For a year every flying fowl in the skies was suspect.
Likewise, every utensil that slipped out of the housewife’s hand had people scuttling for shelter.
“What if it was a hot headed Jap pilot discharging his volatile cargo?” was the sheepish response.
With dramatic suddenness, lives had been changed when on Easter Sunday, 75 Japanese planes dive-bombed Colombo. Boatloads of refugees crossed the Palk strait and their tales of distress were magnified with every repetition. The Japanese added to Madras’s apprehension when they bombed Kakinada and Vizagapatam.
War had leapt out of newspapers and into people’s living rooms. By now most were convinced Madras was going to be bombed to smithereens.
But the city was seemingly prepared. 4,400 air raid volunteers were ready to help. The government erected air raid shelters and fashioned 22 miles of safety trenches on roadsides. But still, as dusk set in the despondency did too, with the blackouts.
People relaxing on beaches had been arrested under the ‘Defence Act’ as it was a prohibited area. Buildings including the Queen Mary’s college were to be painted grey and glass windows were pasted with newspaper. Palmyra trees camouflaged as guns were stuck up on the beach.
Madras lay like a piece of meat on a butcher’s table and Madrasis were already contemplating retreat. Their fears were of their beloved being torn to pieces by the wild animals from a bombed zoo or drowned by a flood from the breaking reservoirs.
Most started to rustle through their diaries to search for addresses of their long ignored rural relatives. Acquaintances who hadn’t been wished for several Diwalis in a row were suddenly in demand.
3 weeks after the first air raid warning, about 5 lakh people had fled and anxious men were seen pushing their women and children “through the train windows like parcels”. The city was emptying itself fast, and it seemed like the population would soon fall to a kind of ‘East India Company days’ low.
The roads leading out of the city were classified as fast and slow traffic to enable a smooth exit. Kodambakkam-Sriperumbudur road for bullock carts and Madras-Poonamallee-Kundrathur Road for fast traffic.
Parts of the government and a few courts too were shifted to Ooty and other places but the Governor Hope, as if to justify his name stayed back. (His equivalent during WW1 escaped to Ooty during the bombing conducted by Emden). Libraries asked members to return their books and schools asked for future fees as advance payments.
With families safely dispatched, long queues started forming in front of hotels and the price of a meal doubled. Even the dead were not Jap proof. Post dusk funeral cremations weren’t allowed lest they attract enemy planes.
In a couple of months the government announced an ‘all clear’, and waited hopefully for a returning exodus. And just as people were returning , ludicrously, a mechanic repairing the air raid warning set it off by mistake, triggering off another scare.
Soon normalcy returned. Doom averted, most residents returned sheepishly to find rents raised by landlords, or their house locks broken. Movies were soon running to full houses, Especially the full length comedy ‘Sababathy’ that took the minds of many people from the worries.
Not everybody lost in this episode. Many millionaires were made the year the Japanese did not turn up. There were speculators who bought up properties at throwaway prices.
Finally in October 1943, on a dark and cyclonic night, a lone Japanese reconnaissance flight came over a flooded Madras to keep its yearlong promise and dropped a miss-aimed bomb.
It was such an anticlimax. The rain-damaged air raid warning failed to sound. No one took refuge in the hundreds of shelters and all skills gained in year long air raid drills were squandered. And no newspaper (either suffering a flood inflicted power cut or respecting censorship) reported it. Many Madrasis never even knew for a week that they had been bombed.
A small piece of the bomb shrapnel is still in the fort museum for visitors to see. It’s a diminutive piece of antiquity, which in no way provides the drama or history in its full scale of the huge churn that had gone on in the city.