pearsall, the head of this school, was an Anglican missionary. She was a very talented lady, a poet and an accomplished pianist. She enjoyed entertaining friends to dinner In her apartment. This was usually followed by a music recital, as many of her frequent guests also played musical instruments. We enjoyed listening to this heavenly music.

      All the teaching staff dressed for dinner in the evenings with Miss Pearsall in the staff dining room. It was exciting for the girls to see the elegant clothes worn by our teachers on these occasions; quite a change from our own school uniforms, the navy gyms, white blouses and striped red, white and blue ties. In cool weather navy or black stockings were worn, in summer white socks and on Sundays we wore a navy suit with the school monogram on the jacket pocket and white Panama hats, which also displayed the monogram and the school colours on an ornamental band.

      Our school days commenced with a bell at 7.00 a.m. followed by short prayers in the dormitories, each supervised by a matron. We showered, dressed and made our own beds before hurrying to breakfast which usually consisted of porridge and two slices of bread, or chapatees with butter and marmalade. On Sundays we had eggs and sausages or bacon. School chapel prayers followed. Miss Pearsall generally read an extract from the Bible, which provided us with a special thought for the day. We sang a couple of hymns or psalms from the Anglican prayer book and recited selected short prayers including the Lord's Prayer. Any special school notices were read out at the end. Interviews with students were also announced at this time.

      There were two lessons of 45 minutes each before the morning recess and another two before lunch, which consisted of curry and rice, dahl and two chapatees. This was followed by a compulsory afternoon rest during the hottest part of the day. Following afternoon tea, two more school lessons completed our instruction for the day. After school It was time for sports at the tablelands. We walked there in pairs, supervised by a teacher, carrying our own hockey sticks. We looked forward to these outings. During the monsoon season we could only play Indoor basketball in our gymnasium, but ventured out daily for long walks in the rain, dressed in raincoats (mackintoshes) and gumboots (Wellingtons). From mid-May to September heavy rain continued without respite. The gray cloudy skies persisted till October when blue skies heralded the intermittent dry spells of the retreating monsoon rain.

      Our school syllabus prepared us for the junior and senior Cambridge external examinations, which were set and marked in England. At first I was placed In a senior class, because I had already had two years of secondary education in Polish at the Valivade Refugees' Camp. However, my knowledge of English was meagre. I had learned it only as a second language and had had no opportunity to speak It. As algebra and geometry commenced in standard five (Form 3 level) at Kimmins School, It was eventually decided to place me In that class, to ensure a thorough grounding in mathematics. I was then also transferred to a junior dormitory and a junior class, where the girls were several years younger than I was. I felt this very deeply, as I was already 14 years old, bigger and also more physically mature than the students with whom I now shared my school experiences. Moreover, at the Polish High School I had been a couple of years younger than my classmates, so I was very uncomfortable with the Kimmins arrangement. I progressed quickly however, to become one of the top students In my class, even In English. I was eager to go up a class, but in spite of my achievements no promotion was considered. By the following year I was fluent In English.

      On Sunday mornings and afternoons we all attended the Anglican church services at St. Peter's Boys' High School. Also on Sunday mornings my mother, with a few other Catholic girls from Kimmins High School, was permitted to attend Mass at the Catholic church at the St. Joseph's Convent. We were joined there by Alek and the Catholic boys from the St. Peter's High School. I really looked forward to these outings. After church we frequently visited the 70-year-old Irish priest, Father Hennessey, who invited us to share breakfast with him. We enjoyed delicious fresh buns with cheese and jam, a combination I have loved ever since. Father Hennessey had spent 40 years in India. He was a great biologist and had a marvelous collection of brightly coloured butterflies and a variety of beetles. He had also preserved in jars all the known species of poisonous snakes, which fascinated us. Moreover, he had developed antidotes to all native poisonous Insects and reptiles and kept these for emergencies in Panchgani, when locals came for help. Father Hennessey, a very kind man, took a special interest in my brother and me. We loved talking to him and hearing of his interesting adventures In India.

      Among our other pleasant recollections was a gala day at the St. Joseph's Convent School. We were enchanted by a Scottish pipe band, which we had never heard before. We were spellbound by the colourful tartan robes, the rhythmical marching and the sound of the bagpipes. It was an unforgettable experience. My brother and I were also fascinated by the Panchgani bazaars, which we were able to explore during the long, summer holidays. The school vacation extended from mid-December to the end of February, during the very hot, dry season In India. During that period we lived at the school bakery, where enormous rats were our constant companions at night. It was not uncommon to be woken up with rats the size of half-grown cats running across our beds. All our food was carefully stored In airtight tins to keep the rodents out. We also collected cooked evening meals from a privately-owned Indian cafeteria, so that few food supplies were kept in our quarters. I spent some time with Alek at the bazaars, where goods were

      displayed on trestles or simply on woven jute mats spread on the ground. Here we could buy a bunch of bananas for one rupee. One small banana cost eight annas (pence), a coconut was three annas, a large mug of roasted peanuts was two annas, while lollipops sold at one anna each. In those days 16 annas equaled one rupee. We also purchased fresh radishes and spring onions, which we enjoyed with fresh bread and sardines from the Panchgani Store. We relished toffee sticks, candy and peanut bars from the local bazaar. After watching the Indian traders preparing these at the market place, we made these treats ourselves. First we melted lumps of molasses in a saucepan, while lightly roasting peanuts in a cast-iron pan, shaking and bouncing them constantly to ensure an even roast. Sesame seeds were usually added at the end. Finally we blended both ingredients as the melted molasses began to harden. The mixture was poured onto grease proof paper and was carefully cut Into even strips before hardening. This was one of our favourite pastimes during school holidays.

      A few Polish children and staff remained at Panchgani, so we were able to visit them. Together we explored the subterranean caves surrounding the Panchgani tablelands. We felt very free, unconstrained by the strict discipline and a highly regulated routine which prevailed during the school year. Local Indians were friendly towards us. Now that the war had ended, many Indians Increasingly clamoured for independence from their British colonial rulers. Much anti-British sentiment was generated at that time. Printed slogans of 'British quit India' were commonplace.

      As the 1947 school year approached, demonstrations Increased, with rising tensions among the local population. It became necessary to employ armed British soldiers to guard our schools and all the dormitories were locked at night for safety. Our curriculum now included compulsory study of Hindustani, with the addition of Urdu for some Indian students.

      At both St. Peter's Boys' College and at Kimmins Girls' High School regular Bible studies were compulsory. Many of the extra-curricular cultural activities were combined for the two Anglican missionary schools. These included debating, school dances, and sports tournaments held on the tablelands.

      Adult teams also used the facilities of the tablelands sports fields In Panchgani. On one such occasion my mother attended an adult hockey match as a spectator. A number of British army personnel took part, among them our school Principal's friend, Colonel William A. Lovat-Fraser. Unfortunately, after a collision with another hockey player, he became concussed and suffered severe bruising to his head and both legs. He could not be moved the long distance to Poona Hospital, so my mother rendered first aid on-the-spot. Miss Pearsall then decided to admit Colonel Lovat-Fraser to the Kimmins High School hospital, where Mother nursed him. His recovery and convalescence took several weeks. During that period Colonel Lovat-Fraser's sister, Edith, and her husband. Lieutenant-Colonel Reginald Major, from Poona visited him on several occasions. Lieutenant-Colonel Major was the Liaison Officer of the British Services Resettlement In Poona, where there was a concentration of British army personnel.

      We thus met them several times, and they became very interested in our experiences In the USSR and our subsequent journey to freedom, which had eventually ended In India. They understood our inability to return to communist-dominated Poland and realised that there was no future for us in India, where at that time Europeans were unwanted. They were anxious to assist us to be resettled in an English-speaking country where we could have a chance of a new life and a future. They assisted Mother with her application for an entry permit to both New Zealand and to Australia, where they had contacts who could be our sponsors. Colonel Reginald Major wrote to UNRRA, the United Nations Refugees' Resettlement Agency, in an endeavour to obtain the necessary finance for our passage to the new destination. He and Colonel Lovat-Fraser gave their personal guarantees of our good character and our suitability as potential new settlers. Alek and I were asked to address our new friends as Auntie Edith, Uncle Reg and Uncle Lovat.

      Soon after Uncle Lovat's discharge from the Kimmins High School hospital, I received an Invitation to stay with our friends in Poona. The second largest British army contingent in India was stationed there. The largest British army garrison was at Allahabad. It was in Poona that Mahatma Ghandi and Nehru were Imprisoned during India's struggle for Independence from British colonial rule.

      I will never forget the long bus trip to Poona, during which we passed through numerous Indian villages. Each time the bus stopped all the European passengers, Including myself, were surrounded by Indian beggars, many of them crippled. The sight of these maimed children and emaciated, seriously crippled adults, was very distressing to us. Some people gave a coin just to be relieved of this disturbing company. However, frequently one satisfied beggar attracted many others to a benefactor in the bus. It was impossible to help all those who besieged us. It was claimed that many poverty-stricken parents deliberately crippled their children In infancy to ensure they would be beggars for life and provide them with a constant source of income. I felt much relieved each time the bus moved on.

      In Poona I was met by Auntie Edith and Uncle Reg, who took me by car to their modern apartment In an exclusive area of the city. A new world opened up before my eyes. I was unaccustomed to such comforts and to receiving so much attention as an adopted daughter for a whole week. I slept In a lovely room with an adjoining bathroom. Meals were served on silverware by a waiter (berah), elegantly dressed In a white suite and a white turban. The table was beautifully set with fresh flowers in the centre and attractively folded serviettes. To me this was a real novelty. We went shopping and I was presented with a new dress, a pair of elegant shoes and a small handbag. This was my first shopping experience in a city since we had left Poland. I was completely overwhelmed by the great variety of goods for purchase. Suddenly I felt Important, I was someone who mattered. These people genuinely cared for me and wanted to please me. One evening they took me to the British Army Officers' Club for a meal. I watched in wonder as beautiful young women dressed in brightly coloured silk saris danced with uniformed British servicemen to the music of an excellent band. We talked a great deal. I learned that Auntie Edith had a son named Peter, a daughter-in-law Mary, and five grandchildren In England. Uncle Reg and Auntie Edith hoped to leave for Britain before India became independent on 15th August 1947. I felt most grateful for everything these people had done to make my week with them so enjoyable and memorable and cried when we said good-bye. I did not like leaving them to return to school in Panchgani. We exchanged several letters. Before Auntie Edith's and Uncle Reg's departure for England, they visited us in Panchgani with Uncle Lovat. Uncle Lovat continued to process our applications for Immigration to Australia and New Zealand. Finally, we were granted permits to enter both countries on 29th November 1946. Mother chose New Zealand, where she had friends from Poland in the Polish camp at Pahiatua, Mr. and Mrs. Skwarko with their two children. She wanted to be close to someone she knew well from Poland.

      As the new school year commenced at Panchgani at the end of February 1947, we felt more secure In the knowledge that we had a permit to enter New Zealand to begin our new life. Uncle Lovat, still resident in India, continued to correspond with UNRRA authorities regarding finance for our passages by sea to New Zealand. On 31st May 1947 we received a letter from the Commonwealth Relations Department in New Delhi acknowledging the receipt of our New Zealand entry permit and money from the United Nations Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees. Mother was then advised to obtain an identity certificate from the passport authorities in Bombay, because her pre-war Polish passport was now Invalid. That letter also Informed us that the External Affairs Department of India had authorised the Bombay Passport Issuing Authorities to supply the identity certificate on Mother's application. We complied with that request forthwith.

      The monsoon rains were with us again and we could no longer enjoy our hockey games at the tableland. We played Indoor basketball, badminton and table tennis instead and walked in the rain each afternoon for additional exercise and fresh air. I was now in the sixth class, which was equivalent to Form 4 in New Zealand. Everyone was very glad that we now had the chance of a new life in New Zealand. Miss Pearsall, the school principal, gave Mother a wonderful reference recognising her nursing skills, her efficiency and devotion to the students at Kimmins High School during the 18 months (February 1946-July 1947) she had been employed as the school nurse.

      We left Kimmins High School in Panchgani on 26th July 1947, farewelled by Miss G.E.Pearsall, the staff and students. It was an emotional farewell in the pouring monsoon rain, on a typically gray morning of that wet season. As we boarded the waiting bus for Poona we were conscious of beginning yet another long journey to the unknown world of our future In New Zealand.

      From Poona we traveled by rail to Bombay where we were to await our boat tickets from the English agents, Mackinnon, Mackenzie and Co. of the British India Steam Navigation Co. We had been notified by this company that a passage would be available for us on their cargo ship Chyebassa. which was leaving for Australia in August.

      The Superior of the St. Joseph's Convent High School in Panchgani, Sister Mary Alban. had earlier arranged our stay at the St. Joseph's Catholic Orphanage in Bombay. We remained there for a month from 28th July to 29th August 1947, in a small room used by one of the nuns on the staff. This orphanage catered for some two hundred children of mixed age. including many babies. Most were abandoned children, found on the streets, others were brought to the orphanage by their mothers. The mortality rate among the babies was extremely high. Often, when found by the nuns, they were too emaciated to survive. The sisters baptized them, and cared for them during the final days of their lives.

      The orphans slept on mattresses on the wooden floor, as we had done in earlier years at the Polish orphanage in the USSR and in Iran. This institution brought back memories of our past. Tiny babies occupied canvas bassinettes, older toddlers were placed In cots and playpens which lined both sides of large dormitories. A great number of these unwanted children were the British or Anglo-Indian offspring of unmarried mothers. The Sisters treated us with kindness. We had our meals In the communal dining room with the older children. At that time nuns did not dine with outsiders, In keeping with their convent rules and very strict discipline.

      On 15th August 1947, amid much national rejoicing, India gained its Independence from Britain. The final struggle for sovereignty was led by Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi, who had earned the title of Mahatma (The Great Soul), through his 50 years of struggle to help India's poor, especially the lowest caste, the Untouchables, whom he renamed the Harijans (Children of God).

      During Ghandi's long struggle for independence he had Insisted on non-violence. Some sporadic outbreaks of violence had occurred as Hindus clamoured for self-rule and Muslims likewise wanted self-determination in their own sovereign state. With the final granting of independence the Indian subcontinent was partitioned to create the separate states of India and Pakistan. Muslims, led by Muhammad A. Jinnah were given the new country of Pakistan, a land of 'two wings', one in the Indus Valley and the other in Bengal. now known as Bangladesh, separated by 1,600 km of Indian territory.

      As these two parts with Muslim majorities were torn away from India on 15th August 1947, tensions between Hindus and Muslims erupted into wholesale massacres. The Kashmir state wavered between joining India and Pakistan. Soon after our departure the two countries went to war over the Kashmir issue, which remained unresolved for several years, before Kashmir fell under India's control. Another violent crisis involved the Sikhs of the Punjab state, who also wanted their own separate, Independent nation. This issue festered for years.

      In this atmosphere of unrest and sporadic violence, we seldom ventured outside the St. Joseph's Orphanage during our month there. As Independence Day approached, anti-British sentiment Increased. Europeans were unwanted and were regarded with suspicion by the average Indian. It was unsafe to walk alone in the streets, especially in poorer areas or after dark. On a visit to the Bombay Zoo, we had been suddenly surrounded by a hostile crowd of Indians, some armed with knives, and we had really feared for our lives. We spoke very loudly in Polish to accentuate our non-British origin. After some angry exchanges among the assembled group, people began to disperse and we were left unharmed. We hurriedly returned to the safety of the St. Joseph's Orphanage, and remained there until our departure.

      Soon after that Incident we received our tickets and an embarkation notice for 26th August. Our cargo ship, the Chyebassa sailed from Bombay on the afternoon of 29th August 1947, bound for Australia.

      Before our departure from India, the International Refugees Organisation (IRO) took over the responsibility of Polish Refugees in India and In East Africa, where Polish Refugees’ Camps were gradually liquidated. Families of Polish ex-servicemen were reunit-ed in Britain and the remaining Poles were resettled in Canada and In Australia.
       After the final closure of the Valivade Polish Refugees’ Camp in 1948, Polish Refugees presented the memorial plague in Kolhapur, which commemorates the existence In Kolhapur of the Valivade Polish Refugees’ Camp during 1943 - 1948 and expresses their gratitude to India for the sincere hospitality received.

 

(C) Maria van der Linden

electronic version by:
Roman Antoszewski
Auckland, Titirangi, New Zealand (Nov. 2000)
antora@ihug.co.nz