By N.A. Bhatti
September 1, 2000
In my fortnightly column The Sardarji humour I narrated that I was faced with a situation in which my military career hung on a very delicate thread: whether I would be bold enough to relate a Sikh joke to the President of the Inter Services Selection Board who had asked me to do so during the final and crucial interview. A few days after the publication of the article, a friend asked me, while discussing the subject of hobbies, whether my life ever depended on a hobby. I replied yes and I related the circumstances of this unusual experience to him. In case you are interested, you’ll have to go back in space and time: Christmas Day in Hong Kong 1941.
The Japanese who had entered World War II on December 7, 1941, by bombing Pearl Harbour and sinking the cream of the US Pacific fleet anchored in Hawaii, went for Hong Kong the next day and captured it from the British on Christmas day 1941. The Indians – as we all were in those days – were divided into two categories: prisoners of war (slides of the British Indian regiments garrisoned in Hong Kong) and civilians like us, who were subjects of an enemy country but were non-combatants. While Indian POWs were put into camps behind barbed wire, we were termed “Third Nationals” and were free to roam anywhere we liked but to stay within the territory of Hong Kong.
Hundreds of civilians fled by night after paying Chinese guides to lead them into “Free China” by circuitous routes from where they could enter India via Burma (now Myanmar). Several were captured on suspicion of attempting to escape and put into a high security prison for varying terms. I happened to be one of them and found myself in a jail within a jail! Sentenced for one year in prison.
Prison formalities being over – change from civilian into prisoner’s uniform, deposit of personal effects, allocation of official number, clean shave of the head by the prison barber, and allotment of cell – the most critical stage came when a Japanese prison officer allotted the trade a prisoner was to follow throughout his sentence. The prison and several workshops for prisoners who, in ordinary life, were electricians, blacksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, rope makers, printers and carpenters. Those who did not know an specific work were sent to the road gang to dig roads, trenches, vegetable gardens and sweep the prison. Average expectation of life in a road gang: six months. In a prison workshop: whole period of sentence.
Came the fateful moment on which hinged my expectation of life this side of eternity.
“Prisoner 733!” shouted the Japanese interpreter, a Chinese
“Know any profession?” he continued in English.
“Baka!” (“Fool!”) yelled Sergeant Tanaka.
I being the last in line had a sinking feeling that it was going to be the road gang for me as well as the end of the road. In almost every human being’s life, there comes a moment when he is confronted with a situation where all hope is lost but then a flash of inspiration descends from Allah, God, Jehovah or any of the hundreds of names by which he is called.
Sergeant Tanaka was rising from his chair and adjusting his sword belt before leaving when, almost in desperation, I shouted:
“I’m a carpenter too!”
The interpreter passed this on to the sergeant who sneered “E-e-e-e-h!” To the best of his knowledge, Indians in Hong Kong were policemen, watchmen and money lenders, but here was a chap claiming to be a carpenter. OK, let’s call his bluff.
He passed some orders that were conveyed to me by the interpreter:
“Sergeant Tanaka says you are to be tested for carpentry in the workshop. And if you fail, you know what will happen to you?”
Dramatically, he passed his forefinger across his throat, accompanied by a “sheeeeet!” and he led me into the carpenter’s shop.
“Oh yes, Sergeant Tanaka wants six clothes-hangers by 3pm. Tomorrow,”:
he said before leaving me with Lal Chok the workshop foreman, doing 10 years for possessing a shortwave radio set as I learned later on.
Lal Chok spoke broken English.
“You really carpenter? Not speak truly, ‘sheeeet’, you savvy?”
And he made the same ominous gesture of a Japanese sword slicing through a human neck.
I nodded my head and said: “I savvy” (Pigeon Chinese for “I understand”). I was shown my work bench and tool rack and the timber neatly piled in a corner. Lal Chok looked sad and once again asked: “You truly savvy?” (“You really understand?”). I nodded again and set about selecting the material I considered suitable for making clothes hangers for Sergeant Tanaka. I didn’t blame him for not knowing that carpentry had been one of my hobbies ever since I was in primary school. Only a half-truth, you might call it, as I was only an amateur, but nevertheless a carpenter.
The next morning Foreman Lal Chok inspected my work and smiled approvingly. Sergean Tanaka swaggered into the carpentry shop and headed for my work bench along with the interpreter. I was putting the finishing touches of varnish to the coat hangers, one of which he picked up and inspected critically. He blinked in surprise.
“Omae wa hoontoni Indojin deuka?” (“Are you really Indian?”)
I nodded in admission and held my breath for the decision.
“Omoshiroi desu ne!” (“Interesting!”)
He rattled off something, gave an almost imperceptible smile, and barged out of the carpentry shop, the interpreter carrying the coat hangers still sticky with their varnish coating! I almost leaped with relief. I had passed the test.
I spent 11 months in the prison, having got one month’s remission for good conduct. This carried with it a chevron stitched on to the uniform – called by prisoners ‘big rice’ as the wearer got a second helping of rice at meal times – and permission for two visits every quarter instead of the normal one visit by relatives with tins of biscuits, panjeeri and other tidbits. Yum yum!
Life in the carpentry shop was far easier than in other parts of the prison, in fact almost luxurious. You can’t rush a carpenter, can you, even if he chooses to enjoy a bit of malingering by merely pretending to sharpen a blunt sawblade or a chisel.
The most unpleasant job I was ever ordered to do was to make a wooden cross to which they secured young USAF Lieutenant David P. Houck to be shot, since he had piloted a Mustang fighter that had escorted a Superfortress bomber to bomb Hong Kong but had been shot down and captured while parachuting to safety. How did I know? I also worked as English clerk in the prison office when there was no work in the carpentry shop!
Moral of the story: Adopt a hobby of some kind or the other. You never can tell where and when it might even save your life, as it did in my case.