1962. Tezpur was a small, sleepy town when Pallatheri Parameswaran Nambudiri joined Assam State Electricity Board as Assistant Engineer. It was his first posting. He had managed to find a room to stay, a Nair’s hotel nearby for his meals, made friends with the Choudhurys, and had settled down to his job when the news came that China was closing in on Tezpur.
In his memoirs, Nilavu Sadhakam, narrated to and written by his wife Arya Antharjanam a year before his death (in 2011), and published posthumously, Nambudiri devotes a chapter to those nightmarish days in Tezpur.
A lot has already been written on the Indo-China war. Nambudiri in a simple, straightforward narrative captures a feel of those turbulent days.
“He had so much to say but was not willing to write. That’s when I persuaded him to narrate, while I took down notes. There were moments when he seemed to struggle with his memory. But when it came to his Tezpur days I could sense the excitement,” remembers Arya, who before marriage used to write in various regional language magazines as V. G. Ammini.
Work at office was relaxed, Nambudiri says. With his first salary he bought a blanket and sent it to his father in Tripunithura, who had disapproved of his son going to study in Kolkata. A hot glass of milk came every night from the Choudhurys, and all was well with his world.
That’s when, out of the blue, news spread that the Chinese army had reached the outskirts of the town. The army came as close as Balipara, about nine kilometres from Tezpur. There was chaos and confusion. “People began to flee the town. Offices were shut and people were finding whatever transport to Guwahati. Banks were shut, currency burnt and coins put into gunny bags and thrown into the lakes. Jails and the mental hospital were thrown open. The streets were filled with criminals, inmates of the mental hospital and dogs,” Nambudiri recollects.
In his room Nambudiri thought about the Choudhurys. He called out to them that if the news was true the Chinese army would enter Tezpur anytime and asked them to leave immediately. The Choudhurys left taking with them what they could. “Executive engineer of the Board, Dutta, Bhattacharjee, who was in charge of the powerhouse, and I decided to stay.”
The District Collector summoned Dutta to his office. Nambudiri accompanied his officer. “I found the Collector very nervous. He told us that the Chinese would reach here any moment. We were asked to collect dynamite from the PWD office and blow up the power house. There should be no electricity when the army advances into the city.”
Dutta did not say a word. But Nambudiri intervened, “Sir, to do it we need a written order from you.’ The Collector said that he would send them the order. He added that we blow up the power house only after we receive the orders.”
Nambudiri and his colleagues waited the day and the whole of the night. “That was the most eerie night I have ever spent in my life,” he records. “Dogs were barking all the time, interrupted by the shrieks of the mad let free from the asylums. We kept the power going all the while waiting for the Collector’s orders.”
Versions differ as to why the orders never came. Some believe that the Collector had left the town. But Nambudiri is silent on this issue.
The next morning news came that the Chinese had withdrawn. Tezpur limped back to normalcy. People began returning. “The Choudhurys came back. That night when the milk was brought I was told that from then on it would be free. It was their way of saying thank you for my timely advice.”
Meeting with Nehru
A few youngsters formed a voluntary group of which Nambudiri was made leader. “We associated ourselves with the police and were trained in the use of arms.” That was when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru visited Tezpur. As leader of this group Nambudiri was also invited to meet him.
“That meeting with Nehru was something he always told us about. He was introduced to Nehru as Assistant Engineer of ASEB. Nehru took a long look at him and asked him with a tinge of surprise. “Nambudiri, a Malayali, how come you are here?’ My husband smiled and replied ‘Why not sir, can’t I come here?’ Nehru did not say anything but moved ahead,” says Arya.
Almost a month later another man reached the ASEB office looking for Nambudiri. “It was Dr. Bhupen Hazarika. He held my hands and commended me on staying back when locals and others ran away in the hour of crisis. He also asked me what prompted me to stay.”
Nambudiri replied that he did not flee because he never felt scared. “I came all the way in search of a job. And if I start running how far will I go? Maybe, as far as Kanyakumari and then…?”
In 1966 Nambudiri got married. He was transferred to Kokrajhar and went on to retire as Chief Engineer Meghalaya State Electricity Board (MESEB).
In 2006, Nambudiri went back to Tezpur and the other places in the North East where he had served, along with his wife, children and grandchildren.
“When we reached Tezpur, he showed us the office, a small room, the power house. The room he stayed was no longer there. He took us on a guided tour to all those places he had talked about all those years,” says Ammini.
History is the essence of innumerable biographies. It is a distillation of memories, stories. And Nambudiri’s first-hand account of this significant event is a valuable addition to the Indo-China chronicles.