1941 - 1942
Her first account of Calcutta was about a spell in hospital as a result of appendicitis. It may have happened soon after her arrival as the Captain of the ship from Rangoon was amongst a mixed assortment of friends (who) used to come and see me nearly every day.
Silvia’s description of Calcutta Hospital is the first entry in The Faraway War by Richard J Aldrich. He observed that whilst the war still seemed a world away to the residents of India, Silvia was aware of the division that was developing within colonial India concurrently with the division between countries at war all over the world.
When not in hospital, Silvia stayed at a friendly boarding house and at the YWCA. However, with the arrival of more and more soldiers, she realised that the war was getting too close for comfort, so she headed inland and went to Darjeeling Hill Station in 1942.
Initially she stayed in a frightful hotel, where they gave me a dilapidated hen-coop to sleep in. Then I moved to a rather grim convent school, where they take in a few paying guests. She met some weird and wonderful missionaries in the convent and she could walk to the Bazaar. Darjeeling was a most enchanting Fancy-Dress kind of place, with Tibetans, Lamas and Nepali women all wearing their colourful outfits.
In March, in order to travel further inland, she set off on a five day journey to Kashmir by train and mail-bus via Lahore, Pindi and Uri, eventually reaching Srinagar. She stayed variously in boarding-houses, a cottage and with a friend called Caroline who used to sell Kashmiri wares to dealers in London and New York.
She describes the ways of the Kashmiri servants, clergy, missionaries, the shops, a betrothal celebration at the Residency – attended by the Maharajah, and a purdah party at Srinagar Girls’ School. She enjoys the shikaras which like the gondolas of Venice, seem to be made for dalliance and relishes being in one, during a Spring festival, on Dal Lake. She camps with friends in a wild mountain place near Gulmarg and goes on a houseboat to Ningal which was beautiful beyond words in the early morning. She is haunted by the bright green weeds, trailing olive roots in the turquoise-blue water (which) made a pattern like a Japanese brocade. I gaze and gaze and feel troubled by this intolerable beauty. It seems to make demands on me.
She remembers a night in Srinagar, when she was in one of her nightly panics, hearing the steps of imaginary burglars and afraid to breathe, when suddenly the orioles and doves began to sing and complain in unison. Morning had come, all the horrors vanished and I slept.
Sometime in 1943 (prior to Lent) her journal jumps to Dinner at Poona (formerly a garrison town for the British Army). Silvia shared a meal with some young soldiers including a captain in the Indian Army; (did he know her brother Peter I wonder?). She must have travelled from Srinagar back to Calcutta and then had an ‘appalling three-day journey’ to Poona.
She lodged at a boarding house run by Mrs Izzy who was an energetic and talkative Anglo-Indian. One Sunday evening, they prepared for riots because of the possibility that Gandhi, who was under house arrest at the Aga Khan Palace, might be dying at the end of a fast. There was desultory firing in the city overnight but, come the morning, Gandhi was still alive and the tension relaxed.
She muses that when I think of Poona, in years to come, I shall remember white goats, bullock-carts, women in wine-coloured or purple saris, and flowery compounds with low white walls.
1943 - 1944
At some point, in unbearable heat, she takes the train from Poona to Delhi. There is not indication as to why she went all the way to Delhi nor where she stayed; but there is a reference to seeing a snake-charmer for the first time giving her a real taste of the old India.
A couple of pages later she was on her way to Bombay. Apparently, she went by train via Pindi and Lahore in a carriage full of Indian girls in Punjabi dress. (However, the route doesn’t make sense, unless she first made an unrecorded journey from Delhi to the Punjab). From Lahore, she travelled in the company of an educated Indian Muslim whose women-folk were living virtually in the Middle Ages. It would have been a very long journey but by the time they reached Bombay they were quite friendly and sorry to say goodbye.
Silvia lived in a Vicarage for several months in a suburb which served a parish consisting mainly of Eurasians. The Vicar (Herbert) had a beautiful head and was crazy about animals; his wife (Mabel) was a very attractive woman, highly intelligent, charming in appearance and devoted to her husband but she was married to a saint. It was the same thing as if she had been married to a genius. Her husband’s life was dedicated. Silvia reminisces with wry amusement about a pet crow, stray cats, parishioners, the servants, a fun fair, and the Curate who was hoping to marry a young missionary based in Burma.
In the evenings, Silvia would visit the Apollo Bunder, the Gateway of India, where there was a cooling sea-breeze. She would watch and draw the people who passed her by, making notes of the colours that the women wore. One of her drawings was of two young girls in lime-green, wearing pink velvet-spangled caps and dragging between them a purple crocodile. I am not sure who is the more eccentric – Silvia or the two girls…! She also paid a visit to Goa.
In October 1944, she finally left Bombay for the UK. She sailed on the Chinese Prince (Prince Line) in the charge of an entertaining Captain and First Officer. There was the usual storm in the Bay (?Biscay) but it was bliss to sail smoothly up the Mersey and know one was home again. After her six year odyssey, she reached Liverpool on 16th November. By the time she arrived at Euston Station, however, it was nearly midnight. The station hotel was full and this meant that she had to search for a bed for the night – in the black-out!
On her travels, whilst constantly staying in hotels and hostels, she had a recurring dream of finding a studio in which to live, near the River Thames in Chelsea. In the event, this is exactly what she found! It was approximately the size of St Paul’s Cathedral; the furniture consisted of a skeleton called Joanna, twenty-nine chairs, a bed and half a cupboard – the other half being filled with the impedimenta of my two landladies. The landladies were sisters, beautiful to look at and deeply versed in occult lore. I called them the White Witches.
In due course, she went back to the zoo to draw some more animals and sought out her favourite keeper. She told him she had been round the world. Round the world – alone – whatever for? But Silvia didn’t have an answer…