The war that never was

Nimbly, and often wittily, Mukund Padmanabhan’s The Great Flap of 1942 recounts the mad exodus from Madras during the Second World War.

Published : Apr 04, 2024 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

Japanese fighter planes on a sortie. (A photograph from the Military Heritage exhibition at the Madras Literary Society in August 2019 in Chennai.)

Japanese fighter planes on a sortie. (A photograph from the Military Heritage exhibition at the Madras Literary Society in August 2019 in Chennai.) | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

“There is no reason why histories, like fiction, cannot be stories without ends,” writes Mukund Padmanabhan in the opening pages of The Great Flap of 1942, his enjoyably discursive account of “how the Raj panicked over a Japanese non-invasion”. True enough and arguably, perhaps, more history should be written in this open-ended way. Just as grand narratives flow like rivers in spate, flooding over contributing streams and critical tributaries, so do closed narratives provide the illusion of neat beginnings and ends, of finite causes and lessons drawn.

The Great Flap of 1942: How the Raj Panicked over a Japanese Non-invasion
By Mukund Padmanabhan
Vintage Books
Pages: 288
Price: Rs.599

The textbook answer to “When did the Second World War begin?” would be 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, but as Padmanabhan points out in one of the many surprising and thought-provoking asides that pepper his book, some scholars argue that it actually began with Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. Which provokes the question whether the Second World War ever quite ended; does the current genocide in Gaza not derive directly from it?

The threat of an invasion

At any rate, it was Japan, not Germany, that loomed large over India during the war. The Indian perspective on a potential Japanese invasion or victory, though, was more complicated than the relatively black-and-white terms in which the Allies and the Axis powers defined each other in Europe. Already, India had sent over 1.3 million soldiers, besides non-combatants (“butchers, sweepers, cobblers, tailors, carpenters and cooks”), much food and cold hard cash (229 million pounds) to the previous war. Nationalists worried, naturally, that “another world war would be written in the same extractive… script”.

The cover of The Great Flap of 1942: How the Raj Panicked over a Japanese Non-invasion

The cover of The Great Flap of 1942: How the Raj Panicked over a Japanese Non-invasion | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Ideologically, the nationalist response was divided. Jawaharlal Nehru was as firmly anti-fascist as Mahatma Gandhi was anti-war (leading C. Rajagopalachari to note wryly: “If we go on offering Satyagraha to everybody who comes to us, I don’t know where it will end”). Subhas Chandra Bose was willing to ally with the Axis to fight the colonisers, while many princely states offered money and men to the British, more fearful of the “republican and democratic values taking root” in the freedom struggle than they were averse to the Raj. There was even a category of people “so fatigued by the British yoke that they would ‘even welcome the Japanese yoke for a change’”, a feeling that left the repressive and plundering colonisers “perplexed”.

The Japanese added to the confusion with their relatively generous treatment of Indians. Padmanabhan provides a wonderful scene of Japanese soldiers wooing Indian prisoners of war (PoWs) with a parade of 50 bulls. The PoWs imprisoned in Singapore, all potential recruits to the Indian National Army, had wanted milk, which their famously non-milk-drinking captors were doing their best to provide. “It took a lot of explaining to convince the Japanese that ‘he-cows give no milk’.”

That is not to say the Japanese and their bombs were no threat. A ferocious assault on Rangoon in December 1941 sent four lakh out of the approximately one million Indians in Burma on a “forgotten long march” home, a desperate walk that claimed tens of thousands of lives. Japan would also bomb many towns in eastern India, from Chittagong to Imphal and Calcutta, through the second half of 1942.

Also Read | Violence, deception, and redemption: Portrait of a marriage in Heart Tantrums

Even so, rumours of Japan’s “kindly” outlook towards India and Indians, complemented by its “racial discrimination against Europeans”, were rife. Anti-colonialism was part of Japanese propaganda and so popular that one report from Bengal noted how “a well known primer of [Japanese] is now sold out”. Indeed, any source of anti-British news had a keen audience in India: radio sellers in Bombay told a BBC producer that customers would ask, “Can I hear Germany and Japan on this?” The BBC hired George Orwell to bolster its popularity in India, but the strategy backfired, leaving Indians unmoved and Orwell “disenchanted” with  “the moral squalor and the ultimate futility of what we are doing”.

Mismanaged attempts

Orwell was only one of Britain’s mismanaged attempts at keeping its valuable colony from the Japanese. Another literary cameo was played by W.H. Auden’s elder brother who, with S.S. Bhatnagar, tried to camouflage South Block in black smoke, an experiment that was a “monumental flop”. Another unnamed official had the bright idea of stringing barbed wire along the Marina beach. There was also a great influx of American and British soldiers into Indian cities, spilling out on the streets from trams and rickshaws, filling theatres and restaurants, “eating masala dosas… and looking curiously at the custom of people drinking water without letting the glass touch their lips”. (In this, they resembled their forebears: in the 17th century, an early traveller to India wrote of his fellow Europeans improvising a drinking game from their bemusement, toasting each other without touching lip to cup to see who did it best or, better yet, failed.)

Local people looked at the soldiers with greater foreboding, just as they were suspicious of their colonial government’s plans and pronouncements. The British administration did not like to tell its subjects the truth. The Statesman, a newspaper that plays a scene-stealing role in Padmanabhan’s narrative, calling for resignations and “Japshooters” with equal aplomb, railed against “Lying as an instrument of policy”, which it described as “a Hitlerian invention… that democratic humanity is struggling to smash”.

“If there is one strand that stands out from the rest in this book, it is the havoc that an uncaring administration can wreak upon a powerless people.”

Nimbly, and often wittily, Padmanabhan weaves the many strands that led to the exodus that is the core of his book: how 75 per cent of the population of Madras left the city between December 1941 and April 1942. It is an absorbing tale, told with full appreciation of its many absurdities and revelling in its details. The 2,000 Japanese civilians (including “a maker of bean paste”) detained in the Purana Qila when the war began; the ICS officer Jayarajan and the Raja of Chettinad drinking as much of the raja’s wine as they could and pouring the rest down the drain to keep it from Japanese throats; “Defeat the Axis, Use Prophylaxis”, the public service slogan used to promote safe sex among foreign soldiers seeking brothels; the terrible massacre of “dangerous” animals in the Madras Zoo, conducted for fear of their accidental release.

If there is one strand that stands out from the rest,  it is the havoc that an uncaring administration can wreak upon a powerless people. It was not just Madras that emptied: four lakh men and women left Calcutta; 75 per cent of Guwahati, and 40 per cent of Shillong fled. It is tragically familiar to read The Statesman reporting on “poor people leaving [Calcutta] with their scanty belongings on foot” following a Japanese air raid; or of migrant labour leaving Delhi, preferring “safety at home… to good wages abroad”, when the government issued an ill-thought-out evacuation advisory (“Is the Government of India arranging to withdraw to Tibet?” asked The Statesman with biting rage. The advisory’s author “should be hanged”.)

Also Read | A worthy sequel to Animal Farm?

Such no-holds-barred criticism of government policy may seem quite alien now, but it is all too easy to imagine how, as the poor began to walk home and the middle classes, “finding it difficult to keep servants”, sought what refuge they could afford, the government pursued its own selfish advantage: “it was administratively more convenient to manage fewer people in the event of a raid or an invasion”, even one that never happened. After all, the cruelties of power are as endless as history itself. 

Parvati Sharma is the author, most recently, of Akbar of Hindustan and Jahangir: An intimate portrait of a Great Mughal.

More stories from this issue

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment