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Vol. XXX No. 18, January 16-31, 2021

When the Japanese (never) came

by Karthik Bhatt

O. Pulla Reddy

O Pulla Reddy ICS was one of Madras Presidency’s most distinguished civil servants. Born in 1902 in a village in Chittoor District, he had his early education at the Mission Hope High School in Madanapalle. He passed the SSLC exams with flying colours and was awarded a scholarship for his Intermediate course at the Voorhees College in Vellore. He then graduated with a BA degree from the Madras Christian College, before taking the ICS examinations successfully in 1925. He was one of five selected from more than 250 aspirants who took the exams. After his probation in England (during which stint the Raja of Panagal and Sir K.V. Reddi stood as sureties for the allowance paid to him), Pulla Reddy started his career as Assistant Collector of Madurai in 1928, marking the beginning of a distinguished journey that would take him all over South India and culminate in his appointment as the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Government of India. He served as the Commissioner of the Madras Corporation between 1940 and 1944 and later became the first Indian Home Secretary, Government of Madras. This two-part series recounts a few interesting experiences during his aforementioned stints in Madras as narrated by him in his memoirs, Autumn Leaves.

One of the first episodes Reddy writes about is regarding a meeting with Prakasam Pantulu, the freedom fighter who was in hiding following arrest orders issued against his name during the Quit India movement. Surprised at receiving a call to meet him through an emissary, Reddy says that he decided to meet Prakasam notwithstanding the risk he was taking given his official position, owing to the great regard he had for the leader. He recalls donning the guise of a villager to meet him in a dingy lane off General Patters Road (using a code word to gain access to the building!), only to see him in a sorry plight, starving with no money to feed himself. Helping Prakasam with the little amount then with him, Reddy made a trip again a few days later with a bigger packet to sustain the leader for some more time.

Looking back at his tenure as Commissioner of the Madras Corporation, Reddy mentions that there always seemed to be an endemic friction between the Mayor and the Commissioner for the number one position. He however adds that he got on well with the Mayors that he served and pays tribute to the exemplary work of S Satyamurthi, during whose tenure the Poondi reservoir was conceived in 1940. Pulla Reddy recalls being bombarded with about a thousand D.O letters from Satyamurthi (their respective offices being just a few yards away from each other!) on the subject which had to be suitably acknowledged and addressed. The project, which was launched amidst constraint of resources due to war demands was completed in 1944.

In 1942, the Second World War at its peak brought about fears of the city coming under Japanese attack. Orders were issued amidst great commotion for the Government to move out, with the major Secretariat machinery moving to Nilgiris. Pulla Reddy recalls getting official confirmation of this movement only a few minutes before the Blue Mountain Express carrying the contingent left for Mettupalayam. The First Advisor to the Government Sir GT Boag then informed him that the city was being left under his (Pulla Reddy’s) and Sir Lionel Gasson, the Commissioner of Police’s charge. A short while later, Reddy received a call from Sir Lionel, with orders to shoot down all the animals in the zoo as a precautionary measure, as they could be out on the prowl in case it came under attack and cause bigger damage to the city. Reddy recalls advising Sir Lionel to wait and watch, but to no avail. A platoon of the Malabar Special Police was then despatched to carry out the ruthless task, which was carried out in quick time. Reddy also recounts patrolling the empty streets of Madras with a torch-light occasionally flashing, as no street lighting was allowed. The Japanese eventually did not land in Madras and people starting coming back to the city.

Then, as now, the overflowing levels of Chembarambakkam tank seem to have caused as much distress as exhilaration. In 1943, heavy rains caused a breach in the walls of the tank, which resulted in the Cooum becoming a raging torrent. With water not being discharged into the sea, several parts of the city came under severe flooding. Chintadripet was under about five feet of water. Reddy writes that he sent out a word to the people that they could seek shelter in the Ripon Buildings if they wished to. The offer was gladly accepted and Reddy recalls hundreds of people occupying three floors along with their goats, dogs and all their belongings. It took more than a week after they had left for the subsequent clean up and disinfecting operation to make the headquarters suitable for normal work.

It was not all work however for Pulla Reddy. He encouraged several cultural shows at venues such as the Victoria Public Hall and Gokhale Hall. He picks the show titled the ‘’The Pageant of Stars’ organised by him in 1942 at the Banqueting Hall for raising money for the War Fund as one of the highlights. The show featured several stars such as M.S. Subbulakshmi, M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, Balasaraswathi, Suryakumari and the comedy duo of N.S. Krishnan and T.A. Mathuram and was a great success.

Pulla Reddy’s stint at the Corporation came to an end in 1944. He had been given two brief extensions, which was then considered unusual. It was probably recognition of his wonderful service to the city. He would however come back a couple of years later to join the Government of Madras, beginning yet another remarkable stint.

(To be concluded next fortnight)

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