A Night to Remember

A Courier For the World Beyond

While commemorating the Golden Jubilee

of the Quit India Movement Of 1942, we should remember that 1942 was also the year when an Indian territory came under the occupation of yet another foreign power, causing untold, if little-known, suffering to the People.

It was a sultry summer noon in 1986 and we (this author who was then editing “The Heritage” and its publisher Mr. B. Viswanatha Reddi) were guarding the two gates of a mosque at Port Blair. The man we were looking for must not prove elusive once again.

For he, named Saudagar, was a person suiu generis, a man treasuring an offbeat experience, the one known to have once survived on human flesh.

Our ‘informer’ pointed him out amidst the throng streaming out of the mosque after prayer. We lost no time in flanking him and leading him into our car. Once caught, he sported a genial smile, guided us to his own hut and came out with his story.

But his story must be prefaced with an outline of events leading to it:

The Japanese invaded Port Blair on the 23rd of March 1942. By then most of the British officers in the town and elsewhere in the archipelago had escaped to the mainland. Mr. A.G. Bird a senior executive who still happened to be in Rose island, the 80 acre paradise (now a haunted isle) that was the headquarters of the Andaman Administration, was dragged out and tied to a pillar and showered with Ju Jitsu.

Mr. Gurumoorthy, one of the few survivors of the season of hell to loose on the Andamans who guided us to the forbidden isle (with the Navy’s permission) narrated the last moments of Mr.Bird, probably on the very spot where the tragedy had occurred.

“Are you thirsty?” Mr.Bird was asked.

“I am,” muttered the gasping prisoner.

The Japanese brought a bucketful of water. They cleaned a sword. Then they chopped off his head.

“Recently Mr. Bird’s daughter and her husband had flown from England. I had to work as their guide too,” said Mr. Gurumoorthy.

The Japanese began collecting anything they liked from the local shops and if the shop-keeper had the cheeks to submit a bill, he received a slap. Kicks followed if he cried out his protest.

The full realization that they had been thrown out of the frying-pan into the fire came to the public on the second day.

“Look at the house yonder,” said Mr. Kesar Das, popularly known as Masterji. “Behind that lives my friend Julfiqar, called Sonny by his near ones. A petty Japanese officer entered his house and picked up the two eggs he had. “Please leave one for my child,” said Sonny pleadingly. The officer frowned and turned to leave. Sonny suddenly drew his gun and fired.

The Officer fled, but to be back with a thousand soldiers shooting in every direction and setting fire to houses. The townsfolk were ordered to gather on the market ground. There, before the eyes of his parents, Sonny was dragged to a corner. This is how Mr. Bijay Bahadur, an eye-witness, narrated the incident to the AIR, Port Blair:

“A burly Jap soldier approached and caught Sonny by his hands and started beating him methodically. I never saw anything so cruel in my life. Then, Sonny was made to stand, six soldiers took positions with their rifles, the Commander stood with a white kerchief. He dropped the kerchief and Sonny was killed.”

The Japanese entered any bungalow that appeared attractive to them and threw out the residents. Mr.A.C.Chaterjee, Financial Advisor to the Chief Commissioner was ordered to vacate his house. A s he came out without a murmur, the Japanese saw that a crowd was looking at his plight from a nearby lane. It was yet another opportunity to impress the natives. Mr. Chatterjee was midway his lawns when a sword swung behind him and his head rolled on the grass.

The Japanese established a civilian government headed by Mr. Narayan Rao, designated the chief commissioner, the only Indian allowed the use of a car. But perhaps he made use of the unique privilege a bit too audaciously one night. He was pulled out of his car and thrown into the cellular Jail accused of spying. Soon hundreds were caught in the widening net of suspicion. An extract from the unpublished memories of the later Mr. Ramakrishnan (now in the custody of the navy which we had the privilege to study) a Thasildar, whom the Japense had appointed Dy. Commissioner and who was also the Chairman of the Indian Branch of Netaji Subhas Chandra’s Indian Independence League:

“There are few illustrations of torture as perpetrated by Japanese or by Indians on Indians under the order of the Japanese. In between these tortures, interrogation by the Japanese continued, seasoned with constant blows with a thick stick. The interrogator, a Japanese, sits in front, and an Indian policeman stands behind the victim to administer cuts, at the gesture of the interrogator. When continues interrogations and alternated beating prove barren of results desired, severer forms are adopted. Sprinkling a part of the body with petrol and settings fire to it until the entire skin burns deep, was one form. Another severe form was to incise some part of a man’s body and to sprinkle the cut with salt or powdered chillies.

“When all these tortures failed, wives and children from the home of the victim are brought to the Jail. Both now enter the torture chamber. The woman is beaten in front of her husband and the husband is beaten in front of the wife. Or the wife is asked to beat her husband and the husband, the wife. Children are beaten in front of their parents. Sometimes the son is asked to beat the mother or father. The helpless victim does not know what all that fuss is about. For confession? But what confession having done nothing? The first arrest, investigation, interrogation, torture and asham trial lasted for three months, at the end of which seven persons were shot (including the Asst. Commissioner, Supdt. Of Police and the Asst. Supdt of Police) and the rest were released in Jan. ’43 to go home with scares of torture. A number of the arrested died in the torture chamber and it is not known what happened to their dead bodies. The entire population was panic-stricken.”

On the 29th of December ’43 Netaji’s plane landed at Port Blair. A number of people, who knew nothing about his impending arrival, had been herded near the airstrip.

As Mr. Gurumoorthy recollected, Netaji was led through the crowd with Japanese officers before, behind and flanking him. He was lodged on the tiny Rose Island, isolated from the people. He was escorted to the Public meeting where Masterji Kesar Das led a team of his students in singing “Vande Matram”. (Masterji demonstrated the tune to us on the upper floor of his log cabin. Decades had not weakened his vibrant voice.) Netaji’s was an inspiring speech, but he was provided with no scope to talk to the office-bearers of the independence League.

The latter, thirsting for an exclusive audience with Netaji, managed to fix up an appointment. He was to visit their office in the morning on the third and the last day of his sojourn, on his way to the airship. But the Japanese herded hundreds of men, women (obliging them to carry their children along) inside and all around the office right from the midnight. Netaji came and went – the Independence league leaders unable to snatch a moment with him.

Shortly after Netaji’s departure thirty three of the front-ranking Andamanians – doctors, teacher and other members of the intelligentsia – were rounded up and taken to a lonely spot and were asked to confess to their collusion with the British Indian intelligence. They were tortured and then shot dead.

Now let us return to the story of Saudagar brought to cellular Jail in 1935 as a murder convict.

By 1945 the islands were without food. Bombardment by the Allies made it impossible for ships to reach the harbour. Hunger led to plunder and anarchy, led by the Japanese themselves. Five hundred residents were taken to an island and machine-gunned in the Japanese version of the ‘Final Solution’. Heaps of bones were all to be discovered after the occupation ended.

Five hundred more people gathered before the cellular jail when it was announced that the authorities were ready to settle them on a virgin island with facilities for cultivation. They were directed to board as ship, after they had waited for a whole day without food. “A happy new life is awaiting you!” they were assured.

It was a dark night. The ship was nearing the Havelock island.

“Jump!” was the order – resounding over the whistle of the biting cold wind.

Only the white foams on the dancing waves could be seen. No, such orders must be a hallucination! But this desperately cultivated wistful hope did not last long. The passengers were bayoneted and many were beheaded. Flashes of lighting showed dozens of swords at work. Within minutes the ship was emptied of its human cargo.

The summary of what Saudagar told us at length in mixed Urdu had been earlier translated into English for an AIR programme. The passage below under quote-marks are from that text:

“I was at the rear of the boat when the bayoneting started in the front – waiting till the last moment. Then blindly I took the plunge. I splashed and gulped mouthfuls of salt water. I thought my last day had finally come. …

“I started swimming – not much of swimming though – rather floundering in whichever direction – the ocean in the darkness of the stormy night chose to take me.

“Then suddenly I touched a sand bar with my feet. ‘Come this way folks, shore this way.’ I started shouting to my unseen fellow-travellers.”

Saudagar reached the shore of Havelock Island. In the morning, he saw corpses of his fellow travelers floating about – some with stomachs ripped open by bayonets and some half-eaten by sea creatures. He counted upto 150 and then gave up. Then he went ashore and met the people who came by the LCTs. They had better luck since the LCTs were landing crafts which could come close enough to shore. They were not required to jump out in the sea, a mile away from the shore.

“First thing we did was to light a fire by rubbing bamboo poles together. We kept the fire going always. In a single day, all the small insects of the shore were eaten up and we were nearly 150 hungry men prowling about on that island. There was nothing to eat. Rain water was the only source of drinking water.

“For the first starving week, people would sit in batches and plan ways of keeping alive and escaping to safety. But then, after ten days…

“People in groups started sitting under the trees, a batch of people here, a batch there. They would wait for – yes – death. Bones of these people are still lying about….

Then, suddenly there was something undefinable in the air. People who had a little more life in them, started forming packs and moving about. There was something stealthy, something ulterior, something ominous in their movements. Occasionally Saudagar would get a whiff of the sinister smell of burning flesh. He was bewildered. Then one day …..

“Three persons approached me. Because I was a gardener, they wanted my help in identifying edible leaves of trees. I went along. When I was busy in looking about for leaves that might be eaten, suddenly one of them caught me from behind, trying to gag my mouth with one hand and stab me with the other. Here – look, I still bear the mark. And remember, he was also very weak and it was I who was getting murdered – life is the dearest object, Saab – I pushed him off with all my might and he fell down. Slowly I went away. I wan not chased because my assassin did not have any strength left in him.”

The bewildered Saudagar soon found out that the handful of people who still lived, were moving about like packs of wolves, to pounce on the unwary and strangulate him. After which they should roast him and eat.

“There was something unnatural in the whole set-up. I am aware that my description of these people moving like wolves is quite inept. As the assassins themselves were pitiable wolves, with their stomach making deep inroads at the back of their spines from which the rib cage showed and trembled feebly with the rhythm of their weak hearts. Each one of them had started counting steps toward the dark abyss from which there was no return.

“My dim brain, hazy with hunger, grasped a sinister idea. I could not … How could I do this …. Oh not…. not killing someone and eating him. That was beyond me. But there were the corpses – everyday six, seven or may be ten of them would die, they would fall and never stir again. Could not I? …. Could not I? … Something had also started moving in closer – every moment – closer. I knew any time it would overtake me and one day I would also lie down never to stand up again. So, what’s wrong in it ? …. What’s wrong in it? … damn it, what’s wrong in it?…

“And, at last, I dragged a corpse to the fire, roasted it and tore it and tore it and ate it …

“I got accustomed to it. But I think, human flesh is poisonous, because, after a few days, my eyes turned yellow. It went on like this, until, one day, I could feel that death – that creeping shadow was just two or three days away. My only companion was lying on the beach – we did not have water for three days. My tongue felt like a dry twig. I thought – I was being punished for my sin. I knelt down in meek supplication – I was praying to God for death, then suddenly….

“I accepted the grace of God in my cupped hand. I drank – and then soaked my shirt and wrung water down in the mouth of Govardhan Pandit – my only companion who also survived.”

The same day, Saudagar and his companion were rescued by an American battleship that was heading towards Port Blair. Earlier, on 14th August 1945, Japan had surrendered the Islands. The Rising Sun was brought down from official buildings and for another two years, the Union Jack rose again, Saudagar was flown to Singapore as a witness in the Court Martial of Vice-Admiral Hara and 36 Japanese officers. Hara was executed on for causing wanton killing of human beings in Havelock island. A grey, puny Saudagar, very old, little befuddled, still roams the streets of Port Blair.

It is high time Mr.Ramakrishnan’s unpublished memoirs are edited and published. It is also time for our authors and speakers to stop referring to the Japanese opening the gates of the cellular jail to the Fall of Bastille. The comparison does justice neither to Bastille nor to Cellular Jail. The Bastille fortress had been stormed by the rebels themselves and not by foreign invaders. Therein lies the glory of its fall. The Cellular Jail had a greater claim to glory for it had incarcerated generations of patriots. But it had been emptied by the Japanese only to be filled up within days with innocent people, And the criminals among those set free wrought havoc in the life of the islanders. The Japanese used them to kidnap women from the villages.

Interaction by Shri Manoj Das with villagers at Shankhari(native village of him)

About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.