Diary of Nishchint Srikumar

(Roger disclaims: we're a bunch of middle-aged white mostly-English men playing in a culture that isn't ours. We're trying to get things right, but we will inevitably get details wrong and may be insulting. That's not our intention.)

Translator's Note

The translation of this diary, recovered from the effects of Mrs Srikumar, has been a lengthy process. Even once the encipherment had been cracked, the plain text was in a mixture of languages and even alphabets, with allusions to Hindu literature unexpected from a woman largely without formal education. This thorough, one might say excessive, effort to keep the contents of the document confidential may perhaps have been justified by the nature of her wartime work, and only now can the details be revealed.
The translator is grateful to Dr von Lambsdorf of the British Magical Society for assistance in esoteric matters.
“Hari”, addressed in several passages, is believed to be Mrs Srikumar's late husband Harinder (1902-1930).
Other members of the Logistics Section were:
”The Indians will only be united under the threat of danger. Nobody can simply bring together a country that has 265 kinds of God.”
– Nishchint


(20 November 2021)
Dear Hari,
Such times! My small business has come to the attention of the Delhi Intelligence Bureau, in a small team recruited by William Davies-Wright to tackle special matters of Intelligence.
Ernst Schäfer is leading an SS expedition to Tibet, seeking early Aryan civilisation (the Aryan civilisation all around them presumably not being wite enough). He is primarily a zoologist, but after his last expedition was promoted rapidly from SS-Private. His five-man expedition has been travelling in the region for most of a year; they seemed happy after they'd spent time in the Yarlung Valley, but have vanished on the way back to Gangtok.
Our task is to find and arrest them, and clearly to find a way to hang on to them until they can be interned after the expected outbreak of war.
There are several plausible routes the expedition might have taken, but one is clearly the best. We travel by train, then drive a police charabanc on to Gangtok.

19 August

We meet Sir Basil Gould, the Political Officer, and a pilot who is prepared to lend his Tiger Moth for reconnaissance; he takes up Miss McDavis to look at the likely routes; she spies two caravans, one of which definitely has some blonde-haired members – at least a week's travel away from where the useful road starts.
We consider how we may find an excuse to arrest them; if I join the caravan before it returns to civilisation, I should be able to learn more and cause suitable trouble.

22 August

I join the caravan, and impress them with cooking (my mother's recipes continue to do well). It seems that the geophysicist Wienert has “gone crazy” after an argument one night, and is restrained in a litter.
I keep an ear out. There are clearly topics that the other Germans don't raise with Schäfer, and are concerned about what happens when they get back to society.
Wienert isn't spontaneously complaining, but I get some opportunity to speak with him, under the guise of his teaching me German. After some days he asks for help escaping, and of course I agree – he doesn't think he's mad, the way they say. So when we get back to Chungthang he starts acting mad, and I arrange that some gunfire comes from the caravan…
(They have five Lugers, three Gew98s and two scoped small-calibre rifles. All quite reasonable for the expedition.)
Arrests are made. It seems that the expedition found an old shrine up a side valley of the Yarlung, treated it as neglected, and brought a heavy item back from it. This proves to be an idol, carved from a single piece of iron or similar metal (though un-rusted), something like a thousand years old by McDavis' evaluation of the costume. There are no inscriptions.
Wienert requests asylum… and turns out to have tried to get into esoteric contact with the statue, and eventually it spoke to him. It explained the illusions of the world, and suddenly Nazism didn't seem such a good idea any more…
“Not my incarnation, not my Buddha.”
– Vijay

2 September

Back in Delhi. The scientific material will be examined by people who can understand it. A telegraph message arrives from Lhasa asking whether the Germans stole the statue known as “The Iron Man”, with an accurate description…
Several of the team want to talk with this statue themselves. The clergy don't come up with much until we find someone who speaks Tibetan Buddhism, and he manages to listen effectively.

3 September

Lord Linlithgow declares India to be at war without consulting the Parliament…

12 September

(11 December 2021)
Bill Wright asks us to lend ourselves to the Constabulary in Kolkata; it was the site of the German Embassy, until it was closed down at the outbreak of war. More to the point, there's a pre-German underground newspaper, which the local police have been failing to shut down: someone goes to talk to them, then comes back saying this is not a problem.
“We ought to find out about this before we set fire to it.”
– Hannah
The situation in Bengal is complex. Mostly-Hindu West Bengal and Mostly-Muslim East Bengal were split thirty-odd years ago, then reunited. This has given strength to the Muslim League of India, now largely disassociated from the Congress, which wants both independence and a separate Muslim country; the Hindu Mahasabha opposes both the Muslims and independence…

13 September

In Kolkata, we meet Sub-Inspector Ashok. His account matches what we have been told; we also speak with Constable Ramprakesh, who has no memory of events inside the building, or of ordering his men away.
I have a look inside the back goods area; the visible posters, newspapers, and so on seem to be legitimate. So why the magical defences, if the place could withstand a casual search?
Vijay and Parminder place an order for posters; this seems to go smoothly, though Parminder detects traces of earlier magic use in the office.
Iqbal doesn't manage to follow the boss home, but we get his address. Ardeshir randomly follows the secretary, who goes to a café and waits until a specific man turns up; they go on to a cinema, then he walks her home.

14 September

We consider sending in the constable who was mind-altered before to see if something new happens to him. He points out that his visit was in the evening. (The written report confirms this.) There has been some minor change among the food vendors, but the local constable doesn't think it significant.
In the evening, the constable goes in first, with Iqbal nearby, and Parminder planning to follow a few minutes later. There's a very slow answer to the constable's knock at the door; he's whammied again, though Parminder isn't when he turns up hoping to collect the posters early.
We obtain a search warrant, and I go in ahead. Thngs go smoothly; the real surprise is one Mohindra Gahlot, a Hindu priest who claims not to be able to read Bengali and therefore to have nothing to do with all this subversion that he's shocked to discover.
He is clearly a well-known person in Kolkata, and I ensure that he has nothing to complain of during his brief arrest and interview. (But he will definitely bear further observation.)
There has been reasonable blinding in the matter of payment for the printing and so on, though the account is associated with the German Embassy. Other outgoings there have been in cash.

30 September

(22 January 2022)
The Defence of India Act effectively declares martial law.
Mr Wright wishes to talk about planning. Particularly if and wen we operate outside India, we'll need some kind of cover.

17 October

The political agent for several tribes on the Northwest Frontier reports having seen an angel, and his guards confirm it. But the angel took the money he was going to hand over to the tribes…

19 October

We travel to the RAF station at Karachi, and meet Wing Commander Henderson, then continue by Valentia to Dera Ismail Khan, a small airfield attached to a large town. Squadron Leader Subroto Mukerjee, commander of No. 1 Indian Air Force, introduces us to William Stannard, the Political Agent, who's been flown south from Bannu by the RAF. He's clearly convinced in the matter of angels; his Naik, Kamal Ali, seems a bit more grounded.
Kamal Ali is used to being shot at; it's just a thing that happens around these parts. They set off with the strongbox from Bannu; payments aren't due until the end of the year, but snow happens. On 5 October, on the way to Miran Shah, he spoke with a normal-looking tribesman by the side of the road; he had a very strong presence, clearly good and right. Kamal Ali's memory of the exact words is fuzzy. After he spoke with Stannard, they unlocked the strongbox and he took the money in bags, then walked away more or less to the south. And then it seemed pointless to continue, so they turned back, and ultimately arrived here, where they've been under arrest.
The man spoke in Pashto, and sounded like a local. He didn't carry a rifle (unlike almost any Pashtun man), and left on foot. And apparently there's “the Faqir of Ipi”, Mirzali Khan, based in the village of Gurwek, some forty miles further on; he has declared an independent Pashtunistan, which most people are ignoring.
Stannard confirms this story, though he clearly took a harder hit from whatever the effect was. He confirms that he was addressed in Pashto. He's a recent convert to Islam, for personal rather than professional reasons, though it's helped professionally; his family is in England. He has no recollection of why this seemed like such a good idea, simply that it was.
Prayers with Iqbal at sunset leave Stannard realising that things clearly have gone somewhat awry, though we assert that we're keeping an open mind. Vijay talks with the local police Havildar, the superintendent having gone home for the night, with the aim of finding out about any recent robberies or con-men. There was one large robbery in the summer, Baluchis from the hills, and all were caught. The Faqir doesn't engage in raiding, though he has many men, and there are rumours he's been speaking with the German government via Afghanistan.

20 October

The Harts take off early to see what can be seen with the aid of dawn shadows; they bring back more detail, and Stannard and Ali agree on the spot where the angel appeared. We consider how we might get in touch with local tribal leaders, whose noses may be put out of joint by all this.
We travel with Stannard and Naik Ali in the Valentia to Bannu. There are rumours going round about the angel, but nothing specific about the faqir. Vijay contacts the local Sikh community, one extended family of grain and produce merchants.

21 October

The site of the robbery, to the west of the town of Bannu, doesn't reveal much: it's a flat area with some trees, decent visibility. Some tracks seem promising, and we follow them down the river towards the village of Nurah.
When we meet some interested locals, Vijay greets them and they settle on Urdu as a working language. Rashid is also interested in the angel, and turns out to be a cousin of the headman. After some delay, we are fed, and Vijay puts the case (with help from Stannard and Ali as witnesses) that the “angel” was something more merely human.
After more delay, two boys are found who may have seen him: with a pack, but no rifle. Most distinctive was the colour of his robe, a dull yellow. He left going west on a road that turns south.
With more consultation, the sheikh's wife recalls a trader some years ago who sold fabric that faded to that colour. Daud Ahmed, that was the man! He buys in Bannu and circles through these villages and to the north, as far as Spin Wam. He's usually seen here in late spring or early summer. This doesn't seem entirely promising.
Later, Vijay colludes with the sheikh; he thinks that the faqir is a genuinely pure Moslem, rather than a political animal. He wouldn't connive at his followers pretending to be angels, even by proxy, though only if he knew about it. On the other hand, the way the robber went was into rough country; if he'd been working for the faqir he might have hidden, but then would have had to travel.
And clearly he had intelligence about the shipment of money. But why isn't it showing up anywhere? Whether this is as we suspect to fund an insurrection, or for simple thievery, someone should be spending it.

22 October

(19 February 2022)
Vijay rides through the night to Jani Khel, and finds that the target did indeed pass through here – looking like a poor Pashtun tribesman. He bought a good-quality rifle and food for three or four days' travel, as well as new shoes to replace a very worn pair, using money that looks like part of the robbery. (This was on 8 October, a few days after the robbery.) He left to the east; this road eventually turns north towards Bannu.

23 October

The rest of us follow Vijay, then leave Jani Khel with him looking for tracks. There's some sign that he broke his journey in a small settlement, but didn't do anything remarkable.

24 October

Iqbal feels inspired.
Lo, for the pretender seeks anonymity; and will seek it at his home. Look at the road which the money would have taken.
We set off towards Bannu, and seem still to be on track.

25 October

Bannu's large enough that strangers are not automatically remembered. We manage to confirm that he bought a new robe here; the trail's fairly cold, though.

26 October

We carry on along the original convoy route again, going further than the site of the robbery and camping beside the river.

27 October

After more travel we arrive at Ipi, where the lookouts make no great effort to make themselves covert. They make a good show of cooperation, and mention a Rashid Hamza, a poor man who lives in the next village, Mir Ali; they saw him there last week, looking rather more prosperous and confident. One person is willing to show us where…
Ardeshir and I go round to the back of the house, and are thus not caught out when our target's influence swamps the others. So we both shoot him in the back, which helps matters. As the authorities get involved, Hannah patches him up, and with a bit of persuasion he reveals the location of his stash.

29 October

After a pause for healing, we get Rashid (and his mother, who will be gaoler and interpreter) back to Bannu

2 November

(19 March 2021)
and after several days' delay fly to Delhi. Parminder and I remain on guard over Rashid in hospital, while the others report in. (Rashid's mother turns out to be literate as well as well-informed; her father was a preacher.) They will be put on staff, and given a place to live and money for expenses; she'll be the interface between Rashid and anyone who might have the power actually to let him out.
Meanwhile we start planning to return the Iron Man to Tibet. The Empire is also planning to establish a flying-field at Lhasa – not for the Iron Man, but for other transport – and we can help with that. We work on learning basic Tibetan language, and mountain survival.

30 November

By the end of the month we have permission to survey, though not to overfly. Our RAF liaison, Peter Hope, seems to think he ought to be in charge; we take steps to disabuse him of this misconception. We're also getting an RAF survey party under Sergeant Howard Smith, and Imperial Service signallers to hold down a radio link; their commander, Havildar Dalgun Singh, has met Vijay before. And of course the Buddhist mystics.

1 December

We change trains at Kolkata and proceed north, as Hannah tries to avoid Hope's society and instead work on her hangover. We make multiple trips from Darjeeling to Gangtok, and Vijay and Hannah go ahead to warn Gould. We proceed to add missing equipment, and plot a route from Gangtok to Lhasa, using river valleys for ease of navigation and so as not to push altitude limits. The Imperial Service signallers stay in Gangtok.

13 December

We set out along the route; it's quite hard going, as well as thin air.

18 December

Hope breaks his collarbone falling off his horse, we move him by litter.

24 December

We take a break at a road junction (and village by courtesy) at Redan'gang, to give Hope a chance to recover a bit (and rest a little ourselves). Later; we pass along the shores of Lake Yamdrok.


15 January

We reach the outskirts of Lhasa, find a place to stay, make contact with the British representative here and explain our mission. We are clearly treading on eggshells here.
The Iron Man is to be returned to the Potala Palace. (Many steps.) We hand it over to the monks on guard, and follow them in; the Man is undamaged, and we recount something of why it was stolen and what happened to one of the thieves. We spend the time until supper looking at the art collection.
(16 April 2021)
Dinner with the Rinpoche includes Richardson, the senior British representative, and Tsarong Dzasa, a former army commander who's clearly something to do with whatever they use as an intelligence service here.
The Rinpoche, who seems quite young, asks why it is we who are returning the Iron Man; we explain that we happened to be in a position to stop the theft, and that it seemed a good idea not to expose too many people to it. “It is not dangerous, except in the matter of ideas”, he says. Well. Yes. Vijay admires the mountains, and we speak lightly of our police work and of the future air route.
We spend the night in a small lodging, not the official one for foreign guests.

16 January

Richardson returns and consults with Hope and Smith. We then go out with Smith to consider sites for flying-fields, and find a few spots along the river which look as though they should be both workable and available for rent. (But it's pretty weak pastureland, so any given spot won't take a lot of aircraft movements.)

17 January

With a couple of possible sites, the further one less good because of its slope, we return to the inn. The Drepung Rinpoche summons us to speak with him in the morning.

18 January

We walk, inevitably, up to the Drepung monastery. There are more monks around here than at the palace. Rinpoche Taring here is willing to support the field, but only as long as it is shut down after Gould (and we) have left after the enthronement of the new Dalai Lama. We say something about our own experience with the Iron Man and the German party.

21 January

Hannah and I get talking and drinking with a Chinese trader at the inn; the others make other arrangements.
Hope, it turns out, prefers the further, more sloping, airfield.

22 January

Hope wants to inspect the airfield sites himself, and reckons he's now sufficiently recovered to ride. We go along to provide translation and try to prevent him from hurting himself or others.

23 January

“I think he's run out of gin.” — Sergeant Smith
“Bastard, he was keeping it to himself!” — Hannah
We have the other two major monasteries to visit today. Our wait at the first, Sera, is rather longer, than before and it's clear that Rinpoche Chensal is thoroughly opposed to any further British involvement – beyond the point of reason, perhaps. Vijay gets a strong feeling of constant competition here, in a way we haven't felt in the other institutions in Lhasa, and tries to dig more into the Rinpoche's objection.
The conversation breaks into groups, and Iqbal and I speak with one of the assistants. One possible wedge: while there is opposition to British involvement, there might be rather less to that of an Indian government. There is clear and rational opposition to expanding British, and indeed Chinese, influence; but if the airport were to be placed formally under Tibetan control, something more might be possible…
At Ganden, Rinpoche Surkhan does not object to change, but does wish to study it carefully and at length – and these are the only people so far to ask us detailed questions about the operation of aircraft. They'll go on to study scriptures and consider
Redundant Array of Inexpensive Monks?
While we wait, Vijay goes to the ink-workshop behind the scriptorium, and contemplates the making of ink.
Back at the inn, we report carefully and settle for in food and relaxation.