‘… some damned odd fellows in the earlies.’: Three examples

Truth is stranger than fiction, goes an old cliche. And the well-documented careers of two men in Afghanistan since the early 1800s and then in service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Lion of the Punjab, are strange enough to beggar belief. Northwest India is the last place where you would expect to find people from this young country, at least at that point in time, but I must not give too much away right here.

Let the then Lt. Harry Flashman, inveigled into the political service in India and being sent to Lahore to discuss a key legal issue as part of his cover with the descendants of Ranjit Singh prior to the First Sikh War , introduce them to you….

~~ and to make matters worse, I had dark misgivings about the native assistant Broadfoot had assigned to me – you remember, the “chota-wallah” who was to carry my green bag.

His name was Jassa, and he wasn’t chota. I had envisaged the usual fat babu or skinny clerk, but Jassa was a pck-marked, barrel-chested villain, complete with hairy poshteen (coat), skull cap, and Khyber knife – just the man you’d choose, as a rule, to see you through rough country, but I was leery of this one from the start. For one thing, he pretended to be a Baloochi dervish, and wasn’t – I put him down for Afghan chi-chi (half-caste), for he was grey-eyed, had no greater a gap between his second and third toes than I did, and possessed something rare among Europeans at that time, let alone natives – a vaccination mark. I spotted it at Ferozepore when he was washing at a tank, but didn’t let on; he was from Broadfoot’s stable, after all, and plainly knew his business, which was to act as orderly, guide, shield-on-shoulder, and general adviser on country matters. Still, I didn’t trust him above half…..

That is one, and we must commend Flashman’s eagle eye for spotting the incongruity… Flashman reaches Lahore and is reflecting on some strange things he sees…

~~ But there was something stranger still: I’d just bidden farewell to Sardul’s escort and my jampan, and was being conducted on foot by a yellow-cled officer of the Palace Guard, when I noticed an extraordinary figure lounging in an embrasure above the gate, swigging from an enormous tankard and barking orders at a party of Guardsmen drilling with the light guns on the wall. He was a real Pathan mecenary, with iron moustaches and a nose like a hatchet – but he was dressed from top to toe, puggaree (turban), robe and pyjamys. in the red tartan of the 79th Highlanders! Well, I have seen a Madagascar nigger in a Black Watch kilt, but this beat all. Stranger still, he carried a great metal collar in one hand, and each time before he drank he would clamp it round his throat, almost as though he expected the liquor to leak out through his Adam’s apple.

I turned to remark on this to Jassa – and damnit, he’d vanished.

A little later, after meeting lots of notables, Flashman suddenly gets spooked in the evening dark and with good reason…. he spots a man watching in the courtyard below, runs to the door and sees some men advancing, and also catches a glint of steel. Running back into his room and out of the balcony, he climbs over and somehow hides beneath it, hanging upside down. Its not required but an extra para will enable you get the feel.

~~ I crouched lower, gibbering like an ape, trying to peer under the balcony – God, there was a massive stone bracket supporting it, only inches away! I thrust a foot through it, slipped, and for a ghastly instant was hanging at full stretch before I got one leg crooked over the bracket, made a frantic grab, and found myself clinging to it like a bloody sloth, upside down beneath the balcony, with my fine silk robe billowing beneath me.

I’ve no head for heights, did I tell you? That yawning black void was dragging my mind down, willing to let me go, even as I clung for dear life with locked ankles and sweating fingers – I must drag myself up….

To be continued….

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