Writing about food has led to many unusual, enriching conversations, valuable friendships that I would never have made in the normal course of my life, culinary gifts —and extraordinary stories. Regular blog posts about a spicy Coorg crab curry, onak erachi barthad (fired dried and smoked meat), akki ottis and more traditional cuisine is how I found myself enmeshed in the story of a young Coorg officer, one of the thousands of hastily trained and ill-equipped soldiers flung into the South East Asia campaign during World War II :a forgotten war and forgotten people whose lives it affected that has only recently begun to get the attention it deserves.
On 7th March 1942, the British evacuated Rangoon, blowing up several critical installations as the Japanese army advanced on the city. Against the backdrop of a city in flames, the roads were choked with a fleeing civilian population, left, by a retreating British government, as the author Amitav Ghosh has written, to fend for themselves. It was an exodus which would lead to the death of thousands of people on a terrible march to India, many of them dying of exhaustion, starvation and disease.
With the war raging across Europe being given priority by Britain over the events in South East Asia, the Burma campaign was fought —at least in its initial stages —by soldiers drawn from diverse sources, with barely enough training, underequipped, lacking logistical support, and following orders from a chain of command that kept changing, all to disastrous effect.
Thrown right into this conflagration was a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant from a small village in Coorg: Biddanda M. Chengappa. He was part of a hurriedly despatched Brigade that sailed on a troop carrier to Rangoon to face a rapidly advancing and highly trained Japanese army. The inexperienced and poorly equipped young men soon lost a number of their fellow officers and men to the Japanese onslaught, and found themselves retreating in turmoil, along with other British and Indian troops. The survivors in Second Lieutenant Chengappa’s group managed to make their way North, where they began their long trek to Kohima, Nagaland, through the tangled tropical jungles that covered difficult mountain terrain.
Almost 74 years later, I would receive a series of emails about this extraordinary man, who survived snake bite in the jungles, the weather and the cruel terrain, trekking long weeks through dank jungle, enduring hunger and uncertainty to reach Kohima, to finally make his way back to Coorg.
“He was a wonderful man, with a wicked sense of humour which he never lost”, wrote Biddanda Saroja Shankaran, his grand-daughter-in-law, who introduced me to Col. Chengappa through her correspondence. Over several years, I periodically received an email from her, requesting me to share a recipe for a dish or two that had been posted on The Coorg Table. Each time she would add a few lines about Col. Chengappa who, having survived Burma, went on to serve with the Indian contingent of a United Nations Peace Keeping Force in Gaza, a distinguished post, retiring eventually to Coorg, by every account a much-loved personality.
My association with him was an unusual one. “I would read your articles out to him”, wrote Saroja, ‘and we would discuss so many things about food, culture, language, traditions and so on… I would make akki ottis for him, brinjal, onak erachi —all from your recipes. Life saver you are!”. It was a delicate, but deep connection made through shared memories and an enjoyment of food, across distances. As a writer, it brought the deepest satisfaction of knowing that the thoughts and words I had put down had travelled, and evoked a response; as a home cook, it brought that indescribable happiness of knowing that someone had enjoyed good food, in which you had something like a hand.
Our correspondence was intermittent, but I was deeply struck by Saroja’s perseverance in getting the recipes she needed, and the great affection and pride with which she recreated a taste of Coorg for a remarkable old soldier. Colonel Chengappa was already in his late 90’s when Saroja began to write to me. Each time she would remind me of his advancing age, and once wrote: “Your posts make for lovely conversations at our place. Thatha doesn’t talk much, so these articles I read out to him make him smile and utter a few words.
One of her more recent emails was a sad one, written on 7th March of this year. It read, quite simply, “…my grandfather-in-law passed away peacefully in his sleep last evening in Ahmedabad, survived by his three sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren and great grandson.” He was 102 years old.
To my everlasting regret, I never met Colonel Chengappa. I felt he had a lifetime of stories to share, stories of the world he left behind and then miraculously, returned to; stories that, at the age of 102, have gone with him. In my many years of meeting men and women of an older generation as I travelled around Coorg, Chinua Achebe’s words were often in my mind: “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” The last recipe I sent Saroja was for bainay barthad, the simplest dish of pan-fired brinjals which almost everyone from Coorg loves, especially with akki ottis, which she cooked for him: this, then, must remain my acknowledgement of his remarkable life.
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa
Photo Credits: A.G.P Sathyaprakash
Do look out for the recipes of all the food featured here in my upcoming cookbook.