Tea, Coffee or what?

A debate through Munazara's

Americans simply cannot imagine a world without Starbucks and well, for that matter, a Tamilian cannot imagine life without his filter coffee, to start the day. But you should all know that before the medieval times, there was a happy and contended world without coffee. Slowly the new elixir permeated into the drinking habits of the middle easterners and soon became a world habit. But it created a furor whenever and wherever it was first introduced, being the subject of many debates and discussions, getting compared against all other popular drinks, alcoholic or nonalcoholic.

It is not just in South India that we have these long-drawn arguments and extended discussions on which one is a better beverage, Coffee or Tea. Well, these were common in the Middle East too and while out there, they bring in other drinks into the discussion at times, the Qat (Khat) leaf which is chewed (or drunk as a kind of tea) as a stimulant, and sometimes, wine.

In Tamil Nadu, coffee habits got segregated on religious lines, with Brahmins popularizing coffee and the Muslims habituated to tea according to Chalapathy’s research. In Kerala tea is perhaps a bit more popular, while in Karnataka, coffee is. We have already discussed this at length in previous articles. However, I have not told you about the impact of this kind of an argument in the Middle Eastern literary circles, over time. Arabian and Hebrew poetry are testament to the fun ways used to bring out arguments over which is better. Let’s take a look.

In Middle Eastern literature, we find a special genre of debate poems called the Munazara. First seen during the 9th Century at Baghdad as a debate between Spring and Autumn, it became a popular genre thenceforth. It was quite popular during the medieval times, and one can still see such poems popping up, albeit rarely these days. Some of the most interesting ones studied by scholars cover diverse topics such as the difference between and Arab and a Persian (Asadi Tusi - 11th Century), coffee and Qat (Yemeni Jewish), various types of wines (Abu Nuwas), Coffee and tea (Persian Gulf-Bahraini), Coffee and Wine (Turkish), Night and day, painting and poetry, and many other interesting conundrums. In almost all these poems, the narrative or story comes to life through the dialogue between two main characters, in which the poet or other third or fourth parties join in. Sometimes obscure topics such as a debate between a ship’s captain and a ship’s rat, the poet and a worn-out overcoat etc. turn up in these collections.

It is a jolly discourse, at times occurring after the debaters or the arbitrator have indulged in some form of intoxication, who then go on to argue in a lighter vein on subjects which present no real merit when the parties are perfectly sober. We will look at a couple of these interesting debates starting with the Yemeni poet’s Hebrew Munazara between Coffee and Qat. Salom Al Sabazi was apparently the first Yemeni-Jewish poet to write in this genre. Dating back to the 17th century, the debate poem covers the merits and demerits of drinking one or the other. While Coffee, noting that Arabic coffee is usually drunk black, is familiar to our readers, Qat or Khat may not be. Very popular in Yemen, it is a leaf that is chewed, distilled as a tea or smoked. At one time, Jews were very fond of it until a Rabbi ruled in the 19th century that it is prohibited, and thus came about the maxim - qāt is the pleasure of the Muslims and grapes (wine or arrack) is the pleasure of the Jew.

Now Qat was ruling supreme in Yemen, till it was discovered around the 15th century. According to Yemeni tradition, Alī ibn Amr al-Sadilī, the patron saint of Mocha (d. 1418), discovered coffee and distributed it all over the country, and coffee was sometimes known as Sadiliya. Other Yemenis believe it came with Sufi saints, and the name Ahmad ibn Alwān of the 13th century is often mentioned.

The discussion or friendly debate is supposed to have taken place between knowledgeable people, and I will quote the major excerpt from the translation provided by Yosef Tobi, acknowledged with thanks.

Qāt said: There is no pleasure like mine, all desire my branch, as I dwell humble in the garden. So many youths desire me, the lucky one shall delight in my branch, The famous, the graces of the pleasant.  The fātihah was composed for me and the dikr and the oath for God.

Coffee answered him eloquently: My star has risen before yours, While I am served in cups, as a fine beverage every morning, Often the generous and the bountiful Come close to me, proximate, He who tastes me will be grateful and bless, And the fātihah is the best verse

Qāt said: My name is renowned, among people of pleasure it is known, I have a garb and appearance sounder than yours, My Sheik Radwān diffuses fragrance, and so al-Ahdar is my celebrated Sheik. In the day of delight and rejoicing, my turn at noon will happen, and I shall entertain of an evening with people of grace

Coffee answered him: Hold! I have a recognized Sheik like yours Al-Sadilī is my esteemed Sheik, the luminosity of the mosques and the retreats My pleasure never ends He who tastes me stopped there Every time my pleasure is served And I am content in the place of nobility

Qāt said: Cease rebuking Excess anxiety is not needed, I have a contract, I have a binding pact, One and all wish for my banquet How many gatherings I have, I am related to every matter, (Mount) Sabur said: My branch has increased If mind is turned to it, and much more

Coffee answered him: Hasten, comprehend my words and listen, my statement is a lesson for the body He who has delighted in my bliss is content, I have collected all four humours from the Excellent Doctor (God). The yellow bile and the blood, the black bile and the phlegm, No one shall see any pain from me

Qāt said: My pleasure excels I am recognized everywhere.

(Now) Tobacco came to give evidence against Qāt, He told him: Why you are stubborn? The Devil, your Sheik, has not come. Who trusted you and let you come to town Ibn al-MuΜayyad has shouted at you And let you be burned in al-Amad. Tobacco turned away and spoke no more

Requesting the judgment of the adherents of al-Sadilī, Wine enters eagerly - He says: Why you are in a quarrel? All is right and has good life, you have got payment in advance, you have been forcibly taken by God’s Will, your pleasures suit each other, On the day of happiness we shall all assemble, we shall dispel worry and sorrow….

And thus, the quarrel between qāt and coffee ends with the intervention of wine, making peace between the two parties.

Now while Wine is the peacemaker between Coffee in Qat in Yemen, it was the protagonist in Istanbul. The rapid increase in coffeehouses and coffee consumption in the 19th century caused discussions about whether coffee is permissible among the ulema. In fact, from time to time, drinking coffee and running a coffee house were prohibited. Coffee, which is frequently discussed in daily life, has been handled in different ways in the poetry which is connected with social life; wine has been compared with coffee. Kahve vü Bâde by Nagzi is an original work written during the period when serious discussions about coffee and wine were made between the ulema, on the power front and in the literary environment.

Now we come to a more recent Bahrini Munazara attributed to one Abdallah Huseyin Al-Qari of Manama and dated to the 1930-1950. So, we drift off to Manama, the capital of Bahrain, a period during the death throes of pearl fishing and the oil boom in the Gulf, on a balmy Thursday evening. It is weekend time, and the author is lying in bed and ruminating about the vagaries of life. Nearby him, the coffee pot is steaming and the tea kettle bubbling away. He is suddenly accosted by the male tea and the female coffee characters, who request him to judge a dispute between them.

Coffee, the lady starts first, accusing tea to be Persian in origin, an unwelcome guest and tyrannical in stature. She mentions that tea is always strutting about with his polished spoons, Japanese crockery and ceramic kettles. Coffee then claims to be the social counterpart of men while tea is slyly sipped by women within their harems. Tea is not happy of course, and retaliates by stating that coffee is as dark as a Malabar slave girl, and bitter in taste compared to tea’s robust healthy red color, delightful fragrance and a taste sweetened by sugar. Not only that, he soothes away men’s pains, helps him relax from work and stress, and is not only a drink which can waken men, but also put them to sleep.

Tea continues with the comments that coffee is for the uncivilized, wild men whereas tea is for civilized urban men, but hearing that Coffee refuses to back down and states that tea not only corrupts youth, it also leads to drinking of alcohol!

Soon the argument heats up and a slanging match ensues. The two now become combatant, with coffee mobilizing her army of cups, coffee pots, roasters and spoons to attack tea. Tea has no choice but to flee and seek the poet’s protection, which he gets. The poet calms them down, and brings about a reconciliation and marriage between the two who kiss, make up and pledge their loyalty to him.
Interestingly in the debate, the coffee pot is the Malabar lass and the tea kettle a heinous Persian. 

With many thanks to Clive Holes the translator, lets meet the gladiators.

Coffee starts - Sir would you please judge between us, between me and this tyrant so heinous, I mean this offspring of the Persian, a guest for whom all feel aversion, his vaunts and his boasts sting like nettles, his bright polished spoons and hot kettles, his saucers and Japanese crockery, and his red samovar – it is a mockery! HE doesn’t know me or my color, how burnt in the pan I turn duller, or when in the mortar they pound me, the Bedu (bedoins) rush in to surround me, my sitting room is furnished with carpets, where, patiently, each on the floor sits, they sniff me- their senses I’ve captured.  They drink but one cup, they are enraptured. But tea, into houses they slip him, so hidden veiled ladies can sip him, unauthorized men are forbidden, lest they espy what must stay hidden. With me though, there is always welcome, for all come they oft, come they seldom, if strangers drop in, they are permitted, nay! Honored, by all that’s admitted.

Tea retorts and turns to address coffee- He has fired himself upto full pressure, "D'you hear all her nonsense?" he spluttered, "Let me speak, that'll all be rebutted!"

The poet, I said "Go ahead then, speak freely, Don't be anxious, my friend, 'cos I really To you will be kind, sensitivities mind, For anger is Satan s work, merely!"

Said tea to coffee – Oh! You burnt one, all blackened and crushed, your good looks gone, You’re a slave-girl who hasn't been freed yet, A skivvy the Bedu still need, yet How come you 're so proud and so haughty? Loquacity’s truly your forte! Yellow one, shall I list your disasters, One by one to your Bedouin masters? You dullard! Your real name is coffee, To all who imbibe, catastrophe! A fruit you are not, nor a savor, Nor relief for the tired from their labor. But me, I give all relaxation, I'm a balm, soothing wounds and vexation, I entertain in every forum, they drink me with cheer and decorum, for pain I'm a cure you can measure, When fed up, I offer you pleasure. I banish the sleepy-heads sleep, the sleepless, I make him count sheep, your miseries cannot be numbered, who drinks you by ill-luck's encumbered, in you there's no profit or use, who drinks your drink, you cook his goose! 

But my crocks are fine, oriental, you’ve seen that - and these points essential – All love me, and love with abandon I strut like a mighty panjandrum. To make you, though, what a performance! The roasting pan first: prime importance! You 're pounded to bits in a mortar, Burnt brown like an Indians daughter. Your darkness disgusts, there’s no question, But rubicund, that's my complexion. My sweet taste, all praise and all hallow, You 're acrid, and bitter as aloe, I'm sweet, oh, so sweet! sugar candy! My ambergris fragrance is dandy, My red hue quite wins beauty's laurel, I shine like agate, or sea-coral. My folk are well-mannered and civil, But yours mostly wild like the devil. Oh! bane of the Arabs, no vain glory! You 're the dregs in your cup! End of story!

Coffee retorts - "Just pipe down! You are misguided, you are calves piss, by all men derided! For washing up you are upto scratch, but the black girl, and you? It's no match! With me, you in no way compare, but you meddlesome fool, still you tut tut. You are a Persian dressed up, just a cheap fake, Best keep that tongue still for your health’s sake, you slander me, claim I am a slave, when really it is you that is my knave. My virtues too many to list, may name is one everyone’s lips, while your name, you bird brain, is tea, time waster to all, unlike me! You are only raised up through my rank, for your name, it is me you must thank, I will make my point clear as I can, when someone bumps into a man, and wants to invite him straightaway, what words pritheetea, does he say?

With feeling he says "Come with me, Let's go home, dear friend, drink coffee! He doesn't say "Fancy some tea? You wrecker of youth’s probity! Through you many a young man's gone bad, Who once was a nice friendly lad, They even drink alcohol too, That's Satan's work - all 'cos of you! They’ve even erected tea houses in which our youth sit and carouses, they tipsily drink in a haze, because of you youth disobeys! Now come and see our funeral houses, that’s where bully, I wear the trousers.! Each man, wherever from who drops in there, to pour him a cup, we take great care. And look at our elders' posh guest-rooms With rich rugs and drapes they're all festooned, all puffed up, tea made as to speak then,

Said coffee "Clear off, treacherous heathen! Be quiet, don’t boast, the world may rise up, one huge host! I've soldiers, of that you 're aware, Whom I'll deploy now on the square!"

Said tea "Hmm ... That sounds like a warning, Your threats don’t scare me, ( said he yawning). You don't know that I'm in fine fettle, Oh brown-skinned one, roast on hot metal!"

At that coffee flared up and shouted, Her dregs all spilt out as she spouted, "Rally round all my cups, coffee pots! And the copper one, biggest I've got! The roasting pan too! Where's the ladle? He's won every fight since the cradle! I want to teach this headstrong fool, This despot’s son, despot so cruel, A lesson! Where's pestle, where's mortar? Where's the muffler and his supporter? To stirring-rod war's like a sport, Come gather round now, all report!"

They shouted back "Ma'am! Present all! We're servants at your beck and call, Who was it who dared challenge you? Oh grandest of dames, tell us do!"

She said: See this wretch! See this rogue here? He claims that to me he's superior! He needs to be brought down to earth, And have his nose rubbed in the dirt! I’ll smash all his cups and his crocks, And all of his porcelain stocks, Every samovar glass, and his kettle, His Japanese plates, too, I'll settle!"

When tea saw her army was huge, He hid, and from me begged refuge, And, swearing by God, he implored: "Send them back, pale or black, coffee's horde! From mortar protect little tea. The pestle's attack might smash me! And don't let pan strike as he could! If looks could kill, roasting pan’s would!

I called out – Don’t fear the ability, of coffee dear friend, of nobility, to harm you, majestic perfection, you have got this king’s royal protection!

Peace and marriage

I turned to her, joy on my face, Dusky maid, you of Malabar race, what is it that caused your reaction, why have you sent your troops into action, it is unpleasant, shame unprecedented, oh! Musky one, fragrant and scented, don’t let this strange man aggravate you, he is teasing, just trying to bait you, I’s like to wed you to this man though! Make you his, him yours, that’s my plan, so, don’t fight one another for ever, please come and make peace, be together!

Said she, Noble sir, I’ll obey you, god give you long life, And I pray too, that you’ll be content all your life, and we will serve you without strife,

So, acting on their joint concern, and sipping them both, each in turn, I wed them with them for refreshment, they made peace, I feel contentment, for me you see, love is a real mess, the newly weds laughed fit to bust! They kissed on my lips, the two mingled at the touch of each other they tingled!!!

I could not help but laugh reading the last section. Well, as you can see that my friends, may have been the story behind Chappi’s discovery – as they call it in Kerala - Chaya + Kappi = Chappi. By the way, there is indeed a drink called coffee-leaf tea, brewed from coffee leaves!!

As you saw, these poems exhibit a bit of ridicule and at times, subtle racism or anti-immigrant postures. Coffee calls Tobacco as an Omani vagrant while tea is an unwelcome guest from Iran, whereas tea describes coffee to be an enslaved black female. Tobacco on the other hand terms coffee to be 'a Singapore slut or a Malabar tart'!!

But the overall intent of course is to entertain the reader with a minor moral overtone.

Sālôm (Sālim) al-Sabazī’s (seventeenth-century) poem of the debate between coffee and qāt - Yosef Tobi
The rat and the Shtp's captain - Clive Holes, University of Cambridge
The Bodleian manuscript of Asadī Tūsī's Munāẓara between an Arab and a Persian: its place in the transition from ancient debate to classical panegyric - Firuza Abdullaeva

Translations quoted with permission from the authors/publisher, see below

Coffee – Tea poem - Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Language And Literature, By J R Smart, p.p 302-310, Chapter 20, The Dispute of Coffee and Tea, A Debate-poem from The Gulf - Clive Holes, University of Cambridge, Pub Curzon Press

Coffee – Qat poem - Sālôm (Sālim) al-Sabazī’s (seventeenth-century) poem of the debate between coffee and qāt - Yosef Tobi - Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 38 (2008): 301–310, Pub Archaeopress


The Polish Gold Run

80 tons of Polish gold and its amazing flight – WWII

With the Nazi’s knocking in the doors of Warsaw, the Bank of Poland had to make a difficult choice about their gold deposits. In the end they decided to move all of the 80 tons to neighboring Romania. A convoy of buses and cars, followed by a train would move the gold to the Romanian Coast. From there, it would travel to Turkey and onward to France. That was the plan, but in reality, it traveled even more. The desperate flight with that treasure was nothing less than harrowing as the Germans, the Brits, the Americans and the French tracked the gold. Events moved fast and the scales tipped tantalizingly from one side to the other, the Axis and the Allies, while the inert gold bars themselves rested eerily in silence. What would happen to the gold? Who would get their hands on it? This is a lovely story from the war, and one that will amaze you by the twists and turns it took. I will try to retell it, for your reading pleasure.

Istanbul, Oh! I can go on and on about that lovely city, a place where I spent more than five years of my life. A fascinating cosmopolitan metropolis, with some of the most interesting people, Turkish and foreign, it has so may secrets, so much of history, that you can write tomes about it all. I used to live at Bebek, overlooking the Bosporus, an area where many yabanci’s or expatriate foreigners lived. Not far from Bebek is the Eminonu area, the ancient part of Old Istanbul (Stamboul as it was referred to in the past) where one can see the Topkapi palace, the Blue mosque, The Aya Sofia mosque, the Basilica cistern and what not. It is also home to the massive covered bazars, the Misr Carsi (Spice bazar) and the Kapali Carsi (the covered bazar). Having spent countless hours in these areas on foot, I can still slip back in my mind and walk through the roads, feel the noises, the sounds and experience the ambiance of that teeming city, now home to over 20 million souls!

The first time I got a hint of this story was in the late 90’s when I visited the British Embassy in Istanbul for their annual fair and picked up a book I treasure, a masterpiece by Barry Rubin titled ‘Istanbul Intrigues’. Wartime Istanbul was quite different from the Byzantine Ottoman city detailed in Orhan Pamuk’s masterpiece ‘Benim adim kirmiz (My name is Red)’, and to get a feel of that Istanbul, you have to read Barry Rubin’s book. 

So, we go back in time, to the 40’s when the great war was ravaging across Europe and the world was on an edge, as Istanbul rested in in enviable position as a bridge between so many powers. The Germans wanted Turkey on its side, the Allies wanted them on theirs, while a wary Russia had already broken off with Turkey after its involvement in the failed attempt on German Ambassador Franz von Papen’s life.

Many of the scenes and events you may have seen in the movie Casablanca were more related to Istanbul and even though it was wartime, the city hosted many a side, as a neutral state. Most consulates were ensconced in Taksim, the largest being the British, French, German and the American, all stately buildings. Every European country had its representation there and they all met and lounged at the city’s fabulous hotels in the evening as scores of spies did their work and the diplomats schemed while they enjoyed life, drinking, dancing and making merry as the war raged on, out west. A typical wartime reception would span two halls in Turkey, one for the Axis powers and one for the Allies, such was the situation. Turkey itself was coming out of the tragic period which ensued after the death of their charismatic founder the great Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1938 and Ismet Inonu was in charge, shepherding the country through the tricky WWII years.

World War II broke out in the first year of his presidency, and both the Allies and the Axis pressured İnönü to join their sides. As the Germans sent Franz von Papen to Ankara in April 1939, the British sent Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen and the French sent René Massigli. İnönü trying to keep Turkey out of the war, teetered on the brink, leaning to the Axis at times, or to the Allies, outwardly maintaining a semblance of balance. It was only in 1945 that he formally signed up with the allies. But let’s get back to Poland and its national treasure, its gold reserves.

On Sept 1st 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. The small country, wedged between belligerent Russia and Germany’s new acquisitions, decided to quickly hide their hoard of some 80 tons of gold. After a feverish effort, the gold was taken out of the Warsaw vaults and spread for safekeeping at Brest, Lutsk and Zamosc. The Bank Polski’s managers then seeing the increasing danger of invasion, decided to move the gold to a nearby port from where it could be shipped to the vaults of the Central bank of France. So, the first step was to take the gold by road to Sniatyn, a railway junction on the border of Romania.

One of the bus drivers which took out the gold from Lutsk was none other than the painter, poet and Olympic athlete Halina Konopacka whose husband was Colonel Ignacy Matuszewski, ex treasury minister. He supervised the convoy from Lutsk and the couple and some of their friends were involved in escorting the gold through its entire journey! They started the journey at night, each bus with two drivers alternating, hiding in the forests during day. The passage was slow as some bridges were not designed to take the load. No mishap occurred.

Meanwhile the bank governor was sent to Paris to ensure that everything would be in order when the gold finally arrived in France. While the trucks from various points headed out to Sniatyn, the Polish army commandeered 4 tons of gold to try and procure arms. After four days, the convoys converged at Sniatyn.

The next step was to move it formally and legally into Romania, but by now the Germans knew what was going on and forbid the Romanian government (still neutral) from giving the Poles any support, under dire threats. As the convoys waited, part of the Polish team headed back to reclaim the 4 tons from the army, since it was too late for them to source any arms with it.  Finally, after some dithering, the gold was loaded onto a Romanian train which sped to Constanta, a Black Sea port.

The British had been watching the flight of the gold train with eagle eyes. The Poles now appealed to the Anthony Kendall, the British Counsel for help and he diverted (to Constanta) an oil tanker nearby, captained by a Brit, who agreed to sail it to Istanbul with the gold. The train reached the docks, the gold and the 27 Poles (men, women and children included) who had husbanded it through the border boarded the ship. With threats of bombing and furious protests from the Germans echoing behind them, the ship Eocene slipped out of Romania, destined for Turkey. There were U boats in the area, and Captain Robert Brett held to shallow waters, so that the booty could still be saved even if the ship got torpedoed.

Meanwhile the Russian army was speeding to Sniatyn and it was with great difficulty. The Polish team which had gone to get the 4 tons back from the Polish army, managed to return to Romania, only to be arrested by the Romanian troops, who then commandeered the 4 tons, which the Poles had managed to sneak in. After discussions they agreed to hold on to, less expenses, for the rest of the war!

The Germans were furious when they learnt that the ship had sailed to Turkey with the Poles and the gold on board. The ship reached the Bosporus straits of Istanbul on the 16th and dropped anchor at the port of Kabatas, right across the German embassy! A German yacht sailed out to take pictures of the anchored ship while the poles waited with bated breath. What would the Germans do? What would the Turks, who knew little, do now?

The French sent their mighty battleship Jean Barth, but the Turks quickly assessing the situation, refused to allow it to dock in Istanbul, not wanting to be dragged into the war (or to face demands from Germans and Russians for the use of Turkish ports). The Polish ambassador Sokolniki conferred with the Turks who suggested two choices to the Poles – either have Britain and France loan the gold to Turkey or have it taken overland to French ruled Syria. At that juncture, Sokolniki, in Ankara, hit a new snag when he discovered that he would have to fork out 2% of the consignment value as freight, in cash.

He did not have that kind of money and the Turks told him the only way around was to undervalue the gold to $10M. When somebody suggested that he sell a few bars of gold to pay for it, Sokolniki was scandalized, for he felt a moral obligation to deliver 100% of his country’s treasure as he was bound. Meanwhile he heard a rumor that the Germans were attempting to buy a Greek boat so that they could ram into the Eocene and sink both the vessel and its cargo. There was no time to lose.

Sokolniki’s wife came up with a suggestion that he take a loan from an acquaintance, Archibald Walker, the American regional head of Socony Vacuum Oil. A fierce anti-fascist, Walker coughed up the money without demur (It was his first brush with intrigue and after the event, went on to become the OSS representative codename Rose in Istanbul, later in 1942).

Sokolniki raced to Istanbul, had the gold loaded on a train and paid for the freight, in cash. On September 20th, the Eocene moved to the pier near Istanbul’s majestic Haiderpasha Terminal, where the gold was offloaded from the ship to a waiting train. Two days later, the gold train reached the Syrian border, where a French military unit took over its responsibility. Then the gold was unloaded and reloaded onto a narrow-gauge train headed for Beirut’s harbor where the French cruiser Émile Bertin, the fastest ship in the French fleet was waiting, to take the gold to Toulon.

Matuszewski leading the action, decided to split the cargo into two shipments in order to reduce the risk of losing everything in a potential U boat attack. Thus, on September 23rd, some 886 crates of gold were loaded (many crates broke open displaying the treasure to the sailors, but they were quickly re-crated!) on the cruiser and the ship arrived at Toulon on 27th without any mishap, accompanied by two bank employees. On October 2nd, two French cruisers, Épervier and Vauban, left with the remaining load of Polish gold, escorted by two more bank employees, arriving at Toulon on October 6th.

After all the gold had arrived, it was sent by armored train to the Banque de France’s regional office in Nevers and by October 18th, Polish bank officials who inspected and counted all the crates and bags of gold, confirmed that all of it (except the 3-4 tons in Romania)had arrived in France. The French bankers now offered two options to the Poles, it could either be deposited into an earmarked account or the Poles could store it all in a vault, under Polish responsibility, which they chose. The Polish at long last, heaved a sigh of relief but as you can imagine, the story was far from over.

By the end of Sept, the Nazi’s had overrun Poland. Despite losing, Poland did not surrender and formed a government-in-exile while a clandestine organization remained in occupied Poland. As Germany annexed the western and central parts of Poland, Soviet Union annexed its eastern part; while some bits were transferred to Lithuania and Slovakia. Germany and Italy then went after France. Paris fell to the Germans on 14th June soon to be divided into two parts, an Italian occupied zone and an unoccupied region under the Vichy Regime, aligned generally to Germany.

By June 1941, after differences of opinion and squabbles over the tripartite act, Hitler, supported by Italy and Romania commenced with the invasion of the Soviet Union. By 1942, America had joined the Allies against the Axis powers and Japan had teamed up with the Germans. The larger war was on.

Much of the gold reserves in Europe were being shipped to US for safekeeping during this period. Even though France had transferred quite a bit, the gold bullion belonging to the Polish, Belgian and some of its own reserves were still in France. The French decided to move their stock of gold from the central part of the country to the coastal ports, Brest and Le Verdon on the Atlantic, and Toulon on the Mediterranean coast. In June, when the German invaded Paris, they found the gold gone, and as you can imagine, a furious chase ensued.

In a touch and go operation, with the Germans bearing upon them, the French managed to ship out all of the French gold in five ships out of Brest. The Belgian and Polish, Gold were sent by train to Lorient. Victor Schoelcher, a cargo ship arrived to pick up the Polish gold. Stefan Michalski, a Polish bank official escorted the gold this time, as all the other Poles had left France, headed to London. The ship had two choices, head to Africa or America, the date was June 18th and there were mines on the water which the ship narrowly avoided.

The ship reached the Iroise sea and was joined by the ships carrying the French Bullion. A new (a previous fake message was radioed by the Germans asking it to go to Royan which Michalski would not accept) destination was radioed for the ship and its gold – Casablanca! Narrowly avoiding torpedoes, they reached Casablanca on the 23rd. Some of the French gold would later go to America on US battleships, but the rest of the French, the Polish and the Belgian gold (some 740 tons) went to French Colonies in Africa for safekeeping, Dakar, to be specific.

This was when the French learned that a British attack (Churchill wanted to lay his hands on the gold before the Germans did, or so he said) was expected at Dakar. The French navy decided to move all the gold as soon as possible to Thies, a safer inland location. By this time most of the French gold was spread far and wide, mainly at Dakar, New York, Ottawa, Martinique and London. Some 2080 tons belonging to France, Belgium, Poland and Luxembourg had been rescued from the Germans.

The Germans settling down in Paris were initially unaware that the French had moved gold to the Caribbean and Africa and the French officials had led them to believe that they had sent it all to North America. When the Nazis specifically questioned them about the gold belonging to Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, Norway and Czechoslovakia, the French after quite a lot of feet dragging, admitted that some of it had been sent to Dakar. When the Germans demanded that this gold be brought back to France, the French obfuscated, talking about the dangers at sea, the British desire to lay their hands on it etc. As discussions dragged on, the French moved the gold further inland, to Kayes.

The British joint operation with De Gaulle to take the gold, turned out to be a disaster, with the Vichy squadron trouncing the British – De Gaulle fleet. The Germans continued to press the French for the Dakar gold. Finally, when the French ran out of options, the Belgian/Luxembourg gold was taken out from Dakar and moved to France and thence to Berlin, only to be sold to a variety of Germany’s gold partners such as Switzerland, Romania, Turkey etc. (After the war, France did compensate Belgium, from its own secured stock).

The Germans had not forgotten the Polish gold and pushed hard for it, but now the French maintained that it belonged to France so as to write off previous Polish debts, and the fight between lawyers got heated. Meanwhile, Germany’s clout in Africa reduced with the British American wins in the region. The gold remained in limbo, but was still being claimed by the Germans. The Polish wanted to track it down and keep an eye on their hoard, but the French stopped helping them. Thus, it was in 1943 that Major Stefan Michalski representing the Polish Bank, was deputed to Algiers.

As the Vichy French started getting difficult, the Poles suggested that the French transfer an equivalent amount of French bullion stored in New York to the Polish, but they French would not agree and so the Poles, acting through a New York law firm “Sullivan and Cromwell” filed a lawsuit against Banque de France. The US court promptly seized a part of the French gold deposited in the Federal Reserve Bank in New York while at the same time the trial got suspended due to the war and since the Banque de France’s attorneys could not travel for the hearing. The Polish side were not in a hurry as its main objective, seizure of an equivalent amount of French gold, had been achieved.

Eventually the French admitted that the Polish gold was stored in the territory of French West Africa and agreed to release it, if the Poles recognized the French Committee of National Liberation. The Poles after intense negotiations agreed and also terminated the lawsuit in New York in Jan 1944. The two sides then worked out a plan for the French to turn the gold over to the Polish government in exile, now not a problem with the Germans out of Africa.

In March 1944, a convoy of six American naval vessels including the escort cruiser USS Block Island was on anti-submarine patrol off the coast of Africa received a message ordering them to pick up the cargo of gold and sail with it to New York City. Finally, it was time for the gold to move, yet again. The French brought the Polish gold from Kayes to Dakar, still crated in boxes with the Bank Polski seals. Senegalese workers loaded the gold and the Americans gave the banks representative Michalski a formal receipt for the gold, as the ships headed to New York. They arrived at Brooklyn in April and Brinks armored trucks had the Polish gold moved to the Federal Reserve vault in Manhattan.

The gold that left Warsaw on Sept 6th 1939, arrived in the Manhattan vaults in April 2nd 1944. It did not stop here though, for the Poles decided to distribute it to three locations, 45% to Britain, 12% to Canada and 43% to remain in the US. As the war wound down, Romania transferred the last 3 tons stuck there, to Warsaw in 1947.

It had been quite a dramatic and colorful odyssey, don’t you think? What is amazing is that all this became possible due to the untiring efforts and integrity of the many bank officials who tracked every movement and liaised with the many other countries involved. The kindness and honesty of all these foreign countries during the period of strife was as you can see, paramount.

The saga of the gold flight is still not over, we will get to it shortly, after seeing what happened to some of the key personnel in this story.

After the fall of France in 1940, Olympian Halina Konopacka and Ignacy Matuszewski made their way to the USA in 1941. Ignacy died in 1946 and Halina Konopacka lived in Florida until her death in 1989. Stefan Michalski travelled to England to join the Polish Squadron of the Royal Air Force (RAF), as a fighter pilot. He and his English wife later moved and settled down in USA, where after a successful real estate career, Stefan passed away in Feb 2019. Michal Sokolnicki stayed in Turkey after the war, where he remained a respected figure in diplomatic circles. He lectured at the University of Ankara and passed away in 1967.

Eocene’s British captain Brett went back to England and in early 1940 was given command of HMS Goodwin, a converted coastal cargo ship whose mission was to escort convoys along the east coast of the British Isles. Later he joined the navy to command a minesweeper HMS Seaham through the war years. His service ended in 1946 after which he joined Standard Vacuum (the very company Walker worked for), finally retired from Mobil Oil Corp in 1968 and settled down at Melbourne, Australia where he passed away in 1982.

Some of that gold finally completed the full circle when it was sent out from the Bank of England to Poland, in Dec 2019. Travelling with a police escort and a helicopter overhead, the trucks stopped at a British airport where it was loaded onto freight planes destined to Poland, from where they were then taken in armored vehicles under another police escort, back to the vaults of Poland's central bank.

The circle was complete. Just imagine, what an active life for one of the world’s most inert metals!!


With thanks and due acknowledgements to the following works and their authors

Chasing Gold - George M. Taber
Istanbul Intrigues – Barry Rubin
The wartime fate of the Polish gold – Bankoteka - Professor Wojciech Rojek
Operation Fish – Albert Draper

Notes: The sleek and swashbuckling light cruiser Emile Bertin has a story of her own, which if you recall transported the Polish gold from Beirut to Toulon. It also transported many tons of French gold to Halifax but had to divert in a hurry to Martinique in the Caribbean with the British in pursuit, as the French surrendered to the Germans. But nothing could match its 34 knots speed and 102,000 HP power, as it sped to the Caribbean, leaving the Brits gasping in its wake. Later it was refurbished in the US and continued its fight against the Axis powers till the end.

The Germans cornered some 600 tons of European gold during the war, spending over 400 tons (during war years that was the only acceptable payments) to buy supplies. Interestingly, the Brits hatched a plan to attack and take away the Polish gold in 1941, but the plan fell through after the debacle at Dakar. Equally interesting are the stories concerning Norwegian and Romanian gold, but those are for another day!

Istanbul image - Carlos Delgado, Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, Turkey.

Anna Rajam Malhotra – A Luminary

The first woman IAS officer in India

Calicut in the late 1930’s was quite different from what you see today. It was a sleepy colonial town, not any longer the great trading entrepôt it once was. The days when the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Arabs and so many other nationalities who came to trade there were long gone, for the arrival of the British had changed all that. It was some time in the 30’s that OA George arrived at this Calicut with his children and wife Anna Paul, in order to start up a little publishing outfit. Both of them were well educated graduates, something unique in those days. KC Menon’s CESC had just started to electrify the town. Traffic was sedate, with just bicycles and horse carriages plying the main roads and Calicut exhibited hardly any hustle and bustle. During weekends, some Europeans from the estates in Wynad drove in to party at the European Club and by Sunday they were also gone. But Calicut had two colleges, a few good schools and this was one of the main reasons why the couple chose the town.

This story is about their daughter, who went on to become a pioneer and a trailblazer to women in the field of administration and it was in that Calicut that Anna Rajam George (Born July 16, 1927) grew up with her parents and four siblings (an elder brother, two younger brothers and a younger sister). Anna’s family lived right across the Providence girls’ school on Gandhi road, close to the beach, so it was only natural that she did her schooling there. Though the family were originally from Niranam (the writer Pailo Paul was her grandfather) near Cochin, Calicut became their home, and as we all term it, their native place. George stuck a friendship with Norman (as he was called after his printing press) Achutan Nair and settled down to run his little business.

After schooling at Providence Calicut, Anna finished her intermediate at the Malabar Christian College Calicut and moved on to complete her BA Honors at Presidency College Madras, where she majored and topped in literature. During her growing years, she had a keen ear for music and played the Piano, but they were always waging a difficult existence, what with a father who had been victim to a stroke. Nevertheless, her education did not suffer.

With hardly any other job avenues open to women in those days, Anna started her career as an upper division clerk at the AG’s office in Madras. As they all say, some things occur by chance, and thus it was that her cousin, an engineer, who was applying for the IREC, brought home an application for the Civil services examinations (in 1950). She probably did not even know what IAS was all about, I guess, but she filled in the application, only to realize that the fee to be remitted with the application was a princely sum of Rs 140/-, something neither she nor her family could not afford. Her friend’s mother offered to pay the fees, and she did so (The benevolent lady’s son rose up to become an IPS officer later).

While her two brothers went on to work for the P&T department in North India, Grace the youngest, continued studies at Calicut. It was at this juncture that Anna got news that she had been successful in the civil services written examinations.  Interestingly, even though her mother was one of the first women graduates from Madras university, she never worked, and Anna had always been told that she had to do more than tending to a home.

When Anna appeared for her interviews in 1952, the interview board suggested that she choose the foreign service because it was more suited for women. Anna was insistent that she would not choose any easy option (Her sister Grace adds – She was a tough nut to crack) and chose the Madras cadre. Reporting to Chief minister C. Rajagoplachari, a person who did not quite agree that this was a field for women, she was offered a job at the secretariat, but the obstinate Anna would not budge, she wanted a Sub divisional officer’s post. That was how she was deputed as the Sub Collector of Hosur district, Rajaji’s birthplace, an area bordering the Mysore state, not far from Bangalore.

Her days as a sub collector at Hosur & Tirupattur were legendary. Though I had read about a lady collectors elephant encounter, I never imagined it was Ann Rajam, and it was not until Grace, her sister mentioned to me that Chettur had written about it, that I got it in a flash, for in his book Mango seed and other stories, there was this charming story of the sub-collecteress and the elephants, titled “Her finest Hour”. I quickly got my copy out and reread the story, which Chettur had written as a piece of fiction. The story itself runs close to reality, as recorded by another eminent Malayali, MKK Nayar IAS (1949 cadre), to whom Raju (yes, that was Anna’s pet name) was as close as his own sister.

Let’s take up the story from Nayar’s book, and I acknowledge the source in gratitude – He starts off mentioning that the news of ‘a lady sub collector at Hosur and the elephants’ had hit the press - The men who read the news were not amused. Some raised eyebrows! What! A woman in the IAS? A she-elephant storming into the bastion of bull-elephants? How did the Government permit this? If a serious riot broke out, would a girl be able to quell it? Or give orders to shoot? Would she be able to face a charging mob of communal madmen and address them?

Anyway, as the story went, a group of elephants from Denganikotta forest had lost their way and strayed into open land venturing eastward, terrorizing the villagers on the way. Walking eighteen miles, the elephants reached Hosur. The villagers gathered at the sub-Collector’s bungalow to cry and complain. It was only when Anna, who was taking a bath, came out that they realized the sub-Collector was a woman. As they fidgeted, a woman among them told her about the calamity and pleaded “Please save us, Amma!’ For a moment the sub-collecteress (as Chettur called her) was stunned, not knowing how to handle this. But she recalled that elephants were scared of loud noises. With the little Tamil that she knew, she asked the villagers to get hold of all kinds of tins and cans. Joining the villagers and creating a bedlam, she accosted the elephant herd, cautiously.

Picking up Nayar’s words once again - Wonder of wonders! The leading tusker slung his trunk on his tusk, turned around and began to retreat. Other elephants followed him. Anna’s ploy had worked. Anna and the villagers followed and the elephants began to go faster. Other villagers on the way also joined with pots and pans they could find and joined the tin-beating procession. In four hours, the elephants were back in the forest and hiding. Anna was very tired and weak by then but did not lose heart. The villagers celebrated their success with a festival at Denganikotta looking on Anna as Goddess Durga. She was surrounded by hundreds of women of the village who massaged her feet, legs and arms. They fed her milk. She became their Mariamman…

Anna was tired and wished to get away somehow. By then, hearing about the incident, the DFO arrived in his car. With his help, Anna escaped further anointments, offerings, dousing in turmeric powder etc and went home by 1AM at night. She slept until noon next day. She thus became the heroine of a fairy-tale that received wide publicity and put to shame her male detractors. As SK Chettur put it, It was her finest hour!!

There are mentions both in Chettur’s story as well as in other articles of her colleague’s suggestions that the elephants be shot, but Anna would not harm these gentle giants, she knew that they just had to leave, not die. Anna, as Grace explained, actually got the idea of making loud noises from the time she had spent with her cousin and witnessing ‘khedda’ operations in the past.

There are so many such incidents in this iron lady’s life, there is a story of how she and her team accosted a bunch of smugglers at the border, with no weapons or other means, on a dark night. The district collector was aghast hearing all this, he admonished her foolhardiness, read her the complete riot act and gave her a pistol and ammunition to take care of herself in future. Well, these were all novel things mind you, a fearless women administrator, one who could ride a horse, fire a gun and so on. All this becomes even more surprising, considering that Ann was a diminutive lady tipping the scales at just 98 pounds in weight!

Anna returned to Madras around 1956, lived at Chetput where Grace schooled, and perhaps continued at the Madras secretariat until the early 70’s, after which she moved on to Delhi. However, I could not ascertain the exact timeline and Grace feels she went off to Delhi not too long after getting back to Madras. Asked often what she felt about being the first IAS woman officer, she would reply that it was not important, it is just a statistic. She always believed that women always had the desire, but the many social pressures and a general lack of opportunities, were the reasons they remained behind the scenes.

There was a love story brewing through it all and her beau was none other than her brilliant IAS batch mate, RN Malhotra. But it was not a time for marriage (in the 50’s it was simply not feasible for a Punjabi lad to marry a Christian woman, that level of tolerance was ages away) and in any case, Anna was not for it. At that time, only unmarried women or widows without encumbrance could join the services, though none had. Though her appointment order had these lines: “In the event of marriage your service will be terminated”, this clause was rescinded some years later. Grace mentions that when Anna and her classmates debated this topic, Anna was the one who was against a female IAS officer marrying and straying away from her chosen path. While all the boys argued for the rule to be changed, she was the only one who suggested it remain as is!

After her tenure in Madras, she moved to Delhi during the Indira Gandhi years. As additional secretary for agriculture, she was very much involved in the Green Revolution and argued against the many detractors of fertilizers. There is a story of how she had to accompany Indira on an eight-state tour to review food production, a trip she undertook, despite a fractured ankle. By 1973, the food situation had stabilized.

Now we pick up the story of her husband, the revered Ram Narain Malhotra, who went on to become the governor of the Reserve bank. His family had arrived as Punjabi refugees from Pakistan during the partition, and Malhotra was a hardworking and efficient IAS officer. A brilliant administrator and financial whiz, Malhotra was later posted to the IMF in Washington DC as an executive director after a stellar tenure as the finance secretary at Delhi. Anna visited the US in 1975, during that time and when Malhotra proposed, Anna accepted. They were married at Washington DC, after a long 25-year wait! Malhotra returned to take up the RBI position in 1985 during which period he carefully shepherded India through a period of credit crunch and foreign currency deficits.

We can see that by 1977, Anna had taken up the post of additional secretary of the department of animal husbandry and fisheries. By 1980, she became the Chairman of the National Seeds Corp and thence the head of the State farms Corp in 1981. Around 1982, we see Anna as the secretary of the department of Education and Culture. During this tenure, knowing that legislative measures to stop ragging would take time, heads of institutions and universities were asked by her to ban ragging through executive orders. She also headed India’s delegation as its secretary general and spoke in a few UNESCO conferences. We also get to understand that she worked closely with Rajiv Gandhi when he was in charge of the 1982 Asian Games, to help set it up.

Malhotra by the way, had succeeded Manmohan Singh in Feb 1985, who moved on to the Planning Commission. At that juncture, the high command was faced with a problem of finding an appropriate posting for Anna. There were only a few options available in Bombay (as she belonged to the TN cadre). Finally, it was suggested that Anna take charge of a project that had been announced recently to set up a greenfield port close to the Bombay harbor. The Bombay port trust was not capable of handling the increased demands and it was decided to build a new modern container handling terminal. This was how Anna took on the responsibility of building India’s first computerized container port, Nhava Sheva, in Bombay. Anna took up the challenge, and it was a huge one. As the eleventh major port of India, it was constituted as a separate port trust, with its own constitution and Anna Malhotra, was its chairperson.

Starting from a marshy salt pan in 1984-85, the JNU port project took shape and for once, a project was completed ahead of time (3 ½ years) and below budget, thanks to the iron will and tough work ethic of its administrator. Anna had a harrowing time with the archaeology department, but ensured that controlled blasting techniques were used to avoid any damage to the nearby Elephanta caves. As Grace puts it, she was a tough cookie alright and a taskmaster, no excuses worked with her. At the end when all was done and dusted, there was not a whiff of a scandal, that was how Anna completed the 1200 crore project, traveling daily from South Bombay to Nhava Sheva and back. An impressed Rajiv Gandhi, India’s prime minister, had only one complaint, about the ordinary food that Anna would arrange, that too for a dignitary! Today the port handles around 60% of India’s container volumes and I could not help but wonder at what Bal Thackeray had to say about this Madrasi, who built him his greatest asset, the Nhava Sheva port!

When the port was opened in 1989, the country took notice and a year later fetched Anna the Padma Bhushan award. Interestingly, a year later, Malhotra also got his Padma Bhushan, perhaps the only couple in history to have both been recipients of such high honor!!

Meanwhile Malhotra had resigned after Yeshwant Sinha asked him for his resignation in order to make way for a Congress nominee, S Venkitramanan to take the position in 1900 (Source YS’s autobiography). Malhotra was later tasked with regulating the insurance sector. His committee’s work allowed entry of private entities into the insurance sector, and created the IRDAI, to regulate the sector and protect the interests of policyholders.

When Malhotra passed away in 1997, it was a massive blow for Anna, she had waited so long for them to be together and just after just two decades of togetherness, he was gone! She continued with many ventures such as the National commission for women and the film certification board. Grace mentions that she was the worldly person of the family, the agony aunt, who always had an answer, a solution for anyone with a problem, be it an insurance policy issue or paperwork or anything to help out.

One person who changed her life at this juncture was none other than the legendary Capt Krishnan Nair who as you may recall, built up his Leela hotel empire from scratch, after the age of 65. Anna who had run into him some decades back at Delhi and known him over the years, joined the Leela Group as a director of the board. Anna often mentioned of her enormous respect for the self-made Krishnan Nair, and it was apparent that the respect was mutual. Concerned about her safety, staying alone in a large house in Delhi after the death of her husband, the Nair family wanted her to relocate to a place close to them. Anna moved to Bombay, Nair had arranged a flat at Marol - Andheri and tasked one of his employees, Sujith Damodaran from Cannanore, to ensure that any assistance Anna needed was provided.

That 20+ year tenure in Bombay was in no way a retired life for Anna, for she traveled to Delhi often, met hundreds of people in connection with the Leela hotel affairs, took care of many projects and board meetings, and oversaw the group finances. Sujith wistfully recalls the days when these families united, how Anna would be always supervising Sujith’s children, forcing them to improve their English, how Krishnan Nair’s children grew up under their godmother’s hawk eye and how they all loved their Annama! He breaks up when he tells of the day he got a frantic call from Anna, who had fallen in the bathroom and how he rushed there to see her in a pool of blood, an injury which she eventually recovered from after the doctors had put in 18 stitches on her head. Manmohan Singh, Narendra Modi, she hobnobbed with them all, in those days. In the autumn years of Anna’s life, one could often see her meeting her visitors at the lobby of the Leela hotel or spending time with Captain Krishnan Nair and his family. Until the end, she would still field a number of telephone calls from various people who wanted some assistance or clarification. Anna was equally at home in Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi and I would not be surprised if he handled a smattering of Marathi as well. Capt Krishnan Nair passed away in 2014.

Grace, her youngest sister and Anna’s biggest fan, who lives in Rhode Island, USA remembers it all, how they used to spend a month or two at their little home in Edappali - Cochin, and that is where we get to hear of a final chapter in Anna’s life, relating to a maid who worked at their house. Anna as usual checked and tutored the maid’s kids, and found out one day that the maid was a college graduate who after marriage could not find work. She had passed her PSC exams, and had been trying for long to land a job as a typist, but of no avail. Anna got to working the phones over this matter and harangued every authority possible. Many years passed by. Just as she thought she had succeeded in 2016, elections intervened and the whole process ground to a standstill. Anna was distraught, she had tried so hard, and she had not succeeded. But things would change, for in June, the lady got her appointment order as a typist.

It was possibly her last hurrah and Anna Rajam (George) Malhotra bid adieu to our world, in Sept 2018. She wrote no memoirs, always downplayed her part in history and was immensely happy in the success of women. Throughout her life, only one thing was paramount for her, education. Any child she came across, would be questioned, cajoled and scolded, if she found him or her not focused on studies.

This no nonsense, tough and competent character who took all her achievements lightly, always brushing off compliments, insisted that her best days were spent in the villages she served, not the politicians or bigwigs she worked for. The bureaucracy during her last years left her disappointed as she saw it getting mixed with politics. Her era was different, she said, and the women who succeeded her showed “high conduct.” Her overriding motto in governance, as Sujith explained was “if you have to upset one person in order to avoid upsetting a thousand, that is the step to take.” Playing down her pioneering role, she called it a “fluke” during an interview with the Hindu in 2012. Her story will perhaps teach anybody who aspires public office that a stubborn and honest person could also do well, in today’s world.

Anna broke barriers, set examples and blazed through to showcase an enviable career which I hope many more women will emulate and people like me can write about.

The Story of an era told without ill will - MKK Nayar (Trans - Gopakumar M Nair)
Mango seed and other stories – S K Chettur
Remembering Anna, India's first woman IAS – Cris @ The Newsminute, Sept 20, 2018 
Pahal episode 13, Doordarshan, interview by Tabassum

With many thanks to Cris, my friend and journalist at Trivandrum, Sujith Damodaran at Leela Hotels - Mumbai and Grace, Anna’s sister at Rhode Island USA, each of whom narrated Anna’s story to me, passionately.

Photo – Courtesy Grace V