Madras miscellany Society

The admiral from Madras

Mihr K. Roy  

When the latest issue of the Journal of Indian Ocean Studies reached me the other day, I was sad to learn that Vice Admiral Mihir Kumar Roy PVSM, AVSM had passed away in May after a long illness. My friendship with him was not so much through the Society that he helped to found in 1987 or its Journal that he was associated with from its founding till a few months before his passing away, but through his Madras connections.

‘Micky’ Roy, 87 when he called it a day, was the son of an Imperial Forest Service officer, Bijoy Kumar Roy, who retired as Deputy Conservator of Forests in the Madras Presidency. The Madras postings of his father led Mihir to schooling in Vellore and Salem and college at Presidency. Besides a University of Madras BA and MA in Economics and Political Science and collegiate prizes for debating and elocution, he became fluent in Tamil, something he never was in Bengali. Tamil, however, was something that, like Punjabi or Hindi/Hindustani, his closest friend and neighbour in Vellore, Indrajit Singh Gill, was never to master. Gill was the son of Lt. Col. Gurdial Singh Gill, then in charge of Vellore Jail and later to become Inspector General of Prisons, Madras Presidency. The boyhood friends were decades later to play key roles during the Bangladesh War, teaming together to train the Mukti Bahini freedom fighters.

Long before that, Roy, who had been planning to study accountancy in the U.K., and had found a seat hard to get in post-War Britain, sat for a British armed services exam and found himself undergoing training for nearly four years from early 1946 at the Royal Naval College. His sea time included serving on ships that protected British trawlers from intruding Icelandic cod fishermen and clearing Allied mines laid between Iceland and Murmansk in the U.S.S.R. He then moved on to train with the Fleet Air Arm, learning to fly and to wage anti- submarine warfare.

Back in India, with the Indian Navy, Roy commanded destroyers, frigates and the Indian Navy’s pride at the time, the aircraft carrier Vikrant, before commanding the Eastern Fleet and, finally, as a Vice Admiral and Commander-in-Chief, heading the Eastern Naval Command from 1980 to 1984. Along the way, he commanded INAS 310, the Navy’s third air squadron, and in 1961 was the first to fly the French Alize fighters acquired for the Vikrant.

During the 1971 war Roy was Director of Naval Intelligence and it was in this role he teamed with Major General Inder Gill — then, after being Director of Training preparing the Indian Army for action in East Pakistan if necessary, the Director of Military Operations — to harness the Mukti Bahini into a fighting force. They planned clandestine operations to be executed by the Mukti Bahini and Roy and his naval team trained the guerillas as frogmen to block the East Pakistan coast. This rapidly-trained Mukti Bahini team used limpet mines to damage 100,000 tons of Pakistani shipping and blocked the only ports from which the West Pakistan soldiers could escape or receive supplies, one of the key strategies that helped India win the war.

Little known is the fact that Roy almost lost his life in the 1971 war. He was in a helicopter that crashlanded in East Pakistan close to the Indian border before the fighting had ended. With him were naval chief Admiral S.M. Nanda and Lt. Gen. J.S. Arora who was leading the campaign. All of them survived the crash, walked to the nearest village — Roy’s fractured Bengali helping — where they borrowed bicycles and headed across the border. Roy also had two escapes when he was with the Fleet Air Arm, on both occasions having to ditch his aircraft in the English Channel.

A scholar-sailor throughout his career, he wrote two books — War in the Indian Ocean is a classic — ensured excellent content for the journal he edited, and participated in numerous conferences, seminars etc. at home and abroad, besides teaching in some of the world’s leading military institutions. Vellore and Presidency made him something exceptional.


Two names out of the past

Once again, seeking the help of this column from abroad are those asking me to trace relics of the past. And once again, it’s my readers I turn to; believe it or not, I haven’t the answers to everything Madras. The first inquiry seemed simple enough, particularly as it was connected with a name well known in early 20th Century Madras. Giacomo D’Angelis was the owner of what was at one time one of the leading hotels in the city, Hotel D’Angelis, whose home is now the Bata showroom and a rabbits’ warren of shops at Round Tana, now Anna Circle. The hotel was later owned by Giacomo D’Angelis and Son, the son being Carlos D’Angelis. And the latter was the subject of the search I was drawn into by a descendant of the family living in Chile, Jefferis D’Angelis.

My Chilean correspondent had come across a news item in the Straits Times of February 23, 1920 reporting the tragic death the previous day of Carlos D’Angelis in a jheel in Pana(p/j)akam, 20 miles from Madras. He had gone with a friend for an early morning duck-and-teal shoot at the lake and before his shikari and his friend could get into the boat he had stood in it and fired a couple of times at birds flying overhead. The recoil took him by surprise, and, given his unsteady position, had toppled him into the water. His body could not be found till the next day.

The newspaper report stated that he had been buried in the cemetery of St. George’s Cathedral and Jefferis D’Angelis wanted me to verify the burial and find the tombstone. Searches by friends did not turn up the tombstone, possibly because it has been hidden by a later burial, but a record in the church did show that he was indeed buried in its cemetery. (See picture).

The second request for a search was in connection with a couple one half of whom I had vaguely heard of, but wonder whether I can get more information about the other half. Lina Bernstein from Franklin & Marshall College, Pennsylvania, is tracing the life of a Russian artist, Magda Nachman, who was married to M.P.T. Acharya from Madras. Acharya was one of the founders of the Communist Party of India and went through phases of nationalism, communism and anarchism in Pondicherry, Moscow, Berlin and London before “retiring” to Bombay.

Nachman and her husband arrived in Bombay (from Europe) in 1935 and appear to have spent the next 1520 years there. She painted prolifically in Bombay and held several exhibitions there till her death in 1951. Her husband a couple of years later planned to exhibit her work in London to pull himself out of near poverty, but while he was packing the exhibits for shipment in 1954, he suddenly died. The paintings thereafter vanished.

Did, like his other possessions, the paintings too find their way to Madras, wonders Bernstein. Does the National Art Gallery/Museum in Madras and/or Madras collectors have a Nachman that could be seen, asks my correspondent. As for me, I’d like to know more about the couple.


When the postman knocked…

Responding to my request for a transliteration and translation of the text on the cover of the Roja Muthiah Research Library’s 2012-13 Annual Report (Miscellany, November 11) G. Sundar sent me the following ‘modernised’ Tamil text, a transliteration and a translation. He writes the translation is what is available in the South Asia Burma Retrospective Catalogue of the British Library, the library with possibly the largest holding of material from the subcontinent, South Asia and Southeast Asia.

E & O A*

Referring to the piece on Anderson and mulberry cultivation in Madras (Miscellany, November 11), Dr. A. Raman from New South Wales points out that the printer’s devil must have been playing truant when he typed 1891 for 1791. The printer’s devil acknowledges and regrets his truancy.

Referring to the item on ‘Passengers on the Canal…and some recollections’ (Miscellany, October 28) Dr. R.K. Balasubramaniam says there was no West Mada Street in Mylapore. It was Brodie’s Road and is Ramakrishna Math Road. Mea culpa, but I do think it was West Mada Street before Brodie was remembered.

Ananth Narayanan writes that K.S. Ambi Iyer of Ambi’s Café (Miscellany, October 28) died in a train accident at Jajangaon (near Kasipet) and not at Mehboobnagar as stated. The death occurred when the First Class coach in which he was travelling fell into the River Vasanthi. In those days, Ananth Narayanan adds, there was no direct train from Madras to Hyderabad and coaches were linked/delinked to/from the Grand Trunk Express at Kasipet.

*Errors & oversights accepted.

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