When Captain Mark Pillai was 16, he was accepted into the University Training Corps, as he ‘did not meet the corps’ minimum physical requirements.’ But he was not one to be deterred. He spent his time in the gymnasium, acquiring the required physique. However, he could not join the Corps in his second year at the university as well since ‘only boys junior classes could be enrolled.’ He bid his time and waited for the opportunity which presented itself when the Second World War broke out in September 1939. He went ahead and presented himself at the designated place for recruiting volunteers. Finally accepted, he underwent his training and was finally commissioned as a second lieutenant on February 24, 1941, before setting sail for Singapore.
The qualities - tenacity, grit, determination in the face of great odds and the ability to wait for the right time before making his move - which he displayed in the above-mentioned incidents, were clearly the ones that held him in good stead when he planned and successfully made a daring escape from Singapore to India, after Singapore fell to the Japanese forces and his unit was taken captive soon after. While staying at the POW camp, he discovered a copy of the book On The Run and an Atlas, strewn amongst other looted and later rejected goods. Emboldened by ‘the hand of providence’, he was able to achieve the unthinkable: crossing Malaya, Thailand and Burma on foot, along with a couple of fellow escapees, finally reaching India and achieving the distinction, in the process, of being the first eye-witness to arrive with any account of the Japanese occupation of Malaya.
The book under review, Three Thousand Miles To Freedom, is an account of that epic journey that he undertook. How arduous it was can easily be gauged from the fact that one of his companions, one Radhakrishnan, ‘never quite recovered (...) succumbed to the ravages of the journey and died in August 1945, three years after entering India.’ This is not a literary account for sure; apart from the stray sentence or two which show the writer’s talent for the poetic turn of phrase. The reader is left marvelling at the sheer audacity and ingenuity displayed by the escapees as they cross one seemingly impossible hurdle after another.
There is much that is similar in the other book under review, Escape From Singapore, by Brigadier Jasbir Singh, son of Captain, later Brigadier Balbir Singh, who masterminded the escape along with a couple of fellow officers, taking the same route around the same time as the officers described in the previous book. Brigadier Jasbir Singh has painstakingly put the account together in the present form from his father’s rare descriptions of the escape and by reading his articles on the subject. The use of language and the style of writing is also remarkably similar in both the books: the focus is firmly on the content and there is a lack of fuss about style and prose, keeping it simple at all times which works best for books like these where the reader is constantly waiting to know what happens next.
Apart from the account of the escapes, interesting as they are in themselves, there are some revealing character sketches of the people who help the escapees. Although they are mostly Indians they turn to for help, they also find kindness in some unexpected corners, which is not a mean feat, considering that the Indian community was not universally well-liked in the South Asian Peninsula; at the same time, one also gets a sneak peek into the life of these expatriate Indian communities through these books.
Certainly, there is quite a bit of scope for further editing in both the books. The information about the military exploits is technical in nature and hard to visualise for the lay reader. Additionally, there are some unnecessary details; for example, an entire list of ‘POW camps and heads of their administrative committee’ is included for some reason in Escape From Singapore, which does nothing for the story and ends up obstructing the pace of the narrative.
That said, both the books are highly recommended to those interested in reading about a couple of unique adventures, about which little is known outside army circles. Of course, for Second World War aficionados, the books are a must-read and would prove welcome additions to their collection.