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

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…)

Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 1

December 4, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (2)




Hashim Tyabji, 1980

Hashim Tyabji, many years ago

On the 15th of November, 2013, I received a letter from a boyhood acquaintance.










Hi Amitav,

I have been a great fan ever since In An Antique Land but for reasons of personal connection The Glass Palace is the book that my mother and I have re-read a few times. My father grew up in Burma and it is uncanny how the Burmese elements of that book echo the stories that I grew up with – from my father, Uncle and Grandfather. When war came my father was co-opted by the Government of India to help with the refugee problem and was one of the last Indians on the Mandalay – Kalewa – Tamu route to exit Burma. My grandfather came out of the northern route through the Hukawng Valley and barely managed to survive the terrible malaria that seems to have infected so many of the people on that route.

Sadly my father died before The Glass Palace was published. But he did manage to leave behind a short account of his experiences on the trek out which is interesting reading. I have finally begun to read more about that whole event, with a vague idea of filling out my father’s account with more background material and the stories of others who had shared this experience. While doing some web searches I chanced upon a story told to you by another refugee who took this same route. Frustratingly, despite having bookmarked that page (as I thought), I now can’t find it. So I thought I’d write to you and ask if you had found any more such accounts that you could perhaps put me on to? There are a handful of British accounts and books of this event, but by and large the British were given much greater help and assistance – including better amenities at the refugee camps as my father mentions – so their experience was perhaps a little bit different to that of the Indians. But of course it all adds to the ‘thickness of the stew’ in terms of the story I am somewhat desultorily thinking of putting together (purely for private circulation amongst the family).

It would be very good to hear from you Amitav and I would be very grateful for any help/pointers.

Best wishes

Hashim Tyabji

PS: In case you are interested in reading my father’s story I can mail it to you. I think your family had a similar experience? My father then joined the RINVR and volunteered to join the commandos and fought through the Arakan campaign.



A few days later I wrote back:


Dear Hashim

Very nice to hear from you. I didn’t know about your Burma connection but somehow am not surprised at all. Many Indian families had close links with Burma at the time.

I think the post that you are referring to is this one: . Do look at the comments thread – a lot of people have written in with their experiences.

I am really glad to know that your father wrote an account of the 1941-42 exodus from Burma. I think it’s important to compile every scrap of material about that event. There are very few published accounts written by Indians. The best source that I’ve ever found is a diary by an Indian doctor (one Dr Ghosh actually). It’s an unpublished hand-written ms – completely fascinating. What is interesting is that unlike British accounts of the march it does not focus primarily on disease, hardships etc – much of it is actually about the racial aspects. As you are probably aware, the routes were segregated into ‘black’ and ‘white’ routes, the former being much more taxing. Many Indians, especially people of means, did their best to get permission to use the white routes. I think this may be one reason why they found it difficult to write about the march.

I’d certainly be interested in seeing your father’s account. And if you would like to write something about your family’s Burma connection I would be glad to post it on my blog. I’ve been thinking of setting up a ‘Burma Exodus Archive’ on my website, to serve as a resource for future research. Your father’s memoir would be perfect for that. I very much look forward to reading it.

And what have you been doing all these years? Do let me know.

With my best wishes



I learnt later that Hashim had been wandering the jungles of Nepal and India after finishing a history degree at Loyola College, Chennai. Denied entry into the Army due to poor eyesight, he went to work for Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Nepal for what was supposed to be a short stint. But once in the jungle he found his true vocation as a naturalist, ending up as Director of operations for Tiger Mountain India. At the age of 30 he left the company and built himself a house at the edge of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in 1991, where he lived for several years working with local communities in development and conservation, serving as an honorary wildlife warden and as a member of the Indian Board of Wildlife. An interest in birds lead to a long-term bird survey of Bandhavgarh which was published as a paper in the Journal of the BNHS and a guide to the park. He has also been scientific advisor to wildlife films and co-authored a couple of books on Indian wildlife and tigers. In 2001, along with a few friends he started a company called Wild India Camps.



Hashim Tyabji 2014

The company owns the Bagh Van Lodge (currently Taj-managed), which pioneered tourism in Pench, and Forsyth Lodge which helped create a new tourism model in Satpura Tiger Reserve. Hashim now spends much of his time in England where his wife is a GP. But he retains strong connections with central India and continues to be involved in conservation work.














The typescript of The Burma Story, 1941 – 1942, by Captain Nadir Salahuddin Tyabji, (Hashim’s father) arrived in my mailbox shortly afterwards.

The roughly 30,000 word memoir was composed over many years. Hashim writes: ‘[My father] was born on 13 July 1913 and died on 13 Oct 1996. He had just turned 29 at the end of the memoir. Father had kept a rather patchy diary through this period but many pages had disappeared or were too badly water damaged to read. He did also consult bits of his official report – again I only saw fragments (when the National Archive people came to take all my grandfather’s papers in the 1980’s I think they took some of father’s papers as well). He actually dictated the first draft some time in the mid-1980’s on the insistence of his maternal cousin Saad Ali. He then took several years as I recall in finalising the memoir. I was working away from home all this time and sadly didn’t take enough interest in his diaries.



Lt Nadir S. Tyabji, in training

Lt Nadir S. Tyabji, training


Both Saad and I were also keen that he write the next chapter of the Burma story. This was his service with the navy when he volunteered for the beach commandos. But he died before that.’











In researching my books I have read many wartime memoirs. Captain Tyabji’s is without a doubt, among the best of them. I know of no better account of the evacuation of refugees from Burma in the initial phases of the war. Richly textured and remarkably well-written, The Burma Story also brings vividly to life a milieu that vanished almost overnight after the Japanese invasion of Burma: the urbane, cosmopolitan world of pre-war Rangoon.

Captain Tyabji was born into a family of unusual distinction. His grand uncle, Badruddin Tyabji, was the first Indian Chief Justice of the Bombay (now Mumbai) Supreme Court and was famously progressive in his views, especially where it concerned the rights of women. He was also one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress and was elected president of the party in 1887. His grandfather Abbas Tyabji was Chief Justice of the Baroda High Court when, in disgust over the Jalianwallah Bagh massacre, he left to join Gandhiji. He and many other members of the family were ardent Gandhians and close personal friends of Mahatma Gandhi. Indeed Abbas Tyabji was designated his deputy on the Dandi Salt March and took over after Gandhiji was arrested.

As Sulaimani Bohra Muslims from Surat, in Gujarat, the Tyabjis belonged to one of the Indian subcontinent’s most successful mercantile communities. They were perhaps somewhat unusual in that they were primarily a family of lawyers and jurists, but they also had extensive business interests. At one time they owned half of Bombay’s Malabar Hill; their palatial residence is now the campus of Sophia College. A Mumbai street and several institutions still bear the Tyabji name.

Like many South Asian mercantile families the Tyabjis also had commercial interests in Burma. Captain Tyabji’s father, Salahuddin Abbas Shamsuddin Tyabji, owned rice mills and was deeply involved in Rangoon’s civic affairs. Captain Tyabji writes of him: ‘Father was variously involved as member of the Burmese Legislative Assembly, Member of the Rangoon Electricity Board, Member, Railway Board, Member Exec. Committee, Indian Chamber of Commerce etc. etc. His work schedule covered a minimum of 12 – 14 hours per day but I can never remember him losing his jaunty alert carriage and general briskness.’




Salahuddin A.S. & Akhtar Tyabji at Govt House reception Rangoon January 24, 1940

Salahuddin & Akhtar Tyabji at a Govt House reception, Rangoon, January 24, 1940


Captain Tyabji’s mother, Akhtar Tyabji, was also active in Rangoon’s social circles.














She founded and presided


Needlework class Zeenat ul Islam school Rangoon Teacher Gowher

Needlework class Zeenat ul Islam school Rangoon


over the Zeenat ul-Islam school










for girls and


Boys home trust Rangoon Boxing 1940

Boys Home Trust, Rangoon, Boxing 1940

various other charitable institutions endowed by the family.













One of Akhtar Tyabji’s most successful ventures was aimed at bringing together Burmese, Indian and British women.



Farewell party Monday Afternoon Club, February 1942

Farewell party Monday Afternoon Club, February 1942


It was the Monday Afternoon Club, which also assisted her in some of her other initiatives.










Captain Nadir Tyabji, however, chose not to enter the family business. In 1941, when this memoir begins, he was the Sales Representative in Burma for Tata Oil Mills Co. (TOMCO). He writes: ‘Being basically responsible for Promotion and Marketing I had an invaluable opportunity of visiting the remotest corners of the country for detailed market surveys which led to my acquiring, willy nilly, deep insights into the distribution pattern of Indian communities… The Indians and Chinese constituted between them, the most efficient distributive agency in the country and were, literally, all pervasive, even at the hamlet and village level.’

This background is important, I think, in situating Captain Tyabji’s wartime experiences. He belonged to Rangoon’s elite, mixing easily with the city’s officialdom,



 Nadir S. Tyabji &  Salahuddin A. S. Tyabji at the races, Rangoon

Nadir S. Tyabji &
Salahuddin A. S. Tyabji at the races, Rangoon



visiting the Race Course, frequenting exclusive clubs, and so on.











Yet, as a member of a small but wealthy minority community,



Rangoon dinner party, February 1940

Rangoon dinner party, February 1940


he occupied an interstitial position in the complex social web of colonial Burma.













He was thus able to look upon his world with unusually clear eyes, as for example in this striking passage: ‘There is little point in hovering over this heart-rending aspect of a war which held no meaning for the vast majority of the population – Burmese, Indian or Chinese. There was neither sympathy nor understanding for the British. They dominated the administration and economy of this country but were seen as a transient element with which the common people had no point of contact at any level. The Japanese advance into Burma further destroyed the myth of western invincibility and with it whatever tenuous links may have survived the hundred odd years of exploitation and mindless domination at all levels.’

But it is clear also that this story was moulded and mellowed by the circumstances of its telling, which came about after the passage of many years: it is hard to believe that Captain Tyabji could have maintained so equable a tone had he been writing in the immediate aftermath of the events he had witnessed. Yet every now and again something of the raw horror of those experiences does break through, as for example in this passage: ‘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.

Every survivor of that terrible ordeal must have witnessed similar scenes; they must all have been haunted, through the rest of their days, by images like this one. Sadly, only a handful recorded their experiences. We are fortunate that Captain Tyabji was among the few who did.

I am grateful to Hashim Tyabji and his family for giving me permission to post the memoir, and the accompanying pictures, on this site. Captain Tyabji’s memoir will appear here in a series of twelve instalments, through the month of December.

The first instalment is below.






The Burma Story

(Dec 1941 to July 1942)



Lt. Nadir S. Tyabji, 1943

Lt. Nadir S. Tyabji, 1943

Captain Nadir Salahuddin Tyabji

(Indian Navy Retd.)












What follows is the story of my last four months in Burma at the tail-end of a thirty year sojourn which I remember as the happiest, most carefree years of my life.

  1. These 4 months covered the period December ’41 to April-May ’42 during which I became a part of the giant Evacuation exercise entailing the migration of hundreds of thousands of Indian settlers in Burma the number involved has been variously estimated at between 10 – 20 lakh using three major routes e.g. Prome – Taung-Up in the rain shadow of the Arakan Yomas; Mandalay-Kalewa-Tamu-Palel-Imphal-Dimapur route through Manipur and the Mandalay-Myithykina route mostly confined to the retreating British Indian Army for re-grouping in India.
  2. The Japanese Army occupied Malaysia end 1941 and made no secret of its intention of making a dash for India through Burma without loss of time. However, the Government of Burma seemed to be supremely confident of its ability to deal with the Japanese if and when they moved up; this confidence did not extend to the citizenry at large for it was increasingly evident that neither the Army nor the Air Force were either qualitatively or quantitatively equipped to stem the Japanese tide.
  3. My last trip down south to Moulmein, Yem, Tavoy & Mergui was made in October ’41 in connection with my work as TOMCO representative in Burma, and it was then that I became fully alerted to the extent and intensity of Japanese probing and intelligence operations in the Tenasserim archipalego contiguous to Siam. I was told that Japanese patrols were blatantly driving up to Mergui Tavoy and even Ye on probing and intelligence missions and in the process had been terrorising, molesting and literally looting the villagers along their axis of operations. It was on these trips that I acquired a clearer idea of the implications of any turmoil created by a Japanese advance, on the small Indian population in the area (mostly small shopkeepers and agricultural labour). I also got the feeling that the Burmese were just waiting for an opportunity to drive the Indians out and take their place in the scheme of thing, however ill-equipped to do so. Until then the Indians were a vital element in the Burmese economy – urban and rural – providing a hardworking and cheap labour force for the vital sectors of Burmese economy – agriculture, rice milling, saw milling and transport. On the other hand it was the Indian trader, small or big, who provided the vast distribution and collection network in the rural areas and dominated trade and commerce in the urban centres. These people had begun to get restive and from odd bits of gossip which I picked up at Ye, it became evident that any Japanese advance from the south would result in a massive movement of Indians towards Rangoon as a take-off point for the run to India mainly by the sea routes as the quickest and cheapest. With the reduction of steamer services, these people would have no alternative but to take the overland routes of which at the time, I was myself woefully ignorant but which obviously would be a hazardous alternative.
  4. The Japanese advance into Burma commenced Nov-Dec ’41 and was preceded by mounting air activity on the Moulmein, Thaton, Pegu and Rangoon not so much to inflict damage as to create a sense of terror and panic among the labour concentrations (all Indian), leading to their taking to the major road systems, running in a North-South axis and thus creating a critical problem for the movement of essential military and government traffic. These Indian streams were joined by an outpouring of Indian communities settled in the interior and this mighty tide started making its way north by every available or affordable means – Road transport, river steamers and boats and the railway. This inexorable tide took almost a month to reach its peak, end December 1941 and it was at that stage that I became a part and parcel of the organisation which was being set up in order to ensure that this mighty surge of humanity driven by almost primordial forces away from the Eye of the Wind did not destroy itself by the very dynamics of an upheaval of such vast proportions.

As already mentioned almost daily bombing raids by the Japanese and the growing public realisation of the pathetic inadequacy of defence preparedness both in the air and on the ground had led to a growing certainty that the British were on their way out. The dilemma for the majority of Indians and other foreigners concerned the grim options offered by the situation, whether to stay back and make their peace with the Japanese or risk the hazards of a trek of some hundreds of miles with wives and children, braving all the horrors inherent in such a journey – shelter, food and disease compounded by the continuous Japanese air attacks on the three moving columns as also Burmese brigandage along the hill tracks further north. And of course, above everything else was the clear realisation that a decision to move out would mean the end of a relatively comfortable life style and abandoning not only a well established source of livelihood but also the various assets created or gathered during the sojourn in Burma. It would also mean starting a new life at the end of the road in India – a nebulous question mark in itself.

However, for many the Day of Decision arrived sooner than anticipated in the shape of massive Japanese bombing raids on Rangoon on 23rd and 25th December 1941. Although 23rd was bad enough the 25th proved critical. At 0800 hrs. that morning Home Guard Volunteers of which I was one had been called for their normal parade including various Air Raid Drills. A slight tension at the Police Station soon erupted into a Red Alert indicating Bomber formations moving towards Rangoon.

The estimated number of aircraft was about 150 in three boxes of 50 each (light bombers with their fighter escort. The Home Guards were held firmly inside the Police Station and then round about 9 a.m. all hell broke loose. Most of the ack-ack guns were sited on roof tops together with Light and Medium Machine guns as morale boosters. However the Japanese pressed home their raid on various areas of the City using mostly Anti-personnel and incendiary bombs which created havoc and panic particularly in the Indian labour colonies around the Port area and Rice & Saw Mill complexes in suburbs like Kemmendine, Mahlwagon, Puzundaung and Botatung.



Rangoon, after bombing raid

Downtown Rangoon, wartime destruction


The Japanese did lose some aircraft but pushed home their attack relentlessly succeeding beyond any doubt in inflicting major damage to life and property in the heart of the City











and disrupting the City’s excellent Public services like Power, Water, road transport and telephones.

On the ‘All Clear’ being sounded the Home Guard Volunteers moved into their designated areas to ensure rescue, first aid and protection at the primary level and shift the homeless to appropriate Refugee Camps which had been set up in safer areas. It must be mentioned here that the Labour Colonies had received the severest treatment – all of them had been set ablaze and the inhabitants trying to get away had been literally mowed down by A.P. anti-personnel Bombs leaving the areas looking more like open-air butcheries than human habitations.

My ‘beat’ was in the Puzundaung area but in trying to get there on my bicycle I witnessed for the first time (not, unfortunately the last) the sheer scale of devastation in terms of property and human lives which such meticulously planned raids could achieve. Though we had taken every precaution to inform and educate the population on the absolute need not to be caught out of doors during a raid it was obvious that curiosity and an utter lack of comprehension of a totally new concept of terror as a strategic weapon had been responsible for the population – men, women and children – being caught out in the open and mowed down by the merciless accuracy of low level A.P. bombing.

In the result the streets were strewn with severed limbs, torsos sliced in half by shrapnel and bits and pieces of flesh and bone which had not so long ago been part of a moving thinking and handsome man or woman.

I eventually reached my Beat did what was expected mostly alas, in the shape of ensuring safety of property for the rightful owners, sending the injured to emergency centres for attention and trying to identify such of the corpses as were capable of being identified.

There is little point in hovering over this heart-rending aspect of a war which held no meaning for the vast majority of the population – Burmese, Indian or Chinese. There was neither sympathy nor understanding for the British. They dominated the administration and economy of this country but were seen as a transient element with which the common people had no point of contact at any level. The Japanese advance into Burma further destroyed the myth of western invincibility and with it whatever tenuous links may have survived the hundred odd years of exploitation and mindless domination at all levels.

In the event, this was my last visit to Puzundaung but it could not have mattered. There was little left to salvage and none to solace. I have no idea when it was rehabilitated – if at all.








‘We had to cross many hills and mountains’: a censored letter about the Burma exodus of 1942

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



Below is a rare example of a letter written by an Indian survivor of the exodus out of Burma, following the Japanese invasion of 1941-42 (a photocopy of it came into my hands thanks to my wife, Deborah Baker, who found it in the Special Branch Police Archive, Police Museum, Kolkata).




I have transcribed the letter exactly as it was written, keeping the original spellings etc.; a few indecipherable words are  indicated by a question mark.














[Readers of The Glass Palace the_glass_palacewill recognize the air raids described in the fourth paragraph of the letter; they overlap with the events of Chapter 39 in the novel.]












This letter, which was written in Bombay, on July 4, 1942, was intercepted by censors from the Special Branch and may never have reached the addressee. This copy was made for the Special Branch in Calcutta.

The copyist’s note is at the top of the page (it’s quite possible that it was the copyist who was responsible for the peculiarities of the syntax, spelling etc.).

If anybody who reads this should happen to know of the writer and his family I would be glad to hear from them.





Copy of the letter written to Dulu by her Bardada (eldest brother) (Bombay) found in an envelope addressed to one Mrs Nirmala Bala Roy c/o A… [?] Ch. Roy of 348 Pratapaditya Rd.





Bombay 4.7.42


My dear Dulu


            I am very glad to receive your letter of the 28th ultimo and hope that your eagerness to learn something about the recent situation of India and Burma will bring you true knowledge. Always try to write good English. Leave aside your shyness which will bring you debacles in the way of your acquiring outside knowledge.

            I am hereafter, explaining to you, your queries para by para in shortest way, but I hope I will be able to tell you the facts, which I have seen with my own eyes, when I come to Calcutta.


  1. Japanese plane – Their planes seem to be much lighter. Sound is also very low. The planes are of silvery white colour. Although I had the opportunity of seeing the damaged Japanese planes, but in this respect I am a layman and quite unable to form any judgement about its quality and capacity. Their planes used to visit our place in the broad day light, but sometimes they used to come in the night time, when there was moonlight.


  1. First Air Raid in Rangoon.

On the 13th of December, we heard the sound of a siren and immediately we got out of the building and saw one Japanese plane, but nothing happened that day. Again on 23rd the signal for danger was given and immediately we got out of the building and went nearly 4 furlong away near a lake, from where we could see what was happening in the air. When we were going away


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George Rodger: Rangoon, World War II. 'Indians and Burmans look in awed silence at the body of a Japanese airman shot down by the Flying Tigers. 1942'

George Rodger: Rangoon, World War II. ‘Indians and Burmans look in awed silence at the body of a Japanese airman shot down by the Flying Tigers. 1942’


in a car, we could see nearly 35 planes flying over our heads. Immediately we reached a certain place the bombing started. From the place where we were, we could see the smoke as well as we could hear the sound of bombs + Anti Aircraft guns.












Over our heads we could see the fighting of the planes. We could see planes shot down by our British air pilots. Nearly after two hours of this happening, we went to our office but could not see anybody there. Being very much afraid when we were about to return home, I was very eager to see the place which was bombed. Not very far away from the Railway Station where we could not get the trains, we could see the heaps of dead bodies lying scattered here and there. Thirty buildings sustained damage very severely, but a few building were levelled to the earth.





Downtown Rangoon in the aftermath of WW II

Fire started in the locality and the A.R.P.[i] volunteers were very busy removing the injured in the hospital or to the nearest shelter. Particularly one road where there were heavy casualties, was full of blood.










Some stairs leading to the first floor of the nearest buildings were stained with blood and human flesh. It was such a horrible scenery, that none could keep courage to see his own relatives whether dead or alive. In the heaps of dead bodies, I tried to locate and find out whether there was any Bengali or not, but as my brother-in-law, who was with me, was afraid beyond imagination, I had to come home on foot as there was no conveyance available at that time. Again on 25th Dec 1941, bombing started but the damage and casualties were not so heavy as that


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of the previous day It so happened after a few days that there were air-raids six or eight times within 24 hours. Some nights we had to pass without sleeping and some days we had to pass without food. Nearly after a fortnight we were accustomed to bear all these difficulties. We were able to distinguish by sound the Japanese planes. In the month of February when it was quite impossible for us to stay there, we came to Mandalay, where also the place was first bombed on the 19th February.

            Expecting the grave situation, we determined to come to India by overland route and proceeded immediately.





George Rodger; ‘World War II; Indian refugees flee Burma before advancing Japanese army.’

We had to cross many hills and mountain. First we hired a country boat in which we were for 16 days continuously. This journey we took [started in] a place named Monywa. After 16 days journey we reached Kalewa. From Kalewa we came to Kyigon by country boat.










From Kyigon we hired a lorry for Rs 1000/- and came to Tamu which is about 96 miles away from Kyigon. From Tamu we got a bullock cart in which we could keep our office papers, but we had to walk all along and reached Mintha 36 miles away from Tamu. From Mintha  we could engage 16 coolies who helped us in our safe arrival to Imphal, the capital of Manipur. This was the most hazardous journey when we started from Mintha, as we had to cross many hills which are over six thousand feet above sea level. Every fifth or tenth minute, we had to take rest, otherwise it would have been quite impossible to reach India. There was such a scarcity of water in these hill tracks


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we had to pass couple of days without water … we have seen plenty of people in dying condition. From our company also we lost two. When we were above the hills, we were very eager to see the low land, as the continuous journey over the hills, which was most risky + made us more weaker. But through the grace of God, we could pass through the ordeal of journey + could reach Imphal and I could be my old self which I reached home.

            I think I have not been able to give you the vivid description of what happened but if I be able to see you, I will explain to you personally everything point by point.When you are so interested to knowall these things I will not keep you uninformed.

            Nothing more today. My love to you, Bulu, Ranu, Sisir + Gaetry and my respect to Babu and Ma.

            I am quite well, hoping you all to be the same. Your Boudi[ii] with all the children are quite alright.








[i] Air Raid Precautions

§ Posted on this website is an aerial photo of the bombing of Rangoon on Dec 23, 1941, taken from a Japanese plane. The picture is described as having been accompanied by a news flash from Japanese Imperial Army Headquarters, on Dec. 24, 1941, 5:10 PM: ‘Severe Bombing of Rangoon: Yesterday, on December 23rd, the combined Imperial Army Air Force heavily bombed the Rangoon Airport; Spitfire fighters (along with possible Buffalos) engaged the bombers in violent aerial battle. Ten fighters were shot down with others (an accurate count could not be determined); also, four fighter planes on the ground plus two bombers were hit and burned. Four of our planes did not return.

[ii] ‘Sister-in-law’, probably a reference to the writer’s wife






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