Friday, January 26, 2007
Some memories of WW II, Cochin and the 1940s.
The main topic of conversation all around in the late 1930s and early 1940s was the Second World War. As a child I had some idea of military campaigns by looking at the pictures in the Illustrated War News of the First World War, which grandfather had subscribed to. Those days I never dreamt that I would ever come across real soldiers in a foul mood.
Well, I did, at Cochin, Kerala State, India. For the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the area: Cochin basically consists of Fort Cochin-Mattancherry belt along the Arabian Sea coast, Wellingdon Island, and Ernakulam in the east. Before Indian Independence in 1947 the present Kerala State had three segments – Travancore State in the south under its Maharajah, Cochin State, again under a Maharajah, and British administered Malabar in the north.
I was travelling with my parents to Chalakudy for the housewarming of the younger of my two aunts. We were carrying a number of gifts and reached what is now known as the Old Railway Station at Ernakulam – it was the railway terminal then - well ahead of the scheduled departure of the train and settled in the waiting room. After a while we heard a commotion from the open space in front of the station.
We could see through the windows a group of white soldiers on a drunken spree unleashing terror all around. They started with beating up the ‘Kabulis’ and trampling upon the wares the nomads were selling. The fruit vendors were not spared either. After that the wrath of the soldiers turned to the parked rickshaws and bicycles. The local police who reached the spot beat a hasty retreat.
After a while the worried-looking Station Master came to the waiting room with a rickshaw puller. They said that the situation was worsening and suggested that we leave. The rickshaw man offered to lead us to safety and the Station Master assured that he would keep the waiting room locked to protect our baggage.
We walked southward beside the rail track till it ended and then along an interior path, crossed Banerjee Road (I believe it was a canal originally) and reached a relative’s house on Market Road. In the evening we heard that the Military Police had finally handled the troublemakers. Our journey was resumed the next day. Thanks to the Station Master, not a single item of our luggage was lost.
Train journey was generally difficult those days. Military personnel, arms and ammunition and other war supplies had priority over civilian requirements. In fact, rail travel by civilians was discouraged. There used to a series of newspaper advertisements in cartoon strip format titled ‘Panku Menonte Theevandi Yatra’ (Panku Menon’s Train Journey) highlighting the travails of travelling by train.
Road transport had problems as well. Petrol was rationed. Beautifully printed coupons with intricate design like a currency note were issued to vehicle owners for limited quantities of the fuel. These and many other scarce items were available in the black market as well. Use of the car had to be carefully planned. The old tyres that we used to play with, were taken away for the newly heard of ‘re-treading’.
Buses were converted to run on coal gas, a messy and inefficient system. Except for the Otter ‘Transport’ buses of Trivandrum (run by the Travancore Government), the others were side open vehicles. They had bench-like seats in front, and rectangular seating at the back, which was commonly called ‘nalukettu’.
The journey from Olavaip, our small hamlet on Pallippuram Island in Vembanad Lake, to Ernakulam was normally by ‘line’ boat, which meant scheduled boat service. The vessels those days had a first class cabin in front. The earlier generation boats were double-deckers. Before that, I believe, larger steamboats with paddle wheels on the sides plied in the lake.
Another popular mode of water bound passenger traffic, known, as ‘company vallom’ also existed during that period. These were large country crafts. They were moved by using punts and carried travellers to overnight and longer destinations. The passengers spent a good part of the journey exchanging news and gossip from their respective places.
Sometimes, when all of us were travelling, the family launch was used. Occasionally the trip was made by a big vallom, which was temporarily improvised into an unsophisticated houseboat. We would board the native craft after dinner and reach Ernakulam early morning. The journey used to be comfortable but we missed sights en route.
The most awaited landmark while commuting by motorboat to Ernakulam was the newly built Venduruthy Bridge. After the mandatory delay at Arookutty ‘Chowka’, everyone would be straining to catch the first glimpse of the structure, which was a marvel those days.
The Ernakulam boat jetty was a hub of activity. Most of the visitors to the town depended on water transport. A vessel would be arriving or leaving every few minutes. Apart from local ferry services, there were boats to several distant destinations. One could hear boat crews shouting ‘Kottappuram’, ‘Alleppey’, ‘Kottayam’ and so on. At any given time, there would be dozens of rickshaws parked in the jetty compound and on the road outside.
All water bound traffic passing by had to stop at Arookutty on the Travancore side for customs check. There was a long list of what could be taken out from or brought into Travancore. Two small check posts operated at Edapally (Toll) and at Udayamperoor to inspect road traffic. The Ernakulam-Vaikom Road had two vehicle ferries. After the old Ithipuzha Bridge was swept away during one monsoon, the number of ferries increased to three. Now of course, all of them are bridged.
Rice was on the list of prohibited items during the World War II and couldn’t be exported from Travancore. During the famine of 1942 we were lucky because paddy cultivation went on as usual and the produce that remained after meeting the Government levy was not sold. Wages were paid in measures of paddy. When rice scarcity became acute, we started giving free noon kanji to whoever came for it. Some brought bowls but others made small pits in the sand and lined them with blanched banana leaves to hold the servings.
Then came maize and corn through the ration shops. One of them was scornfully called ‘madamma pallu’ (white woman’s teeth). The locals didn’t know how to cook them properly. People ate them anyway and many got sick. On top of it, there was an outbreak of cholera in our place. To an extent it was contained with herb and mineral powders that came in tiny bottles. The labels had no names but only numbers. Even school children like me were taught what number medicine was to be given in what dose for a particular symptom.
Construction of the Burma Road provided employment to some of the more adventurous men. Their remittances offered financial stability to families back home. There used to be a song, ‘Assamile paniyille pande chathene, kappalandi pinnakkille pande chathene’ (Without work in Assam, would have died long ago; without groundnut oil cake, would have died long ago). But at the other end many workers died of malaria before the roadwork was completed. Some who survived married local girls and stayed on. If I remember correctly, Malayala Manorama reported about a couple of communities of their descendants near Kohima a few years back Among those who returned from Assam was Vakkan (name changed) of my village.
During the war the clock was turned back by one hour so that people could go to bed early and save precious fuel. The children were happy because it gave them more time to play after school. But there were problems as well for the students.
Writing instruments like Waterman’s and Swan pens and ‘aana mark’ (German made Staedler) pencils disappeared from the market. The local substitutes scratched along the paper. The case of notebooks was even worse. Each middle school student was allotted two notebooks per academic year. These were made of light brown paper produced in Travancore. It tore easily and the writing wouldn’t be clear.
St. Teresa’s at Ernakulam faced a peculiar problem. Some of the institution’s buildings were commandeered and used as a convalescing home for white soldiers. The classes were shifted to the government buildings at Kacheripadi Junction. Originally, the Convent Road connected to the present Park Avenue. A wooden over bridge linked the convent’s buildings on either side of the road.
Till Shanmugham Road was laid on reclaimed land before the war, Broadway was the lands end of Ernakulam on the western side. It was the shopping street of the town. The only permanent cinema theatre those days in Ernakulam was Menaka. It was located very near the site of the original bioscope show, which was on the sands west of Broadway at the beginning of the 20th century. Menaka had comfortable cane chairs on the balcony. Once it was dark the door curtains could be pulled aside to let in the cool breeze that blew in across the backwaters. Laxman and Patel theatres came up subsequently.
An Air Force plane crashed at the Broadway-Banerjee Road junction. I can’t remember whether it was during the war or shortly after that, but do recall visiting the site a couple of days after the accident. The name board of the shop that the plane had demolished, TIME HOUSE, could be seen among the debris.
Disposal sales of many war surplus items were a big bargain. Jeeps went for Rs.300-400. Many people made money on resale. A large number of ‘empty’ lubrication oil drums that a person bought were half full. It was a windfall for him because of the acute shortage of engine oil that followed. Parachute silk was a great hit. Many who could afford had shirts made of the material. The garments looked impressive but the wearers soon found to their dismay that air wouldn’t pass through the fabric.
Wellingdon Island had the prestigious Spencer-run Malabar Hotel. On the Ernakulam side National Hotel on Cannon Shed Road was popular. It was, reportedly, a place for political discussions. Later, Hotel Kailas was established near National. Other hotels that come to mind are Terminus, Atlantis and Sea View. The room tariff at the last named when it started was two and a half rupees for single room and five rupees for double room, bath attached.
Well, one had to specify ‘British roopa' (rupee) which was legal tender in both Cochin and Travancore States. But Travancore had its own mint, ‘Sarkar roopa’ as well. Both States has mail service called ‘Anchal’ and their own stamps. ‘Anchal’ would deliver letters within the two States, but for out of State missives one had to depend on British Indian Postal Service.
After Independence with the integration of Native States, Travancore and Cochin were combined to form what was initially called United States of Tavancore and Cochin (USTC), and later, T-C State. The Maharaja of Travancore was the Rajapramukh, equivalent of the present day Governor.
There were three administrations in the area that is known as Greater Cochin today. Ernakulam proper was under Cochin State. The British had jurisdiction over Fort Cochin, Wellingdon Island and the railway properties. The areas north of Edapally and south of Udayamperoor were part of Travancore. This created a great deal of problems particularly for the police. One amusing story was about a thief being chased by Cochin constables, running over to Travancore and mocking the cops from across the border.
Malabar Mail, a Malayalam daily published from Ernakulam, played a major role in the Church’s agitation against the education reforms introduced by Dr. CP Ramaswamy Iyer, the then Dewan of Travancore. It was banned in that State. There was also an English news journal named Malabar Herald, which was launched in the 19th century. Two tabloids popular those days were Gomathi and Deepam. Newspaper boys went around shouting ‘nalathe (tomorrow’s) Gomathi’, perhaps because it was an afternoon edition.
In the matter of currency also, the British kept the upper hand. Their roopa was worth twenty-eight and a half ‘chakrams’ whereas the value of the sarkar roopa was only twenty-eight ‘chakrams’. It was a nightmare converting a given sum of British roopa into sarkar roopa and vice versa. Many a good student failed arithmetic examination over such questions about a mythical roopa – Tavancore was permitted by the British to mint only up to half roopa coins!
There were not many eating-places in Cochin. India Coffee House on Broadway (now Bharat Café is located at the premises) was popular. The turbaned bearers were impressive. The masala dosas of Maruthi were famous. I think Cochin Refreshment House was also functioning towards the end of 1940s. I still remember their faloodas that were superb, both visually and taste wise.
‘Assam’ Chacko mentioned earlier was an excellent cook. In his younger days he had spent a few years in the kitchen of Verapoly Seminary where he learned several exotic Portuguese dishes. He was our party chef for several decades. The cigarette lighter that he brought along when he returned from Assam fascinated everyone. But soon the gas ran out. Chacko continued to be in our service till his death.
Then we have ‘Military’ Madhavan (name changed). He is still alive. Recently (December 2006) I checked about his ‘military’ career. It seems that he went only up to Vizag where he worked for a railway contractor. But he has a soldier’s bearing even today.
The real soldier was Mathai (name changed) the son of a former employee of ours. He was a driving force behind Montgomery’s Eight Army, from Africa to Sicily and up the Italian Penninsula. He was an army driver. He was handsome with an Errol Flynn moustache and slightly curly hair parted in the middle. I have heard others wondering how the Italian girls let him go.
The Germans couldn’t produce a bullet with Mathai’s name written on it. But a few years after returning a war hero, he died of tuberculosis!
World War II: MAN WHO ARRESTED ROMMEL.
(Cross-posted to Abraham Tharakan's Articles Blog.)