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Round the Bend: Pages 201 through 210

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  • Round the Bend: Pages 201 through 210


    ROUND the BEND
    Nevil Shute, 1951

    ```(annotated and with added blue highlights by al-Brunardot)

    CHAPTER SEVEN

    201

    "Surely," she said gently. "I live in a house owned by a very respectable old man, Mutluq bin Aamir; he's a silk merchant. He's a great devotee of Connie and he knew my father. And Gujar Singh lives only just across the way."

    "You'll be all right there, living alone, after your brother's gone?"

    "Of course,"
    she said, smiling a little. "I should never come to any harm down there."

    If she was happy about going on there alone I didn't see that I could raise any objection; moreover, I didn't know of anywhere else where she could live any better. I asked her, "How are you for Arabic? Can you get along without your brother?"

    She nodded. "I'm learning it. I can ask for all the ordinary things now, and anyway, lots of the people know a little English. Really, I shall be quite all right. You don't have to worry about me."

    I couldn't press it any more. "Well, of course, I'll be very glad if you can stay," I said. I sat in silence for a minute. "It's going to be a big loss when your brother goes," I said quietly. "Things have gone very smoothly under him."

    "And under you," she said.

    "I mean, in the hangar. I've had nothing much to do with the ground engineers since he came."

    "I know," she said. "But under you, he has been able to teach people in his own way. When Connie started talking his religion over the fifty hour schedules and the daily inspections, not everybody would have allowed it to go on. You must have been very puzzled sometimes."

    "Yes," I said. "I was."

    "Because you saw virtue in his way of teaching engineers to do their work you let him go on in his own way, although it was not an English or an American way. If the results are good, a share in it is yours." She paused. "His way has spread a long, long way from here, and may spread further. Engineers worship in the hangar in his way in Rangoon and Bangkok, in Karachi and in Abadan." She paused again, and then repeated, "And it may go further."

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    There was a long silence. "What is this thing, Nadezna?" I asked at last. "Is it a new religion?"

    "What is a religion?"

    I was silent. I couldn't answer that one.

    "As I see it," she said thoughtfully, "it's a way of life that brings men to worship through their work, who wouldn't worship in the old-fashioned way. If that's what a religion is, I suppose this is one. But does it matter what we call it?"

    I shook my head. "The only thing is to accept it, and just see what happens. After all, there isn't any harm in it."

    "No harm at all," she said. "Only a lot of good."

    There was a tension in Bahrein in those last days before we left for Bali. I wrote a note to Major Hereward telling him what I proposed to do, and I got a short and not unfriendly reply in acknowledgment. I did not see him again before we left, nor did Connie. On the Friday Connie asked for a Proctor to go over to the Sheikh of Khulal at Baraka, and Gujar flew him over; nothing seemed to happen as a result of that. Years later Gujar Singh told me that the visit had averted a major clash between the Sheikh and the Resident, and Johnson of the Arabia-Sumatran once hinted at the same thing. But at the time I knew nothing of all that.

    There were more worshippers than ever at the sunset prayers outside of the hangar in those last few days. Each evening more bus loads of men arrived from the souk and the surrounding district; on the last evening before we took off for Bali there must have been nearly five hundred people there, including the Imam, who led the Rakats. I know I counted eleven buses parked by the roadside, and some of them had made more than one journey. Many of these people were what in Bahrein would pass as intellectuals, grave, white-bearded old men in flowing Arab clothes. But with them there were men who had to do with things mechanical; every taxi driver and every truck driver in the district must have been there, and men from the waterworks and from the refineries, and from the electrical power station. We had a failure of the power supply that night.

    There was no demonstration, and no sign of any emotion. They came and lined up for their prayers outside the hangar with the

    203

    Imam leading in the motions of the Rakats.
    They went through it all as I had seen them do so many times before, only now there were far more of them. None of them seemed to pay any attention to Connie and the other non-Moslems kneeling apart, and after it was over they went back to their buses and got into them; the engines started up and the old vehicles moved off. There were no speeches, no farewells, no protests or debate. Watching this from a distance, I was vaguely uneasy. It seemed unnatural that if they loved him well enough to come out of the town to pray with him, that they should go so quietly. It didn't seem right to me, but then, I reflected, I knew nothing really about the East.

    We loaded up the Tramp before dawn next day. There were eleven great metal rods that I was told were drills, each about six inches in diameter and nine feet long, swathed in sacking; these weighed together about four tons. There were five passengers from the Arabia-Sumatran, one of whom was getting off in Central Burma and two at Diento; the other two were going through to the East Alligator River with the drills. Then there was Arjan Singh as pilot and myself as co-pilot, and Connie and Phinit travelling with us to Bali. All told, we had a pretty full load, even for a Tramp.

    We took off for Karachi with the first light, and I left everything to Arjan Singh, only flying the machine myself while he was at the navigator's table. The route eastwards was becoming a well-worn track to me by that time, but my pilots had flown it less frequently, and I was anxious for them to get in the maximum experience. We went up to about ten thousand feet in dusty air conditions, so that it was difficult to see the ground or sea except immediately below, and navigated by radio; we got fixes from Bahrein and Sharjah till we were well past Bandar Abbas, and soon after that we picked up the broadcasting station at Karachi and began to home on that, getting a few cross bearings from Jiwani as we passed.

    We began to lose height when we were half an hour out from Karachi. The dust haze was quite thick and Arjan had to be on the job of piloting the whole time. To help him I relieved him of the radio work, and picked up the microphone and called the

    204

    airport to announce our arrival in their zone. "Karachi Tower, this is George Able Nan How Victor, from Bahrein. E.T.A. one one five zero, Zebra. Over."

    A high-pitched, Pakistani voice speaking clipped English acknowledged the call and cleared us into the zone. I laid the microphone down and told Arjan; I kept the headphones on and the set going, on a listening watch. And a couple of minutes later they came through again.

    "George Able Nan How Victor, this is Karachi Tower," said the Control officer. His English was not very easy to understand. "Is . . . on board your aircraft? Over,"

    I could not get the missing words, and asked him to repeat. This time he spoke more clearly and distinctly. "Is Mr. Shak Lin on board your aircraft?"

    "Karachi Tower," I said, "Roger. Shak Lin is on board."

    "How Victor, Roger. Thank you. Out."

    One cannot ask questions about non-essential matters on the radio, and it was difficult to understand the Control officer on any but the standard routine calls. I sat wondering, uneasy, for a few minutes; then I passed the microphone to Arjan and got out of my seat, and went down the ladder to the cabin and to Connie, seated behind the load. "Karachi Tower have just asked if you were on board," I said. "Are they expecting you?"

    He shook his head. "Not that I know of."

    "Well," I observed, "they are."

    "Somebody must have got on the blower from Bahrein," he said. He meant the radio telephone that connects the aerodromes all down the eastern route; the operators are talking to each other all the time.

    I nodded. "Thought you'd like to know."

    "Thanks."

    I went back to the cockpit and slipped into my seat again. Arjan knew the Karachi district very well and found the airship hangar without difficulty in the thick haze, and we got cleared for landing as we passed down wind, and put down on the one long runway, and taxied to the Control tower. As we swung round into wind and stopped the engines, I saw brown men in overalls

    205

    running towards us down the tarmac
    from the hangars. I pointed them out to Arjan Singh.

    He nodded. "I think they know that Shak Lin is with us."

    I slipped down into the cabin and went first to the door. When I opened it, the first man I saw was Salim, the Pakistani ground engineer who had been with us at Bahrein, and who had left to take a job with Sind Airways here in Karachi. I said, "Hullo, Salim. How goes it?"

    "I am very well, Mr. Cutter, thank you," he replied. "Mr. Cutter, is Shak Lin with you?"

    "He's here," I said. "Do you want to see him?"

    "Oh, yes. Many, many people here want to see him."

    I got out of the machine. "Don't keep him too long, Salim," I said. "We've got to go on as soon as we've refuelled. I'm going through to Ahmedabad today."

    "May we have one hour?" he said. There was a considerable crowd behind him now, brown men in oil-stained overalls, and more were coming up. "It is important to us, Mr. Cutter. Just one hour."

    It would take us most of that time to get refuelled and get the necessary clearances from the Control. I glanced at my watch. "All right." My watch was all wrong of course, and I glanced at the airport clock. And then there was a low murmur from the crowd, and several of the men touched their foreheads. I turned, and Connie was standing behind me in the door. I said, "Connie, I want to take off in about an hour. Let's say three, o'clock, local time by that clock. Salim here wants you."

    He nodded. "Okay. I shall be ready."

    He got out of the aircraft and went away towards the hangars with Salim and the crowd, and from the airport building officials in blue uniforms, customs officers perhaps, or bus drivers, came out and went with them, making a small stream of people down the tarmac in the brilliant sun.

    The Shell refuelling truck arrived and Arjan Singh gave them the instructions, and we left Phinit in charge and went up to the Control office with the documents and log books. I knew the Controller slightly from previous visits; he was a lean, brown Pakistani who had been in the Royal Indian Air Force in the war.

    206

    His name was Khalil. He smiled when he saw me and I offered him a cigarette, and we smoked together while Arjan got on with the job with one of his assistants.

    He asked, "You are taking off again at once?"

    "In an hour. My chief engineer is with me, Mr. Shak Lin, and they want to see him in the hangar. Was I speaking to you about him on the R/T?"

    "Not to me personally," he said, "but I passed the message. The men down there, especially those working for Sind Airways, wanted to know very much if he was coming."

    "They know about him here, do they?"


    He smiled. "Oh, yes, they know about him. We call his method here the New Maintenance. It seems to be a system which maintains an aeroplane according to ethical principles, so far as I can understand it. Is that right?"

    "I'm blowed if I know,"
    I said. "My men have all been very devout since Shak Lin came to work for me, and the maintenance has been first class. I've let it go at that."

    "That is what the managing director of Sind Airways tells me, that the men have become devout and the work has greatly improved." He hesitated. "Some of my staff go down sometimes to the hangar for the sunset prayers," and though he would not admit it to an infidel like me, I knew that he was telling me that he was in the habit of going himself. "I think it is a very good thing."

    "I think it is," I said. I left Arjan Singh to get the met. report and clearances for Ahmedabad, and went down to the restaurant for a quick meal. There was a chap there called Harrison who had been a pilot in Alamaza during the war; he was working for a small charter company operating from Bombay now; I knew him slightly, and went over to talk to him.

    "My word, Cutter," he said, "your G.E.'s have started something, haven't they?"

    "I don't interfere with what they do,
    " I said. "If Asiatics like to say their prayers, it's not for us to try and stop it."

    "All going round the bend, if you ask me," he said. "You can't get a thing done up here until they've said a prayer or two, and now it's starting in Bombay. I came in yesterday in a Commuter,

    207

    and she was missing a bit on the front bank, so I took her in to Sind Airways for a plug change. It was like being in a bloody church."

    "Did they do the plug change all right?"

    "Oh, they did that. They found one or two cowling cracks, too, that our lazy muggers down in Bombay hadn't noticed. They're quite a good crowd in Sind Airways, if it wasn't for all this religious nonsense. I think they've come on a lot lately."


    Connie did not keep me waiting. He came back down the tarmac punctually at the end of the hour with a crowd of forty or fifty engineers tagging along behind him as he walked with Salim. There was no ceremony and no trouble as he got into the machine; he paused in the door and looked back at them with that wonderful smile he had, and then he was lost to their view in the cabin. The rest of us got in and shut the door, and Arian and I got up into the cockpit, and started up the engines, and taxied out for the take-off to Ahmedabad.

    We stopped there for the night, and took off next day just before dawn, landing for fuel at Calcutta about midday. Nothing much happened there, and we took off again for Rangoon after an hour, and flew down the coast of Arakan past Akyab and Ramree in the evening. Passing Sandoway I went down into the cabin to talk to Connie.

    I squatted down beside him on the load. "I'm night-stopping at Mingladon," I said. "We shall find U Myin there, probably." He nodded. "He's with B.N.A."

    "He'll want to see you." I paused. "Do you know anything about an old man called U Set Tahn?"

    "The English monk?"

    "That's right," I said. "U Myin took me to see him once. If he's alive still, he'll be very anxious to meet you. I was wondering how this would be. We're night-stopping tonight at Mingladon and going up to Yenanyaung tomorrow with this chap who's getting off there, and picking up two more bodies for Diento. I'm reckoning to be back at Mingladon tomorrow night and on to Diento next day, fuelling at Penang. Would you like to have the day off in Rangoon? There's no sense in you coming with us to Yenanyaung unless you want to."

    208

    He said, "I'd like that, if you're sure you won't need me. I'd like to meet U Set Tahn."

    "I shan't need you," I said. "There's quite a bit going on here in your line; U Myin's introduced a lot of your ideas from what I can make out. Have a talk with the chief engineer, Moung Bah Too, if you can manage it. He's a very good type."

    I went back to the cockpit to my job. We cut in over the Arakan Yoma at a point just south of Sandoway and made from Rangoon across the Irrawaddy delta. The sun set before we came in sight of the city, and we put down at Mingladon airfield in the dusk and taxied to a parking place. We spent the night at the rest house upon the aerodrome.

    I left Connie in the rest house when I got my party out at four in the morning for a cup of coffee in the restaurant and a dawn take-off for Yenanyaung. It's only an hour's flight or so and we landed in time for breakfast. I could have got back to Mingladon by noon and gone on to Bangkok that day, but I didn't want to hurry Connie in his conference with U Set Tahn, and I had promised him the day. I stalled a bit at Yenanyaung and was glad when one of the passengers asked if he had time to go to the head office there. So we stayed there on the airstrip all the morning, and had lunch from what we carried with us in the aircraft, and took off for Rangoon at about one o'clock and landed back at Mingladon in the middle of the afternoon.

    As we taxied in I could see there was a considerable crowd on the tarmac round the entrance to the Burmese National Airways hangar; there seemed to be a rope barrier keeping a clear space upon the tarmac in front of the building. We parked the aircraft and I sent my passengers to the rest house, and set to work with Arjan Singh and Phinit to get the Tramp refuelled and ready for the morning.

    I sent Phinit to make contact with the fuel manager and get the petrol bowser up to the machine. He came back presently without it. "No driver," he said. "Drivers and fuel men all over at the hangar, listen to Shak Lin. Manager says, in one hour, will that do?"

    It would have to. "Shak Lin's over there now, is he?"

    209

    He nodded. "Many pongyis there too, very holy men." He hesitated. "May I go?"

    There was little for him to do till the bowser came. "All right. Find the bowser driver, and bring him back here in an hour's time."

    He went running off to join the crowd. I finished cleaning up the aircraft with Arjan and then, twenty minutes later, I strolled down myself to see what was going on at the B.N.A. hangar. There was an old Anson parked outside it. Connie was standing up upon the wing of this and talking to the crowd. There were several pongyis, monks in the yellow robe, standing by the wing, and in one of them I recognized the old man I.had visited in his ashram, U Set Tahn, at one time Colonel Maurice Spencer of the R.A.S.C.

    I stood on the outskirts of the crowd, but they were so massed I could not hear what he was saying. He was speaking in English; I could hear that much, and in the crowd of Karens and Burmese and Chinese and Indians there was a good deal of whispered translation going on, which made a low hubbub drowning all but a few sentences of what he was saying. He was impressive, standing up there on the Anson wing, speaking quietly, with that wonderful smile he had.

    I had not seen him quite like that before. Looking up at him silhouetted against the sky, it struck me suddenly how very thin he had become. He had always been a lean man but now, and from that point of view, he looked almost emaciated.
    It was a good thing, perhaps, that he had left the Persian Gulf for the milder and more generous climate of the isle of Bali. Two years of the desert seemed to have taken a good deal out of him. I wondered vaguely if it had not taken a good deal out of me.

    I couldn't hear, and so I turned away and walked around outside the crowd. On the other side of the Anson I met Moung Bah Too, the chief engineer of the airline. He recognized me, and came towards me with a smile.

    "I'm sorry about this," I said quietly, indicating Connie on the Anson wing. "It seems to have stopped work a bit."

    He shook his head. "I allowed it. We heard that Shak Lin was to come through here four days ago, and I arranged a holiday.

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    We are treating it as a duty day." He meant, as if it was a Sunday.

    He paused. "It is a great honour," he said quietly. "He is a very wonderful man."

    "I've only just come up," I replied. "What has he been talking about?"

    He said, "He took as his thesis the Mingala-thut, our sermon on the Beatitudes," he said. "He took the words of the Buddha in the list of the blessed things, that a man ought to hear and see much in order to acquire knowledge, and to study all science that leads not to sin. He has been saying that in studying the stresses and the forces in the structure of an aircraft, the thermodynamics of an engine or the flow of current in the oscillating circuits of a radio transmitter, we are but following the injunctions of Guatama who said expressly that we were to learn these things. The world is full of suffering and pain caused by our wrong desires and hatreds and illusions, and only knowledge can remove these causes of our suffering. . . ." He paused.

    He listened for a moment. "Please forgive me," he said. "It may be years before he comes this way again." And he left me and pressed through the crowd towards the Anson.

    I stood on the outskirts of the crowd and listened, and for a few sentences I could hear him plainly. "You know that aeroplanes do not crash of themselves," he was saying. "You are intelligent men. You do not think there is a jealous God who stretches out a peevish hand to take an aeroplane and throw it to the ground. Aeroplanes come to grief because of wrong cravings and wrong hatreds and illusions in men's hearts. One of you may say, 'I have not got the key to the filler of the oil tank. I cannot find it. I looked yesterday and there was plenty of oil. It is probably all right today.' So accidents are born, and pain and suffering and grief come to mankind because of the sloth of men. . . ." His voice was lost in the murmurs of the crowd.

    It was the same message that he had preached so often in the hangar at Bahrein, that the maintenance of aeroplanes demanded men of a pure and holy life, men who would turn from the temptations of the flesh to serve their calling first. Here the message was transmuted into terms of Buddhism, but it was the same
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