The great flap was a story dying to be written: Mukund Padmanabhan

Padmanabhan, currently serving as a distinguished professor of philosophy at Krea University, engaged in a compelling dialogue with The Statesman at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet this year, delving into the intricacies of his debut book.

The great flap was a story dying to be written: Mukund Padmanabhan

Mukund Padmanabhan, a seasoned journalist and former Editor of The Hindu, emerges as a distinctive voice in the realm of Indian media. With a career marked by insightful commentary and a commitment to journalistic integrity, Padmanabhan has played a pivotal role in shaping public discourse. Beyond his editorial prowess, he now ventures into the domain of historical storytelling with his debut publication, The Great Flap of 1942. Unveiling a neglected chapter in Indian history, Padmanabhan explores the tumultuous period between December 1941 and mid-1942 when all of India found itself in the grip of panic, navigating the repercussions of British misjudgements and the perceived threat of a Japanese invasion. Through his work, Padmanabhan not only brings to light a forgotten era but also sheds new light on the intricate connections between historical events and political dynamics during the quest for independence in India. The book also features an extensive bibliography in its conclusion, citing reports from various media publications, including The Statesman.

Padmanabhan, currently serving as a distinguished professor of philosophy at Krea University, engaged in a compelling dialogue with The Statesman at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet this year, delving into the intricacies of his debut book. During this insightful conversation, he provided valuable insights on the content explored in The Great Flap of 1942.

Following are the excerpts:

Q. The blurb of your book describes the great flap as an event that is scarcely known. What, in your opinion, contributes to the neglect and relative obscurity of this particular period in Indian history?


I think the story got squeezed. On one hand, the British were primarily focused on the war in Europe, while on the other, the Indian historians were concentrated on the pursuit of independence. Consequently, the account of Japan’s potential invasion found itself caught between these two competing interests. Also, at the end of the day, the invasion never happened. So, in a way, it was a non-event, which had a huge impact on the people.

Q. What was the driving force behind this book?

I’ve grown up with this story. My mother recounted the family’s evacuation experience, and how they came back to Madras and found it completely stripped bare. She shared the challenges of resuming her education, having completed one year in Coimbatore, and the subsequent search for a college elsewhere. This event was a recurrent tale in our upbringing. As I engaged in conversations with various individuals, I realised that many others had similar stories of their parents fleeing. So, I was aware that there was a story dying to be written up. During my research, I initially anticipated the story to centre primarily on Madras. However, it evolved into a comprehensive, pan-Indian narrative as I discovered that the flap significantly affected individuals throughout the entire country.

Q. In addition to the widespread displacement of people, what other notable impacts did the flap exert? Did the perceived Japanese threat influence nationalist politics?

The flap certainly had a great impact because of the war itself, and the entry of Japan led a few people in the Congress to believe that the British were weak and they might be attempted to hand over more power. Negotiation strategies emerged, leveraging promises of x in exchange for y. Concerned about their position, the British recognised the necessity of Indian support and, as a result, were prepared to grant additional power to Indians in exchange for their backing. Consequently, the war set in motion a distinctive political dynamic, sparking a series of events that altered Britain’s attitude towards India. The entry of Japan prompted a reevaluation of strategies among Indians, leading to debates on how to navigate the evolving situation and formulate demands from the British.

Q. Were there any surprising discoveries or lesser-known aspects of this period that you came across during your research that particularly fascinated or intrigued you?

Well, there are lots of little quirky stories. One story that I particularly liked was of the brother of poet W.H. Auden, who developed a cost-effective, tarry substance and persuaded ICS officers to put braziers all over the south block where the army headquarters was. His claim was that when ignited, this substance could generate dense clouds of smoke, serving as a defence mechanism to obscure critical buildings from potential Japanese aerial attacks. It’s worth noting that this occurred in Delhi when the city wasn’t even under imminent threat. So, to me, this story was emblematic of the panic that took place at that time.

Q. Given the complexity of the events you’ve covered, what challenges did you face in bringing this historical narrative to life?

Covid-19 was an externally-imposed challenge. It came in the way. The other challenge was internal. I have come to understand that when conducting research of this nature, it’s essential to take notes while reading, even though it may not be the most enjoyable or comfortable way to approach it. While note-taking can interfere with the pleasure of reading, it is a necessary practice since it’s challenging to retain every piece of information encountered. Hence, I often found myself reading and re-reading certain things during my journey of writing this book.

Q. What messages or lessons do you hope readers will draw from The Great Flap of 1942?

I hope readers think it relates to an interesting but forgotten part of Indian history. I want them to derive enjoyment from the book, as I’ve endeavoured to present it in an engaging and easily readable manner, despite the abundance of facts, footnotes and research woven into it. My expectation extends beyond providing a repository of information; my hope is that readers derive genuine pleasure from the reading experience.