Ironically when long term residents were fleeing a fast emptying Madras, a new set of refugees took sanctuary in that city.
Rangoon in Burma suffered aerial bombardments on the Christmas day 1941 when 40 Japanese Zero bombers wreaking havoc. One lakh people died and their bodies lay uncleared for days.
Tamils were the commercial backbone of Burma. A mercantile community – the Nattukottai Chettiars alone owned 350,000 acres of paddy. Being the hardest-working citizens they soon became wealthy in proportion. But with the sky raining fire, many made a bolt for it with empty pockets.
Steamers for sea travel were reserved for women, children and the financially persuasive. Those left behind had no option but to trek for a month over hilly ranges and wade through streams, evade wild animals and arrive travel-stained in India. Those who arrived were lucky. Many did not make it.
The refugee train to Madras had more compartments than usual and took ten days to reach. The Corporation of Madras knew of the potential influx but surely didn’t realise its magnitude. The Mayor installed a two pronged support system-. the harbour and the Central station. The city scouts were organised to help the evacuees and Muslim league, YMCA and peace brigade provided volunteers.
The officials were taken by surprise from day one. Six steamers (with 3163 evacuees) docked one after another in the harbour causing chaos and embarrassment. A host of dignitaries and social workers waiting on the docks had just enough water and foodpackets for 300.
Though the mayor made it a point to meet all Calcutta trains there was no way of knowing how many would actually arrive by train either. Many evacuees missing the reception committees wandered aimlessly before being directed to Ripon building.
Initially big feasts were arranged by the local philanthropic organisations on the station’s platform itself. But the benefactor interest wore off as it became a daily happening. Those coming in trains were sent to a campus called ‘Lakeside’ in Chetpet.
The seafaring evacuees were accommodated in sheds in the Port Trust premises where total pandemonium prevailed. There wasn’t enough shelter or sufficient sanitation. Only after the ships came they realised the ladies did not have separate toilets and bathing facilities. Adding to the chaos were evacuees who spoke only Urdu or Telugu. In addition Chinese and European immigrants landed from Singapore, which had recently fallen. In some cases Japanese prisoners of war were also on the list.
The central station was already stretched to its limit with fleeing locals. There was no ambulance and only one stretcher using which the volunteers carried the sick passengers directly to the General Hospital across the main road. Sometimes loaded patients were downloaded to enable a more critical case to betransported. Many patients did succumb in the General Hospital, unable to take the strain of the trek and travel.
Newspapers mentioned “a refugee is very different from a tourist but the customs officials didn’t seem to realise it and are charging 8 Annas duty on a tin of biscuits”. Reacting to criticism, government waived duties on personal baggage.
There was a case of an advocate of the Rangoon High Court (for 17 years) who petitioned the Madras High Court that he be allowed to enrol to practice. The court welcomed him and even exempted him from paying the necessary stamp fee.
Though most were considered destitute, luckily they did not want new occupations found or a permanent stay organised. They were all willing to go to the support system of their extended families.
The newly created post of ‘Protector of Immigrants’ paid for their food allowances (batta) and bought them railway tickets. The people signed IOUs for the batta and the amount was debited from the Government account. Worthless Burmese currency was exchanged (more to maintain a straight face for the empire).
Refugees were warned not to exaggerate on Burmese experiences for the government seemed concerned that panic should not ensue in already tensed Madras.
For a year the Burma refugees kept creeping in slowly and were assimilated into the local population. And it became a family lore and crept into literature and movies of that period as well.