Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Staying on the level in India

A Street Person of Bombay

In January 1953, I was employed to make a detailed hydrographic chart of Bombay harbour in India.  I flew out by Air India in company with two civil engineers and a land surveyor.
 As our plane approached Bombay some type of official landing declaration forms were handed out to be filled in by the passengers.  As George Macdonald, the land surveyor, and I were licking our pencils at this task one of the most  graceful of the Indian female flight attendants —there was absolutely no doubt about her delicious gender—came over, looked at our forms, then said: “What are you doing? These forms are not for you, they’re only for foreign people".  And she tore them up.  
It was, and still is, one of the nicest things ever said to me.
January or not, as we stepped down from the aircraft tropical warmth enveloped us.  We gathered our many boxes of instruments and other equipment and drove to the army officers’ mess at Colaba at the tip of the Bombay peninsula.  There we were each apportioned a venerable and spacious room and bath in shaded and peaceful quarters still steeped in the ambience of the lately departed Imperial Raj.
My job, to produce a hydrographic chart or, in this case, a hydrographic engineering plan, meant I had to show all the shoreline features in relation to the varying harbour depths running out to the deep water in the middle of the harbour.
Prominent features included Mazagon Dock, Ocean Pier, the Gateway to India monument, a nuclear research station, an Indian naval establishment and several busy city streets teeming with an exceedingly high-density population.

The proposed engineering work was to take several years to complete.  As much of it was for the benefit of the Indian navy I was happy to get their full co-operation and the use of their facilities and workshops to carry out my marine survey.  George Macdonald was busy verifying the topographical features and triangulation network on shore and as our jurisdictions met and overlapped at the shoreline, we worked together when required.
As a work party I was given a very mixed bunch of a score or more dock workers, consisting of pairs of men who all seemed to speak a different language from the rest of the gang though one of each pair could speak the language of one, and only one, of the other pairs.  If this sounds complicated that’s because it was.  So when we were at work and I wanted a man several hundred feet away holding a level staff to go uphill a little I had first to tell my assistant in English who told another in Hindi, who told another in Gujerati, who told another in Urdu, who told another in Madrasi who told another in another tongue who told the guy with the level staff who instead of going a little higher went downhill a little.  Or a lot.  Or even disappeared over the horizon.  I soon found it easier to take the time to instruct all the staff holders in the hand and arm signals used by many surveyors.
At first I was allotted a young naval officer to act as my first assistant.  Though he was very nice, even debonair, and socially very delightful as a proper naval officer should be, he was rather lacking in any technical ways and was quite opposed to picking anything up or being associated with any of my multi-lingual motley crew of brigands.  He was quite relieved after a couple of days when I told the authorities that as he had now taught me all he knew I hoped I could flounder along without his continued help.
In his place I secured Able Seaman Albert.  AB Albert was dressed in square rig and was a godsend.  Very dark complexioned and short in stature he came from the southern tip of India.  He described himself as being LMS.  This was nothing to do with the London, Midland and Scottish railway company in Britain (whose towels, serviettes and even blankets, because of being adorned with the initials LMS, were reputed to be stolen by dishonest neo-bridegrooms who presented them to their fiancees telling them that LMS stood for Love Me Sweetheart) but meant he had been brainwashed for better or for worse by the London Missionary Society.  Willing and able as his title required him to be, AB Albert was also quick and intelligent.  He confessed to me one day that during the swell of nationalistic fervour in 1947 he was in a cruiser when the crew mutinied.  He said he was helpless and had to passively take part in the mutiny or be chucked over the side by his shipmates.  In one day I taught AB Albert to use the level instrument and keep a levelling book of notations so accurate that I would often, as a form of relaxation, spend an hour holding the level staff for him and letting him do all the meticulous technical work.  Between us we taught some of our gang to act as rodmen which was a boon when our work took us out of the comparative quiet of the dock areas and into the bustling crowded streets of Bombay.
I decided to run a line of levels from an old established bench mark in the downtown area to an automatic tide-gauge housed in a little stone gazebo kind of structure at the water’s edge. This was probably put there a century or more before by some pukka sahibs of the Colonial Survey or the Survey of India.  But I wanted to check for myself as a lot of engineering work was to take place and the utmost accuracy was vital.
The route between the bench mark and the tide gauge wended its way down some of the busiest streets in Bombay.  And busy Bombay streets are really busy.  However, there was no other route to take and so we began our slow, leapfrogging mode of progress through the dense throngs of people.
Sixty years ago levelling involved, and probably still does, a surveyor setting up a precision instrument on a tripod to sight onto a staff graduated in hundredths of a foot and held vertically by a person called a rodman or, probably today, a rodwoman.  To start off, the instrument is set up anywhere from two feet to a couple of hundred feet distant from the bench mark.  The height of the benchmark above mean sea level has been established over many decades or centuries and its value is related to all the other bench marks in the region or country or continent.
The surveyor looks through the adjusted telescope of his level and notes down the readings bisected by the cross hairs.   This back sighting gives him the height of the cross hair in his telescope.  For example, if the value of the benchmark, as determined by the original surveyors many years ago, is 12.31 feet and the reading on the cross hair is 3.56 feet then the height of the instrument is 12.31 plus 3.56 or 15.87 feet.  When this is definitely established the rodman carries the staff past the surveyor in the direction they wish to go and finds a suitably rock-hard immovable spot upon which to place his staff.  This spot, called a turning point, can be the tip of a very large rock, the doorstep of a solid building, the edge of a curbstone, a long wooden peg driven down into soft earth or any other ground feature that will remain fixed for the near future.
When the staff man rests his rod on the chosen spot, in this case we’ll say a curbstone, the surveyor swings the telescope around and sights on the rod again, taking what is called a foresight.  If the cross hair now bisects the staff at the 4.76 reading the curbstone must have a value of 15.87 feet minus 4.76.  This gives the curb stone a height of 11.11 feet above mean sea level.  Now to carry the level value along in the direction required it is the surveyor’s turn to leapfrog the rodman by picking up the tripod and level and walking past the rodman a suitable distance further on to erect the tripod again and take another backsight on the staff to establish the new height for the instrument.  And so it goes on at intervals of anything from two or three feet to several hundred or so between set-ups of the instrument.
Well that’s all very easy to do in good weather and across flat or undulating terrain.  Not so easy across mountains or during storms.  But though Bombay cannot boast any real mountains in the downtown area and the weather was hot and sunny I at once ran into a real difficulty upon starting to run my levels.  Because Bombay has several million citizens who all appear to be very interested in the art of surveying or at least in interacting socially with the surveyor.   To try to interfere with the fewest number of good citizens as possible I made my set-ups at the curbside and told the rodmen to also use the curbstones as turning points.  As soon as I adjusted the level and applied my eye to the telescope to look at the rodman a couple of hundred feet away, about a dozen passersby at intervals between us would jostle each other in trying to look into the telescope’s other end.  So usually all I could see was a variety of dark eyes peering back at me.  Other people would try to take a turn at my end of the telescope.  This was disastrous as even a slight touch on the instrument or one of the tripod legs can alter the accuracy of the sightings and make repeat set-ups necessary.  Then there were the many unfortunates, tricksters and beggars who saw that here was a fellow trapped into making very slow progress along the street, someone who couldn’t just brush them aside and stride off to safety.  In fact they soon saw that I was temptingly quite stationary for long periods.  A sitting duck.  So during the long minutes when I was glued to the eyepiece trying to catch two-second glimpses of the staff graduations as they might briefly appear between massed bodies I would be constantly trying to free one hand to brush off unseen other hands tugging at my clothes to get my attention.  When I finally straightened up from the instrument to make a note in my level book I might have a snake charmer’s basket with its writhing occupants between my legs, a fortune teller jabbering into each of my ears,  an ear-cleaner wanting to make a contract with me to clean both those organs, and a couple of pitifully deformed beggars clutching at my feet.  
So even with able-seaman Albert at my side and with three or four of my motley work gang to help it was obvious that we were going to be a long time getting to the distant tide-gauge.
I solved the problem to a large extent in three ways.  I went to the naval authorities and arranged for my little group to be accompanied by half-a-dozen policemen to keep the line of sight fairly clear.  This worked out quite well after an initial period when instead of seeing casual passersby’s eyes looking down the wrong end of the telescope I just had policemen’s eyes looking back at me.
The second thing I did was to favour and retain around me, as a sort of personal bodyguard, the first batch of fortune tellers, snake charmers and other professionals who had accosted me that morning.  In a way this was quite brutal as poor people who have nothing are vicious to those others in a similar predicament who might horn in on their act.  Thus I now had a retinue of street people who followed me each day from level set up to level set up—a variation of the private staff members politicians and dictators have always relied upon.
Some of these people were amazingly astute and soon learned where my next approximate instrument set up would be.  I think I might well have taught several of them to actually operate the level in quite a short time.  They certainly knew enough to be waiting in the early morning at the last curbstone temporary bench mark we had marked with surveyors chalk in the late afternoon before.
The third precaution I took was to my working dress.  I now passed the little bits of money I carried for beggars and such over to Albert and for myself I wore only a pair of creased and worn short shorts and a pair of old sandals.  With the pocket linings of the shorts turned out it was obvious I had nothing of value on my person.  This ploy worked very well.  So well that on one rare occasion when we were progressing along one of the better shopping areas I caused no little embarrassment.  While waiting for AB Albert to settle some dispute with the rodman and give out a few annas to the deserving poor I wandered up the wide sidewalk to the window of a rather high-class souvenir-curio-furniture-knick-knack shop.  I was followed as usual by some of my retinue of beggars, snake charmers and fortune tellers.  As some of the stuff in the window looked interesting I went inside the shop to poke about among the items for sale.  After a few moments a tall, sophisticated and well-dressed lady came bustling up to me waving her hands and yelling in a language incomprehensible to me.  I was quite stunned at her behaviour and just stood there in open-mouthed amazement.  Then another equally gracious-looking lady came from behind the shop and also shouted at me in English to get out of her shop.  Suddenly the first lady went outside the shop and called over to a couple of my police bodyguard.  They came running into the shop, looked at me, then turned around and spoke to the first lady.  And that was when intense embarrassment overtook us all, especially me.  For, with stricken mien she at once collapsed into abject apologies in perfect English.  How could she have mistaken me for some penniless Bombay citizen sullying her nice, clean shop?  She and the other lady were in tears at their awful gaffe.  Their perceived gaffe.  I told them it was my fault.  I had unwittingly deceived them.  And I was truly penniless as could be seen by my turned-out pocket linings.  I then told them it was all a big laugh.  It was funny.  Forget it.  I just said how nice their shop was and that I’d come back with some of my friends sometime.  Then I picked up the instrument which Albert was guarding a little way up the street and followed by my retinue of street people I moved on past the shop with a wave to the two ladies.
One of the street hawkers with whom I did some small trade was the bidi  maker.  His bidis  were little cigarettes made with a strong tobacco and dark brown papers.  He rolled them custom made on the spot for his customers who bought them just one at a time.  He even licked them to stick them together for his patrons.  I made it a point that when it came to licking time he held my bidi  up to my mouth and I licked the thin strip of gum myself.  A week or two previously I had for some reason given up cigarette smoking.  This was quite unintentional on my part.  I just stopped—like giving up eating liquorice lollipops or mangel-wurzel.  I expect those few bidis  I smoked on the streets of Bombay just confirmed and extended my unintended abstinence.  Some months later when out with my father in England he stopped at a tobacconist for some pipe tobacco.  I also bought some together with a pipe and never smoked another cigarette again.
After about three days my line of levels finally tied into the tide-gauge.  There was an error of exactly one foot.  Such an exact error pointed to a simple misreading of the level staff.  But where?  There was nothing for it but to do the whole thing over again and hope we found the error sooner than later.  So praying to AB Albert’s LMS gods that I had made the error just recently rather than earlier in the run we started back from the tide-gauge using the same edges of curbstone as turning points as we had on the way in.  But I never found an error.  We arrived back at the official government benchmark and still had an error of one complete foot.  
I pondered this situation carefully.  I checked my figures for the umpteenth time.  All was well.  But all was not well.  The benchmark value was irrefutable.  Engraved in stone in every sense of the term.  It was like questioning a direct quote from Jesus to the faithful.  In fact it was even more blasphemous to question the work of the prestigious Survey of India than to question the Pope about the Virgin Birth.  Blasphemy!
So off we went again, laboriously wending our way even more slowly and carefully back over the same ground, all the way back to the tide-gauge.  And nothing changed.  An error of one foot, to within one hundredth of a foot remained to haunt me.  Had the tides of Bombay been out a foot for the past century or so?  Or had that primary benchmark’s value, recorded in the annals of the Imperial Raj, been unthinkably put down 12 inches in error?  I took the problem to George, our top-notch land surveyor.  He must have then consulted with Hamish our chief of party.  It was their problem now.  
Me, I was going to get afloat and begin my hydrographic charting.  Get in some nice restful plain sailing.  Some hope!

To be continued...

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