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

Chrestomather | 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.





Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 10

Chrestomather | December 30, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (0)



I moved out into the Camp to assess the casualties and damage in order to organise the urgently required clearing up and rehabilitation of the severely depleted infra-structure so as to be able to cope with the fresh arrivals expected later in the day.



Capt. Nasir S. Tyabji, Arakan, 1944

Capt. Nasir S. Tyabji, Arakan, 1944



The immediate need, of course, was the removal and disposal of bodies and limbs before putrefaction set in under a hot sun.











Simultaneously, it was essential to collect vast number of belongings abandoned by the refugees as the bombs fell in order to prevent the danger of looting and thievery by the locals as well as the Camp inmates. This had to be organised before the initial shock and trauma had worn off. As I went round the Camp I found all those who had escaped injury going round in dazed groups trying to identify relations and friends among the bodies spread throughout the Camp.

The bombs made largish craters in the soft earth, up to 10’ in depth in some cases and almost 20’ in diameter. Dismembered limbs and tattered pieces of clothing littered the area presenting a ghastly sight. However, my immediate concern was to organise manual labour and I managed to persuade some of the refugees to help with the clearing up. The ‘Matron’ had wisely confined herself to her own basha hut having decided to take her chances there. Somewhat shaken, she put on a brave face and immediately produced a hot cup of tea with sweet condensed milk which, according to her, was the next best thing to a tot of brandy in these circumstances. It worked and I quickly explained to her my plan for cleaning up the Camp within the next 6 to 8 hours.

I have omitted to mention, in fact, the first thing we got organised was the shifting of the injured to the Field Hospital close by with the active help and whole-hearted cooperation from the Hospital staff. The ‘Matron’ took immediate charge on a no-nonsense basis and so leaving her there I decided to call on the Dist. Collector whose Office-cum-bungalow happened to be just a furlong or so down the road, to put him in the picture regarding casualties and ask for immediate help in the way of labour and tools to get on with the job. I was fully aware that with almost 10 large refuge camps spread around Imphal, most of which had been attacked by the Japanese that morning, he would have his hands full with similar demands for help.




 Two boys in northeast India have a look at an American observation plane

Two boys in northeast India have a look at an American observation plane




As I got on the main road I realised for the first time the ferocity of the attack and the extent of damage – military and civil – caused by the morning’s work. The road was cluttered with a long line of Army trucks, some smouldering, others burning and still others completely shattered by bomb splinters and direct canon fire. I could also see a number of drivers slumped in their seats either dead or wounded. Saddest of all was the sight of a group of refugee women and children taking a lift in the trucks, mown down in the attack with just a few survivors. It was re-assuring to see the Army on the job of removing the injured and dealing with fires.

I found the DC, a young English ICS officer, in his office, introduced myself and we immediately got down to the business of listing our problems, priority-wise, and how we should go about tackling them in an even-handed fashion so that none of the Camps suffered. He met me most cordially and I discovered that the Agent had already spoken to him about me which made thing much easier. He assured me that he would let me have all the labour I needed from the two large ‘Road Construction’ Camps 3 miles away at the bottom of the hill. I needed 200 men and he readily agreed.

Since none of the other Camps-in-charge had arrived by then, we had a quick cup of tea and then walked down to ‘my’ Camp for him to get a clearer idea of conditions there. He was appalled by what he saw inside the Camp and on the road. He had only just returned to Headquarters from a tour and had heard the thunder of the bombs and roar of aircraft just a few miles outside Imphal and had no idea of the extent of damage and casualties till setting eyes on the carnage in what came to be known as the City Camp of which I happened to be in charge.

By the time we got there a couple of his Office assistants had also joined him and he dictated instructions on what was needed to be done. About half and hour later the ‘runner’ who had been sent to the Labour Camp below with instructions to bring one column of 200 men immediately, arrived with the news that most of the labour had scattered far and wide into the thickly-wooded country side after the bombing and were unwilling to work in the Town due to fear of further attacks. However, a more senior assistant was despatched with instructions not to return without at least 400 men since pressure had begun to build from other Camps. The Army had moved fast and tidied up the main road towing away the damaged vehicles for necessary repairs. All the bodies and severed limbs had been removed and covered with tarpaulin but we knew there was not much time left for their disposal before the stench became unbearable with its inevitable effect on morale. While the DC was in favour of mass burials, I suggested that we could also perhaps consider disposal by mass cremation provided he could arrange the necessary quantity of wood and petrol for the job. It was agreed that we should try both – burial and cremation – since the problem would apply to other Camps as well.






The City Camp had somewhere near 400 bodies to be disposed of and we would expect at least double that figure from the other camps (in total) though they had not received the same attention as meted out to City Camp.

In addition, the town itself had received several hits in residential and bazar areas causing some 100 deaths. It was about 2 p.m. by the time we finalised our plans. All this time, we had to be moving about with the other volunteers helping in search and collection not only of bodies but also odd items still lying around. Many of the bags contained cash and items of jewellery as also papers identifying the owners. I handed over almost 1,000 such bags etc. to the DC who agreed to retain them in safe custody for eventual return to bonafide claimants.

The Field Hospital manned by Army Medical Corps personnel was doing a remarkable job by taking on whoever required their help, sending the more serious cases to the Base Hospital just outside the Town.



73rd Evacuation Hospital at Shingbwiyang, Burma, Mile 103 on the Ledo Road.

73rd Evacuation Hospital at Shingbwiyang, Burma, Mile 103 on the Ledo Road.




We had also managed to contact the other officers in charge of Camps (ten of them) to convey the general pattern of action recommended for dealing with common problems – disposal of the dead, emergency hygiene and public health measures to control the outbreak of cholera and other diseases, treatment of drinking water. Cholera was our most dreaded concern and regular patrols were set up on a round the clock basis to identify and isolate any case which aroused the slightest suspicion for professional diagnosis after First Aid had been administered.

The DC’s labour force had done its job well completing two long trenches to serve as common grave for 200 odd bodies on a terrace half-way down the hill slope. The remaining bodies and what remained of them were taken further down the hill and given a solemn cremation in the presence of a fairly large gathering of locals and refugees. It was almost midnight by the time these chores had been completed, but there still remained the small matter of preparing the Camp for the fresh arrivals expected early the following morning.

The DC remained on the scene throughout, with periodic absences to deal with urgent matters in the office. The close inter-action throughout the day had established a sense of comradeship and I think, mutual respect. He went for a quick dinner about 8 o’clock and on his return some 30 minutes later, he brought a hamper consisting of boiled eggs, a flask of soup and sandwiches for my refreshment which touched me greatly. He was a bachelor and so the thought was his own. It was almost daylight by the time we completed our business and he asked me where I intended to spend the rest of the night. I took him to my basha, showed him the remains of the Agent’s pair of shorts and told him that I would be quite comfortable on the bunk. He would have none of it and insisted that I move in with him for a couple of days at least till things had settled down at the Camp.

I accepted the offer without demur and throwing everything into the ruck-sack was ready to move out. The Matron with a small staff would remain in charge for the rest of the night. As we walked back to his bungalow I could not hold myself from blurting out the one question which had been rankling in my mind all day – would the Japanese repeat the attack the next day as they had done on Rangoon and Mandalay. It had obviously been bothering him as well for the implications were disastrous. The Camps would empty out with the refugees thronging the roads and blocking Military traffic. Our medical resources had been stretched to breaking point and stocks of rice and other basic needs like salt had reached a critical low in the morning’s raid. Telegrams had been sent for replenishment of supplies but these would take a good week or more to arrive and there could be further losses. Just thinking and discussing the possibilities brought on a cold sweat of it from my mind. The young DC (I think the name was Roberts) just could not get off the subject and I could well appreciate the trauma he was going through. It was 2 a.m. by the time we got to the house and we sat up for another half-hour or so over a cup of coffee to discuss the morning’s schedule. I wanted to be at the Camp by 7 a.m. so he ordered breakfast for 6.30 and we turned in for what remained of the night.




Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 9

Chrestomather | December 28, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (1)






Lt. Nadir S. Tyabji, 1943

Lt. Nadir S. Tyabji, 1943


I cannot remember the date of my marching out of Tamu, it was like any other.












My departure having been delayed considerably because of the dogs, I managed to crawl into Palel around midnight and slept the sleep of the ‘innocent’ under a large banyan. Being high ground the night was cool and my light woollen jersey came in handy. Since I was expecting the Agent within the next two days, I made a round of the open-air camps which had cropped up all round the small town and found a perceptible change of mood – from tired sullenness to a more cheerful and hopeful frame of mind.

The Agent reached Palel by jeep, from Imphal, that evening and after a snack meal of green tea and Manipuri rice and curry we decided to sleep in the open. However, it turned quite chill by ten p.m. and having nothing to cover ourselves with, we decided to crawl under an Army truck which was still pretty warm after a run from Dimapur. We slept well but the morning brought a shock. The Agent took one look at me and burst into a roar of laughter which was heartily reciprocated from my end. We discovered to our mutual satisfaction that a drippy oil sump had covered us both in sticky oil from head to foot and even with a dip in a nearby stream and much scrubbing with a small piece of soap which we shared, a sticky mess continued to cling to our arms, face and head. It required major effort later, to get rid of the oily mess. There was nothing one could do about the clothes and they continued to adorn our bodies.



map-small-2The Agent stopped over at Palel for the day which we utilised for detailed planning of our functioning from Palel to Dimapur Via Imphal and Kohima.











He had received instructions from Delhi to return to the Capital earliest feasible and it was evident that the Government would want to know in some detail not only regarding conditions and events up to Tamu but particularly so regarding volume of refugees crossing over into Indian territory/ casualties, status of food stocks at various Camps, sanitation, transport facilities for women and children, sick and injured along the 160 miles of hilly track connecting Tamu-Palel-Imphal-Kohima-Dimapur.



Indian soldiers on the Burma-India border

Indian soldiers on the Burma-India border road

He made copious notes of my experience thus far – from Mandalay-Monywa-Kalewa-Tamu on the Burma side linking up with the newly laid Military road from Tamu onwards on the Indian side.








However, there was one issue on which we thought differently; should the refugees be kept moving on a day-to-day basis or in any case without loss of time or should they be encouraged to stop longer at the Camps in order to ensure (1) Recoupment of physical condition and morale, and (2) exercise of regulatory control on the Palel-Dimapur stretch in order to be able to make maximum use of the military vehicles for previously mentioned categories, and have planned release of refugees from the various Camps after a 2-day rest. This would also make it easier for the interim Camps to adjust more easily to the daily inflow. My most important argument in favour of this plan was the fact that un-controlled influx of refugees into Dimapur would impose an impossible burden on the small township and the single line rail service from Dimapur to Calcutta involving two longish river crossing by railway ferry steamers, could also be subjected to severe strain with tragic possibilities.

The Agent too had a cogent reason in favour of fast clearance of refugees from Manipur and that was the imminent on-set of the S.W. Monsoon which could create the most adverse conditions for transit of refugees from camp to camp creating major health and hygiene problems. We had also to bear in mind that the road was still ‘kutcha’ and though well laid and maintained by Army Engineers it was subject to land slides blocking traffic for longish periods of time. This would lead to accumulation of refugees at intermediate points quite unprepared for servicing them and so on. He had evidently discussed the matter at a higher level both in Delhi and with local military and civil authorities who in their wisdom had whole-heartedly supported the first option.

After our comprehensive and frank exchange of ideas he decided to leave immediately for Imphal for a review of the problem and consideration of available options with all concerned and earliest possible departure for Delhi where a final decision would be taken. It was also decided that I should stay back a couple of days at Palel in order to get a clearer idea of the size of residual streams still crossing the border. He left for Imphal that afternoon in an Army jeep and I decided to go along with him to a Camp some 5 miles up the road towards Imphal to see if it would be feasible to take the pressure off Palel by persuading the refugees to do a further 5 miles thus reducing the next day’s march.

The conditions at the Camp were satisfactory and it was agreed that it could easily accommodate 5,000 instead of the 1,000 envisaged earlier, with minor additions to available facilities. By the time I returned to Palel it was well after sundown and that night as also the two subsequent ones were spent in relative comfort in one of the Dak Bungalow rooms, which had suddenly become available with the chowkidar raising an excellent meal for my sole benefit. I discovered that this sudden glow of goodwill had also seeped into the consciousness of the skeleton Police and Civil staff who reacted in typical fashion ignoring the fact that hardly 24 hours earlier even my request for ‘verandah’ accommodation had been summarily turned down and the young Inspector of Police had refused to accept my identification for discussing certain minor law and order problems which cropped up between the refugees and locals.

I made no issue of the matter and received maximum cooperation from them all till the time I left. The two days went fast enough and on the third I set off for Imphal on the dot of five in the morning. The weather was pleasant and the road not much crowded at that time of day. With just a couple of short breaks I managed to cover the 30 miles in 12 hours reaching Imphal at around five in the evening. The main Camp at which I landed up was a large sprawling complex covering approximately 5 acres almost in the middle of the Town with ‘basha’ accommodation for about 5,000 – any overflow to be either accommodated in the open or diverted to other Camps on the periphery of the Town. The Anglo-Indian lady in charge, a large middle-aged, good-humoured soul had evidently been waiting anxiously for my arrival in order to hand over the Camp to my charge as per instructions but willingly stayed on as my 2nd-in-command on being promised a lift to Dimapur in any Army vehicle, whenever she wanted to leave,

A small basha hut was waiting for me and the sight of the empty hut with just one bamboo bunk, was sheer bliss. I dumped my ruck sack on the bunk and emptied it of all soiled damp clothes which needed a wash – 2 pairs of khaki shorts and 2 shirts, some stockings and hankies. The Agent, who expected to return to Manipur within 10 days or so had left one of his shorts with me for dhobying and this too I hung up to dry during the night and suitable attention the next morning. After a sparse Manipuri meal of rice and fish curry I took a round of the Camp, full to overflowing with the evening’s arrivals from Palel, spent an hour or so with the 2nd-i-c, over innumerable cups of green tea and a few pipe-bowls of tobacco.

I remember it as perhaps the most relaxed evening I had spent since leaving Rangoon almost three months back. A grandmother, she relished talking about her husband and grown-up children and especially about the three grandchildren – all safe in Calcutta. A Nurse by profession, she had been posted to the General Hospital in Dimapur as Matron and then volunteered to take up charge of the Refugee Camp in Imphal when the need arose. Though capable and pragmatic, she seemed to have done an excellent job till then but the pressure was beginning to tell – the misery, shortages and a stream of tragic happenings in the Camp had begun to sap her morale and I soon realised that making her continue at the Camp could well lead to a breakdown which would be totally uncalled for. I refrained from saying anything then, but made up my mind to send her away in a couple of days and so free her from the continuing trauma and sleeplessness which had become a part of her daily life.





For me, the day following presaged my entry into an absolutely carefree world where apart from my responsibilities I had no fear of physical damage either by the locals or the Japanese:








I was under the illusion that the Japanese Air Force would not dare make an assault on Indian territory in the face of British Ack-ack and fighter defences which was reputed to be quite formidable. I had obviously not learnt my lesson in Burma. I slept soundly that night and was up early as was my wont. The ‘Matron’ had got a pot of Tea ready to start the day with and, in the event, I was to be grateful for it. The dhoby-woman turned up as we were having our tea to warn me that she would be coming round at 9 a.m. to collect the clothes and it was decided that I would leave them on the bunk in case I went out, as I intended.

It was a bright sunny morning with just a trace of fleecy clouds overhead and I was, quite literally, in a holiday mood. The Matron was anxious for me to go through a sheaf of papers which had arrived a few days back but these had lost all meaning for me at that stage. I told her there would be time for that later in the day but my top priority at that moment was to replenish my stock of pipe tobacco which had run down to critical limits, the last 2 oz. in fact.

After a wash and shave, I strolled over to what is even now known as the ‘Women’s Bazar’ – 3 or 4 long tin-roofed sheds under which stalls selling fish, vegetable, fruit, grocery articles (Milkmaid brand Tinned Milk, etc.), cigarettes, cigars and tobacco and so on, all run by women were ‘laid out in long rows’. I was able to pick up ¾ lb. of Capstan Tobacco in 2 oz. tins @ Rs. 1/- per tin. It was all she had and I was satisfied that it would se me through to Calcutta – all going well. I picked up a few other items like shaving soap, tooth brush and soap and decided to have something in the way of breakfast.

The time was about 0930 hrs. Had just ordered a cup of milk-tea and bread when I heard the first siren go off and shouting to all around me to run or take cover I dashed off towards the Camp which was just a couple of hundred yards away, with my basha almost touching the Town entrance. I kept shouting at the top of my voice for people to take cover and dashed into my basha to fling my small parcel of things on to the bunk and dashed out again to see what was happening. It must have taken almost 5 minutes since I left the bazaar and by this time the deep heart-stopping drone of the Japanese formation with the peculiar beat of the Zeros distinctly audible, was getting louder and louder and in a minute or so I could clearly see the line of black dots, in perfect formation, heading straight for the Camp.

The time was about 0945 hrs and the evacuees who had arrived the previous evening (mostly men) and the women and children who had arrived about 0730 hrs by the first convoy that morning were all busy making family niches with the odds and ends which they carried with them. They were in the open and no trenches had been dug, for the simple reason that no one had dreamed of a Japanese attack so early. The general view among the military was that they would only do so after consolidating their position in the south. In any case it was considered that the administrative and organisational complexities involved in such an attack would be beyond their immediate capabilities.

Unfortunately, the Japanese themselves did not seem to be aware of all this and succeeded in mounting one of the most devastating air raids I had experienced till then. It turned out that there was no immediate fighter opposition and the ack ack batteries seemed to have been taken by surprise. Having shouted myself hoarse to get everybody to lie down on their bellies, I flung myself down 10 feet from the basha door and just managed to beat the first blast from the exploding bombs the closest of which was hardly 100 yards away. The whine of the shrapnel 2 or 3 feet above ground level was somewhat uncomfortable but before I could rise and make a dash for a different spot, I found myself pressed down by a considerable weight of earth from which I frantically tried to extricate myself before the aircraft could come round for the next run.

A quick glance round showed the entire area under a cloud of smoke with several trees up-rooted and a few of the bashas on fire. There were screams and shouts and a loud babble of voices which made no sense whatsoever. I did eventually manage to extricate myself from the large mound on top of me and spurted almost 50 yards before I sensed the approaching roar of the bombers for the 2nd run. Flinging myself down, I suddenly saw a group of 3 young Anglo-Indian boys, all in their ‘teens’ running towards me and shouted to them to lie down. As they reached me the next lot of bombs had already exploded – two of them close enough for me to make my peace with my Maker; 8 bombs had hit the Camp and Field Hospital next to it in a shattering crescendo of noise and the acrid smoke, flying splinters and shrapnel and the screams of men, women and children between the explosions was an unnerving experience. I had however other matters of more urgent concern to bother myself with at the moment.

As I was lying on my face, my forehead resting on my arms, frightened of another explosion, I dared not lift my head but tried to take a quick look from the corner of my eyes at the scene around me. Even in that limited field of vision I could make out the extent of devastation and death; bodies and limbs scattered close to me with the smell of blood mixed with that of cordite impossible to keep from penetrating my nostrils. I had become aware of a heavy parcel of earth flung out by the explosion. I must have lain there for a few minutes making sure the bombers were not making a third run and then tried to bend my knees without success. There was no pain but I felt as if the legs from hip downwards were totally immobile and broke into a cold sweat trying to bend my knees without success.

I remember clearly that I decided to make no further effort immediately until the inevitable pain took charge. I forced myself to calm down and think rationally. It was clear that I had full control of my body and limbs above the waist region and was thinking clearly enough. I also remember telling myself quite calmly that this would be a stupid way to go after having come all this way. It was then that I suddenly decided to make another all out effort to get up and this time it came to me that I was able to move my back without pain though the weight holding me down was somewhat oppressive. I raised myself on my elbows and turned my neck to see what was holding my down and saw a pair of stout legs protruding from a body lying across my back. Making a desperate effort. I managed to roll off what remained of a human body (torso severed at chest level) and stand up.

The scene around me was unbelievable for its starkness. Literally hundreds of bodies, some mutilated beyond any possibility of recognition – men, women and children with their pitiful belongings salvaged from homes in far off Burmese towns and villages scattered all over the Camp area. The Field Hospital with its prominent Red Cross flag on the ground to warn enemy aircraft lay there as a silent witness to this horrendous violation of the Geneva Convention to which Japan was a signatory. Those who had escaped injury, dazed and sobbing were moving about searching for family and precious belongings.

As I stood up and tried to take stock of the situation, my eyes fell on a heap of two bodies – the remains of two lads who had formed a threesome with the young man whose lower half had weighed me down. I found the upper ‘half’ lying close by. None of the three carried any identification having evidently left their belongings in an excess of euphoria with their companions on setting out on what was to prove the last stroll. It took hardly a minute for all this to register and being badly in need of something to steady my nerves, I ran to my basha, a hundred yards away, to collect my pipe and tobacco only to find that it too had had received due attention from the Japanese. Shrapnel had cut through the bamboo walls and missing my clothes had taken out their venom on the Agent’s pair of shorts which needed washing. The tattered remnant was eventually handed over to him as a souvenir of that tragic morning.




Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 8

Chrestomather | December 26, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (0)



A Burmese bullock cart passes Hawker Hurricane Mark IIC, LE336, of No. 34 Squadron RAF, as ground crews prepare it for another sortie at Palel, Burma.

A Burmese bullock cart passes Hawker Hurricane Mark IIC, LE336, of No. 34 Squadron RAF, as ground crews prepare it for another sortie at Palel, Burma.



The camp was always full, often with a sizable overflow which had to be accommodated in the open. With the monsoon fast approaching and rumours of the Japanese consolidating their position around Mandalay I was anxious to see the marching columns into Manipur without dawdling too long in Tamu. At times I even ‘bribed’ some of the younger groups to cross over into India after just the night’s rest by offering them double rations for their co-operation. A large number accepted the proposition without demur which helped considerably both at my end as well as in Palel and Imphal and in halting spots in between. Fortunately, I had been able to establish cordial relations with all the surrounding villages and had been promised their bullock-carts on hire up to Palel as and when required. Many groups with large numbers of women and children were anxious to hire the bullock carts to carry their belongings as well as the older women and children up the hill to Palel from where the Army was ready to transport the women and children to Imphal, another 30 miles. The men would have to march the distance & pick up their families at one of the several large Relief Camps around Imphal – a dubious proposition about which I had serious misgivings.

Whilst all this was going on, I woke up one morning to find a PWD messenger waiting for me with a message from the District Collector



A Bailey bridge over the Chindwin River near Kalewa, 1944 (Wkimedia Commons)

A Bailey bridge over the Chindwin River near Kalewa, 1944 (Wkimedia Commons)



at Kalewa (on the Chindwin River) warning me that he had despatched two lorry loads of women in an advanced stage of pregnancy to Tamu and requesting me to meet the lorries some 20 miles south of Tamu and ensure their ‘welfare’ over the last stretch.









As luck would have it, the camp doctor and his assistant had both been re-called to Kalewa a few days back and we had been left with no medical cover. My only hope was the Army. I immediately sent a message to the Army camp at Imphal with one of my ‘runners’ explaining the emergency and requesting suitable medical help at the earliest – i.e the next morning. After that I set out for the rendezvous at about 7 AM reaching the designated village at about 1 PM. As I waited on the track watching the refugees trudging patiently along, my attention was suddenly drawn to the peculiar behaviour of a small group of 4 including to two small children – 6 & 2 years of age – which took the following pattern. The couple carried bundles slung across their shoulders even though the wife in her mid-twenties looked far too frail for the size of the load she carried. This is what I saw. The man, also in his mid-20s, would carry the son and the bundle about 150 yards, leave the son and bundle by the track and trek back to relieve his wife of her bundle, pick up the little girl and literally assist his wife to the “son and bundle” and after a short breather start the process all over again.

I watched two full cycles of this heart-warming display of love and courage and then decided to intervene. Going up to the couple I asked them how long this had been going on and was told that they had followed this pattern in stretches right down from Kalewa a distance of 20 miles in order not to be left too far behind their group. They had started out from Moulmein some 3 months back and malnutrition and fatigue had taken their toll of the young woman who seemed to be on the verge of collapse.

Many of the refugees passing by had obviously seen me in Mandalay and managed to raise their hands in a tired salute and then, suddenly, I was in luck. I saw a largish group of about 20 men, women and children walking up to where I was standing and the oldest suddenly stopped and without a word opened his arms to me. I went up and embraced him heartily for I remembered him with some respect. He had come to me for an air passage for his mother and ailing wife and only after I had approved the tickets, had offered to pay for 2 deserving women by the same flight.

After some talk, he told me that his daughters were no longer fit to walk and in any case were unable to carry their share of the baggage; could I help him to hire a couple of carts. By this time I had established a special relationship with all the village headmen in the area and had no difficulty in getting the two carts to everyone’s advantage since my friend was prepared to pay well. I made just one condition and it was accepted on the spot. The young wife and her kids found a place in the carts and the head of the family walked beside it probably reassured that no night could hold back the Sun, from rising.


A lorry loaded with pontoons arrives at the site of the 1,100ft floating bailey bridge over the Chindwin River, built after the capture of Kalewa,  1944.

A lorry loaded with pontoons arrives at the site of the 1,100ft floating bailey bridge over the Chindwin River, at Kalewa, 1944.


It was almost 3 p.m. and the 2 lorries over due. I heard their rumbling in due course and as they were brought to a halt, I was faced by a grim-faced lady with greying hair and a no-nonsense approach to things.











She gave me a brief report on the passenger-list from which I gathered that there was every possibility of additions to our population before the day was done. Had a few cups of Burmese tea and then set out to make the 20 miles back to Camp before sun-down. I was in the second lorry and we must have travelled hardly six miles when I noticed some commotion in the well of the leading vehicle which soon came to a screeching halt. We did the same and as I jumped down, the old lady grabbed me by the arm and demanded that I help her with the job in hand. I asked her what it was and she screamed that we had a delivery on our hands. It was like somebody dropping a rock on my head. I wanted to know what I was expected to do and was told firmly to obey instructions; she knew her job. She asked me to produce two items without delay. Steaming hot water in a CLEAN utensil and a sharp instrument to be disinfected with some stuff she carried in a bottle.

From noises within the truck, it was obvious that we had not much time to lose. I told the driver to prepare to drain out the boiling water from the radiator and managed to get hold of a basin and some clean material from the lady’s capacious basket to filter out the hot water as best we could. The water was hot but most certainly far from fit for a delivery case. We were almost at panic stations by now, so I just mumbled something which sounded like a prayer and took up battle stations next to the Boss. The sharp instrument, by the way, was to be my Bowie knife – razor sharp and spotlessly clean. I was alone with the old lady and one of the passengers who was in no immediate danger of turning into a patient herself.

The old lady knew what she was about and I soon had the proud privilege of representing the Government of India on the proud occasion of the birth of one of its citizens. I was asked to produce the sharp instrument and the final act was performed. I could claim to be part of an active Gynaecological team with field experience. We were on the road again after an hour or so but had hardly run a couple of miles before the whole process had to be repeated. However, by now I was an expert with field experience and managed to produce all the right things at the right time without too much persuasion. We reached Camp at 8 p.m. having taken 5 hours to cover 20 miles, I felt ridiculously proud at receiving a ‘shabash’ from the Old Lady and still cherish that experience with some pride.

I have forgotten to mention the day’s tally in terms of specifics. The first was a boy whose mother was a Muslim lady from U.P. The second, a girl, belonged appropriately to a Hindu lady also from U.P. We kept them in Camp for 4 days and I then arranged with the Army to relay them to the Main Hospital in Dimapur for complete recovery and onward ‘transmission’ to their homes. Of the other 18, 12 had their babies in the Camp under the Army’s medical supervision. All went well and It was a joy to see them all safely into Indian territory in the tender care of the Indian Army.




Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 7

Chrestomather | December 24, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (0)




It took me 10 days to reach Tamu, the last camp on the Burmese side of the Indo-Burma border. It was a huge sprawling affair with ‘basha’ accommodation for around 30,000







all sited under thick forest cover which provided some security from Japanese reconnaissance planes operating in that area. Since I was to be in charge of the Camp till its final evacuation, I got my tent pitched on the Burmese side of the small bridge across the Tamu river constituting the boundary between Burma and Manipur (India).

I was soon settled in, had a quick wash in the river and set out on an inspection of the Camp and the store-houses stocked up with thousands of bags of rice and salt which seemed adequate in terms of the numbers expected to pass through and the time limit fixed for final vacation of the camp, – 3 weeks on the outside. The Camp was already half full and, of course, a sizeable number was expected later that evening. As I was completing my rounds I noticed a neatly marked off plot of about 5 acres with somewhat better built bashas each to accommodate ten individuals. On enquiry I was told that the enclave was meant for non-Natives – Anglo Indians or Native sahibs as the case may be – and I knew instinctively that this was going to cause trouble. It was blatant discrimination and under the circumstances totally uncalled for.

It also meant that some form of certification would be required. This camp had been set up by the Govt. of Burma and I had no authority to change the rules under which it was function. My mandate was to take charge of the Camp and run it according to the rules laid down. It must be said, however, that apart from this somewhat mindless attempt at apartheid, I had been given an absolutely free hand in the running of the Camp so I had little cause to complain. Even in the case of the ‘white’ camp, the discretionary power in each case had to rest with me. Equity and rationality were all that was required.

In the event it all worked out well enough and my somewhat liberal interpretation of the term non-Native caused no serious ripples. The Camp staff consisted of a Burmese overseer in charge of 20 Burmese labourers – lazy, good-humoured but reasonably helpful. That night I got hold of the overseer and set down a drill for distribution of rations to the inmates starting at 0600 hrs. the next morning. There were also 10 surface wells dug within the Camp area for supply of water. My major concern was to ensure the highest standard of public health within the Camp in order to avoid the slightest chance of an epidemic. I immediately set apart four basha huts on the outer ring of the Camp for use as ‘isolation’ wards.

I had two men posted at the entrance to the Camp to sort out the ill and infirm and direct them to the isolation ward. I was expecting a doctor with some basic medicines and equipment within a day or two and had decided to hold all the sick in the Camp till they could be checked over by the doctor. We had a large stock of spades and shovels in our stores and I decided that each hutment was to provide 2 male volunteers for the various jobs required to be done around the Camp, starting with digging of latrine, trenches well away from the Camp perimeter. Others were put to the task of putting up lean-to communal kitchens for protection from the sudden drizzles common in the area.




Indian troops move ammunition in muddy conditions on the road to Tamu

Indian troops move ammunition in muddy conditions on the road to Tamu (Old Indian Photos)





The doctor and his assistant (both Anglo- Burmese) arrived in due course and immediately set to work doing a splendid job covering medical, public health and sanitation requirements of the Camp. It was imperative that the Camp was kept free of flies and after a couple of warnings which went unheeded, I decided to impose punitive fines against any hutment which failed to observe the rules. The fines took the shape of extra labour coupled with reduction in rations which did the trick. Full rations were important since all inmates were anxious to lay aside a certain proportion for the onward journey to Imphal and beyond. The normal duration of stay was about 2 – 3 days though I allowed longer stays provided there was no pressure from fresh arrivals.

There was no question of the Camp settling down because of the continuous inflow and outflow of refugees throughout daylight hours which necessitated a continuous vigil by the staff and it was seldom that I was able to turn in earlier than 1 a.m. The unaccustomed hardships of the last couple of months coupled to the trauma, in many cases of having to leave behind kith and kin or close friends to die along the road had stretched nerves to breaking point resulting in severe emotional reactions to petty inconveniences on arrival at the Camp erupting into fights and quarrels which had to be dealt with as best as one could.

In the majority of cases, however, the morning sun dispelled the night’s grouses and ill-humour and I never tired of being delighted by the restoration of bon-homie between the families involved in the night’s battle. More often than not, it was I who was at the receiving end of the anger and frustration of both the settled as well as fresh arrivals at the Camp but those were days when I had no inhibitions about giving as good as I got and neither did I have any problems about laying down the law with all the authority at my command. There were no ill-feelings at the end of the day and I was continually amazed at the goodwill and co-operation extended to me by these people. The Camp was almost always full and 20,000 persons in a defined area could acquire an oppressive ambience. There had to be all sorts including some rather attractive young females whose recent experiences had given them a certain air of confidence and devil-may-care outlook. I enjoyed meeting them all, have a mug of green tea or even join them at a meal if I happened to be at the right place at the right time.

There was one ‘zerbadi’ [Indo-Burmese Muslim] family consisting of mother, father and four daughters ranging in age from 18 to 28 – all fairly attractive and with no illusions about the matter either. It was a joy to visit them first thing in the morning and join them for the morning’s cup of Burmese tea. It was the 3rd morning when the Father (in his late forties) dropped his bombshell in what I took to be a humorous vein, at first. He called all the four girls to join us at Tea and then asked me bluntly if I was married.


Capt. Nasir S. Tyabji, Arakan, 1944

Capt. Nasir S. Tyabji, Arakan, 1944


I laughed and retorted jokingly that I was not simply because I had not yet found anyone who would say ‘yes’. At that the father turned to the four with a question in his eyes and to my embarrassed amazement, all four nodded their heads without a blush.









From the expression on their faces as well as the father’s, I began to realise that the joke had got out of hand, but kept quiet. The father then asked me without batting an eye-lid what I thought of his daughters and I struggled to string together a bantering reply keeping it at a totally impersonal level, something to the effect that with their good-looks, I would have been proud to have them for my sisters. At this he said since sister-ship was out of the question what about acquiring them for wife – all four of them!

I must have looked a comic sight struggling to make sense of what was going on, but he repeated the question quite seriously and the girls kept silent and I decided that the humour had gone out of the situation – if ever there was any. I made no bones about telling them that apart from the fact that I had no intention of marrying anybody at that stage, neither the situation nor the circumstances justified his disposing of his daughters, all educated, in this somewhat casual fashion and that I had hardly expected such an attitude from him. The girls remained non-committal and I decided on the spot that I must show special favour to the family by arranging a bullock-cart for their onward journey, at their expense, at the earliest, which happened to be the very next morning, we said a cheerful farewell and promises to meet in Imphal or Dimapur in a few weeks from then but that was the last I saw of them. I am certain that the girls must have breathed a sigh of relief at the end of a drama which had slipped from comedy into farce.



The Anglo- Indian enclave with accommodation for some 200 persons was also beginning to fill up. My interpretation of the rules did away with the ethnic factor altogether and focussed on more practical aspects like background, profession, income levels etc., and this seemed to work out well with no complaints. I did insist, however, that anyone wanting accommodation in the A-I camp had to see me personally for the chit.

There were good reasons for this. After the first two days when I had relied on the attendants to bring the chits duly filled in by the head of the family, I discovered to my embarrassment that the attendants had been charging the refugees amounts varying between 5/= and 10/= (depending on no. of members) for getting my approval and I only learnt about this practice when one of the new arrivals asked me on what basis these charges were fixed. On my denying that there was any such charge, the whole story came out. I lined up the attendants, read the Riot Act, and ordered total repayment or face immediate dismissal. There were no defaulters.

The Chit rule, however, was responsible for bringing about one of the most moving moments of that great saga. One afternoon as I sat in my tent, facing the entrance completing some paper work, I was suddenly aware of a large dark-clothed figure almost filling the entrance trying to peer inside. Since I sat well back from the flap he was not able to see my face clearly and after a few moments, I saw him step back, stand to attention and in polished but trembling accents say “Good afternoon Sir, can I speak to you for a moment?” There was no mistaking either the voice of the accent and I called his name in some excitement, “EARNEST – for God’s sake come in….” and then the most poignant thing happened. He went down on his knees and broke down – it was a harrowing sight and it took me a few moments to control my own voice. I just went up to him, raised him to his feet and shook him by the hand.
There were others waiting outside and too much emotion would be out of place. He was still clutching the Chit in his hand for my signature. I signed it, but asked him quietly to wait outside till I had done with the others. I had made up my mind. He would share my tent and I would see him on his way in a couple of days.

This was Earnest Joseph, one of my closest friends since child-hood and son of Mr. A.V. Joseph the richest Timber merchant in Burma till he went bankrupt in the late 20’s. Earnest had studied at Harrow but had to leave after the father’s bankruptcy. A highly talented artist who was responsible many years later for the Book of Fame of the Constituent Assembly; the margin on each page illuminated with subjects typical of the State concerned.

Earnest, on arrival at the Camp had been given a highly coloured impression of my ‘inhuman’ qualities and had promptly decided to take necessary precautions by changing into the only spare clothing he carried in his bundle. A warm, dark suit (mercifully minus a tie) and black shoes without socks. He had left Rangoon shortly after I had, made his way to Mandalay by whatever means available and then gone off to Kalaw in the Shan States to spend a few days with some friends. That was typical Earnest. Never having been obliged to earn a living he retained his easy-going, somewhat self-indulgent habits til the very end. His death remains a mystery but the ‘buzz’ has it that he died in a remote village in Tamil Nadu refusing to sell his paintings/drawings which, according to him, would have been a prostitution. There was considerable demand for his work – sacred, not-so-sacred and downright ribald and he could have made a good living out of them but he remained his own exasperating self until the end – but that was Earnest!
He stayed in Tamu for 2 days and on the third I managed to put him on an Army 3-tonner to be dropped at Palel some 30 miles distance. He eventually made his way back to India, none the worse for wear.






Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 6

Chrestomather | December 14, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (0)


Mandalay, April 1942.


One blistering afternoon, about the beginning of April 1942, Mandalay was devastated by a massive bombing raid on the Town, which killed 20,000 and left almost 60,000 wounded – Indians, Chinese and Burmese. Many of the refugee camps were subjected to bombing and machine-gun and cannon attacks which added to the chaos caused by panic-stricken men, women and children streaming out of the camps and homes leaving their belongings behind for the criminal elements to move in.



Trams, Mandalay

Trams, Mandalay


The mass exodus heading for the bridge to cross over to Sagaing and beyond swept the police out-post at the bridgehead into the river, in a manner of speaking, never to return.









The Japanese had dropped a carefully balanced mix of AP (anti-personnel) and Incendiary bombs in order to inflict maximum casualties and destroy Mandalay as a viable unit by setting fire to large areas of residential complexes consisting mainly of wooden houses.



King Thibaw's guards, East Gate, Mandalay Palace, 28 November 1885. Photographer: Hooper, Willoughby Wallace (1835–1912).

King Thibaw’s guards, East Gate, Mandalay Palace, 28 November 1885. Photographer: Hooper, Willoughby Wallace (1835–1912).


The famous Wooden Palace known as King Thibaw’s Palace with its unique Wooden Stockade received several direct hits by Incendiaries destroying major portions. It was a beautiful palace built in the early 19th century by King Thibaw who only occupied it for a very short time before being exiled to India.










I was in my little office when the raid took place and our building had several narrow misses with relatively minor damage at the end of the day. There had been little anti-aircraft fire and fighter opposition from our side which literally doomed any lingering sense of loyalty or sympathy for the British (Allied) cause among the Burmese and Chinese elements of the local population.

The Indian mood was somewhat ambiguous; a very large proportion of the troops visible in the area and taking up defensive positions around Mandalay consisted of Indian units with just a handful of British troops which had escaped the Singapore debacle. This visual evidence tended to create a psychological sense of involvement in the fight against the Japanese and this in an involuted sort of fashion, created further tensions between the Indians on the one hand and Chinese & Burmese citizenry on the other. There were also, perhaps, overtones of inter-Buddhist solidarity. However, it may have been, the situation was loaded against the refugees and we realised that it was imperative for them to be cleared out of the area and put on the road to Tamu on an emergency basis.

It is on record that my telegram to the Government of India immediately after the raid was the first intimation received in India regarding the raid and the extent of damage and casualties caused. If memory serves me right the total casualties were reported at 90,000 approximately 30,000 dead. The telegram also contained detailed information concerning material damage including disruption of civic facilities like roads, water and electric supply, hospitals, and communication. The Agent was in Maymyo at that time so the telegram went over my signature. I was considerably elated at receiving a fairly appreciative acknowledgement the following morning from Mr. Bozman, Secretary, Commonwealth Affairs.


the Nandaw (Royal Palace) at Mandalay in Burma (Myanmar), from the Archaeological Survey of India Collections: Burma Circle, 1903-07.

the Nandaw (Royal Palace) at Mandalay in Burma (Myanmar), from the Archaeological Survey of India Collections: Burma Circle, 1903-07.


By mid-April the Evacuation effort was gradually winding down and I knew that I would have to be on the road soon after ensuring that all camps had been emptied out. As we entered the final week, it became a race against time to complete the seemingly unending list of jobs which required to be attended to before abandoning a living Township and a working administration. Japanese patrols were already operating in the Toungoo area and further north and our intelligence reports indicated that the Advance units were also moving up on an extended front.










As news of the Japanese advance started percolating into the northern districts one could feel a build-up of unrest and tension among the indigenous elements of the population – Shans, Chins, Kachins and of course the Burmese – and it soon became evident that their ire was mainly directed against the Indians who were perceived as being their main exploiters.

There were far too few Britishers to really matter. This provided an added impetus to the plan of clearing Mandalay of all evacuees without loss of time in order to put as much distance between these moving columns and the main Burmese strongholds through which the Route lay.

We estimated, as far as I can remember, that the last column of evacuees would be leaving Mandalay 10th April and I decided to hit the road the next morning after completing a number of winding-up tasks which even then seemed to me to be an exercise in sheer futility. One of these consisted of destroying some crates of Indian currency (brand new and tightly packed) from the Treasury. This proved to be a far tougher assignment than I had, in my innocence, expected. The bundles, tightly packed, simply refused to ignite and we had eventually to hack them into pieces, soak them in petrol and set them alight.




BURMA. Pynmana. World War II. Japanese planes bomb the village (George Rodger, 1942, Magnum)

BURMA. Pynmana. World War II. Japanese planes bomb the village (George Rodger, 1942, Magnum)

The certification also took quite some time but it was done and that night I took one last turn around Mandalay, looked up some friends who had decided to stay back and, finally, destroyed the Code Books by burning each leaf individually. All that remained to be dealt with was my cycle.









As luck would have it, a transport plane was expected in a couple of days on a final ‘Clean-Up’ sortie and I left the bike with a friend to place it on board with the other junk to be delivered in Delhi if possible. The bike eventually reached Delhi after being shunted around from one Air Force Station to another for six months. The bike or whatever was left of the original remained in my possession till around 1987 when it was gifted away to a keen youngster who would keep it on the road, where it really belonged.


















The Agent, Mr. Hutchings, had in the meantime moved on to Kalewa on the Chindwin River together with the Commissioner and a few other officials and it had been agreed that we would meet in Tamu in about a week’s time. The route taken by the trekking columns from Mandalay passed through Sagaing to Monywa (60 miles) and from Monywa to Tamu on the Indo-Burma Border (130 miles) – a cart track passing through the densely forested lowlands between the Chin Hills on the left and the Chindwin River on the right, going north. Since I had only my ruck sac to carry, I managed to maintain a steady 20 – 25 miles per day starting out at 0530 hrs and reaching a Camp or conveniently sited village around 4 p.m. The dry hot summer of northern Burma was beginning to impose its will on the ill-fed and tired columns of men, women and children many of whom were already in the grip of cholera and fading away by the hour due to severe dehydration.

The trek turned out to be one of the more harrowing experiences of my life. Only a few of the trekkers managed to cover the daily ‘quota’ of 20 miles to reach the next Camp; the vast majority could barely complete 7 to 10 miles per day and subsisted on rations carefully saved from previous camps. To assess their physical condition one has to remember that most of these evacuees had been on the road for over a month living on subsistence rations with little or no physical resistance left to cope with conditions to which they were totally alien. The parents carried their young children in addition to varying loads of belongings which they wished to carry with them to the new havens of their dreams. Husbands supported their wives and vice versa. Many were afflicted with cholera and all I could do was to see them break away from the column, stagger or crawl to the water holes at varying distances from the track take a few sips of the already fouled water and collapse, never to get up again.

It was a traumatic sight to see dozens of bodies around each water-hole. Some we were able to bury in shallow graves but there were others who had wandered into the thick forest to find a peaceful and solitary ending with their visions and dreams disappearing in misty silences. Apart from the water-holes, which were mostly some distance from the track, one had to watch the heart-breaking sight of young and old, men, women and children collapsing on either side of the track and having to be left behind as the remorseless tide moved on. The carnage in Rangoon and Mandalay from the Japanese bombing was a matter of war; and therefore acquired a peculiarly impersonal aspect. This was close to the bone. These were people for whom I was in a sense responsible and with whom I had spent quite a few miles. True they were in thousands but many of those who lay along that track happened to be individuals I had come to know. I lent a hand in burying them and carried on.




Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 5

Chrestomather | December 12, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (0)


Mandalay, March 1942




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

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



As the days went by, almost all my time began to be devoted to Air Evacuation problems which forced me to shift into Mandalay Town itself from the comfortable little cottage in Sagaing some 8 miles away.

An old friend placed a suite of rooms conveniently situated in the Bazar area at my disposal which I used both as office and living quarters. The friend also arranged for my meals which saved me both time and effort. There was a continuous flow of people wanting air passage and prepared to pay for it. However, I stuck to the norms agreed upon, and by and large, had little trouble enforcing the rules. My capacity to say ‘NO’ emphatically and without faltering was a handy tool in the circumstances though I did use my discretionary powers in order to help out deserving cases without bothering too much about adverse reaction from others.

I invariably managed to get well padded gentlemen to meet the passage money in return for an out of turn allocation of a seat going empty – as happened frequently, since families did not wish to be separated in those turbulent time. Here is an actual illustration: One fine morning a tall young man (6’4”) bounded into the Office grabbed me up and danced around the room in a gust of exuberance shouting ‘ho gaya, ho gaya’ as if he had won a lottery. It was Akram Khan, an old school friend who had gone into the Transport business and emerged a millionaire in the course of a year or so.


American-made trucks on the Burma Road

American-made trucks on the Burma Road

His lorries were operating on the Burma-China road on government contract and he had shifted lock, stock and barrel (which included the family, of course!) to Mandalay.








Himself a bachelor, he was anxious to evacuate his ailing mother and two sisters (18 & 20) by air to Calcutta. The sisters obviously did not qualify but I made a deal. He should pay for 10 seats and the three could go. He paid for 10 without batting an eye-lid and told me that he would be quite prepared to pay for any deserving case on my recommendation. By the time air-evacuation ended he had paid for more than 20 passages and I had no hesitation whatsoever in allocating an empty seat to him on the very last flight which left with 5 empty seats!



Troops boarding Douglas "Dakota" aircraft, Burma, 1944.

Troops boarding Douglas “Dakota” aircraft, Burma, 1944.



The Kyaw Htoons also decided to leave by air and I managed to accommodate the three of them on one flight. Mother left a couple of days later and this lifted a considerable load from my shoulders.










It was about this time that I persuaded the Agent to agree to our two ‘babus’ also leaving for India in a special aircraft which had landed at Shwebo with medicines. I kept back the Code Books to be destroyed before I hit the Road myself. All this left me completely free and I had only myself, my ruck sac and cycle to look after. I kept the cottage in Sagaing but was seldom able to use it. By the middle of March, the Japanese had already started consolidating their position in Rangoon and with the air-field under their command Toungoo and the smaller towns along the main Rangoon-Mandalay axis and the Irrawaddy came under constant attacks, and it became clear that all this activity was leading to a complete disruption of communication along the North-South axis with particular reference to Mandalay and Maymyo which had become the main staging centres for large Military and refugee columns making their way northwards – the former Via Myitkyina and the latter Via Tamu-Imphal. This also meant that all northern airfields would soon become targets for Japanese bombing attacks in order to deny them completely to the much reduced air component of the British Indian Forces as also to prevent them from being used for urgent supply and evacuation flights as was being done till then.

Our air evacuations scheme was being gradually wound down due to some uncertainty regarding aircraft availability, Japanese air activity in the area and a dramatic fall in demand for air tickets. The land evacuations, however, was in full swing though certainly not as smooth as could be wished.





World War II; Indian refugees flee Burma before advancing Japanese army (George Rodger, Magnum)

Mandalay had become a seething mass of refugees from every entry point – north, south, east and west. Cholera had reached epidemic proportions and the hospitals and casualty stations choked with patients whilst thousands waited for admission.









As if this was not enough riots erupted in the heart of the town between Chinese and Burmese on one side and Indians on the other. This led to widespread arson, looting and murder and my estimate of casualties as reported to the Government of India was approximately 600 killed and over 3,000 injured. This cast a further strain on our infra-structural resources and be-devilled the atmosphere with an all-pervasive sense of suspicion, bitterness and hatred which had a seriously adverse effect on the administration of our evacuation programme where these two groups of communities stood at either end of the line; Indians as beneficiaries and Burmese etc. as controllers.

This sur-charged atmosphere resulted as we had feared in a ghastly tragedy at the Mandalay end of the Sagaing Bridge which by itself was estimated to have taken a toll of some 6,000 lives – men, women and children. Despite establishing control points in the shape of a police out-post at the Bridge-head only allowing entry to the bridge on the basis of what came to be known as the ‘Yellow Chit’ which originally had been devised to ensure that each refuge received his/her anti-cholera inoculation before being allowed to cross the bridge. This became a major weapon for fleecing the mostly illiterate refugees.

It came to our notice that up to Rs.3/= was being charged per individual by the Burmese Police and its Civil components. Considering over 20 lakh refugees are known to have crossed the bridge the total amount involved would have been a staggering 50 lakh or more which must have come as a windfall to a wide range of functionaries belonging to various units of the government – Police, Public health, PWD, etc. We were also worried at the thought of too many refugees being let loose on the road to Pakokku since there was little information available regarding the actual functional status of camps along the road and the ability of the camp staffs to cope with a viable level of efficiency with the sort of numbers which seemed almost astronomical at that stage. However, I soon got used to thinking about problems in those terms and this approach came in handy later when I became totally responsible for day-to-day planning of logistics and management of all Camps up to Tamu.



Palace walls and moat, Mandalay

Palace walls and moat, Mandalay


By the end of March 1942, Mandalay had been turned into a huge refugee camp with very little evidence left of its once reasonably efficient civic facilities.









Summer was setting in and the temperature had begun shooting up. The monsoon was almost a month away, but I was certainly not looking forward to it with its additional problems. The daily casualty figure (deaths) fluctuated between 100 – 300 and disposal of the corpses was posing a serious problem. In addition there was a constant depletion of medical and public health personnel, with substantial numbers deserting their posts and vanishing without trace. Some camps had neither doctor nor public-health staff and we were forced to conscript younger men and women (below 40) against permission to use camp facilities till the time came for them to hit the road. I spent 3 – 4 hours each morning (starting at 6 a.m.) going from Camp to Camp on my bicycle but made it a point of getting back to my ‘office’ by 11 a.m. by which time a horde of refugees would have collected outside (mostly well-to-do middle class men/women) wanting me to arrange special facilities for them e.g. bullock carts to carry them to Tamu, special rations, since they were not used to just rice and salt, requests to leave money and valuables (jewellery etc.) for safe-custody and delivery at some destination in India, arrangement for storage of household items (furniture, car, sewing machines etc.) at Mandalay or Maymyo for the duration of the Japanese occupation, transfer of important documents (leases, agreements, Loan receipts, Property ownership paper etc.) to India in my personal custody etc. etc. All in all it disclosed a level of selfishness, total unconcern for and ignorance of the tragedy and misery around them and the absolute conviction that the ability to pay conferred on them the right to expect such services as they required from someone like myself.

The on-going trauma of having to watch at close quarters and inevitably get involved in the tragedies resulting from whole families being wiped out in the course of a couple of days leaving behind young of all ages to be cared for, was a burden I had to carry right up to the time till I crossed into Manipur almost two months later, though not quite. The constant pressure imposed by other people’s misery and my own frustration had done my temper no good, and there were times when I could bear it no more and just lashed out in spasms of violent out breaks. All the same, however seemingly unreasonable, we did manage to help a fair number of people and I must confess that despite my rudeness and stupid out-breaks, I managed somehow to retain far more goodwill and consideration than I perhaps deserved.

There was the touching case of a young zerbadi couple from Moulmein in the far south who would wait patiently in my office for hours each day in the hope of being introduced to a compatible group for the long journey ahead to Tamu. I knew what was required and told them it would be done, but would take time. After a couple of days they realised I was not being able to get away for meals and quite unobtrusively took matters into their own hands. On the 3rd day as it approached 2 p.m. they suddenly stepped up to my desk and too charge. She firmly told all my visitors that I had to have my meal, cleared the desk of all papers and laid out a tiffin-carrier full of delicious Burmese dishes – my favourite. In the meantime, the husband sat down at another desk and noted down names and relevant details of my visitors till I had finished. It took me almost a week to find the right group for them to join – mostly young couples in the 30 – 40 age group. I am glad to say that they did eventually get to Calcutta but have no idea what happened to them later.





Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 4

Chrestomather | December 9, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (0)


February 1942


Mandalay was already chock-a-block with refugees who had turned the city into a public health time bomb. Cholera had started taking hold and our total indent for anti-cholera vaccine on the Government of India reached 20 lakh injections for the Mandalay area alone. The news from the south was increasingly disturbing and after sending off a telegram to the Agent, I decided to make my way down south by river get off at Minbu-Magwe and then, if necessary pick up a bicycle and try to reach Rangoon by road (some 200 miles further south). We were now into the 3rd week of February and the weather still mild in the Burmese context.



Boats of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company

Boats of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company


I managed to get aboard a paddle-steamer belonging to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. Ltd. on its way south and we reached Minbu 2 days later.









Minbu and Magwe are twin cities on the left and right banks of the Irrawaddy river respectively. I was aware that the Kyaw Htoons, very close friends of the family, had a country house in Magwe and that there could be a remote possibility that Mother may have teamed up with them in the event of a general evacuation from Rangoon. It was worth taking a chance before rushing off to Rangoon and getting caught in turmoil there. I got off at Minbu and looked up an old Moplah business friend to get the latest news. He told me that Rangoon had fallen and the city was in a state of chaos. He advised me that even thinking of Rangoon it that state would be sheer madness. I asked him to get me a cycle on purchase and that I would settle with him on my return to Magwe which I decided to travel to in the same steamer waiting to cross over.



Salahuddin and Akhtar Tyabji, with the Kyaw Htoons, Magwe 1942

Salahuddin and Akhtar Tyabji, with the Kyaw Htoons, Magwe 1942


Getting off at Magwe I dashed off to the Kyaw Htoons who had a large bungalow overlooking the river and there, to my disbelieving astonishment I found Mother with the rest of the Htoon family enjoying a cup of tea!








Mr. Kyaw Htoon was a Karen lawyer happily married to an Englishwoman.; 2 children – Olga and Vernon – all of us in the same age group. It was quite tumultuous meeting and as soon as the excitement died down I was given an overall round-up of events so far.

As Rangoon was ordered to be abandoned, father joined the Army convoys with one of his own comprising of some 30 odd lorries carrying rice-milling equipment in full working order and another 50 loaded with un-husked paddy. Before moving off, however, father arranged for 2 lorries to be placed at Mother’s disposal; these carried spares for the rice mills but there was sufficient room for 5 individuals with baggage in each and this turned out to be a boon.


Farewell party for Akhtar Tyabji (centre) Monday Afternoon Club


Mother, knowing that the Kyaw Htoons were in Magwe, decided to stop at Minbu and crossed over to persuade them to join her on the journey to Mandalay and, in fact, stick together for the rest of the stay in Burma.












The Kyaw Htoons were undecided but I told them categorically that they had no option. There would be nothing for him to do and that there was every possibility of the law and order situation breaking down and creating an ugly situation. I also told him that I had everything arranged in Mandalay in the way of shelter and once there, a decision would have to be taken regarding further movement towards India.

Fortunately, both Olga and Vernon Htoon were enthusiastic about the plan. She had fortunately passed her BA exams early in 1941 and he (Vernon) had managed to secure a Commission in the Burma Rifles whose Training Centre was in Mandalay.




The little Austin with the driver Yakub formed part of Mother’s little convoy and it was decided that Mother and the elder Kyaw Htoons would travel in the Austin and the younger three in the lorries.







The Kyaw Htoons took this decision, which could well mean a long and uncertain separation from their homeland, with typical stoicism and were packed and ready for the road within an hour’s time. The house too had to be locked up and secured, more for psychological satisfaction than conviction regarding safety. We crossed over to Minbu by steamer and mounted our respective vehicles with our baggage which consisted of a suitcase each. My moplah friend was asked to return the bicycle with thanks and we were on the move.



The Great Raid on Magwe, March 1942 by the Japanese

The Great Raid on Magwe, March 1942 by the Japanese
















We  stopped the night at Toungoo had a good night’s rest and reached Sagaing, my temporary home, late the following evening. The cottage received general approval and we settled in without much ado. Vernon decided to leave for his regiment the very next morning and that was the last I saw of him. A wonderful friend, he rose to command a battalion and kept in touch well into the 60’s after which there has been total silence.

The Agent reached Mandalay the next morning and after a brief session concerning our programme of work and main priorities in terms of setting up Refugee Camps along the Mandalay-Tamu route and their provisioning for the hordes of evacuees expected along that route. This, of course, had to be the sole responsibility of the Government of Burma but I was directed to associate myself closely with every aspect of the work in order to be in a position to take over at short notice. This was significant since it was an indication that the Government of India was increasingly taking over responsibility (financial and administrative) for all aspects of the massive Evacuation infra-structure that was being built up in order to cope with the problem at every stage.

Our discussion made it clear that the major factor responsible for unnecessary misunderstandings, delays and friction was the lack of understanding and agreement between the Burmese government officials and ourselves in regard to specific areas of responsibility, administrative and financial as also powers to issue passes for crossing the Sagaing bridge on certification of completion of health formalities.



Sagaing Bridge, built 1934, partly demolished by British 1942; not rebuilt till 1954

Sagaing Bridge, built 1934, partly demolished by British 1942; not rebuilt till 1954














The Agent decided to call on the Governor at the summer capital Maymyo, immediately in order to finalize a host of issues and problems pending decision for sometime. On his return that evening, I was in for a rude shock. Quite simply, I was to represent the Agent/Government of India in all matters involving law and order problems, Camp management, health clearances and issue of passes and daily review of infra-structure development along the evacuation route.

The Agent had decided to keep the bombshell for the last. As I was getting up to leave he casually asked me to stay on, lit a cigarette asked me to light my pipe and then let fly. I was told without any preamble that a regular Air Evacuation Scheme was to commence in 2 days time and that I was to take charge of it! I almost collapsed in my chair since we had discussed the problems involved in operating such a scheme earlier on and had agreed that, at best, it would be the most thankless job on the Evacuation platter. Of the more critical aspects, obviously the selection of passengers on each flight would be the most troublesome. Of the thousands who would lay claim to a seat from the 40 available each day –


Douglas Dakotas in the Royal Air Force

Dakotas in the Royal Air Force


the Dakotas were considered new at the time – selection would have to be on the basis of criteria to be strictly applied in each case.









We kept them simple and straightforward: Women, 40 years and above; ill or ailing handicapped children below 16 years; those prepared to pay the 120/= per seat fixed by the Government of India up to Calcutta. Men above 50 years with otherwise similar qualifications. The bottom-line was that I had absolute power to make exceptions as considered appropriate. I used these powers to help a number of deserving individuals – old disabled and sick, as will be seen later.





Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 3

Chrestomather | December 7, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (2)



January 2, 1942


Started back for Rangoon 2nd afternoon & drove straight up to the Agent’s House-cum-office




Windermere (now Kandawgyi) Park, Rangoon


situated in Windermere Park – thickly wooded & lush green. He agreed with my assessment of the situation and was on the phone immediately to inform the Chief Secretary








of what he termed the Government of India’s assessment of the situation including the various problems connected with the Prome-Taung Up route and so on and got an immediate acceptance in principle of the Agent’s suggestions/proposals. An hour was spent discussing the next day’s programme which was entirely devoted to the situation within Rangoon city and specifically as it concerned the Indian community. It was after 12 o’clock when I got back to the Club and Father refused to allow me to turn in till he had got a detailed report regarding the Prome trip. Apart from getting familiar with the Government of India procedures, a major effort went into acquiring absolute confidence in handling the Codes for I had been made aware that I would be operating on my own shortly and it was imperative to send all reports, requests, etc. by Code, whether back to Rangoon or towards New Delhi.

The air raids on Rangoon continued on a daily cycle of day and night bombings in order to keep the population and the administration off balance. Rangoon city and its suburbs was fast filling up with Indian refugees from the south and south-east; the ones from the hinterlands further north were taking the various feeder roads joining up with the main Rangoon-Mandalay highway and the Japanese subjected these various streams to a regular dose of low level strafing with machine guns which not only caused serious casualties but also almost unthinking panic leading to further bizarre tragedies such as bridge collapses, boat capsizings and so on. From this chaos emerged an oasis of calm, disciplined and rational control in the shape of the Zeyawady Zamindari owned by the Raja of Zeyawady (Raja Sahib Sinha).

The Zamindari which had been conferred on the Sinha family of Patna, Bihar, around 1870 comprised of some 20,000 acres of rich agricultural land suitable for sugar-cane and paddy. Apart from the zamindari the family owned another 10,000 acres and the total population of share-croppers, and farm labourers with families was in the neighbourhood of approx. 20,000. The Agent was in close touch with the Raja sahib on an on-going basis and the Raja had given an assurance that he would not allow any of his people to take the road till such time as the initial congestion had eased and even then in well defined self- contained batches each with its own train of bullock carts loaded with rations to see the group though to Mandalay.



Japanese conquest of Burma, 1942

Japanese conquest of Burma, 1942


Since all the Zayawady labour was from Bihar it constituted homogenous, cohesive groups each in charge of a leader who managed to keep the groups from breaking up at least till Mandalay was reached. From then onwards it was each family for itself and the devil take the hindmost.











As a matter of historic interest the Sinha family (Bihari zamindars) had been persuaded to help the British by establishing a regular system under which indentured labour was shipped to Rangoon for various categories of work including agriculture. The Sinhas, in fact, acted as Labour Contractors and amassed a fortune from the enterprise. It was in recognition of this assistance that the British rewarded the Senior Sinha with the Zamindari and the title of Raja of Zayawady.

Apart from close personal friendship between the two families, Father had been acting as Political Adviser to the Sinhas since the early Thirties and for all I know his name still stands in the Books. The friendship stood fast in spite of several serious differences on matters of policy. Its depth and sincerity can be judged from the fact that when Father was lying seriously ill in Mussoorie on his return from Burma, the Raja Sahib thought it fit to send his eldest son all the way from Patna in order to inform Mother that the Sinhas had taken over the responsibility for Father’s treatment and she was not to worry. The son, Raj Bihari Sinha stayed in Mussoorie till such time as father was declared by the doctor completely out of danger.[1]

There was another large Zamindari in the name of Khan Bahadur Zain-ul-Abedin of Kalewa, some 200 miles north of the Capital. He was of Afghan descent , his grandfather having been exiled to Burma after the Afghan War. Unfortunately this could not be compared to the Zeyawady Estate in the matter of efficient operations and business-like administration and thus had little or no impact in the overall politics of Indian Labour Policy in Burma. We spent some wonderful holidays on the estate and it was there that I had my first sighting of a tiger, in the wild.




It was about the 3rd week of February 1942 when the Agent decided that the time had come to make a tactical withdrawal to Mandalay










by setting up a small mobile office there in order to be in position by the time the first major influx of refugees from the south hit that city in full force. I was to be in charge of operations there and was duly accredited to the Governor and the Chief Commissioner as the Agent’s representative in all matters concerning Indian refugees – their reception, shelter, medical, food and water and lastly evacuation by the Mandalay-Kalewa-Tamu-Imphal-Dimapur route. I was also to involve myself with the setting up of refugee camps along the route which had been sadly neglected until then.

We (myself and 2 permanent India-based staff) left for Mandalay by train one fine morning on the understanding that my return to Rangoon would depend on developments in the south but, in any case, I was not to leave Mandalay without specific instructions to that effect. We were in Mandalay the next morning and as I had taken the bicycle with me, I instructed my two stalwarts to remain at the station with the Codes and our meagre luggage whilst I cycled across the Irrawady river bridge




Sagaing, 2012


to Sagaing to meet the Commissioner and arrange some sort of accommodation for our office and living accommodation for myself and the staff.








The Commissioner, Mr. Roberts, ICS, met me most cordially and I soon had a well secured room allotted to me for the office within the Commissioner’s office complex equipped with a good safe for the sage custody of the Code Books. I was also able to rent two Burmese style bamboo cottages for myself and the staff. Having done this, I cycled back the 8 odd mile to the Railway Station, hired a ‘tikka gadi’ (horse drawn carriage) and shifted my two Tamil friends and luggage to Sagaing. We were settled in by sunset and that was the beginning of a fairly eventful phase of my life and work as a minute limb of the Government of India in Burma. The next morning was spent getting in touch with Burmese officials with whom I would have to deal and, as must be expected, I got the clear impression that things would not be all that easy. The pressure of refugees on Mandalay was increasing by the day and from an inspection of the camps set up for their reception I had the sinking feeling that we were in for big trouble – no latrines, no drinking water, no medical facilities.

The food stock – rice and salt was totally inadequate in terms of reserves. Each camp was meant to accommodate 40,000 refugees and It had been agreed that each man, woman and child above 6 would receive a cigarette tin full of rice per day together with a table-spoon full of salt. Firewood etc. had to be arranged by the refugees themselves. They reduced the problem by 3 to 4 or more families pooling their resources in order to economise on expenses.



Indian civilians in Burma, fleeing northwards

Indian civilians in Burma, fleeing northwards


There was a more serious problem however – the distance of the Camp sites from the City centre, invariably over six miles in each case had led to families just dumping themselves on any open ground








along the city roads creating critical public hygiene and health problems not only for the refugees but the permanent population as well. This also resulted in a running feud between the Burmese and refugee Indians resulting in senseless loss of life and property on both sides. They also constituted sitting targets for the odd Japanese raiders which sneaked in 2 or 3 times a day in order to machine gun these refugees in order to keep them of balance and in a state of terror without respite. Total lack of discipline and cohesion on the one hand and complete disregard of elementary precautions precipitated a horrendous public health problem resulting in almost 100 deaths from cholera each day.

At our request the Government of India despatched a large consignment of 2,50,000 doses of anti-cholera vaccine by air and we put into effect an attempt at immunisation of the total refugee population with the inducement of a yellow card which would entitle the holder to cross the Sagaing Bridge – the gateway to the north.




Mingun Pagoda, Sagaing












Unfortunately a large concentration of refugees was building up at the Mandalay end of the bridge and once the cholera broke out among the squalor and filth, I found it difficult to keep a tally of the daily casualties. It was one of the more gruesome situations I had the misfortune to experience.



Fire after bombing sweeps Maymyo (Life magazine)

Fire after bombing sweeps Maymyo (Life magazine)


As may be imagined, this was keeping me on the hop till late into the night, with odd trips to Maymyo the summer capital (some 40 miles from Mandalay) in order to clear matters with the Commissioner.







The news from Rangoon became increasingly alarming and the most disturbing aspect was the dichotomy between the Government version on radio and the first hand accounts from evacuees from Rangoon and Toungoo indicating that the Japanese were almost knocking on the gates of the capital and that general evacuation had been ordered. And then came the famous broadcast by the Governor of Burma one evening assuring the population that the British Indian forces had consolidated their position around Rangoon and that the Burmese Capital would prove to be a second Stalingrad. I remember telling my staff that evening that Rangoon was finished and that we were to prepare for the final exodus from Burma! So much for credibility!




Rangoon 1942, Night Scene in the Suburbs, George Rodger, Magnum

Rangoon 1942, Night Scene in the Suburbs, George Rodger, Magnum


All my sense of discipline and rationality seemed to fly out of the window at that moment and I convinced myself that it was essential for me to get back to Rangoon at any cost.







My main concern at that moment was how Mother would be able to face up to the chaos and total disruption of administration in the wake of a general exodus being ordered. At that moment I quite overlooked the fact that Father was holding a key position in both the military and civil arms of the Government and that Mother would also be adequately cared for.

I sent off a telegram to the Agent informing him that I would be leaving for Rangoon by the first available train unless I received specific directions from him to the contrary. Cycled down to Mandalay Railway Station the next morning and informed the Station Master of my intention to board the first available train to Rangoon. We had become quite friendly over the last few days and I liked him. He happened to be a Karen Christian, very devout, and a firm believer in Providence as a major determinant in human affairs. He flew into an absolute rage telling me bluntly that he thought I was going mad and that he would have no hand in getting me a ticket; I could get it directly at the window, myself. I did, and was told that I was only the second 1st class passenger booked so far.

The next train to down South to Rangoon was due to leave at 6 p.m. the following day and not having received any message from Rangoon till 4 p.m. I packed my ruck-sac and got to the station at 5 p.m. My two young Tamils did not know what to make of all this and the Commissioner had serious reservations about the wisdom of what I was up to. Needless to say the train was almost empty since it had been broadcast that it would be the last train to leave Mandalay. The First Class bogey was next to the engine on the very edge of the platform and as I dumped my ruck sac on to a berth, I found that my co-passenger was a large-sized, weather beaten Anglo-Indian who, on closer acquaintance turned out to be a retired Engine Driver returning to his home in Toungoo half way to Rangoon. He noticed my pipe and immediately offered me a cut from his South African rope tobacco. I discovered that he had been recently retired and was returning home after settling his account, pension etc. obviously highly satisfied with whatever he had managed to secure. He told me that apart from us there was a bogy full of girls also returning to their Convent school in Toungoo. I did not think anything of the incongruity of the situation at that time.

The station platform was crowded with refugees and their belongings and the noise level was almost that of a continuous roar. As the train was about to leave, I was leaning out of the open door and looking back idly at the crowds when I suddenly became aware of the Guard’s shrill whistle in short staccato blasts unlike the normal signal and at the same time saw the Station Master dashing down the platform shouting something at the top of his voice. The train had started to move by then but came to a halt with a jerk leaving our bogy well clear of the platform. As the train stopped the Station Master came pelting down, I suddenly realised he was shouting my name. I jumped down and he handed me the piece of yellow paper he was holding. It was a telegram from the Agent, c/o the Station Master directing me not to leave Mandalay unless so ordered. My co-passenger handed down the ruck sac, we said goodbye and wishing him well, I walked back to the Station Master’s office.

I learnt the next morning that the train was attacked by Japanese Night Fighters somewhere north of Toungoo. My friend was killed and of the 120 girls on their way to Toungoo, only 10 escaped alive. I was too stunned to realise what a touch and go affair it had been and I took quite some time for the full impact of what could have been to sink in to my brain. By the time that happened, there were other things to worry about.





[1] In a letter accompanying the ms, Hashim Tyabji writes that he has recently learnt that the Raja of Zayawady’s family was closely connected with the zamindari of Dumraon, in Bihar. He adds that without his being aware of any earlier links between his family and that of Dumraon,


HNT & Man Vijay Singh Dumraon Tiger Topsthe connection has continued, as evidenced by this picture, taken in 1980, of himself with Man Vijai Singh Dumraon.

To this day the area around Zayawady has the appearance of rural Bihar.










Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 2

Chrestomather | December 5, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (3)


[December 25- 26, 1941



Lt. Nadir S. Tyabji, 1943

Lt. Nadir S. Tyabji, 1943

By the time I started back for home it was late afternoon and what I saw started raising butterflies in my stomach. I stepped on the pedals of my Sunbeam racer and as I reached the house – a typical wooden 2-storeyed dwelling within its own grounds – my heart took a violent somersault. Half the roof was gone and there were clear signs that the morning’s work had left it in bad shape.











We lived on the first floor and miraculously the wooden stairway was intact. I knew Mother would be there since she was on night-shift as Ambulance Driver at the Red Cross Casualty Station, and bounded up shouting for her. She’d had a harrowing experience with a miracle thrown in for good measure.





Rangoon bombing raid, WW II



Jehangir our old and faithful retainer also appeared and gave me a brief account of what had actually transpired. At the time the planes came over she was at the dining table writing letters.








Jehangir came rushing up and literally carried her off downstairs to a small air-raid trench we had dug in the garden with an old derelict ‘sampan’ for a splinter-proof roof! Soon the whole area came under attack and two A.P. bombs hit the house. One took away part of the roof and the second went straight down through the dining table and wooden floor and buried itself in the ground floor without exploding.

Apart from the gaping holes the house still stood four-square with the furniture etc. intact. However, we were advised to move out with whatever we could carry away in the small Austin 10 which, with its young driver Yakub sat unscratched in the garage. With that unexploded bomb comfortably ensconced in the ground floor haste was called for and we took remarkably little time in getting way from that beautiful little house and dumping ourselves on the premises of the Ladies Monday Afternoon Club on the Royal Lake, of which mother was President at the time.

At this time the family consisted of just the three of us – Father, Mother and myself; Ahsan had shifted to Calcutta as secretary to Mr. G.L. Mehta of Scindia Steamship Co. There has been no mention of Father till now. Though we knew his appointments for the day, it was obvious that after the bombing the priorities would have changed. As the Japanese push into Burma developed the realisation grew that a general withdrawal of the British Indian forces together with the Administrative set-up had to be considered a distinct possibility and it also dawned on the authorities that a massive withdrawal on the scale envisaged would also require an efficient commissariat organisation headed by someone who not only knew where the resources could be found but had the necessary stature, respect and leadership to be able to commandeer these resources on an equitable basis.




Old Rangoon Sketch Map

Old Rangoon Sketch Map



In Burma the basic item had to be Rice and it has to be said that there was no one who had a deeper knowledge of the various facets of the Rice Trade in Burma from Cultivation to Labour, Marketing, Export etc. etc. as also the identity of the major Companies and individuals involved in various aspects of the trade. His various Papers and Notes on the rice industry of Burma had been acknowledged as constituting Basic Reference Material for Govt. Policy formulations. With these credentials his appointment as Director of Civil Supplies to be quickly extended to cover Army supplies as well was inevitable and I think he was the first and perhaps the last Congressman to be given the rank of Honorary Lieut. Colonel in the British Indian Army. He was a difficult man to keep pace with but one had no option; it became a matter of family prestige. On the 25th we managed to track him down at one of his Emergency Meetings to meet the growing state of unrest in the country and he was told that his next meal would be available at the Monday Afternoon Club, as also hopefully, a Bed.

A view of the 'Cantonment Gardens' (now Kandaw Mingalar Garden), Rangoon (Wikimedia Commons)

A view of the ‘Cantonment Gardens’ (now Kandaw Mingalar Garden), Rangoon (Wikimedia Commons)

The Club was beautifully sited in a large compound below the Lake Bund. That night Rangoon was in mourning and a great deal of time was spent trying to locate friends who had been forced out of their homes due to bomb damage.











Some had lost close members of the family; we mourned for them but there were no tears. Mother’s main concern then was the safety and welfare of her students studying in Zeenat Islam Girls High School started by her some ten years back. The School building was safe and in course of time it also turned out that none of her 1000 odd students suffered any hurt or damage either then or in later attacks. So far so good. Father returned home about 11 p.m. and Jehangir in his usual unobtrusive fashion managed to serve up an excellent hot meal after which things began to acquire a less sombre hue.

It was just after midnight and the three of us were going over the previous day’s events and discussing our respective schedules for the day – 26th Dec. 1941 – when we noticed the headlamps of a car turning into the drive. It belonged to Mr. Robert Hutchings, ICS, Agent to the Government of India in Burma and the driver carried an envelope for me; and from that moment my life took a completely new direction.

From Trade & commerce I was to take a leap into the service of the Government of India in the Ministry of Commonwealth Affairs to be followed by the Ministry of Steel Production (6 months) the Indian Navy till 1963 and finally IOC Ltd. till final retirement in 1971. However all this was well beyond the horizon at that moment in time. My main concern was what the letter had to say. It was official, on the Agent’s letterhead intimating, in stark terms, my appointment with immediate effect as Assistant to the Agent of the Government of India in Burma on the same salary as I had been drawing from TOMCO which considering Govt. salaries at the time, was most satisfactory. It also informed me that the management of Tata Oil Mills Co. Ltd., had agreed to my ‘transfer’ to the Government of India till as long as required.



Rickshaws, Rangoon

Rickshaws, Rangoon











I had greatly enjoyed my 7 years with TOMCO and the Company had been very good to me.In any case, with our Godown having received a direct hit and the Japanese almost at the front door it was obvious to me that I would either have to return to India, losing my independent status or resign a dilemma from which I was neatly saved by the letter in question.

Whilst all this may read well on paper, I must make it clear in all honesty that I had been aware for some time, ever since the Japanese moved in Singapore, that the Agent’s fertile brain had been busy (in its spare moments) on devising a scheme for high jacking my services. I discovered later that he had already written to Mr. Bozman, ICS, Secretary, Commonwealth Affairs in this connection obtaining his approval in principle, to the scheme.

With my temperament and zest for the unusual and exciting, I did not waste too many minutes in confirming my delight in accepting the appointment and informing my new Boss that I would present myself at the Office at 0800 hrs sharp, which I did. I had not the foggiest notion then as to where it would lead me but the road was open and the horizon beckoned. At 29, you don’t ask for much more! My parents had no hesitation in approving my decision and – on the other hand, I greatly liked and admired Mr. Hutchings – sentiments which were to be considerably strengthened in the months ahead.

At 0800 hours on Boxing Day 26th December 1941, on the dot, I presented myself at the Agent’s Office, housed in a part of his largish residence in Windermere Park. The Agent and Mrs. Hutchings had just finished breakfast and were on their second cup of coffee when I was asked to join them and that set the pattern for the next 5 to 6 months whenever I happened to be at ‘Headquarters’ e.g. wherever the Agent had his office at the time.

Working with Mr Hutchings was a major influence in my life. He laid no claims to being an intellectual but his sheer dynamism and air of confident authority made me proud of being a part of his team. He was junior to many of the ICS officers serving in the Govt. of Burma but he represented the Government of India, and that was enough. He let no one forget that it happened to be the brightest Jewel in the British Imperial Crown! Tall, gaunt of face with an oversized aquiline nose, he could turn into a raging behemoth when the occasion demanded and mostly against his own countrymen but had the grace to laugh at himself in an embarrassed sort of way. However his ability to laugh at his own foibles seldom left behind any perceptible ill feeling or bitterness on the part of his opponents.

He had the rare gift of being able to get to the core of the problem and then unravelling it methodically in order to be able to work out the various options available for its solution. I would be in office at the stroke of 8 a.m. and we would go over the day’s programme over a cup of coffee which Mrs Hutchings would pour out as soon as she heard the tinkle of my bicycle bell. Those were busy days and I had no reason to miss not getting my evening games since I got all the exercise I needed from cycling around the city. Often enough there was additional excitement trying to keep out of the way of Japanese Zeroes belting down low over the highway in pursuit of Heavy Vehicle Convoys, military and civil, on the Windermere Park Road which happened to be a byepass for the road to Mandalay. I can remember one hairraising occasion when under a somewhat egoistic notion that the Japanese Air Force had designated me personally as their main obstacle to the conquest of Burma, I flung myself off my bicycle and dived headlong into the roadside monsoon ditch. It was a matter of minutes and on finally reaching office I discovered that the Agent was out. Poor Mrs. Hutchings was quit aghast at my appearance and promptly produced a pair of shorts and a shirt belonging to Mr Hutchings which by their enormous size turned me into a scarecrow providing much amusement all round. He was 6 feet plus as against my somewhat more modest 5’!

Another of Mr. Hutchings strong points was his ability and willingness to trust and devolve powers without laying down inhibiting reservations, which in my case created a bond that I greatly cherished. There was never a question of British or Indian. Within a matter of days he made me aware of his confidence and never resorted to spoon-feeding. I knew what was required to be done and why and the rest was my business.

For me January 1942 was a month of intense activity and toil working late into the night preparing myself for the tasks and responsibilities ahead. The Agent had taken me fully into his confidence regarding our future status in the developing situation and in particular, what he foresaw as being my responsibilities vis-à-vis the Refugees and the whole process of Evacuation particularly from Mandalay northward to Manipur. It is remarkable how correct his assessment turned out to be in the final analysis. January 1942 also witnessed a massive surge of refugees from southern districts into Rangoon and the surrounding areas. The first stream to leave Rangoon took the road to Prome with some hazy notions of moving on from there to Cox’s Bazar on the Arakan Coast thence to TaungUp, Chittagong and finally Calcutta. We had to know more. No one seemed to have a clear picture of what this long march could entail and it fell to the Agent to make the first positive move in this direction. He decided to send me to Prome on a swift recce mission and since I still have a copy of the original Movement Order, I am reproducing it below since it provides and excellent example of his manner of working.


Movement Order


You will proceed on 31st January 1942 to Prome in Car No. 1999. At Prome you should report to the Deputy Commissioner, or in his absence the District Superintendent of Police, and enquire generally into the number of Indians waiting in Prome district to go up the Prome Taung Up road and as to their condition. You will also report what you find of Indians settled in camps and villages at the Rangoon-Prome road. You shall return to headquarters not later than the afternoon of Monday the 2nd February 1942.

Sd/= R.H. Hutchings

Agent of the Government of


  1. Tyabji, Esq.,

Assistant to the Agent

of the Govt. of India in Burma




Rangoon 1942; spectators gather around the body of a downed Japanese airman (George Rodger, Magnum)

Rangoon 1942; spectators gather around the body of a downed Japanese airman (George Rodger, Magnum)













This Memo was received after midnight and I was on the road to Prome at 5 a.m. sharp. Even at that hour I found the road almost choked with Indians fleeing the stricken city in a blind endeavour to put as much distance as possible between themselves and Rangoon. Men, women and children carrying whatever they had managed to salvage on their heads and shoulders. The northward migration had begun as a trickle with the first air-raids on the Capital over a month back and had alerted both the Government of India and the Government of Burma to two major problems (1) the critical need to prevent a general exodus by Indian labour in order to maintain stevedoring services, civil public health, railways and the host of other services which were dominated by Indian labour merely on the ground that Burmese labour was both inefficient and therefore more costly, and (2) the obvious dangers inherent in a mass exodus of this magnitude in terms of outbreak of cholera, degradation of the areas on either side of the roads and above all, providing this mass of humanity with minimum essential facilities such as shelter, rations and drinking water at pre-determined halting sites. Camps were being set up 20 miles apart (that being a day’s march) and were to be stocked with rice and salt only. I stopped at regular intervals to talk to individuals and groups concerning their intentions and resources and to find out if they had any idea of the route to take and why and the difficulties and hardships ahead.

I discovered that the vast majority in that stream were Oriyas from Orissa travelling in well defined groups, village or caste-wise, with cash resources ranging from 50/= to 1000/= rupees per family which was all the money they had been able to lay their hands on at short notice. Many had fled leaving behind substantial sums owing to them by employers/contractors or maistrys. Almost none had any idea of the long and arduous trek ahead of them but then neither did I. according to my reckoning there were just 50,000 Indians on that road that day, 31st January 1942, between Rangoon and Prome, a distance of approx. 120 miles. Reached Prome around mid-day and met both the Commissioner & DSP (both British) with whom I was to establish an excellent working relationship without ado. I got a good idea of established and projected Camps in and around Prome, facilities available in resources and man-power and anticipated shortages and bottlenecks. I was told that finance would not be a problem. As planned, Prome district would be able to handle approx. 50,000 refugees on a 24 hour cycle which meant that the Camps would have to be emptied every 24 hours to accommodate fresh arrivals. This in turn meant that the facilities along the Prome-Taung Up road, including adequate provision of boats for crossing the Irrawaddy at Prome or other selected sites would have to be suitably strengthened in order to avoid ‘piling’ up of refugees at these points resulting in the creation of a host of problems like hygiene and law and order which in the overall would cause friction between local Burmese and refugees resulting in dis-order and chaos. Apart from all this was the harassment of refugees by the Burma police and petty officials which even at that early stage had assumed critical proportion and was strongly brought to my attention by Indian settlers, traders and shop-keepers in the area, many of whom were known to me from my earlier visits as TOMCO representative.

I lodged a complaint with the Commissioner and brought it to the Agent’s notice in my report on return to Rangoon. My major concern at that stage was the realisation that neither the Burmese administration nor anyone else seemed to have any clear idea of the physical difficulties likely to be encountered by the refugees along the Prome Taung Up route which in a general way ran along the foothills of the Arakan Yomas. There was no positive information even in respect of availability of water and suitable camp sites for such large numbers along the route. The attitude of the tribal population along the Prome Taung Up route was another worrying factor about which nothing was known. It was obvious to me that the first few batches were likely to face tremendous problems but my suggestion that we should hold back any movement northwards till such time as a proper recce had been carried was received with no particular enthusiasm from the Commissioner and DSP and even less from the refugees themselves. In fact, it led to a near riot and I withdrew the suggestion for the time being. I regret to have to record that in the event, the first batches of these ill-equipped men, women and children met with total disaster and from information which reached us later it was evident that only a handful had managed to struggle through to Akyab and beyond. The only positive outcome of this ill-fated venture was to give a small boost to my credibility status; my views were taken somewhat more seriously by the agent as well as the Burmese administration and this proved to be of considerable help later on when I moved up to Mandalay for the final phase of Evacuation from Burma.


(to be continued…)

ucuz ukash