The War Years ’41 – ‘45
We arrived in Delhi 75 years ago, from Chennai, travelling directly to Simla where we stayed the first few months in Simla for the British Government moved to the hill station in the summer months. We settled in later in New Delhi.
Our initial years in Delhi were dominated by The World War, with daily newspaper headlines on the progress of Allied forces in Europe. Concurrently the Japanese were on our eastern borders.
With Delhi and Calcutta important bases in the CBI (China-Burma-India) military strategy under the US Army led by General Stilwell, the war news and the military presence were pervasive, although by then the British Government was preoccupied with dealing with our Independence movement of 1942 and the formation of the Indian National Army under Subhash Chandra Bose, in Burma.
By 1944 New Delhi had a rash of new buildings – low single-brick yellow temporary barracks called “hutments” built to accommodate the US Army that was based in Delhi to take part in the eastern front. We got used to seeing the US army uniforms – a light khaki in colour, and caps with a different tilt from the “forage” caps we saw on British army soldiers. The hutments were hastily built on the green areas around the Secretariat buildings, although the large camp for the GIs was on the outskirts of the city beyond the Safdarjung airport on the road to Mehrauli.
The temporary hutments lasted many years after the war ended and the Yankees went home. Offices were allotted to accommodate the increased space needed by the government of independent India, until they gradually were replaced with new offices. Some hutments are still in use for Government offices in Delhi, remnants of these US army barracks. The large American camp beyond Safdarjung airport which was after the War, first occupied by the Indian National Airlines, (whose planes operated out of Safdarjung airport), finally became what is now the popular busy INA Market.(Most people do not know how it got its name)
The US army base had its own radio station called VU2ZY, to entertain their troops, which broadcast American popular music, and “news from home.” Radio being our favourite form of entertainment, we soon got to know all the American songs on “Hit Parade” especially popular recordings by Bing Crosby and the Andrew sisters. The troops’ request program every evening before dinner was never missed. In Connaught Place at the movie theatres we saw our favourite movie stars, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Mildred Crawford. The movie was always preceded by the anthem, God Save the King, and a newsreel, full of news of the war front. The theatres in CP were also full of American GI’s although they had their own open air movies projected on the high wall of the water tower in their camp. I remember we watched “Road to Morocco” starring Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Bing Crosby, on the wall from our roadside vantage point, without the sound of course. We thought the silent movie quite hilarious, but enjoyable without paying for tickets.
When they saw groups of us in our school uniforms, the GIs were always friendly, and offered us Wrigley’s chewing gum and Babe Ruth candy. I always thought the candy was named after a movie star called Babe Ruth. It was only ten years later as a student in a US college that I learned about the baseball hero of that name and laughingly told my friends about the war time “Americanisation” of school kids in Delhi.
We had got used to petrol rationing. Father got coupons for five gallons of petrol per month. which hardly lasted very long with our gas-guzzling Chevrolet sedan. We saved the coupons for occasional trips to old Delhi to visit friends who lived in Civil lines, or for a weekend outing to the Qutb Minar or Tughlakabad fort, all sites quite far away from our government allotment on Tughlak Road. Mother was the only person who used the car for shopping in Connaught Place or buying groceries in Gole Market; Father and we girls cycled to work and school.
The only bus service available for those who could not cycle, or did not own a car, was a shabby green bus line run by the Gwalior and Northern India Transport (G.N.I.T.) owned by a well-known personage called Anthony de Mello, who was also a cricket enthusiast and one of the founders of the BCCI. He persuaded Tata to buy the land to build the Brabourne stadium in Bombay, I am told. His valuable contribution to cricket is undoubtedly a worthy reason to remember him. But I remember him as someone who could not improve a bus service for which we waited for hours in the sun, and in sweat and frustration we named his company Goes Never In Time
Most people went to work on bicycles and Sikander, our dog, discovered his favourite sport was chasing cycles, a harmless exciting race which was fun for him. Not so, the Naval officer who cycled to work via the service lane behind our house. Every morning, Sikander, knowing the routine of the man in his white starched uniform, would wait for his morning high. Unfortunately the naval lieutenant did not consider this worthwhile entertainment, especially if his spotless uniform was often smudged and stained in the exciting chase, and even more so because he saw the lively dog as a terrifying mastiff, who wanted to bite his fast-pedalling legs. One evening Father got an angry written ultimatum on the Naval HQ letterhead warning him, that if “that dog” appeared the next morning he would be shot. Sikander was chained and chastened the next morning and every morning after that. And so ended the daily sporting event of Tughlak Lane, which never reached Sikander’s distant goal in the competition for the Daulatabad Stakes.