The Life Romance

A set of photographs showing the Srinagar romance of a couple – an American pilot and a British hostess, has been in circulation for years ever since the internet offered windows of the region’s history. Masood Hussain offers text and context to the long photo shoot that brought Kashmir closer to Americans in 1943

US Soldier Vaden Carney and Pam Rumbold, in Srinagar in 1944. Photograph by William Vandivert

Every time, while browsing recent Kashmir tourism history, one lands on a set of photographs of US soldier Lieutenant Vaden Carney and his British love, girl Pamela Rumbold, who spent some days in the summer of 1943 in Srinagar. Some of these photographs are quite “modern” given the conservatism that societies – in East and West – exhibited in the forties.

In one photograph, they are seen romancing in the Shikara, named interestingly, Careless Rapture, and in another, it shows the man taking a semi-nude young lady in his lap in the Shalimar garden. The couple smoking in a houseboat and strolling the Shankaracharya peak or moving around Suffering Moses – the only photograph showing the famous Kashmir craft shop operating from a houseboat – offers a lot of detail about Srinagar in 1943 and the more and value-systems that Americans and British exhibited in “cool” environs.

The intriguing question is why this ‘couple’ was photographed so profusely. They were not celebrities after all.

World War Allies

The fact is that there were almost 150 to 200 thousand American soldiers in India between 1942-45 as part of the World War II deployment in the China-Burma-India theatre. Their deployment in famine-stricken India was not the only worry. They were supposed to stay neutral to India’s domestic politics involving the freedom struggle that was at its peak. “Americans are in India to fight the Axis. You should stick to that and not try to settle the Indian political problem,” one guidebook for the soldiers instructed them. “What we want is to cooperate with both the British and Indians to beat the Japanese. Your place is to keep the eyes and ears open and mouth shut.”

1943 US Soldier Vaden Carney and his date Pam Rumbold in Srinagar. Pic by William Vandivert

Politics apart, they were supposed to be protected from the summer heat and sent away from malaria as well. So their officers were encouraging them to move off the plains to the hill stations. “Heavily outnumbered, European, Canadian and American nurses and Red
Cross women dated officers and officials, who received access to better food and supplies and whirled women around the dance floor, took them up in planes and whisked them off to Kashmir or Simla for holidays,” historian Yasmin Khan wrote in India at War: The Subcontinent and The Second World War.

Since the Britishers had already converted Kashmir into a “game reserve” since the days they sold the Vale in 1846, American troops followed the allies. Maharaja was ready for anything that the British would require. “I have available in Jammu a reserve of man-power which has been judged . . . excellent fighting material and of this, I have decided to give the benefit to His Majesty’s Government,” the Kashmir Maharaja wrote on September 4, 1939, days after the war was declared. He offered two infantry battalions and one mountain battery for use anywhere in the world with an offer that his treasury would pay for these men and support their families while they were away from home and the British India government need only feed them in the field and meet their other daily requirements. “The Maharaja also invited the government to send recruiting parties into Kashmir as long as they co-operated with the local authorities,” Khan recorded.

“Some of the men go to rest camps, where American girls from Red Cross centres see that they have a good time,” one writing of that era suggests.” Others, more adventurous, make for hill stations like Darjeeling and Gulmarg, traditional summering places for the British, or to Srinagar, capital of Kashmir, a stone’s throw from beautiful Dal Lake.” This is perhaps why there are a lot of crunchy and juicy travelogues of British and American men and women available from that era.

Covering The Trend

In order to explain the trend to the American audience, Life Magazine, sent its staff photographer William Vandivert to Srinagar only to cover the ‘couple’. It is the same photographer who in 1945 captured the burned-out bunker in Berlin where Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun spent their last hours.

“A large part of the feminine population of India, including beautiful English and Anglo-Indian girls, summer in Kashmir, contributing an additional bit of glamour to the already glamorous setting,” the Life Magazine wrote in its August 30, 1943 issue that carried the set of 11 photographs of the US-UK couple. It quoted William adding: “There is considerable competition from British officers, but Americans are bowling a mean wicket.”

US Soldier Vaden Carney (L) and Pam Rumbold, taking a romantic boat ride in Kashmir – 1943

It was on basis of the long photo shoot of the love birds that Life Magazine ran a huge feature under the title – Life goes on as a date in India with a beautiful English girl an American lieutenant discovers the vale of Kashmir. The two seemingly are mere actors in a still film that Life editors scripted in New York.

But, who they were?

Lieutenant Vaden Carney of Fort Worth, Texas was a test pilot at a US air depot. In 1943, he has been in Air Force for three years.

The girl was from London, Pamela Rumbold. Employed in Kashmir, she was a WVS hostess at the Srinagar Club, the two-level building on the bund which was exclusively for the British residents, forcing one Dogra monarch later in 1933 to launch the Amar Singh Club for Indian elites. She was already known as ‘the most beautiful girl in Kashmir’. She had been doing censorship work in Bombay also.

It is not known if they knew each other already or if they fell for each other once the young man landed in Srinagar. Their romance, however, was a visual treat to a lot of Americans who knew Kashmir slightly less than the British.

Carney, available records suggest had stationed himself in a houseboat on the Jhelum with two of his buddies. He was paying the princely US $3 a day for everything “including food and servants”.

Carney was accompanied by his colleague Frank Dannelly, who was photographed by Life with Pam’s friend, Ditty Hodgkinson. Apart from rowing around in houseboats and dancing in Ngheen Club and moving around in Maisuma, there are countless pictures that Life recorded. It suggested that Srinagar was hosting Saturday night dance at Nigheen Club and similar shows were in carried out by a dancing orchestra at Gulmarg in which “plenty of girls” would be seen.

Nobody knows if they were married. What happened to them after the Life photo shoot and did they live in UK or USA?

Return Passport

However, Kashmir Life traced a new document that tells a slightly different story. John O’Brien at the India Office Records in London located her passport application of Pam which she had submitted to the government in Srinagar, the same year.

Passport application of Pam Rumbold

“Two fascinating files in the Kashmir Residency Records also have papers relating to passports for people wishing to travel from pre-1947 India,” John wrote. “The two files contain applications for passports to be issued or renewed from residents of the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir in 1943.  They give details of applicant’s full name, place of residence, age, marital status, occupation, place and date of birth, information on children and spouse, and some applications have a photograph attached.”

One of them was the application of Violet Gladys Stapleton, who was born in St Albans on 21 February 1882 and was a nursing sister (missionary), residing at the CMS Hospital, Srinagar.

Another was the application of Pamela Mary Rumbold, who was born in Wales on 1 September 1916, has written in the application that she is the wife of an RAF officer, residing in Srinagar.  “She wanted a passport for a possible return to England in the event of her husband’s transfer there,” the information culled by John said.

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