The Minute Book
Friday, 11 April 2014

Quetta: The Indian Staff College
Topic: Officers

Quetta: The Indian Staff College

The Road Past Mandalay, John Masters, 1961, pp. 75-77.- quoted in Sword of the Raj, Roger Beaumont, 1977

… The capital of Baluchistan, the encyclopedia informed anyone who wanted to know. A variation of the word kwat-kot, signifying "fortress." (Come now, mind your language there, Britannica.) … 536 miles by rail north of Karachi; 5,500 feet above sea level. Pop.: 60,000 odd. (Not so damned odd, Britannica; just Baluchi tribesmen and army types.) Largely destroyed by earthquake May 31, 1935. Ringed by mountains. Standing eighty miles back from the Afghan frontier. A garrison town. Probably very hot in summer and very cold in winter. A dull place, the encyclopedia hinted.

It was right and wrong. The physical description was correct enough, especially the bit about the cold. The pass leading to Afghanistan is called the Khojak, and a diabolically cold, dry wind often blew in over it, chapping lips and freezing ears and drying the skin so that women poured olive oil into their bath water; and I had seen men and girls in Saint-Moritz clothes skiing down the wide avenues, and a string of camels coming slowly up in the opposite direction, snow on their heavy, supercilious eyelids, and the dark mountains towering out of the slanting snow above them all.

But Quetta was not dull. It was electric. Something in the air produced pregnancy in the childless, nymphomania in the frigid, larceny in the respectable, and scandals of wonderful variety…

There was the Musical Beds Scandal of the mid-1930s, when four officers in a remote outpost had passed three wives around in a year-long orgy—the odd man out, a week at a time, doing all the military work.

There was the Bhoosa Scandal. Bhoosa is chopped, dried straw, usually baled, used for fodder for the army's mules and horses, and the scandal was too complicated to explain here, but it involved two sets of scales, one accurate and one inaccurate, and midnight openings and illegal substitutions among the bhoosa stacks. And the Coal Scandal, when a quartermaster sergeant sold government coal to the local cinema proprietors (what they did with it I cannot imagine; they certainly didn't heat their movie houses), and pocketed the proceeds. And the Car Scandal, involving a chap who registered and insured an old heap as the military vehicle he was entitled to, and got a receipt for a new car, and bought a race horse, and won many races and much money with it. And a girl with unruly hair and disposition, known as the Passionate Haystack; and another as the Lilo (a form of inflatable rubber mattress); and another as the Sofa Cobra. There was a Vice Queen who collected other ladies' husbands and cut a notch in her bedstead for every conquest. No one knew why the bed was still standing.

And a major who leaned forward with a choked grunt at a ceremonial dinner party and hauled out of its shell the left breast of the lady sitting across the table from him. And another who applied for short leave, paid his debts, handed over his job to a brother officer, and shot himself. (His colonel had twice warned him about homosexual advances toward the troops, and told him that the next time he'd go to court martial. The third time had arrived.)

And there were hailstorms of stunning violence, when donkeys lay dead in the streets and camels lay stunned at the edge of the surrounding desert. And flash floods that swept away trucks, guns, and men, if they were caught in the usually dry river beds. And frequent earthquakes. And tremendous chukar shoots on the mountains, duck shoots far to the west, skiing, jackal hunts with the pack of foxhounds, point-to-point races, a race course with regular meetings. And the Staff College.

The Senior Subaltern

Posted by regimentalrogue at 12:01 AM EDT

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