Every Christmas it came with the inscription “Across the Miles” scrawled across a corner of the envelope in that inimitable hand, a kind of forward-slanted print with its characteristic serifs ornamenting several letters. Jack Bond’s greetings had arrived at my parents’ house ever since I could remember, along with other cards from the UK where many of my father’s family had settled.
When I entered my teens I wondered who he was, this English gentleman with a spy’s name; obviously not a member of the family amid the D’Souza’s and Fernandes’s and Da Cruz’s, all of them part of the expatriate Diaspora that had originated in the Portuguese colony of Goa and then dispersed to Zanzibar, Aden, and, after Indian independence, to England. Besides, this was one of the few cards that had “Par Avion” emblazoned across the front; many of our relatives mailed their cards the cheaper way by sea, which meant they wrote them some time at the beginning of November.
One December I noticed my mother writing a letter to enclose with the card and asked her about this Jack Bond.
“He’s an English tommy; a soldier.”
“Really?” I said, with growing excitement. Maybe his name wasn’t just a coincidence after all; my young mind clung to all kinds of possibilities. Who was this war hero with the romantic name and why was my mother writing letters to him when all she sent to the relatives were cards with their names?” Actually, that wasn’t quite true, for she often added little notes filled with familial tidbits.
Over the years I was able to piece together the story about Jack Bond. While World War II was raging in Europe, the Japanese were advancing in Southeast Asia, leading to the Burma Front. Britain’s soldiers on their way to the conflict stopped over in Bombay to await further orders, for India was still a British colony. Many of them knew they might not make it back, so they made the most of their time in this Grande Dame of Indian cities at its myriad watering-holes or its sports fields or at the movies. My father Frank was a sports reporter with the Times of India and that is how he met Jack Bond. He invited Jack and a couple of his friends to the Times press and gave them a firsthand look at the working of a newspaper office and printing press.
Years later my dad would take me and my siblings to the office where I would chat in person with famous sports reporters and journalists and read the AP and Reuter wires on the Creed printer. I always felt special perusing the incoming tape as though I was the first person in the city to catch the latest news, which, in a sense, I was! Then to spend time in the case-room and watch the compositors at work on the linotype where huge masses of silver lead melted into the machine and emerged as a fully cast line of text. I would wonder at my father’s ability to read the page, with its reverse dark-leaden text, as fluently as he read the printed sheet. I hoped Jack Bond and his friends had relished as I did the smells of the glue and newsprint and ink in those pre-computer days when printing a newspaper was a collaboration between so many craftsmen. Anyway, Jack and dad met many times and became good friends, swapping stories in the bars of downtown Bombay.
Eventually Jack was shipped off to the guerilla warfare in the Burmese jungles where he also battled tropical conditions of rain, heat, and disease. There were heavy losses among British and Indian soldiers. Jack was wounded and treated at the military base, but carried a piece of shrapnel in his chest for the rest of his life. Back in Bombay he contacted dad with traumatic stories of his experiences, including one about his friend being shot by a sniper as they sat side by side in the jungle, something that affected him deeply every time he thought about it.
All this I gleaned from my mother Doreen; my father rarely spoke to us about his relationship with Jack, which was odd because he was a wonderful raconteur with a trove of stories about sports and celebrities and politics, particularly after a few drinks. He was normally a somewhat taciturn man but had a wicked wit and a warm sense of humor; once the drinks flowed he regaled every company, for no-one in his circle of friends or family possessed so diverse a set of life experiences—as a first-rate sportsman in his youth and then a journalist before and after Indian Independence.
His eldest brother Simon was also a journalist, an editor with a daily column that was savored throughout Bombay, as well as a fine arts critic who hobnobbed with the glitterati of this film capital of India. Between the two brothers were four other siblings but it was these two who were the spinners of tall tales about Indian film stars and interviews with famous personages as diverse as W.H. Auden, Anna Pavlova, Amelita Galli-Curci, Lou Thesz, and John Barrymore, the latter somewhat of a legend in the family for he had once visited their flat for an 8-hour gin-drinking binge!! These tales were relished at family gatherings and speakeasies and handed down as heirlooms to the next generation, sacred relics that could never be stolen but had to be displayed, which I eagerly did (as I do now) throughout my travels, all the way from India to the Middle East and America.
“So, why do you write to Jack Bond, Mum?” I asked my mother several years after that first conversation.
“Because daddy won’t and someone has to.”
“Why does someone have to?“
“Because it’s rude not to. He wrote twice. The first time your father promised to, but you know how he is…says he writes all day for a living and so he shouldn’t have to when he comes home.” She laughed, affectionately. “So I write now.”
“Do you know him, mummy?” Now I found this rather interesting.
“No, I’ve never met him. He was daddy’s wartime friend. I met daddy after the war.”
“So what do you know about him?“
“Quite a lot now after all these years. He has a daughter Jackie.”
I came to learn that when Jack Bond returned to England after the War he wrote to the Sports Department of The Times of India, asking for the whereabouts of Frank Pereira whom he had met when he was stationed there. They gave the letter to my dad, who decided to reply. But one thing led to another and, as my mum put it, if you don’t do it immediately it gets shelved—the letter was never written. When my dad retired from The Times he took a contract job for a short stint in the north-western city of Ahmedabad. A second letter arrived at the Sports desk from Jack to dad. This time my mother took it upon herself to reply. And so began an annual correspondence between her and Jack Bond. He sent us a photograph of himself and his wife and daughter and asked for one of our family, which delighted him and which, he said, would stay on his mantle.
My mother is an excellent writer with a Keatsian eye for the kind of chatty details sprinkled with acute observations that elevate letter-writing to an art. It wouldn’t have mattered that she had never met Jack—her narratives about what’s going on around her and matter-of-fact, pithy comments are delightful to anyone who has been on the fortunate end of them. On reading Jack’s Christmas cards with their little notes I realized her letters were a treat to this English family, for he replied with the deep affection one reserves for intimate friends. And so it continued through the years, this annual correspondence between an English tommy and an Indian woman he had never met. Some years the letters were shorter than others. I find it amusing that my father, the journalist, never wrote to his friend, but he did read the cards and letters that arrived from England; sometimes mother read them to him.
After dad died, mum wrote to Jack and received a letter of condolence from him. He even wrote that he had tried telephoning us, but (in yet another amusing footnote to this interesting tale), unable to find our number (we didn’t have a telephone at the time), had used our Pin Code (zip code) instead!! A decade later, with her children dispersed across the globe my mother embarked on her international peregrinations and found herself visiting friends and family in England. Jack Bond’s telephone number was acquired and she called him. He was ill and in bed, but his wife gave him the telephone and they chatted for the first time, these two international correspondents joined by words of greetings and memories that began long before they knew each other. It was a warm conversation, I’m told, but they couldn’t meet, for she was in Watford and he in Manchester. When I decided to write this piece I asked my mother to refresh my memory and many of these words and sentences are hers.
A decade later, Jack Bond passed away. I wonder if he and my dad picked up their part of the conversation over a pint. His daughter Jacqueline wrote to mum to tell her the news and said that as her father had sent us Christmas cards every year, she would like to continue the practice. And so it endures—every year my mother (who now lives in Canada and the U.S.) receives a Christmas card from England with the words “Across the Miles” scrawled upon the envelope!! Greetings between people who have never met!
I think one of these days I will join the conversation!