Fire and flood in Calcutta
Raghu Karnad | 11 Jun, 2015
Slow, great and a year too late, like an elephant loosed from its chains, the Indian Army turned from the enemy it fought on orders to the enemy it had to fight for survival. In 1942 the country had faced Japan’s carrier groups with fake guns made of tarred coconut stems. By 1944, it would have to beat the Japanese hand-to-hand. In the pivotal year of 1943, however, the Indian Army had new champions, bent on delivering better training, better weapons, provisions and a better chance.
One of these was Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the new Supreme Allied Commander for SEAC (South-East Asia Command). He applied his enormous charisma to managing the Allied high command, delaying the promised campaign until the Army in India was prepared on three critical fronts: ‘malaria, monsoon and morale’. A second stalwart was General Sir William Slim, the commander of the Fourteenth Army, the largest army ever raised by the British Empire, now poised on the Burmese border. Slim had led a brigade under 5th Indian Division in Eritrea. He was badly injured there, shot up by Italian fighter aircraft, but recovered in time to lead troops into Syria and Iran later that year.
In early 1942, Slim had stood on a muddy rampart at the border of Burma and India, watching his soldiers struggle across, and vowed to avenge them. Their condition was so pitiful that eight per cent would not survive. Back in Bengal, however, he was dismayed to find that they ‘were short of everything’: rifles, field guns, wireless kits, ambulances, and medical stores. ‘Something vigorous would have to be done to avoid disaster,’ he reflected later. ‘Luckily, General Auchinleck was the man to do it.’
Even in his previous position, leading the armies of six nations in the Western Desert, Auchinleck had kept an eye out for India’s security against the Japanese onslaught. ‘Two hundred thousand Indian soldiers in the Middle East is very nice for us, but hardly in keeping with her own apparently very urgent need,’ he wrote to Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. ‘I believe that we can still hold India without the Middle East, but we cannot for long hold the Middle East without India.’ His solicitous regard for India’s safety left Churchill apoplectic. But the attitude behind it, the value placed on Indian lives, had a steadying effect on Indian officers through the dismal summer of 1942.
Like Slim, Auchinleck realised that the hopes of the Burma campaign hinged on transforming the army in India. Returning as Commander-in- Chief in 1943, he had lost his command of the fighting army to Mountbatten, but he remained responsible for ensuring its arsenal, supplies and training regime. India’s self-defence had always been a contradiction in terms: its native soldiers had not been allowed to shoulder modern arms, and only received them in order to fight elsewhere in the Empire. Even in the 1930s, Nehru watched cadets parading at the new Indian Military Academy and secretly worried about ‘what purpose this training serves … Infantry and cavalry are about as much use today as the Roman phalanx, and the rifle is little better than the bow and arrow.’
Rarely had any army been entrusted with so much, while being distrusted so much. Old hands continued to believe that native battalions should remain with their relic equipment, dumb troops with basic weapons, no armour and no field guns. Chief among them was Churchill, who warned India’s commanders that they were ‘creating a Frankenstein by putting modern weapons in the hands of sepoys’. The new commanders were not deterred. On the anvil of the Chhota Nagpur plateau, the Indian Army was being hammered into new steel.
At October's end, they shouldered packs to head toward Calcutta and the war. The train rattled down the Chhota Nagpur plateau into Bengal, and [my grandfather] Bobby looked out the window onto a countryside that was well worked, patched with dark green fishponds and heavy with vines of areca nut. But everything was still; no women, or water buffaloes, moved in the fields.
He expected to see more proof of wartime profits: tea stalls, motor buses, silver on the women’s arms. Instead, the sides of the railway track grew increasingly cobwebbed with tents and sacking and dark bodies with thread-thin limbs. Outside Calcutta, a serried line of children at least a mile long held tin bowls above their heads. As the engine slowed to a considered huffing, and the company rose to shoulder packs, they began to run alongside, as children do, but repeating one phrase: ‘payter jala’—stomach burning.
That there was famine in Bengal had been kept out of the papers even till late August, by which time the company was preoccupied in Monghyr. They were warned, but never prepared for the sight of it. At the Alipore station, the platform was thick with imploded bodies. The squeal of the train brakes pulled the jointed skin and bone onto its feet, and dragged it alongside till the train was at a halt. Then the arms and huge eyes were at the bars, scanning the sappers’ own eyes for wayward hints of charity. The VCOs went carriage to carriage, slamming down shutters, shouting orders that the men were not to hand out rations.
At the gates of the freight yard, while they waited for transport and Bobby checked inventories, he watched figures diving onto the road behind each departing lorry to search the ruts for fallen rice. The company were driven to their transit camp, at the old infantry battalion lines, away from town but still surrounded by canyons of thin-walled brothels. During the day, they rifle-tested new recruits. In the evenings Bobby escaped, shouldered past the pimps hustling new girls, virgins (‘her fee is the last thread of hope for her family’), and went to see Calcutta.
In Calcutta, civilisation stood before a fun-house mirror. Part of it bulged out past recognition and the other part collapsed inwards. There was high life and piteous death, both gross and gaudy, two worlds not colliding but sliding past each other like trams on parallel tracks. Calcutta was the principal R&R centre for the China–Burma theatre, and it was flush with cash. Everyone—generals, GIs, babus and baniyas—was keen that the soldiers have a good time, and not carry too much of their pay back with them to the Arakan front or the deadly air route to China.
Chowringhee Street was cinemas, chummeries and cabarets, hairdressers and ice-cream parlours; a khaki beau monde. The windows of the Grand Hotel advertised seven-course meals, and when its doors swung open, lobby lights skating on the glass, out burst tangled gangs of young officers and chee-chee girlfriends, billows of air scented with Old Spice and gin and buttery Chicken Kiev, and passages of hectic jazz. Inside, Teddy Weatherford was playing with Roy ‘The Reverend’ Butler and the gang of Burmese jazzmen they had intercepted as they fled the Japanese the year before. Indians sat primly, while Yankee fly-boys hung off each other’s collars, giggling into their gimlets, rifling through their pockets to pull out blood chits printed in multiple languages, including Bengali—‘I am an American airman. If you will assist me, my government will sufficiently reward you when the Japanese are driven away …’—to thrust at the waiters who brought the bill.
Senior officers took their wives to shows, and sang along to Andy Gemmel’s hit song Adolf…, with lyrics that served as well for the Americans in the audience as the Brits:
A-a-a-dolf – You’ve bitten off
Much more than you can chew …
Now you may get something to remi-ind you
Of the old Red, White and Blue!
The non-coms preferred Firpo’s, where a thirteen-course buffet opened with three kinds of chips, and built up to full trays of steak and spare ribs. With their plates piled, they found tables on the balcony, and avoided looking down to where the gas-blue and pink marquee lights picked out sunken faces and ribs, and lent coloured flames to the invisible pyre of famine.
Bobby too learned to walk like an actor hamming a pretty day, his face turned up, not wanting to know if a dusty shape was a fallen bough of tamarind leaves or a fallen girl. But the famine had a smell—a sour reek that leaked from stretched skin—and it had a sound, the clack of the ghotis, the tin bowls, on the hard pavement after the starving lost their voices.
Two thousand were dying every month in Calcutta alone. The earlier they were into starvation, the more difficult it was to look, because they were still trying—searching for susceptible soldiers, for rancid army scraps, for water that had been used to boil rice. The families were still families, and were still able to share. Despite their leathery skin and boar hair, they recognised themselves. The shade of prettiness still lay over women’s features. Later they only repelled you. Then the municipal trucks came around to pick up their corpses, and carried them out of the city for mass burial.
The transit camp was not much relief, dripping with gonorrhea and ghoulish talk. Men returning from the countryside described ghost villages, infants trying to feed at the breasts of dead mothers, children with limbs mangled by packs of dogs which no longer waited for people to die. After four days of this, 2nd Field Company fairly fled to the docks at Garden Reach, onto the rusty tub Islami and away. But sailing to Chittagong would only move them deeper into the shadow. The famine was born in the easternmost districts, to a conspiracy of nature, war and human prejudice. It began in 1942 with the loss of Burma, and with it, the Burmese rice surplus on which Bengal’s population had long relied. In the border districts, the Army enforced a ‘policy of denial’, confiscating bicycles, motor buses and river boats, slaughtering elephants, denying the Japanese anything they could use to advance into the country. Families were left marooned, unable to reach their own plots or markets. Once transport was dealt with, authorities turned to ‘rice denial’, and emptied the granaries of tens of thousands of tons, some of which they set on fire.
After the scorching came the flood. A cyclone hit in October, inundating the region up to forty miles in from the sea. In Chittagong, to pass the time, RAF airmen filled their pockets with incendiary rounds and walked out onto the dykes above the river. They settled down, wearing gas masks against the stench, and took turns shooting at the bloated corpses rolling in the flood. When they hit one, escaping gases popped with flame.
The cyclone ruined harvests, and farmers ate their seed stores. By the spring of 1943, church and civil groups were warning officials about starvation deaths. Bengal’s government, embittered by the Quit India havoc, refused to listen. Following their prime minister, they took the view that Britain had endured shortages since 1940, with unity and resolve; Indians could do the same, or else pay the cost of their own venality. At a meeting of his War Cabinet, Churchill declared his view that only those Indians directly contributing to the war effort needed to be fed.
Some army commanders disagreed, knowing the effect of the spectacle on the morale of Indian troops. They wrote to Whitehall demanding food shipments, but were denied: the ships in the Indian Ocean were being drafted to the Atlantic to service Britain’s own food imports. Meanwhile the Civil Supplies Department started to build its private stockpiles, and advised others—Army Service Corps, factory and plantation managers—to do the same. Rice piled up in hoards and stockpiles, jealous provisions against war outcomes and price futures, and continued to be sucked out of the countryside until the very end. The famine would consume 3 million lives before it was over. The newly generous Indian Army rations only made the situation look worse. The mercenaries feasted among the starving slaves.
In Chittagong, the famine was compounded by the seedy chaos of a low-priority war front. After three days pitching about on the Bay of Bengal, 2nd Field Company stumbled down to the docks, anxious to get some rest on dry and stable ground. A Movement Control officer assigned them a guide and shooed them off to barracks that were six miles away, and just as far again from the station from which they had to leave the next morning. There were rest camps right by the station, he admitted, filled with troops going nowhere for days. But orders were orders.
The company marched into the slummy city. Boys drifted up astride the column, murmuring the price to bed their sisters. The dying had been rousted from the main road, but they lay half visible in the alleys. Some were naked, genitals shrunken, men and women barely distinguishable. It was a vision straight out of the lurid cartoons that the Japanese had dropped onto the retreating 17th Indian Division in Burma—Black Indians lying starving and skeletal, while pink-cheeked John Bulls marched the dumb jawans over their bodies—only this was real and it kept coming.
After four and a half miles, the OC asked the guide how much further remained. The guide nodded. On being pressed, he admitted he didn’t know where he was taking them. Eventually they located the lines, but their vehicles, which were to follow with bedding and food, only reached them long past midnight. ‘Although this war has been raging now for 41/2 years,’ the OC wrote in the unit diary, ‘and though this campaign has been planned for months, arrangements fantastically bad.’ As the exhausted cooks set up the langar, Bobby reread the disintegrating Movement Control order. ‘Personal baggage and cooking pots will be loaded onto train by 10:00 hours.’ The order gave no hint of how that baggage would get to the station. They could not ask the sappers to wake and march six miles back encumbered. That night he barely slept, troubled by the choking cries of children, and he rose before daybreak with Wright and the OC to scour the town for a truck.
Bobby’s faith in British order was recoiling in his face. In Bengal, the oldest dominion of British India, the devastation seemed no different from what they heard of the territories now ruled by the Japanese. Bobby felt himself being pulled by a chilly undertow away from the West-facing war and its modern means, its plain purposes and moral clarity, its flat and sunlit field, into a deadly murk in the East in which very little was clear.
The confusion was telling on the men, as well. They were garrulous with fatigue, and were agitating each other with dismal thoughts. The new recruits included men from the United Provinces and Bihar, who were distraught at the idea of the famine reaching their villages. As it was, food was costly. Then they were called up just before the planting. Softer talk concerned Subhas Chandra Bose. On 15 August, over Radio Syonon, he had offered 100,000 tons of rice to save Bengal. The British sarkar had declined to even acknowledge it. Bose was a traitor, but at least it could be said of him that he thought Indians were good for more than dying.
In the spring of that year, in Königsbrück, Bose had bid farewell to his two battalions of Legion Freies Indien, both now regular formations in the Wehrmacht. He departed Germany and reappeared in Japanese-held Singapore, still waving the banner of a Free Indian Army. ‘To lean on the Japanese to get rid of British power,’ Gandhi had written the previous year, was ‘a remedy worse than the disease’. But Bose was ready to take steps that the lily-livered Congress would not contemplate. After Stalingrad and El Alamein, he realised that no liberating army would ever reach India from the West. Instead he saw his chance, and his country’s, on the jungled frontier with Burma.
In Singapore, he took command of the idle Indian renegades who called themselves the ‘Indian National Army’. To Bobby and the other officers, they were the ‘Indian Traitor Army’, but by official order they were referred to as ‘JIFs’—Japanese- Inspired Fifth Columnists. Though it had not yet been in battle, the INA was putting on a good show. It was the force Bose needed and he was the leader, the Netaji, it had been waiting for. For recruits, it drew from the deep pools of Indians languishing since the flight of the British—first the prisoners of war, then the Tamil plantation workers, who feared being press-ganged into work on the Thai-Burmese Railroad. Some troops joined from a captured garrison on the Andaman Islands. Eventually Bose would have 40,000 troops, among them a brigade of women called the Rani Lakshmibai Brigade, to honour a heroine of the uprising of 1857. It was led by another Lakshmi: Lakshmi Swaminathan from Madras, who had been made a captain. If Bobby met her now, he might be expected to salute her—were it not for the fact that he would have to shoot her.
Unlike his predecessor, a captain self-promoted to general, Bose took no rank. Yet he was plainly the most esteemed Indian officer anywhere in the world. He began to make appearances only in uniform, and he crisscrossed the Japanese imperium, leaving a trail of adulation among the Indians, the most vulnerable of the population in every place. On the radio he was hypnotic, but his live rallies drew tens of thousands, crowds that surged forward to fling jewellery at his feet to fund his crusade.
On 21 October, Bose announced the formation of the Arzi- Hukumat-e-Azad Hind, the Provisional Government of Free India. The Japanese ceded the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to its symbolic rule, and Bose visited the islands briefly to raise the tricolour flag of the INA, not noticing the terror in which the real administration held the islands’ population. If Azad Hind could be taken seriously, then Kobad’s Maplah convicts— exiled here since the ’20s—had the fruit of their rebellion, slow-ripening and probably bitter. They had become the first free Indians.
Azad Hind declared war on Britain, and Bose explained, ‘When I say war I mean WAR—war to the finish, a war that can only end in the freedom of India.’ He had led his crowds in shouting ‘Dilli Chalo!’—Onward to Delhi!, and now they were coming, marching with the enemy. In November their first units moved west to the front, and 2nd Field Company moved east to meet them.
(Excerpted from ‘Fascines and Gabions’, Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War by Raghu Karnad, HarperCollins India, 320 pages, Rs 550.) The book releases on 25 June