Archive for January, 2015

Kolkata’s Once and Future Chinatown

January 27, 2015 in Uncategorized | Comments (6)




Breakfast at the Sunday morning market in Chinatown is an old tradition in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta).



Visitors have to be up early because the market’s hours are short – from about 6.30 to 8.30 a.m..











The market is in a lane in the city’s crowded centre (beside Poddar Court, a recently bulit commercial complex).






DSC04334This was once the heart of a thriving, centuries-old Chinese community (some members of the cast of River of Smoke and Flood of Fire [forthcoming, May 28, 2015] are from this community).










Now only a hundred or so Chinese-Indian families remain in this neighbourhood.



DSC04123But still, every Sunday vendors gather to sell Chinese cabbage, mustard greens, dumplings, home-made noodles, shu-mai, Chinese sausages, steamed glutinous rice, meatballs and so on








In an adjoining lane,



DSC04189 (480x640)Chhatawala Gulee, named after the umbrella-makers who once had workshops there,











is the Sea Ip Church,




DSC04193 (640x480)

which was founded in 1905,








by migrants from four counties






DSC04191 (640x480) in China’s Guangdong Province.











Pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Sun Yat Sen


DSC04131hang in the entrance hall.











We are fortunate to have with us,


DSC04137a brilliant scholar of China, Dr. Tansen Sen, a Kolkata-born historian who is an expert on Indo-Chinese connections and cultural exchanges. He is the author of Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600-1400 (University of Hawai’i Press, 2003) and many other books and articles.










Tansen explains that the ‘churches’ of Kolkata’s Chinatown are traditional Buddhist-Daoist Chinese temples.


DSC04139 (480x640)

The ‘church’ designation derives from British colonial administrative practices.












The Sea Ip Church is consecrated primarily to




Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy.













This notice explains how to get a



DSC04152‘Guan-Yin Blessed Card.’













There is also a side chapel






DSC04182 (480x640)dedicated to a community deity.













Tansen explains that he is





DSC04186 (480x640)Ba Gong, a deified official, one of many such.













Here he is garlanded with



DSC04183 (480x640)

rupee notes.













In the main shrine room,







DSC04148at the altar Of Guanyin,












a ceremony is under way,





DSC04165 (640x480)conducted by a few members of the community.










One of them tells us about





DSC04187 (480x640)the accompaniments of the ceremony (which she describes as a puja).













She says that







the incense-sticks











and other offerings,






DSC04188 (640x480)like these paper ingots, representing gold, are all locally made, by artisans who had once worked in factories owned by members of the Chinese-Indian community.










A stone’s throw from the Sea Ip Church, is a building that once housed a great Calcutta institution:






DSC04218 (640x480)the Nanking Restaurant. It was one of my father’s favourite restaurants and I have fond childhood memories of it.








The restaurant closed down years ago




DSC04196 (480x640)

and the approaches to the building are now choked with refuse.













It is a sorry sight, but things may soon get better.






DSC04205 (480x640)Rinkoo Bhowmick is one of the founders of the Cha Project,  an initiative which hopes to transform Chinatown.












If all goes well, this building, which is also known as the Toong On Church, will be restored to its former glory.





DSC04207 (480x640)In the main hall (which once housed the Nanking Restaurant), there is an image of the Buddha.











The salon upstairs is empty now,





DSC04211 (640x480)but was once filled with fine artefacts.










Lee Han Kuang, a prominent member of the community, is working to reclaim some of those artefacts and hopes one day to


DSC04212 (480x640)bring some of them back to the Toong On Church.













Once upon a time, crowds would gather around the building when film stars like Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari came to the restaurant. The stars  would often step out on the balcony to wave to their fans in the lane below.




This is what the lane looks like today. DSC04213 (480x640)















Across the main road, on Blackburn Lane,






DSC04224 (480x640)is the Hupeh Association. Tansen tells me that the favoured profession of migrants from Hupeh was dentistry. In my childhood the clinics of Chinese dentists were a common sight in Calcutta; their premises were easy to recognize because of the giant teeth that hung above their doors.











Many families of Chinese origin once




DSC04225 (640x480)

lived in this building and those around it.









A portrait of Sun Yat Sen hangs inside,





DSC04231 (480x640)














And in an adjoining room there is a shrine to Lu Ban,







DSC04236 (480x640)

God of Carpenters.














There is also a little altar to Atchew, who is regarded as the founder of the Chinese-Indian community.






DSC04238 (640x480)He settled in Bengal in 1785 and is said to have had an Indian wife. The town of Atchipur takes its name from him.









Down the road is the community’s funeral parlour,


DSC04240 (480x640)


tucked in beside











a long row of houses:





DSC04241 (640x480)

this was once the residential core of Chinatown.










Many of the houses still have






DSC04239 (480x640)



Chinese lettering on the doorways.












Making our way past a






DSC04247 (480x640)(very serious) cricket match














and the doorway of a now-defunct





Chinese bookshop DSC04223













we walk past the bricked-up entrance





DSC04250 (480x640)

to what was once the Guang Shun club and restaurant,












and enter a lane





DSC04251 (480x640)














that leads to the oldest Chinese temple in Kolkata.






DSC04288 (480x640)














The address is 17A Tiretty Bazar.





DSC04254 (480x640)A narrow passageway, filled with debris,













bears witness to





DSC04256 (480x640)

a history of contentious litigation within the community.













The main shrine room is upstairs;





DSC04257 (480x640)

it is dedicated to Tianhou, Goddess of Sailors.













This temple is said to have been founded in the early 19th century,






DSC04258 (480x640)before the First Opium War (1840-42).














The temple’s custodian,




DSC04261 (480x640)Zeng Jian Chuan,














shows us around the premises.









DSC04275 (640x480)The terrace is lined with commemorative inscriptions.













In a nearby building a man




DSC04270 (640x480)hangs some leaves, freshly bought at the market, on a window-sill: they will soon be turned into Chinese-style pickled mustard greens.










Returning to the lane





DSC04283 (640x480)

we walk deeper into Tiretty Bazar,










to what was once a ceremonial gateway






DSC04290 (480x640)















Inside lies the tranquil courtyard of the






DSC04313 (640x480)

Nanshuan Native Place Association.












The principal deity in the shrine room is Guandi, the God of War.




DSC04294 (480x640)The inscription hanging above the altar says: ‘Prosper in Foreign Lands’ (the character yi, which was cited by the British as a major grievance during the First Opium War, is third from right).













Amidst the







DSC04297 (640x480)decorative weaponry,












is a mysterious statuette






DSC04296 (480x640)the provenance of which not even Tansen can explain.














Next to the shrine room, is the hall







DSC04304 (480x640)

where the members of the association would gather for meetings.













In a cabinet on a wall,







DSC04302 (640x480)there is a poignant display of photographs of members who have left for other shores.












At the far end of the complex






DSC04307 (480x640)


are a few schoolrooms.












The headmistress,






DSC04306 (480x640)Lily Ho, tells us that her efforts to teach her pupils Chinese have been unavailing: ‘They find the language too difficult.’















Another short walk down the lane







DSC04315 (480x640)















brings us to the last stop on our itinerary.







DSC04321 (640x480)The Yi Xing temple, which is another shrine-cum-‘native place association.’













A game of mah-jong is under way when we enter.





DSC04323 (480x640)















In one corner of the room






DSC04333 (640x480)

is an old chest













filled with papers





DSC04327 (640x480)













like this one,






DSC04328 (480x640)


a funerary inscription.













Tansen is horrified to learn that the papers may soon be







DSC04332 (480x640) (2)disposed of as trash. He offers to have them digitized.














which draws a big smile from one of our guides,







DSC04331 (480x640)


Dominic Shien Woun Lee, an activist who hopes to preserve and restore the  community’s heritage.







For a long time preservation and restoration were not a high priority for Kolkata’s Chinese-Indians. Following on the India-China war of 1962 the community faced many vicissitudes, including mass internment, expropriation of property, dwindling numbers, and so on. If this was a dark chapter in the history of independent India, it was even more so in that of Kolkata, where Chinese migrants have been a part of the urban fabric for many generations.

The city has paid a steep price for the treatment that was meted out to its Chinese-Indian residents: had the community been allowed to thrive it would have brought in, decades ago, investments of the kind that India’s current leaders are now earnestly soliciting from many countries, including China. Diasporic Chinese communities have generated great wealth for Bangkok, Saigon, Jakarta and many other cities across South East Asia; they are now doing so also in Vancouver, Sydney and elsewhere. Unfortunately, for Kolkata, this was yet another of a long string of missed opportunities and squandered advantages.

But fortunately for the city, it is still in possession of the legacy that was left to it by its once flourishing Chinese population. The remaining buildings of Chinatown are a unique endowment, the like of which exists in no other Indian city; if properly restored these buildings could become a huge draw for visitors and serve to revitalize a decaying neighbourhood. Only time will tell whether this legacy will be squandered or cherished.













Prasenjit Duara’s ‘Crisis of Global Modernity’

January 21, 2015 in Reviews | Comments (0)





Prasenjit Duara’s The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future (Cambridge University Press, 2015)


Coverpic.12July (429x648)is a wide-ranging overview of Asian environmental history and philosophy. A singularly timely publication, it is a hugely important intervention in the global discussion of climate change.










Prasenjit Duara is singularly well equipped for this ambitious undertaking. Assamese by birth, he was educated at Delhi University and Harvard, and was for many years a professor of Chinese history at the University of Chicago (he also taught briefly at Delhi University where, I am proud to say, I was one of the many undergraduates who hung upon his words). He is currently the Raffles Professor of the Humanities at the National University of Singapore and also the director of the university’s Asian Research Institute. Fluent in Japanese, Mandarin and several other languages, Duara is the author of many books and articles in East Asian history, among them the ground-breaking study Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern.



Crisis of Global Modernity is thus founded upon a lifetime of scholarship, in diverse fields: it is at once a magisterial tour de horizon of many centuries of Asian thought, and also a provocative meditation on the resources that Asian traditions can offer to a world in which the dominant models of economy and governance have proved catastrophically dysfunctional.

Through his scholarly career, nationalism and the nation-state have been among Duara’s central concerns. In Crisis of Global Modernity he identifies the institution of the nation state as one of the prime drivers of the present crisis.

In the post-Cold War era, the growing collusion between transnational capital and the nation-state means that the latter is not as capable of protecting the interests of the community and the natural world in their territories. Not only are many national institutions diverted from promoting public services and protecting the commons, profit-driven economic globalization has wreaked environmental degradation across the world that can hardly be addressed only by national policies. The growing economic interdependence of the world requires the political and cultural authority to be able to manage and regulate it. Global sustainability requires a cosmopolitanism that is able to transcend the nation. (241)

He then proceeds to identify several domains of cosmopolitanism that could serve to overcome national divisions and inter-state rivalries in Asia. Among them are maritime and mercantile connections:

The Asian maritime networks of the pre-colonial era … involved a wide variety of merchant communities at different points who did not speak the same languages or trade in the same currencies… In many ways, contemporary Asian regional interdependence resembles the maritime Asian trade networks, because of the separation of political, economic and military levels and power…. Although the actual products flowing through the Asian maritime networks were miniscule compared to today’s figures, the cultural flows they enabled–packaged in Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Islam—were nothing short of world-transforming… Nonetheless, the older Asian models of cultural circulation without state domination of identity presents us with a historical resource to explore new possibilities. (277)

Duara finds reason for optimism also in regional economic groupings, ASEAN in particular.

[T]he quickening pace of ASEAN integration has spawned a vast and vibrant space of civil society including those sponsored by ASEAN administration and those committed to an ‘alternative’ or ‘people-centered ASEAN.’ At any rate, the development of the region not only furnishes a wider framework to observe and manage the problem of the commons, it also provides opportunities for alliances and networking across a diverse region with a variety of informational and organizational resources. (273)

In the growth of trans-Asian cultural connections Duara identifies yet another promising trend.

There is some indication of greater cultural interest of Asians in Asia. We see this in the increase in the number of tourists circulating the region to over pre-crisis levels. Not only has the market demand for Asian art sky-rocketed, but there are plenty of exhibitions and showings of Asian art in which artists and curators experiment with new ideas of Asia as well as art. These shows often deliberately distance themselves from the culturally unified notion of Asia or reified versions of national civilizations prevalent among their predecessors like Okakura and Nand Lal Bose. They often seek to showcase the contemporary, urban multi-cultural experience of Asia emphasizing heterogeneity and cultural encounters. At a popular level, the circulation of East Asian cinema, manga, anime, TV shows, food, design and allied areas in East and Southeast Asia have been the most conspicuous cultural development in Asia since the 1990s. (256)






Prasenjit Duara

Prasenjit Duara

Among the most interesting chapters of Crisis of Global Modernity is one that provides an overview of contemporary environmental movements across Asia. Some of these, such as India’s Chipko and Narmada Dam movements, have been extensively chronicled.










It is the material on environmental movements in China that comes as a real surprise: here again Duara paints a picture quite different from those we usually see.

[W]hile the daily news is filled with small and large environmental disasters, China has also witnessed some remarkable developments in the environmental sphere. Among all developing countries, the Chinese government’s efforts in environmental education are probably the greatest. In 2007, President Hu Jintao coined the idea of Ecological Civilization through which he sought to replace economic construction as the core of development with sustainable development that must incorporate a balanced relationship between humans and nature. The central government in China has been steadily developing the institutional and financial infrastructure of environmental protection. In 2005, China raised its expenditure for environmental protection in the national budget to 1.4% of GDP and in 2008, the State Environmental Protection Agency was given full ministerial status and established local environmental protection branches all over the country. (35-36)

Over the last twenty years, environmental NGOs or ENGOs as well as informal groups and movements have mushroomed across the country. Indeed, Guobin Yang and Craig Calhoun have dubbed this activism as the “green public sphere” in China. According to the government affiliated… All China Environmental Federation, in 2008, there were 2768 ENGOs (employing 224,000), which rose to almost 8,000 in 2013. . There are many thousands of others which are not formally registered as ENGOs. Their role has been enhanced by recognition at higher levels of government for the environmental services they can render such as enhancing environmental consciousness among the public and mobilizing for projects like reforestation. More importantly, they are able to serve as watchdogs to expose the violation or non-implementation of environmental laws. Of course, as civic organizations in the PRC, they occupy a vulnerable status and most organizations are careful not to oppose state policies, but serve rather in a vital ‘supplementary’ role as pressure groups, guardians and enablers for the victimized. (36)

Nonetheless, ENGOs have been perhaps unexpectedly successful in influencing state policies over the last decade—until very recently. A landmark event for Chinese environmental history was the halting—or shelving– of the massive Nu River Dam projects in 2004 … The event was important for various reasons, including the collective action taken not only by the Chinese groups, but with international NGOS and groups and governments in Southeast Asian countries that would have been affected by the enormous environmental impact on their societies. The Chinese groups also ignited the media campaign– including both the old and new media—that launched the vigorous ‘green public sphere’ and ‘greenspeak’ which is remarkably continuous with the global green discourse of climate change, sustainable consumption, bio-diversity, desertification, etc. (37)

The profile of activists and activities of the ENGOs suggests an orientation that transcends consumerist and materialist approaches to life, at least among the youth for the time being. Bao Maohong notes that eighty percent of the staff of the registered ENGOs is under thirty and although over half of them have college degrees, they are motivated by their mission rather than their rather paltry, if any, salaries. Greenspeak tends to promote a new moral-spiritual/religious vision and practices and promotes volunteerism and civil participation in opposition to materialist and consumerist practices. The All China Environmental Federation notes that 70% of the public surveyed by it recognized and supported the activities of the ENGOs. (37)

[T]here are some interesting experiments in environmental education among grass-roots environmental NGOs,


Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan

especially in Yunnan, a province rich in bio-diversity and called the “cradle of NGOs.”














Robert Erfid’s study of NGOs working in the Naxi region of  Lijiang and particularly Lashihai shows how some of these small,


Lijiang, Yunnan

Lijiang, Yunnan

 shoe-string budget NGOs committed to environmental education have sought, not merely to tailor environmental learning to local circumstances, but also to engage children in a practical, hands-on education with the environment. (38)










Although Crisis of Global Modernity teems with detail, Duara’s fundamental concern is not with the nitty-gritty of historical and social analysis. The book’s essential engagement (and this perhaps is its greatest surprise) is with what Duara calls ‘transcendence’. By this he means

a way of human knowing based upon an inscrutable yearning or calling with several attributes that coexist in varying degrees. It is a critique of existing conditions that draws on a non-worldly moral authority. (6)

The domain that Duara is gesturing at is that of religious and spiritual tradition: these, he seems to suggest, are Mankind’s last best hope for tackling the climate crisis.

Much of this book has dealt with the descriptions and expressions of … a reaching beyond the self that is not committed to a single all-powerful God, truth or eschaton. Dialogue involves incrementalism and negotiation between local needs and universal requirements and is intertwined with ideals from the living historical repertoire that can engage the changing requirements of the present. Its value today will lie in the capacity to create a sustainable ideal which much of the world can endorse. The second requirement is the capacity of culture to create personal and collective commitment, a problem of hope and sacrality. [282]

… Modern universalisms have tended to lack confidence in investing the transcendent or utopian truths they propose with symbols and rituals of sacred authority. Their hesitation doubtless has good reasons that we may see from the rampaging power of extreme nationalisms, such as Nazism, or blinding faith in utopian science triumphant over reason. But no movement of major social change has succeeded without a compelling symbology and affective power. [282]

Working with the Abrahamic religions, Ricoeur identifies faith, hope and the sacred as a primordial complex identified with ‘manifest communities’ founded on numinous and preverbal experiences of the sacred in nature before they become book-centered, interpretive, intratribal and iconoclastic ‘proclamation communities’. At the same time, he does not believe that interpretive reason or kerygmatic logic can negate the primordial sacred. Rational exposition and logical interpretation derive from and are dependent upon the symbolism of the sacred, say, the figure of Christ; but, just as much, they are necessary for the sacred. From this he argues that the task of contemporary interpreters and philosophers of religion is to rationally explicate such figures of hope in a contemporary world of injustice and suffering. (283)

In the course of writing this book, I began to wonder if the thorny task of mediating the sacred with reason could be eased if we can recognize that the gap between ideal, project, and effort and its realization may be occupied not principally by faith or belief, but by hope. Consider some of the cases I discussed in the book where reverence and reason were inseparably entwined with hope. (284)

Whether by the Confucian sage or the laywomen of the Morality Society, Tian and Dao were viewed as the source and highest judge of the ethical mission for humans. Yet, neither Heaven nor the Way is anthropomorphic like an all-powerful God with a clear and singular message, and failure to follow its path – by this time in Chinese history – does not result in punishment either immediately or in the afterlife. The sacrality of Heaven was intertwined with reason and hope; indeed, the ambiguities of Heaven’s message ironically subjected it to rational deliberation and empirical persuasion… (284)

Similarly, the environmental, rural reconstructionist and moral (anticorruption) movements inspired by Gandhianism draw on a complex matrix of goals and methods. Their moral authority derives significantly from Gandhi – his message, goals, methods, life and the movement he spawned – as a figure of hope … (284)

The perspective of Crisis of Global Modernity is thus post-secular and post-national: Duara recognizes that the climate crisis has indeed changed everything and that it is futile to attempt to engage with it through the 19th and 20th century frameworks of economy and governance that created it in the first place.




Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 12

January 4, 2015 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (2)




Troops of 11th East African Division on the road to Kalewa, Burma, during the Chindwin River crossing. - See more at:

Troops of 11th East African Division on the road to Kalewa, Burma, during the Chindwin River crossing.




By this time the DC had become a good friend and we enjoyed working together; I gauged the needs and he did his best to meet them. Two or three days after the bombing, as I was going round the City Camp one morning on my usual rounds, I was suddenly confronted by a tall, lean man with greying hair, dressed in pyjama and kurta and before I could call out his name found myself lifted off the ground in a tight hug. With tears streaming down his bearded face he kept repeating ‘Nadir baba’ and refused to let go of me.

I knew immediately that there was something wrong; his body felt burning hot and he was covered in sweat. I touched his brow and hands and asked him what was wrong. I went cold when he told me of his problems; these were the obvious symptoms of the dreaded cholera and no time was to be lost. I had him admitted into the Field Hospital without delay. They took him in hand immediately, but the duty M.O. told me quite frankly that in his opinion matters had gone too far for him to be hopeful but – he would do his best. I sat by the faithful retainer’s side for almost an hour listening to his story from the time he left Rangoon. All had gone well till he reached Kalewa but he felt that he must have picked up the bug before reaching Tamu. Since the Camp had been wound up, he carried on towards Palel on foot, but was fortunate in being able to get a lift in an Army convoy up to Imphal, and there he was.



Needlework class Zeenat ul Islam school Rangoon

Abdul Rehman had been with us for almost 15 years, first as our house driver and later as Bus-Driver in Zeenat Islam Girls High School started by Mother of which she was the Hon. Headmistress.






It had developed from an initial 40 students (mostly Zerbadis[Indo-Burmese Muslims]) to almost 1,000 students by end 1941. Confirmed reports indicate that the School is still a going concern and flourishing under the dedicated guidance of its Old Girls trained under Mother’s strict supervision. However, poor Abdul Rehman was going down fast and the doctor told me that since there was little chance of recovery, it would not be possible for them to continue to accommodate him in the Hospital with a large number of emergency cases waiting for proper beds. I saw the point and with the DC’s permission shifted him to an out-house in his compound where the poor man met his end in peace. It was early morning, and I was able to see him through those last moments – born in a remote village in U.P., we buried him under a shady tree on the hill-side. I had buried many along the road from Mandalay but this hurt the most. He had not seen his family for almost 5 years and was so looking forward to joining them again with a tidy sum saved up. I took charge of his meagre possessions, requesting the DC arrange their delivery to the family due course. I know he honoured my request. The money I kept with me till I got to Calcutta and then arranged its actual handing over to his wife through the local DC’s office. I received an acknowledgement from the wife in due course and that brought this sad episode to a close.

We were well into June 1942 and the heavy rain (almost 200 inches) was beginning to create problems. Fortunately most of the Camps were empty as also the hospital and we arranged for the last few hundred refugees to be transported to Kohima-Dimapur by the 3rd week of June. At a last informal meeting with the DC and the Army representative (a Major), it was agreed that there was nothing left for me to do in Imphal and that I should leave in a convoy leaving for Dimapur the next morning. Having walked all the way from Mandalay and with no further responsibility on my shoulders from there on, my ego and perhaps the prospect of a leisurely trek through that beautiful country,



60 miles to Kohima and 40 miles from there to Dimapur, made me suggest to my friends somewhat diffidently that I would like to do the journey on foot, if they did not mind.









They did protesting loudly that it would be madness, quite unnecessary and the torrential rains in the area could make it somewhat unsafe. I tried to see the point without much success but in the end agreed to take a lift. Evidently the Gods were on my side.

As luck would have it, I was seated next to the Driver in the last truck, which developed trouble a few miles out of Imphal. The others broke convoy discipline and carried on which gave me no qualms whatsoever for I knew my chance had come. Eventually the truck came to a halt at a small hamlet, the bonnet was lifted and a few minutes later I was informed that there was not a hope of our proceeding further that day owing to a major breakdown. I lost no time in getting free of the Army, said my thanks and farewells as solemnly as I could manage and was on my way without a care. The pipe was pulling well, I had filled up with a couple cups of green tea and life was sheer bliss. Unfortunately I gave no thought whatsoever to the possible consequences of my escapade in so far as the people sitting in Calcutta and Bombay were concerned, waiting anxiously for some news of my whereabouts after leaving Imphal. A DR from Dimapur to Imphal with a message for me was sent back with the information that I had left Imphal in a convoy some 3 days back and should have reached Dimapur the same day or the next latest.



The DC at Dimapur seemed to have scoured the area for my whereabouts and also requested his counterpart in Kohima to do the same.






Since I had hopped off the convoy, they had no means of confirming how, where and why I had disappeared and so, in order to place everything on record, informed the Agent, Mr. Hutchings, that having scoured the countryside without luck, he greatly regretted having to suggest that I be listed ‘presumed missing if not dead’. Poor Mr. Hutchings. I believe he had been telling all and sundry (whenever the topic came up) that he just could not believe that anything would happen to me. In his view I possessed an uncanny instinct for self-preservation and that I would, without a doubt, turn up like the proverbial bad penny when least expected. Needless to say the telegram from Dimapur gave his optimism a bit of a jolt but worst still, what would he say to my Mother anxiously waiting for news from him. In the end he decided to play it straight and repeated the Dimapur telegram verbatim adding a few words to say that he expected everything to come out right in the end and not to worry. I shall come back to this a bit later.

Four days on the road to Kohima, spending nights in small hamlets and repaying their hospitality with the princely sum of one rupee which was invariably accepted with considerable enthusiasm. This included the evening meal and morning Tea! Three days to Dimapur and I was almost home and dry. Unfortunately, my sudden appearance in the DC’s office caused some consternation. The DC, a youngish man could not quite make up his mind whether to receive me like a long lost brother or to display the right temperature of coldness for having forced him to send off that unfortunate telegram.

I quickly sensed his embarrassment and lost no time in reassuring him that he was not to blame. If anything, this unfortunate situation had arisen entirely due to my own irresponsible action. He was not to worry! I would ensure that the Agent got the full story from me which would put the whole thing in the right perspective. This made him feel somewhat better and I was invited to go over to his bungalow and freshen up with a bath. He joined me for Tea later and since my train to Calcutta was not to leave till eight in the evening I thought I would run down to the Hospital where almost 75% of the patients were refugees. He decided to come too, and we strolled over after Tea. Going through the Men’s Wards, I noticed quite a few familiar faces, from Tamu and even earlier. Most of them were skin and bone but the doctor said they were all out of danger and would pick up fast. The mere fact of being a few days away from their homes was a tonic of sorts. We exchanged greetings and shook hands and these were the last tangible memories of our long association on the road from Mandalay to Dimapur.

Then we came to the Women’s Ward and as the Matron met us I told her about the two delivery cases on the road to Tamu. An English girl she listened to the story in a matter of fact sort of way obviously uncertain whether to accept it or let it be. I was a bit amused at her attitude and moved on towards the beds where a majority of the women had babies with them. As we moved up there was a slight commotion on the far side and looking round, I found one of the women waving her hand obviously trying to draw my attention. All I needed was a second look and was over-joyed to find my very first delivery case sitting up in bed with her youngster in her lap and telling everyone around her that I had been responsible for saving her child! Though delighted at this blatantly inflated recognition I thought the matter had to be put right and gave them all a highly coloured re-cap of the affair which brought peals of laughter from the other beds. By this time, my second patient, the mother of the baby girl, neighbour to my first, had also woken up and drawn my attention to the bouncing baby in her lap. I sat down and we had a long chat and it was good to see that the young British DC who spoke good Hindustani had also joined in the spirit of the occasion. However, the time came to say goodbye and as I was about to move on, the mother of the boy shyly asked me to write down my full name and address. She could read English and asked me what the ‘N.S.’ stood for. I wrote my name down in full and she asked me to underline my ‘christian’ name to be able to tell her husband.







In order to wind up this episode, I must record the fact that it was in September 1945 when I was doing a Course at the Staff College, Quetta, that I got a letter from the lady’s husband (a driver in the RIASC) recalling my part in the delivery of his son on the Kalewa-Tamu road and informing me that the family was well and happy by God’s Grace. The letter concluded with the information that they had named their son ‘Nadir’ in remembrance of the somewhat unusual circumstances of his birth. The letter was in Urdu and has been lost – its being written was an act of grace which has remained etched in my memory all these years.




Capt. Nasir S. Tyabji, Arakan, 1944

Capt. Nasir S. Tyabji, Arakan, 1944


Then it was time to leave and that was when I faced my moment of truth.











In saying goodbye to those women, I was in fact saying good bye to an adventure which had begun with the bombing of Rangoon, taken me to Mandalay and from then on, turned me into a refugee like any other of the twenty odd lakhs who had taken the road to India with its promise of safety, security and a new life. That circumstances had cast certain responsibilities on my shoulders in relation to the others was incidental to my basic status of refugee. There was, of course, one factor which made a difference. I have been a loner all my life and all my travelling whether on foot, bicycle, rail or steamer, on business or pleasure carried in my mind a certain element of adventure and excitement and this is exactly how I viewed my duties as Assistant to the Agent and my trek northwards. Walking was a pleasure and the ruck-sack on my back gave me a wonderful sense of being entirely on my own. My responsibilities added to it a sense of being needed which at 29 years of age is something to cherish. Leaving the Hospital I realised that I had finally come to the last link of my association with this massive operation; perhaps among the world’s biggest of its kind (involving a vast stream of humanity trudging over a distance of approx. 800 miles of rugged country living on rice and salt most of the time and leaving behind countless dead who would be mourned only when the journey ended. I was entering a world which I had almost forgotten. I knew I was in for some shocks and would have to come to terms with emerging realities in the hours and days ahead from total involvement to being just a refugee.





Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 11

January 2, 2015 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (0)



Burmese locals show little interest in the arrival of the Japanese occupying forces in their village, during World War II, circa 1942.

Japanese occupying forces in a Burmese village, World War II, circa 1942.



Imphal, 1942

Roberts ran a Spartan household with just a bedroom and living/dining room in full commission apart from the Office complex. He had a Camp bed set up for me and I woke up at six feeling fresh and ready for the fray and the thought of another attack remained an unspoken dread and neither of us had to mention it at breakfast. I was fully conscious of the traumas the day held for me. The male component of the large group of women who had been delivered at the Camp the previous morning before the air raid, which had been held back on our instructions some 5 miles down the road due to accommodation problems would be reaching the Camp around 7.30 a.m. in a highly emotional frame of mind since the news of the raid and casualties had spread far and wide in the valley.

We discussed the matter and decided to request the Army maintain a discreet presence in the neighbourhood of the various camps in case matters tended to get out of control. I was at the Camp just after seven o’clock and the first batch of menfolk started trickling in around 7.30 as expected. They presented themselves at the Camp gate silent and ashen-faced, with dread in their eyes as they scanned the emptiness beyond. Only a few sobbing women and children waited at the gate to meet them and they were immediately surrounded by the men imploring them for news with baited breath. Apart from a few, most of the men seemed to have steeled themselves for the worst and wept in silence.




After a while I decided to intervene to inform them that there were a large number of women and children in the Camp too shaken to move out of their enclosures.









I suggested that the men should go round in an orderly fashion to meet their families or confirm their whereabouts. I also told them that we would offer all help to visit the various hospitals in order to contact their missing wives and children as and when they were ready. I had just moved away from the gate and was talking to the Matron when an obviously agitated Anglo-Burmese man (in his late thirties) wearing a loungyi and khaki shirt, carrying a bundle on his shoulders came to me and speaking in English told me in gasping sobs that he knew his wife had been killed in the raid but could I help him to identify the spot or area where she had been seen last.

The query sounded almost grotesquely incongruous but I kept a hold on myself and asked for details concerning her height, complexion etc., hair-style and clothes she had been wearing. His description of her physical characteristics was hardly helpful but it was when he came to describe her clothes that my memory took a sudden jolt. Even as late as 1942 the vast majority of Burmese women stuck to the traditional white ‘aingyi’ or waist length jacket and only a few, even among the younger generation, wore coloured aingyis – mostly pastel shades of yellow pink or blue. Even in that moment of stress I remember clearly his telling me with an element of pride that his wife must have worn a pink aingyi above a dark mauve loungyi since that was all she had with her. It just happened that as I had been returning to my basha from the bazaar after the siren had sounded, I had noticed, quite by chance, a small group of women under a large banyan tree some 150 yards from my basha and whereas the rest were in white aingyis, one of them was wearing pink and it had registered.

I had seen no one else in a coloured jacket that morning. I told him casually that I thought I had seen a pink jacket but since all the bodies had been removed and disposed of it may be impossible to confirm the location where she had been killed. He asked me to point out where I had last seen the pink jacket and I pointed to a large tree which had been split in half by the blast. I picked up a spade and we walked over to the large crater next to the tree. The area had been totally cleared of the previous day’s gruesome debris and as I tried to explain that there was little chance of finding anything buried in the crater since everything had been blown clear, he hardly seemed to take any notice of what I was saying. His eyes were fixed on the crater and he suddenly burst into almost maniacal action digging methodically from the rim downwards to the bottom, to a depth of 18”.

After about 30 minutes, as I was wandering looking absently for other souvenirs of the raid, I heard a loud shout from the crater and ran up to discover that my young friend was tugging at the shoulder-loop of a red Shan-bag which he managed to pull out, place it reverently at his feet and kneel down in the Buddhist ritual of prayer. Eyes closed with tears streaming down his face and body shaking convulsively, I found myself rooted to the spot finding it difficult to accept the reality of this near miracle. It just did not make sense and yet the evidence was right there. Having calmed down, he picked up the bag and spade and scrambled up; holding out the bag, he asked me to look inside. The lips had been closed with 2 safety pins and as I looked inside I discovered 3 or 4 bundles of currency notes lying at the bottom together with other bundles of currency note lying at the bottom together with other bundles of papers and bits of jewellery.

I handed the bag back to him with a reassuring smile and he then quickly emptied the contents on to the ground, checked through and confirmed that his life savings was intact! As we walked back, I learnt that he was an employee of the Burma Railways and being Anglo-Burmese he did not want to stay back in Burma under the Japanese but decided to take a chance in India. He had drawn all his dues from the Railways and Bank savings and handed them over to his wife for safe custody in case something happened to him. In the event it was a tragic reversal of fortunes. The shock-waves from the loss of his wife would hit him by and by but the loneliness would somewhat be tempered by the fact of her having assured his immediate future even as her life was taken from her. He took some water but refused all food that day and left for Kohima the next morning. I can still remember almost every detail of this episode, at times with a lump in my throat, and often wonder how things went for him from the time he left Imphal.

There was a slight silver-lining to the cloud of gloom over the camp in the news that almost 80% of the morning’s arrivals had found members of their families either in Camp or hospital and they were invited to stay on till their dependants were released from hospital. Many of the injured were to be shifted to the Hospital in Dimapur and wherever feasible we tried to ensure that the family remained together.



Elephant Co. No. 1, Tamu Road

Elephant Co. No. 1, Tamu Road


With increased military traffic on the Dimapur-Tamu road,






the Army was prepared to lift a far greater number of refugees on the return trip to Dimapur and hence, we had no difficulty accommodating almost 90% of the refugees in Army trucks on their way to Dimapur. We almost finalised this plan the day after the bombing with a few minor details remaining to be tied up.

Roberts dropped in round about 1230 hrs and I told him the story of the near miracle that morning. He was a highly rational young man with a family background steeped in scholarship. He looked at me for a while and asked quietly to be introduced to the young Burman still sitting passively outside my basha but. I took Roberts to him and after a quiet chat we strolled over to the crater where the phenomenon occurred. I had no film in my camera and Roberts did not possess one but we both agreed that a mere picture of the tree and crater would have no meaning. I had laid some emphasis on the manner in which the young man had seemed to be driven to start digging – almost a matter of inner compulsion. Talking it over we were both agreed that there was little point in taking the matter beyond the factual happenings. This we agreed, was the stuff life was made of.



Nadir S. Tyabji (left) with British and Indian officers

Nadir S. Tyabji (left) with British and Indian officers


One of the matters we talked about, at lunch time, concerned the two options which had emerged during my talk with the Agent and I asked him if Mr. Hutchings had spoken to him about it.









Evidently there had been no time since the Agent had been driven straight up to Dimapur without even a short halt at Imphal. We mulled over the issue for a while till realisation dawned upon us that the matter was no longer in our hands; the previous day’s bombing had settled the issue by driving the refugees back on to the road to Dimapur in ever increasing numbers starting from that morning.

As if on cue, a DR arrived with a cryptic message from one of the out-lying camps that it had almost been emptied of refugees within the matter of an hour as a result of a rumour that a second Japanese attack was imminent – either that afternoon or the next morning. I had experienced this situation earlier in Mandalay and knew that there was little one could do to stop the rot for the simple reason that neither we nor the Army were in a position to deny the possibility on any rational basis. All we could do was to intervene before things went much further and the ‘disease’ spread to the other camps as well.

The essential thing was to keep the road open and the Army readily agreed to put some of their trucks on the road to pick up as many refugees as feasible and drop them at Dimapur before the day’s end. The Army again did a splendid job and that evening the DC and I went round to all the Camps around Imphal to talk to the refugees and inform then that with low monsoon clouds over the whole of Burma it was unlikely that the Japanese would mount another attack just them. However, the Army convoys moving up to Dimapur would carry as many refugees as they could so there was no need for panic evacuation of the camps, in fact, we would keep them informed of the situation as it developed and arrange regular evacuation by Army convoys on a daily basis.




The daily showers were also beginning to make conditions difficult in the Camp.













Leaky roofs overhead and soggy ground conditions underfoot made life somewhat trying even for these refugees accustomed to the dampness of the Burmese monsoon. The growing influx of refugees had imposed tremendous pressure on the relatively meagre supplies of essential commodities including firewood, available in the Imphal market and though the Camps provided rice and salt in adequate quantity to each refugee family, there was obviously a need to supplement it with whatever else could be procured in the shape of lentils, vegetables and eggs but firewood remained the most important single commodity. Its non availability could create a serious problem as we discovered one evening when we came across a ‘gang’ of refugees pulling down some temporarily vacant ‘bashas’ for fuel leading to serious fights and quarrels. This was no time for half measures. We straightaway called the local wood contractor and arranged to set up a special fuel dump solely for refugees in one of the more centrally located camps at a rate to be fixed by the DC. He moved fast and we were astonished to find the fuel-wood depot at the designated camp in full operation the next morning.

These remained our major concerns on an hour-to-hour basis from morning till late at night we were both fully aware that with this large population of refugees living under a pall of tension, it would not take much to spark off a major ‘law and order’ situation literally on the drop of a coin. I was beginning to realise that I could not possibly leave Imphal before the refugees had been cleared from the town.





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