I inherited from my father the desk in my study and the letter rack that rests on it. The letter rack has a slightly curious possession: an old and frayed One Rupee note of Japanese invasion money. These were officially known as Southern Development Bank Notes.
It was issued by the Japanese Military Authority, as a replacement for local currency after the Japanese Empire’s conquest of Burma. These notes have little value for a collector, as millions were printed. However, in my father’s collection of memories, it remains a priceless reminder of his mother’s prayers that brought him safely home from Burma during one of the worst periods of the war against Japan.
My father was studying at the Muslim University at Aligarh when he was selected for Sandhurst in 1932 – one of ten from 300 candidates. The college was ecstatic. His friends carried him round the campus on their shoulders and his mother cried tears of joy. After being commissioned, Second Lieutenant S.S. Hamid served for a year on probation with a British battalion, before he was “accepted” by 3rd Cavalry, one of the three cavalry regiments to be Indianized. Judging from the account recorded in his book So They Rode and Fought, he enjoyed his early career with the regiment but there were dark clouds on the horizon. He recollects that, “3rd Cavalry was not a happy regiment and the officers were a mixed bunch who didn’t get along well with each other”. His effort to join the much vaunted Indian Political Service (envied as “the twice borne”), were unsuccessful, and he was so desperate to leave the regiment that he accepted a transfer to the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, a mule-based organization. Known despairingly as the “Rice Corps” from its initials of RIASC in the hierarchy of the British Indian Army, the cavalry was at the top and the RIASC close to the bottom – probably only a notch above the Army Ordinance Corps.
Transiting from horses to mules must have been a great comedown for a young cavalry officer but it was God’s providence and a mother’s prayer that saved S. S. Hamid from the unspeakable horrors of a Japanese Prisoner of War camp. A year after he left the regiment, 3rd Cavalry was shipped to Malaya and captured at the fall of Singapore along with 130,000 who surrendered to the Japanese. It was Britain’s worst military disaster and the PoWs remained captive until the end of the war. It was a narrow escape for Shahid Hamid as many who survived the harsh treatment as prisoners of the Japanese Empire were scarred for the rest of their life.
Before the Second World War, the focus of the British Indian Army was the Tribal Wars in the North West Frontier Province of India and after qualifying in the basic courses for the RIASC, Shahid Hamid commanded a mule company at Kohat and Fort Sandmen. During this period, he was promoted captain and married just after the breakout of the Second World War. He was then transferred to Risalpur, to command a mechanical transport company of the newly raised 1st Indian Armoured Division. He considered this a great honour and was looking forward to moving with the formation to North Africa, when suddenly the division was broken up and its elements were deployed in different theaters. Shahid Hamid was posted to Jullundur and then as Staff Captain at the headquarters of the Burma Corps in Rangoon.
The “Burcorps” as it was called locally, was created on the 13th of March 1942 to take control of the scattered British, Indian and local troops retreating through Burma in the face of a sustained Japanese offensive. Shahid Hamid was serving alongside Walter Walker, a Gurkha officer who was a captain in the operations branch of Burcorps. They became lifelong friends. After the war the two also served together in Delhi and Walter ultimately rose to the rank of General and served as one of NATO’s C-in-Cs. I met him in Pakistan when he came to research his book The Next Domino in which he wrote about the perceived Soviet challenge to the West after the invasion of Afghanistan.
In January 1942, the Japanese 15th Army attacked southern Burma from Thailand and rapidly advanced towards Rangoon. It was in these chaotic circumstances that Capt S.S. Hamid arrived at the Headquarters of the Burcorps as it was known locally. In fact, his ship docked in the middle of a Japanese air raid on the warehouses surrounding the harbour. Within two months of his arrival, the Burma Corps evacuated Rangoon and started fighting a long retreat. Amongst all her children, my father was the apple of his mother’s eye and all through the months he was in Burma, she offered her five mandatory prayers and more on the gravel of the driveway of their house in Bhopal. “Biama” as she was called by her entire family, also travelled to the shrines of the great Sufi saints including Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer in Rajasthan and Nizamuddin Auliya at Delhi to pray for her son’s safe return.
Capt S.S. Hamid arrived at the Headquarters of the “Burcorps” as it was known locally. In fact, his ship docked in the middle of a Japanese air raid on the warehouses surrounding the harbour
To stem the Japanese advance, the Allies tried to hold a line south of Mandalay. My father was constantly on the move, sometimes flying with supply missions to encircled troops and at other times visiting forward units and reporting back to the headquarters the situation on ground, the state of supplies and other operational aspects. On the night of the 3rd of April, some 36 Japanese bombers struck Mandalay in a raid that lasted for three hours. Clare Boothe Luce, the wife of Henry Luce, publisher of Time and Life magazines, and then a reporter in Burma, visited Mandalay two days later after the bombing. This is how she recorded the death and destruction in her diary.
“I smelled it before I saw it […] as we whirled through the streets, all creation stank of rotting flesh. As far as the eye could see it was met with a mass of smoldering gray and white charred timbers, twisted tin roofs. There are 8,000 bodies concealed in these ruins.”
On the morning after the Japanese bombing, Captain Hamid arrived in Mandalay to ascertain the damage in the town. He recounts in his memoirs:
“As there was no warning system, when the bombing started, we were caught unaware. It was terrible when the wooden houses caught fire. Soon after my arrival the ammunition dump started exploding. I was blown into a trench and thought I had been hit and couldn’t open my eyes. After some time, I realized I could not see properly and with great difficulty returned to Maymyo”.
She offered her five mandatory prayers and more on the gravel of the driveway of their house in Bhopal. “Biama”, as she was called by her entire family, also travelled to the shrines of the great Sufi saints including Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer in Rajasthan and Nizamuddin Auliya at Delhi to pray for her son’s safe return
His eyes were badly injured and in spite of being treated at a field hospital, they went from bad to worse. A few days after his injury, a medical board decided that he should be evacuated. My father protested. “There are many seriously injured who need to be evacuated. I am fit and can walk.” The President of the Board was a middle-aged doctor wearing dark glasses. He removed his glasses and said, “Son. During the First World War I lost an eye. You are a young man with your whole life ahead of you. I don’t want you to lose both.”
Shahid Hamid was evacuated first by an ambulance train and then by aircraft to Dum Dum in West Bengal.
Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hill.
(Robert Louis Stevenson)
Do you believe in prophetic dreams (also known as precognitive or psychic dreams), that seemingly foretell the future? I do! A year or so before my aunt Aziza (fondly knows as Ajjo) died, I visited her in Karachi. She was the youngest of my father’s sisters and the last surviving sibling. She was over 85, an absolute darling who in her old age resembled the Star Wars character Yoda – the ancient and revered Jedi Master. Our conversation meandered towards the time when my father was serving in Burma and I commented on the anxiety that the family, particularly their mother, must have undergone.
“Oh yes!” she exclaimed. “But you know,” she continued with her eyes growing wider. “A few days after Biama returned from her pilgrimage to Ajmer Sharif, she woke up one morning and said to me, ‘I had a dream last night. Shahid is coming back. He is on a flying horse but he is rubbing his eyes. There is something wrong with his eyes.’”
I got goosebumps when I heard that and for the first time in my life came to believe in psychic dreams.
The final picture in this story, taken in 1945, is of a street in Rangoon littered with worthless Japanese “invasion money”, just like the bank note from where my story began.