1914-born A.L. Sambamoorthy goes on rewind mode about the city of pre-Independence
For a person in his hundredth year, A.L. Sambamoorthy has vivid memories about the day he joined Burmah Shell in the 1930s, the Second World War, the Madras then, and how it became a ghost city during the evacuation.
Born in the North Arcot town of Ranipet in 1914, Sambamoorthy lived a short while there, with his advocate grandfather, before his father, who ran a furniture business, shifted the family to Singanna Chetty Street in Chintadripet. “From here, we would go to the beach occasionally. Madras was very thinly populated, so you saw neither a lot of people nor traffic,” he reminisces. “During Christmas week, a place behind Moore Market would have celebrations. Fireworks and all, the whole city would burn bright. Christmas in Madras was a big deal those days.”
Burmah Shell accounts for most of his stories, and he traces the company’s journey during the World War. “When the Second World War happened in 1939, we were wondering how it would turn out. There were large oil fields in Burma and when the Japanese entered the War in the 1940s, a lot of fear took hold. There was a rumour that they were going to attack the eastern shores and this prompted the evacuation of Madras in 1942,” he says. The Japanese invaded Burma in 1942 and burnt their oil fields when they left. “‘Scorched Earth’ policy,” he says.
Even as other companies and families shifted from the city, Burmah Shell stayed till the end. “The city was deserted at one point, but we were waiting to see where the Government was moving, and when it shifted to Ooty, we moved base to Salem for exactly 100 days,” says Sambamoorthy. “We came back when we thought there was no more threat. There were regular air-raid warnings and we were trained to handle it. Bomb shelters appeared everywhere — even in places such as Nungambakkam, Mylapore and George Town. One night, we heard an explosion and thought that it was just a firecracker. The next morning, we realised a bomb had been dropped near Fort St. George.”
After Independence, however, Burmah Shell looked to leave the country. “They wanted to quit and were trying to sell their properties, lock, stock and barrel. The Government purchased the company and it was renamed Bharat Petroleum,” he says.