logo image Tracing the identity & history of the Indian Subcontinent via family archives

War Hero

169 – Hiding out in the forests of Assam-Burma-East Bengal border

My grandfather with his brothers. Assam Burma Border. c

My grandfather Suresh Chandra Mukherjee (extreme right) with his brothers. Assam-Burma-East Bengal Border. Circa 1943

Image & Text contributed by Shravani Dang, New Delhi

This photograph taken in 1943 or 44 is of my maternal grandfather, Dr. Suresh Chandra Mukherjee (extreme right) with his brothers. It was taken in a forest hideout at the Assam-Burma-East Bengal border.

My grandfather, Dr. Suresh Chandra Mukherjee whom we fondly called Dadu, was born in 1895. 
Our family originally came from a small town in undivided Bengal and India called Khulna (now in Bangladesh) but they worked across the states of Bengal and Assam. Dadu’s hobbies included fishing and photography. He married my grandmother, Bimala Bala in 1909 when she was only 9 years old, he was 23 and already a doctor.

Dadu was a renowned gynecologist & an obstetrician, and also specialized in tropical medicine. He worked with the George Williamson & Co., a Tea Company in Assam ( now Williamson Magor & Co.).  In this photograph, my grandfather wears a British army uniform as he had been recruited into British Army to serve during World War II, when the Japanese occupied Burma and parts of the North-East Frontier.

During the war, and due to fears of Japanese attacks and bombings, the entire family of six brothers, their wives and children moved to a relative’s place and hid in the forest. The second person on the left is his younger brother Dinesh Chandra Mukherjee who later worked in the Foreign Service. The other brothers’ names I don’t’ know but one was a school headmaster. Not in the photograph is the fifth brother, Dr. Debesh Chandra Mukherjee who was also a doctor and was one of the five physicians dispatched to China by Netaji Subas Chandra Bose to provide medical assistance during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938. Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis was the other well-known Doctor in the group, on whom the film Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani is based, and my granduncle is mentioned in it. My grandfather was the only one who served in war.

Life during the war was difficult. Most importantly, food was rationed. No cattle or milkmen were available as lived in far away towns and villages. Each time my grandfather visited the family, he would bring milk and a prized tin of English biscuits – Jacob’s Biscuits. Sometimes, but not often, he would manage to bring in eggs and Anchor Butter (from New Zealand). Without refrigeration, and in the dense tropical forest, the milk would get spoilt. In army rations, milk was only available in army rations in form of powder, that the family would then hoard. Sugar was in very short supply and often not available- so they had to manage with Gur (Jaggery) to satisfy the Bengali sweet tooth. And the most difficult thing, especially for Bengalis- was that rice was rationed, and if it was available, it was very poor quality and hardly edible. So the family learnt to eat fish curry with chapatis (flat Indian bread). 
The family had to maintain a very low profile and keep their oil lamps, candles, and fires to a bare minimum in the forest, lest they attracted the enemy.

My grandfather served on the Manipur-Burma border and they were successful in stemming the Japanese entry. He had a team of informants to keep the British army abreast of the activities of the Japanese. He helped and supervise the construction of roads and bridges in the region for the British army to travel to strategic places to quell the enemy. Eventually, in 1945 the Japanese were defeated and my grandfather was decorated and personally thanked by Field Marshal and Commander-in-Chief of India Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck otherwise known as “The Auk”, who also served as the British Army commander during World War II. The Auk also wrote my grandfather a personal note on his efforts, that still lies in our family archives.

Dadu continued to serve the tea company after the end of Japanese occupation. Later he moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) and established a private practice. He retired at the age of 75 and passed away of old age at 85, in 1980.


144 – The most infamous helicopter crash in our history

My grandparents Nalin and Sharda Nanawati. 1962. Bombay

My grandparents Nalin and Sharada Nanawati. New Delhi. 1962

Image & Text contributed by Diya Nanawati, Mumbai

My paternal grandfather Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati was born in Rangoon, Burma in 1915, during the British Raj. He was the second of three children born to my great grandfather, an Indian civil servant (ICS) from Gujrat. The family belonged to a trading community called Surati Baniyas.

Nalinkumar Dhirajlal Nanavati, my grandfather, was a dashing soldier with the Allied Forces in the 1940’s. He was a soldier in the British Eighth Army and a Major with the 5th Royal Maratha Light Infantry. When the forces were ordered to go and fight the wars of WWII, he left behind a beautiful wife of Bengali and French parentage and a young daughter. But the family back home didn’t hear from him a long time and his beautiful wife assumed that he has passed away in war.

But he did return to India, a battle scarred survivor, victorious from saving peninsular Italy from the German Nazis. Later, he was awarded a military cross for his bravery in the Battle of Monte Cassino. However, he had won the war but lost his family, his wife and daughter, to another man. His daughter later married into a Parsi Baronetcy in Bombay. As time passed my grandfather became Lt. Colonel in the Indian Army, and he met Sharada Ramaiah, the woman who would become my grandmother.

My grandmother Sharada Ramaiah and my grandfather Nalin met over a game of tennis in New Delhi. He was charmed by her intellectual personality. Both my grandparents from my dad’s side of the family came from educated families and had english governesses. Grandma Sharada (born in 1925) was a Brahmin from Karnataka, and even though it was an inter-caste marriage, her mother did not object. My grandfather was so charming and friendly that it really did not matter whose ancestors were traders and whose were priests. As with many families in India, they came from the same class though not the same caste.  She took on the role of being the Army wife with utter grace, entertaining diplomats and politicians with great élan. My grandfather was by then the commandant of the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun and later the military attaché for India with the Indian embassy in Moscow. He enjoyed huge success and a meteoric rise to the rank of a Major General. In 1959, Sanjeev Nanavati, their only child, my dad, was born.

Tragically, the beautiful life my grandparents and father enjoyed was to be short lived. My grandfather Nalin was sent on a non-family posting in Kashmir where he was killed on the November 22, 1963 at the age of 45 in one of the most tragic helicopter crashes of all times. All six senior officers including my grandfather died. The other officers were –

  • Maj. Gen Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati (Military Cross, General Officer Commanding 25 Infantry Division)
  • Lt. Gen Bikram Singh (General Officer Commanding, 15 Corps)
  • Air Vice Marshall Erlic Pinto (Air Officer Commanding, Western Command)
  • Lt.  Gen Daulet Singh (General Officer Commanding in Chief, Western Command)
  • Brigadier SR Oberoi, (Military Cross, Commander 93 Infantry Brigade)
  • Flt. Lt. SS Sodhi

Many conjectured that the helicopter was sabotaged because so many senior officers lost their lives at the same time, but the Indian Army ruled out sabotage and stated that it was an accident. Later as cautionary rule, the government banned senior officers of the army to ever travel together. The same rule now applies to several corporations too.

Grandma Sharada Nanavati was widowed at a young age of 34, and my dad Sanjeev, was just four years old. With only 12 rupees in her bank account, it took Sharada many years to get a succession certificate (issued by a civil court to the legal heirs of a deceased person). She never took a paisa from her wealthy relatives and instead chose to live her life with dignity and raise her son alone. Fortunately she was educated with a Masters in History, Politics and Economics and was a journalist too. With recommendations from Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw, she began working at the WHO and then later with the USIS in New Delhi. This was a great achievement for a woman in her times.

As a single and independent mother, my grandmother educated my dad, and with blood, sweat and tears built a modest home in the ‘War Widows colony’ in Delhi. Daddy and Grandma remain very grateful to the Indian Army. My granddad was a war hero but I believe my grandma who is 89 years old now, is a hero too.