The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

You cannot feel sorry for Durrani.

This is a man with an eye on the main chance. To obtain it, he doesn't care how many people he steps over. He doesn't care how he achieves that main chance. Were he only a little bit smarter, he might even obtain it.

Durrani gets married early to a Pakistani woman. The marriage does not last very long, and when it falls apart, we expect Durrani to be upset. Durrani does not appear to mind. He continues to behave in the same optimistic yet pushy way that alienates his wife.

Then he marries a Hindu woman. He looks as pleased as ever while his new wife begins to look wan.

One day his father-in-law calls him home.

"I want you to divorce my daughter," he says. "How much money do you want?"

Durrani doesn't think long.

"250,000 pounds," he says.

"For far less than that, I could have you shot and disappeared," says the father-in-law. "Think again."

It's not clear how long they negotiate or what sum is agreed, but soon thereafter this marriage also dissolves.

Meanwhile, Durrani's career is on an upward trajectory. Somehow he manages to impress bosses, alienate his colleagues, and progress from one juicy contract to another.

He also gets married a third time. This marriage - to a Muslim woman again - looks quite successful. He has two kids. He buys a fancy house in a fancy part of town. He continues to pull in the bucks at a prodigious rate.

One day he goes home and said, "Good news, honey. I've made the final payment on the mortgage. We own the house now!"

"Very good," says his wife.

That night, she gives him a bunch of papers.

"I want a divorce," she says.

She wants custody of the kids and possession of the house. Based on his earnings, she wants £7,000 every month.

Durrani's lawyer thinks that is excessive. The case goes to court.

The judge listens to the arguments. He awards the wife £8,000.

Soon after, Durrani loses his lucrative contract. His pay rate plummets.

Any other person will be crushed by these whammies. Durrani is unfazed. He continues to keep his eye on the main chance. He talks of new plans to make money. He keeps sucking up to his bosses and he keeps pissing off his colleagues. He is unable to keep up the alimony payments, which are calculated at the peak of his earning days. He does not look particularly bothered.

As I say, you cannot feel sorry for Durrani.

Feb 23, 2015

New Names

Sometime after the boy's seventh birthday I told him not to get too attached to his name. When he is around nine years old, I said, his name would be changed.

He was disbelieving at first, then delighted.

"Can I be called O'Henry?" he said. He stretched out the name like so: H E E E N N N R Y.

"No," I said.

"Why not?" he said.

"The Queen will decide your name," I said.

"What will she call me?" he said.

"Bhaktavatsalam Arumugam," I said.

"What?" he said.

"Bhaktavatsalam Arumugam," I said.

"I can't pronounce that!" he said.

"You have two years to learn it," I said.

"Are you joking, acha?" he said. "Are you being ironic?"

"Does it look like I'm being ironic?" I said.

"Wait till the letter from the Queen comes," I added.

Every once in a while I'd remind him that his name would soon be Bhaktavatsalam Arumugam. He went and told everyone at school. His teacher asked him to bring a letter from his parents explaining that his name has been changed.

Soon after his ninth birthday, he wanted to know when he'd get the letter from the Queen. By now he could say 'Bhaktavatsalam Arumugam' without any trouble. He was actually looking forward to a bit of correspondence from royalty.

He also was a bit suspicious.

In school, he advised his friends to start calling him 'Bucky'.

Then he told his teachers that he would soon have a new name.

One of the teachers huffed up to his mum and said - eyes wide as a moon, "The boy says his name is going to be changed!"

"We're just pranking him," said the wife.

The gossip in the school is that Feanor and family are peculiar.

As for the boy, he realises on one level that we were kidding. On another, he's not entirely sure.

They sure fuck you up, your mum and dad.

There's a book recently published in Russia, titled Литературный авангард русского Парижа. 1920—1926. История. Хроника. Антология. Документы. Written by Leonid Livak and Andrei Ustinov, it is 992 pages of history, chronicles, anthologies and documents pertaining to the great Russian diaspora in Paris between 1920-1926. By all accounts (including this review, by Vasily Molodyakov, from which I've shamelessly and poorly translated this article), it is a tour-de-force, a seminal work, a book that shreds the usual templates of study of emigre Russian literature.

What sort of avant-garde? the Soviets would say. Sure, a bunch of Russians legged it after the Revolution - some to Berlin initially, and then to Paris - and they may have written a thing or two.  Bunin, Kuprin, Shmelev, Zaitsev, Aldanov... The Soviets claimed that the real literature remained in Russia. The emigres were undeserving pretenders filled with nostalgia for their homeland; talented painters bemoaned their exile or returned with tails between their legs; the youth there was effete. The Soviets would bring up Marina Tsvetaeva, that most avant-garde of poets: what did emigration do for her?

Viktor Bart, Sergei Romov, Konstantin Tereshkovich. Founders of the group "Через" (1923).
The emigres would counter that the Soviets had defiled the avant-garde. The diaspora carried with it the forces of Russian tradition and the legacy of its great classical literature. The youth may quest for modernity, but the majority of them prefer to follow the great preceptors. Those who behave are published in "Modern Notes", while those who don't appear in "Numbers". This version of the argument is canonised by Adamovich and Gleb Struve after the second world war. The other version, that emigre literature is weak and ineffectual, and that the real literature is in Russia, is canonised in the English-language "Modern Russian Literature" by Marc Slonim.
"Merry Dynamite", manuscript by Dovid Knut. 1923.

So why do we have a thousand-page exposition from Livak and Ustinov? Well, for one thing, it illuminates little-known aspects of the Russian emigre experience, not just artistic but also literary. It overturns the myth of the absence of the avant-garde abroad, or of its marginalisation or insignificance. The Russian avant-garde was active, visible, powerful: "Gataparak", "The Palace of Poets", the Union of Russian Artists in France. But until 1924, the literary life of the Russian youth in Paris had three characteristic features: 1) an absence of anti-Soviet sentiment among the organisers and participants in the artistic groups; 2) a markedly pronounced popularity of the Soviet avant-garde in literature (Futurism) and art (Constructivism); and 3) close ties with the French Dadaist movement." (page 16).
Portrait of Mikhail Larionov by Man Ray. (1922-23).

The book also disposes of the myth that Russian Paris was somehow lesser than the Russian Berlin in 1921-23. The two capitals were not in opposition to each other; rather they were in consonance. And how could they not be, given that the same personages drove the avant-garde in both places?

Who were these people? You can learn nearly everything you might ever want about them, because nearly 3/4 of the book is comprised of the texts of the heroes of the avant-garde, the poetry and experimental prose of ten authors: Valentin Parnakh, Sergei Sharshun, Mark Talov, Georgi Evangulov, Alexander Ginger, Dovid Knut, Boris Bozhnev, Boris Poplavsky, Ilya Zdanevich and Vladimir Sveshnikov. Some of the text has appeared in print before, but gathered in one place, they offer a wonderful view. Another 250 pages deal with manifestoes, essays, letters as well as a reprint of all four volumes of the rare journal "Udar" ("Impact") by Sergei Romov. This sort of a Russian diaspora we haven't known. And such a Russian avant-garde we haven't known.

Yesterday at 7.00 heroic Theseus fought the red eyed Minotaur because every year 14 tributes were sent to Crete to be eaten by the Minotaur.

At 700 am heroic Theseus travelled to Crete to kill the fierce Minotaur because 14 tributes were sent to Crete because a old fierce king named king Minos was very sad of death of his son. It is well known that 14 tributes were sent to Crete because a terrifying King called King Minos was angry at the people of Crete. At Athens an Athenian went to King Ageus to declare that this year heroic Theseus should beat the half man-half bull creature.

It has been reported that one of the prisoners had seen Ariadne giving Theseus a ball of string. It has also been reported that as Theseus entered the cold dark labyrinth, he saw one horn sticking out behind a pillar.

"As I slowly crept along I saw the brutal Minotaur. I stabbed the cold bloodthirsty Minotaur. I have never been so nervous in my life," exclaimed Theseus.

The defeated King Minos said, "Theseus stole my daughter and the stupid Athenian prisoners and fled so fast."

It is reported that having fled the palace Theseus then cruelly left Ariadne on an island. "I can't believe that Theseus broke the agreement. I thought we had a deal," said Ariadne in anger.

(Newspaper report in the Athenian Metro, by the boy.)

Feb 8, 2015

Pancake Week

It's the Russian week of pancakes from tomorrow - Maslenitsa - and here's a bit of Chekhov (On Human Frailty):
Counselor Semyon Petrovich Podtykin sat down at the table…and at risk of burning his fingers, grabbed the two hottest bliny from the top of the pile and plopped them onto his plate with an appetizing smack. They were golden brown, light, and plump like the shoulder of a merchant’s daughter…

Feb 3, 2015

Djinn Goat

Alif turned his attention to the platter in front of him: it contained, or so he was fairly confident, stewed meat and saffron rice, along with a cooked green that might have been spinach. A pile of warm flatbread sat beside the food on the edge of the tray. Tearing a loaf in half, he scooped up meat and rice and took an experimental bite. The flavours of cardamon and pepper and gamey meat bloomed on his tongue. 
"Goat," he said. "Or at least, that's my guess." 
"A relative of one of those ladies at the other table, maybe," muttered NewQuarter.

- G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen.

Jan 27, 2015

Indo-Lusitanian Feast

It was served by caterers à la russe, one course following the other. It was more chic, was in fashion in Panjim, and in Paris according to the aide to the Crown Procurator. Nobody, however, knew the convenience in India, where people perish from the heat, of a dinner à la russe. Perhaps there was the apprehension that the food would freeze with the heat. 
The priest, nevertheless, was annoyed with the fashion. He wanted the whole larder on the table including the ham in its sack, procured on a returnable basis if not consumed, "so that the abundance could be seen," he murmured with legitimate pride. 
But he compromised when told that in this way the guest ate less and could neither have second helpings nor eat just the best. 
Accustomed to the old practices, the good old man helped himself distractedly to what was on the table: sweets, fruit and would be surprised when the waiter offered him ham or risotto
When fish was served after the soups, he became indignant; he assumed he had been deprived of his arroz refugado which should have been served according to the old custom. "Fish is not for such dinners," he roared, since he could not envisage fish except in a curry or fried and served with fonchró, the common rice.

From the brilliantly acerbic satire on Indo-Portuguese mores in Goa at the end of the 19th century, Jacob and Dulce, by João Francisco da Costa (a.k.a Gip).

Jan 21, 2015

Big Red Train Food

In 1926, the European correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, Junius Wood, travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway. He had this to say about the cuisine on board:
At 3.30 p.m. a plate of soup appeared - greasy hot water poured over cold pieces of fish that had been cooked earlier in bulk. The next course was pre-cooked cauliflower warmed with a sauce of unknown texture. Roast veal, cooked weeks earlier and now dry and hard, smothered in warm brown gravy, without vegetables, was the main course.
(It was not that much different on some of the trains when Christian Wolmar, author of To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Express, the World's Greatest Railroad (from where I got the above quote) travelled on the line in 2012.)

Jan 15, 2015

Technical Moksha

The boy likes to cuddle with his amma before bed and discuss philosophical matters. The other day, she read him some passages from the Bhagavad Gita about moksha and material desires preventing the soul from breaking out of the cycle of suffering and rebirth. 

"I hope your soul achieves moksha, amma," said the boy.

"Thank you, sweetie," said the wife. "But what about you?"

"It will be very difficult for me," said the boy.

"Why is that?" said the wife.

"Because I really, really want that 50-inch curved screen LED TV, amma," he said.

Jan 9, 2015

2014 Bookwise 1

I didn't really go to Reading in 2014, except to transit - if I recall correctly - at the station en route elsewhere. Otherwise I could have titled this post '2014 in Reading'.

But - happy new year! Here's hoping for new reading adventures and as much literary excitement as you can handle.

2014, it turns out, was another thumping year of reading translated fiction for me (by design, as you may recall). My original intention was to concentrate on fiction from various Indian languages. I was unable to find any until almost the end of the year, and I was forced to find other literatures to consume instead.

For instance, Arabic. Now, I know, I know, I was meant to discuss the Arabic fiction in translation that I read. I was variously lazy and dilatory, and then the year was over. 

In December, though, I landed a minor treasure-trove of fiction from the Sahitya Akademi, India's pre-eminent literary society. I spent a few days immersed in short stories and novels from various parts of the country. Some of the represented languages were Bodo, Nepali, Gujarati and Malayalam. The remainder I hope to consume in 2015.


I read 140 books in 2014. After the excesses of the previous year, this is a sharp drop-off, but to be honest, I didn't expect to cross a hundred at all. In fact, thinking about the books, not many stand out in my mind. I'll eventually mention the few that do - and this is not because others weren't important or interesting, but that my memory is a sieve and it gets worse every year.


Of the 140, 97 were translations. Since I intended to concentrate on translations, this is not surprising. There were 39 languages represented. Check 'em out:

The labels are a bit fuzzy, so here's the list (Indian languages in red):

Arabic     Bengali    Bodo       Catalan    Chinese    Croatian   Czech      Danish     Dutch      French     Galician   German     Greek     Gujarati   Hebrew     Hindi      Italian    Japanese   Kannada    Kashmiri   Korean    Magyar    Malayalam  Marathi    Nepali     Persian   Polish     Portuguese Romanian   Russian    Sesotho    Spanish    Swedish    Telugu     Turkish    Ukrainian  Vietnamese


Pretty cool, huh? Sesotho, even. And here is a chart of the countries involved:

Here's a clearer list:

Iran     Germany     France     Japan     Greece     Italy     Argentina     Romania     El Salvador Morocco     Finland     Sweden     France     Syria     Lesotho     China     Albania     Egypt     Lebanon     Libya     Iraq     India     Spain     Korea     Brazil     Russia     Turkey     Poland     Uzbekistan     Croatia     Holland     Denmark     Mexico     Sudan     Hungary     Ukraine     Tunisia     Czech     Israel     Vietnam


At this point, of course, you have no reason to believe me when I say that in another post I'll write about the books that made a (memorable) impression on me in 2014. 

Jan 3, 2015

Ghana Mealtime

On her good days I associated my mother with food: the scent of ripe guava, the orange of mango and pawpaw. I remembered meals that she cooked for me: a plate of kenkey, pepper and fish; groundnut soup on a bed of rice; mashed plantain seasoned with ginger and chilli, then transformed at leisure, by frying in palm oil, into tatale.

Yaba Badoe, True Murder.

I've been somewhat obsessed with Russian art for a bit.  A few months ago, the obsession combined with avarice when I heard about the publication of the Encyclopedia of the Russian Avant-Garde, a three-volume masterpiece edited by D. Sarabyanov and V. Rakitin, featuring contributions from 170 specialists. It contains biographies of artists great and small, movements major and minor, groups, collectives and manifestos, and illustrations of fine calibre for every aspect of this great period of art. The editors had laboured over it for more than 10 years, and the final product looked like a beaut - superb production values and, dash it, a limited print run. The few copies that remained after the bulk had been sent to museums and archives were priced at tens of thousands of rubles. 

Eru Ilúvatar,
I've been good this year. Can I please have the Encyclopedia of the Russian Avant-Garde? I promise to be good next year as well.

I found one online store selling the book. The price, as I said, was eye-watering, even when converting to pounds sterling. Recently the ruble collapsed to less than half its original value and I took a look at the website again. The book was no longer available! Drat and damn! Those pesky Russians, obviously trying to safeguard their money, had gone on a buying spree. They bought large-screen TVs, property in London, and this encyclopedia. Morgoth alone knows when copies will emerge for sale again.

There was talk about electronic versions and French translations, but where are they, I ask. Where?

Ilúvatar, what are you going to do about this?

Dec 6, 2014

A Parisian Put-Down

Enrique Vila-Matas wrote a fictionalised biography of his younger (somewhat exaggerated) self in Paris, Never Any End to Paris, in which he tried hard to emulate his hero Ernest Hemingway, to be poor and happy, to learn to write, to see the world in the light of his master. Instead, he was poor, desperately unhappy, and the paucity of his achievement was laid bare when he met Javier Grandes at a bar, who merrily said he was slow off the mark becoming a writer.
What I mean is you're slow compared to Boris Vian. At your age, he was already nearly dead, but he'd written about five hundred songs, three hundred poems, I don't know how many novels, fifty stage plays, eight operas, one and a half thousand music reviews. And that's not all, he used and abused the trumpet. And he was a great nighthawk, who used to flit from the Bar Vert to La Rhumerie Martiniquaise, from Tabou to Petit Saint-Benoit, from Trois Canettes to Vieux Colombier daily. Two marriages, I don't know how many kids, an engineering degree, thousands of conversations with the waiters at the Balzar, a thousand transgressions, he wore out the needles on the record players at the local rich kids' bashes, and well, anyway, I don't need to tell you.
Who could handle such frankness? Enrique was crushed, "practically destroyed, as if I'd lost a thousand games of pinball."


Cave Tabou, Paris
The Cave Tabou that Grandes mentioned was jazz club frequented by Boris Vian's circle as well a bunch of journalists and existentialists in St Germain-des-Prés. As Vian said, "Very quickly, the Tabou has become a center of organized madness. Let's be frank, none of the clubs that followed could recreate that incredible atmosphere, and Tabou itself, alas! could not retain it for very long... it was impossible." It was here that a reporter overheard Juliette Greco say, "We are all existentialists" and the expressive coinage was born. Juliette Greco was a brunette, but the poet Anne-Marie Cazalis was a redhead, and the two of them were frequently in the club, listening to Vian's jazz.

Greco and Cazalis


La Rhumerie Martiniquaise was another existentialist and jazz haunt in St Germain-des-Prés. Besides Vian, the likes of Georges Bataille, Henri Salvador, Antonin Artaud, Marcel Aymé, Man Ray, Aimé Césaire were to be found here. If high intellectualism was not your thing, you could splurge on the finest Antillean rums here.

La Rhumerie Martiniquaise in 1955.

Dec 3, 2014

Chinese Takeout

Old Chen had a few mouthfuls and thought each dish tasted pretty good. 'What part of China are these dishes from?' he asked Fang Caodi. 
'Chop suey vegetables,' said Old Fang. 'Look closely, I'm using Sichuan peppers, Hunan black bean sauce, Guangdong shrimp sauce, Thai lemon grass, and our own coriander, sweet basil, lemon leaf and leeks. They're all organic. We just pick 'em and eat 'em. And we fertilize them with our own and the cats' and dogs' poo.'

From Chan Koonchung, The Fat Years.

Nov 27, 2014


We woke up at 6:15.

We were out of the house by 7:15.

We arrived at the Docklands at 8:30.

We registered for the competition at 8:35.

We were told that the bouts would start at 9:00.

At 9:30, they still hadn't started.

We asked an official what was going on.

They were expecting a contingent of kids, they said.

You wouldn't want to disappoint a bunch of kids, would you? they said.

The kids arrived at 10:00.

The bouts began at 10:05.

The boy was eliminated in the first round at 10:15.

We left.


The boy has been going for judo classes for a few years now, but this was his first competition outside his club.

He was the only representative of his club at the competition.

The other kids came from Hackney and Kent and south-east London. They came in groups, teams, with their coaches, all of them gung-ho.

The boy felt a bit left out when the other kids started warming up and practice sparring with each other.

I'm bored, he said. I've got nobody to practice with.

Just join one of those groups, I said.

Before long, he was running around and practising throws with his new friends.


The boy was in tears after his elimination.

You did really well, said a girl. I saw you, you were pretty good.

The boy was disconsolate.

I only had two fights, he said.

These kids have been taught throws that I don't know, he said.

They cheated, he said.

They didn't bow before the fight, he said. That's cheating.

We explained that this was his first competition and that he didn't roll onto his tummy as soon as he fell.

You'll do better next time, we said. Don't feel too bad.

I'm embarrassed, he said.

I'm never going to the Docklands again.

On the train the other day it was crowded as ever and I didn't have space to read my book so I looked about and I saw a smartly dressed woman sitting with a large stack of papers with dense writing on them. I realised then that I was not bad at all at reading upside down. That is to say, I wasn't upside down, but the writing on the woman's papers was upside down. To me, that is. What I read was her to-do list.
Wash my hair 
Sort out clothes in my bedroom 
Leave out Italian hw and dictionary 
Set alarm for early departure 
Hang out washing and fold aired clothes 
Get room ready for M______ 
Leave out L___ kick boxing gear and my singing stuff 
Don't set house alarm 
Fill in parent day for L___ ice skating trip 
Book annual leave for Christmas 
Speak to mum re: dates 
Check out kami sparling blog post 
Locate video of dancing priests

Impressive stuff, eh? Now I need to find that dancing priests video. Oh, and figure out who kami sparling is.

After reading Andrej Longo's masterful collection of short stories, Ten (translated by Howard Curtis and long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014), I was moved to create a Wikipedia page for the author. A bit of digging around revealed coverage of the man's talent - in German and French and Italian - but little in English, so here are excerpts from a quick and dirty translation of Maike Albath's review of the book from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 22 September 2010.

These are tough, brutal short stories that take place in the streets of Naples between piles of garbage and the carcasses of feral dogs, in drab apartment blocks and sleazy nightclubs. They are framed within the Ten Commandments, but with the commandments turned on their heads, sometimes leading to absurd and tragic conclusions. The first commandment, for instance, 'I am the Lord your God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me', refers to the local Camorra boss, Giggino Mezzanote, from whom the narrator Papilù, a tough seventeen year-old, has always striven to stay away. But when a tough type bumps into him and his girlfriend and incites a fight, Mezzanote arrives as a saviour. Papilù has no choice: despite wanting to lead a life different from his criminal father's, he has no alternative but to seek Mezzanote's protection. It is this inevitability that makes Longo's stories so upsetting.

In another tale, a man goes with his seven year-old boy to the fair, fully knowing that he is on the verge of execution by a rival clan. 'Thou shalt not kill' is the title of this story. In yet another story, a Camorra bride has managed a social advancement yet as her wedding approaches she is seized with panic. Longo's heroes, however, never succeed in turning the tables: they are victims of the crude Darwinism of Naples, always forced to endure their downfall with stoicism.

Longo's fast and sober narrative is suffused with spare dialogue, sprinkled with dialect and an expressive language invented by himself. Ten is reminiscent of a black-and-white photograph: all outline and sharp contrast. It's a minor masterpiece of hardboiled realism.

Nov 6, 2014

Djinn Food

The man looked surprised. He led Marish into a building that looked like a blur of spinning triangles, through a dark room lit by candles, to a table piled with capon and custard and razor-thin slices of ham and lamb's foot jelly and candied apricots and goatsmilk yogurt and hard cheese and yams and turnips and olives and fish cured in strange spices; and those were just the things Marish recognised. 
"I don't reckon I ought to eat fairy food," said Marish, though he could hardly speak from all the spit that was suddenly in his mouth. 
"That is true, but from the food of the djinn you have nothing to fear..."

From Benjamin Rosenbaum, "A Siege of Cranes", in Sean Wallace (ed), The Mammoth Book Of Warriors and Wizardry.

Nov 2, 2014


Now Bangalore will be called Bengaluru, Mangalore (Mangaluru), Mysore (Mysuru), Bellary (Ballari), Belgaum (Belagavi), Hubli (Hubballi), Tumkur (Tumakuru), Bijapur (Vijayapura), Chikmagalur (Chikkamagaluru), Gulbarga (Kalaburagi), Hospet (Hosapete) and Shimoga (Shivamogga).
From Outlook magazine

Robin Gibb found out that one of his ancestors had been a soldier in India, who, after winning several good conduct commendations, had ended up demoted and cashiered for drunkenness and disorderliness.  The reason for the moral fall appears to have been boredom. Other than daily drills, there were few opportunities for British military types in India to expend their masculine energies. The ennui and monotony drove many of them to drink and gambling, and many more to prostitutes.

A similar trajectory can be found in one of Billy Connolly's ancestors. A gunner with the Royal Horse Artillery, based in south India during and after the revolt of 1857, Daniel Doyle had started with commendations and good conduct. In the 1860s however he was censured sixteen times and later hospitalised - for alcoholism, dysentery, diarrhoea, and syphilis.

Again, the descent into indiscipline stemmed from lack of constructive activity. In particular, the southern garrisons Doyle was based with didn't see any action at all during 1857, no doubt to the utter frustration of the men.

It turned out that the British Army in India understood that the soldiers would need some release, and while its morality didn't exactly encourage licentiousness, it was happy enough to provide prostitutes for its men. Invariably it would be local indigent women who would service the men, and a typical garrison of a thousand men would be served by about 20 women. Indeed, these women were for the exclusive use of the garrison.

Naturally sexually transmitted disease was rampant - there were some estimates that one in three British soldiers caught the infection. Daniel Doyle had primary syphilis, which presents itself with genital sores. Connolly read out an extract from a contemporary British Medical Journal (given to him by historian Mridula Raman) describing how the military surgeons had to inspect the men.
The health inspection is differently performed in different regiments, according to the custom in the corps, or the views or convenience of the surgeon. In some regiments the men are marched in a body to the hospital, and passed into or through a room, one by one, for individual examination. This is the surest and least offensive mode of performing it; but it necessarily occupies a great deal of time, is wearisome to all parties, and often inconvenient in keeping the men long from their other duties. The more usual plan is to inspect them in their several barrack rooms, the men being drawn up in line, and called to 'attention' as the medical officer enters the room. In some cases, they stand in their ordinary fatigue dress, each man unbuttoning the front of his trousers, and parading his genitals for the inspecting surgeon; this operation generally giving rise to suppressed manifestations of mirth, shame, or indignation, according to the character and temper of individuals; but at all times, to say the least of it, humiliating and disgusting to the surgeon. Sometimes the soldiers are partially or even entirely undressed, or with the shirt on only, the front tail of which is lifted up as the surgeon passes down the line. [1]
The situation for the women was worse, because inevitably they were considered to be the cause of the infection. The Army, keen to contain its spread, would put any of the women found to carry the disease in 'lock hospitals' for examination and quarantine. The women would be locked up for up to three months, and if they were then found to be clean, they'd be brought back to the military brothels to continue their trade.

Lock Hospitals in India were created following the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 and 1868. There is little information on the actual treatment of venereal disease; at most, the hospitals aimed to provide hygiene and cleanliness. The soldiers were absolved of any responsibility in spreading the disease. Instead, the women continued to be blamed, and fined or imprisoned if they didn't present themselves for examination or, driven by starvation or poverty, if they plied their trade without registering with the authorities. [2]


[1] Inspector-General Dartnell, British Medical Journal, April 28, 1860.
[2] Medical History of British India, National Library of Scotland.
[3] William Acton, Prostitution Considered, Routledge, 2012.
[4] Who Do You Think You Are? Billy Connolly, BBC, Series 11, Episode 9.