Sa­gari Ch­habra

In Search of Free­dom

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Sa­gari Ch­habra

I was in a taxi search­ing for her house, but was anx­ious; would she meet me, tell me her life story and most of all, let me record her? As I passed blue-glazed mosques and women in the streets – whose heads were cov­ered with tudongs – I had won­dered what had brought me to this strange city in a for­eign land, alone? I was search­ing for the truth, but did the truth not have mul­ti­ple di­men­sions; be­sides it didn’t help to have in­jured my leg, and have it cast in plas­ter in the swel­ter­ing, trop­i­cal heat. The taxi fi­nally drew up at her house – a large bun­ga­low with a gar­den all around – and there was a short-statured, dark lady of Ta­mil­ian de­scent. As I bent down to touch her feet – a tra­di­tional ges­ture of re­spect – she hugged me and I no­ticed that her left side was paral­ysed, pos­si­bly af­ter a stroke. I was fi­nally at the house of Janaky The­var, a free­dom fighter and the sec­ond per­son to com­mand the Rani of Jhansi Reg­i­ment – one of the ear­li­est all-woman mil­i­tary reg­i­ments of the world.

Janaky was ex­ul­tant: ‘You have fi­nally come to Kuala Lumpur to meet my Ra­nis!’ But I was pro­pelled to seek my own roots, which were gnarled, twisted out of shape, ly­ing in the wilder­ness – for­got­ten. I had come to trace the sur­viv­ing free­dom fight­ers of In­dia, in South-east Asia – men and women who had worked un­der the lead­er­ship of ‘Ne­taji’ Sub­has Chandra Bose, in the In­dian Na­tional Army (INA) and the Rani of Jhansi Reg­i­ment (RJR). There was a haunt­ing ur­gency in the air; I was aware that like flick­er­ing can­dles in the wind, they would soon be gone.

As I set up my recorder and cam­era, Janaky re­called how she had heard ‘Ne­taji’ at the pedang in Kuala Lumpur and was spell­bound. ‘I took off my ear­rings and gave them to him. He shook my hand and re­turned my salute. It was a mo­ment to cher­ish.’ She was de­ter­mined to join the Rani of Jhansi Reg­i­ment but her step-mother would not hear of it and threat­ened, ‘no one will marry you!’

‘How did you per­suade your par­ents?’ I asked know­ing that in the 1940’s most girls in the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent were kept within the four walls of their homes to be mar­ried off.

‘Cap­tain Lak­shmi (Lak­shmi Swami­nathan Sah­gal – the first to set up and com­mand the Rani of Jhansi Reg­i­ment) came to tea. She per­suaded my fa­ther who al­ready sup­ported the cause. But he said my sis­ter Pa­p­a­thy was to also join and we were never to be sep­a­rated,’ replied Janaky.

Lak­shmi who I had in­ter­viewed ear­lier in Kan­pur, had told me that Bose had felt that the war was too good an opportunity to miss. He was keen to set up an all-woman mil­i­tary reg­i­ment, be­cause he had read Gen­eral Rose had de­feated the orig­i­nal Rani of Jhansi on the bat­tle­field. Rose had writ­ten, ‘if there had been a thou­sand men as brave as her, the Bri­tish would never have been able to con­quer In­dia.’ Bose de­cided to set up the Rani of Jhansi Reg­i­ment and she said proudly, ‘we were able to en­list 1,500 young women from Malaya, Sin­ga­pore and Burma. They were all vol­un­teers.’ I was taken aback when I heard this, for I was keenly aware of the op­pres­sion In­dian women suf­fer, even in con­tem­po­rary times.

Janaky had got mes­merised by Ne­taji, but her pa­tri­o­tism was hard to un­der­stand, con­sid­er­ing she was born in Malaya and not in In­dia. But she de­clared: ‘we wanted to see In­dia free!’

‘What was the train­ing like in Sin­ga­pore?’ I asked her.

‘We were given or­ders to queue up; handed a mess tin, mind you, not a cup! … And we had to run around with 30 pounds of weight, a haver­sack and a ri­fle.’ I must have looked dis­be­liev­ing, for she then handed me photographs of the Ra­nis’ train­ing and an­other with her lead­ing a march-past in Burma, with the In­dian tri­colour aloft.

Janaky broke down when she re­counted the bomb­ing of the Red Cross hos­pi­tal in Ran­goon and their re­mov­ing charred bod­ies of the sol­diers. What riv­eted me was her ac­count of the re­treat back. When the Ja­panese

started to lose the war, it was de­cided to dis­band the Ra­nis and they were split into two groups – one group was led by Janaki Bai and the other group had Bose and Janaky The­var. The walk lasted twenty-six nights from Ran­goon to Bangkok and Bose en­sured each girl re­turned home safely, as he had promised. Janaky handed me her un­pub­lished mem­oirs that had her war di­ary: it con­tained de­scrip­tions of wad­ing through a swollen river, min­i­mal ra­tions and a heavy knap­sack cut­ting through her shoul­der blades. It is the heroic saga that films are made of; but I learned that th­ese women who had ex­hib­ited death-de­fy­ing courage, did not re­ceive any pen­sion as free­dom fight­ers of In­dia, nor had they ever had a re­union.

How­ever, Janaky had whet­ted my ap­petite and also gave me valu­able links to the other Ra­nis and men of the INA. As I set about lo­cat­ing them a taxi driver tried to abduct me. I quickly called Jasvin­der Kaur – an eighty-two year old woman whose two brothers had been in the INA – and an­nounced his ve­hi­cle num­ber, which was pasted as per Malaysian rules, in­side the cab. The driver know­ing his at­tempt had been foiled, re­leased his elec­tronic lock­ing and got me back to Kuala Lumpur. I met Gandhi Nathan, who along with Habib-ur-Rah­man – who was in the plane with Ne­taji when it crashed – had in a solemn pro­ces­sion placed Ne­taji’s ashes in Renkoji tem­ple. I won­dered why a foren­sic test had not been con­ducted on them to fi­nally put the mys­tery of Ne­taji’s death to rest? Gandhi Nathan, de­spite his valiant ef­forts, could not get ad­mis­sion at the In­dian Mil­i­tary Academy or lo­cate a job in In­dia; he had to re­turn to Malaya – which the Bri­tish had by then re­oc­cu­pied.

Dressed in a sari, Meenakshi who had vol­un­teered with her hus­band and gone to Burma re­called, that on the re­treat back, two of the Ra­nis – Stella and Josephine – were shot at and killed. ‘We were all very close friends and we were ex­tremely sad at their deaths.’

‘How did you feel go­ing back to be­ing a house­wife?’

‘I did not re­ceive any ma­te­rial ben­e­fits for my ser­vice to the INA move­ment, but I al­ways re­mained in­spired by the ideals of Ne­taji. It helped me raise

my fam­ily with val­ues,’ she an­swered sim­ply. There was just a quiet, al­most self-ef­fac­ing hero­ism.

The trea­sure hunt was on, as I crossed a stunning arc-shaped bridge, lapped by the blue and gold-flecked wa­ters of the ocean and reached the idyl­lic is­land of Pe­nang, where the se­cret ser­vice of the INA was once based. I met the Sup­piah sis­ters – Dhan­nalak­shmi and An­jali at their old-world cot­tage with a rambu­tan tree in the back­yard. Ac­tu­ally there were three Sup­piah sis­ters who were Ra­nis, but the third re­fused to meet me; she was now ‘spir­i­tual’ and did not wish to re­mem­ber her rev­o­lu­tion­ary past. When I asked An­jali if she re­gret­ted hav­ing been a Rani, she thought awhile; ‘No,’ she re­sponded, ‘be­cause I got ex­pe­ri­ences that no other woman got.’

I was aware of the colonis­ing mission to ‘save’ women from their own cul­ture, but how un­aware I had been of our own in­dige­nous ways of seek­ing free­dom.

The hunt for the trea­sure of free­dom took me to Sin­ga­pore, where in a tiny match­box apart­ment, I met Bhagyalak­shmi Davies who was wa­ter­ing her trop­i­cal plants. She was gen­tle and with a wist­ful smile at first hes­i­tated, but then spoke firmly into the recorder, ‘My step­mother wanted me to get mar­ried. I thought it bet­ter to die for a cause, than to marry some­one I may not like.’ Es­cap­ing mar­riage by join­ing the free­dom strug­gle was the most novel mo­ti­va­tion I had ever heard. Bhagyalak­shmi was in Ran­goon and then in Maymyo. ‘Wounded sol­diers from the front line were sent there,’ she re­called. On re­turn­ing to Sin­ga­pore she said, ‘In the be­gin­ning I worked un­der the Bri­tish Mil­i­tary Ad­min­is­tra­tion, so we did not talk about my be­ing a Rani. I kept my iden­tity as a free­dom fighter a se­cret; no re­union, no flaunt­ing it.’

‘You never talked about be­ing a Rani?’

‘No, I could not. I would have lost my job. I got mar­ried to a civil­ian, not to an INA mem­ber. He was not ter­ri­bly in­ter­ested.’

Back in Kuala Lumpur, Janaky The­var had me over to her home for tea, where I was now a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor and in­tro­duced me to Ahi­lan­dam V. Pillai, who was dimu­ni­tive, frail and rather thin. She was wear­ing a sari and had a tilak on her fore­head. She told me af­ter she re­turned as a Rani, she got mar­ried. She had stud­ied only till the fifth stan­dard.

‘And did you work?’ ‘My hus­band did not al­low me to.’ ‘You went to fight the Bri­tish but ended be­ing con­trolled by your hus­band?’ Then she told me she had eleven chil­dren.

Non­plussed, I searched her face and asked, ‘Af­ter be­ing ex­posed to po­lit­i­cal ideas and mil­i­tary train­ing, you went ahead and got del­uged by chil­dren?’

Ahi­lan­dam looked at me sor­row­fully, ‘I had no choice. When you marry you have to lis­ten to your hus­band.’ I thought it iron­i­cal that the pa­tri­ar­chal hus­band was harder to de­feat than the Bri­tish Em­pire.

An­jali Pun­nuswamy, also a Rani said, ‘I have no chil­dren, ed­u­ca­tion, job, or pen­sion. Please help me.’ When I asked her if she re­gret­ted be­ing a Rani, she replied, ‘I am happy I sac­ri­ficed for the cause.’

I was now keen to go to Burma, the site of the free­dom strug­gle. As I landed at Mingladon air­port I was filled with trep­i­da­tion, as I was about to en­counter the long­est run­ning mil­i­tary regime of the world. Eco­nomic sanc­tions were on and Burma looked as if it be­longed to an­other era. I chose lodg­ings – there were only a few guest houses that for­eign­ers were al­lowed to stay in – down the road from Aung San Suu Kyi, who was un­der house ar­rest. I tried to stroll past her house, but was rudely shoved by a sol­dier, be­long­ing to the mil­i­tary con­tin­gent posted out­side her home. I fre­quently took walks by Inya Lake – the turquoise wa­ters lapped her back gar­den – and fan­ta­sized if I should swim the few hun­dred yards to meet

her. This I soon dis­pelled, know­ing the mil­i­tary con­tin­gent would shoot me down.

My land­lord, Bhim­s­ingh spied on me from the long-backed teak chairs placed in the liv­ing room; my phone calls were tapped and I had to state where I had to go, only then would he call a cab.

I went to the In­dian tem­ple in search of free­dom fight­ers but found no leads. It was much later that Lt. Peru­mal of the INA came to the guest house. Peru­mal was a kindly look­ing man, in a white shirt and dhoti. I im­plored him to take me to his home, so I could in­ter­view him pri­vately.

Peru­mal kept say­ing, ‘Poor INA man’s house.’ But I as­sured him, if it were not for him, I would not be walk­ing in free In­dia. He looked into my eyes, felt the sin­cer­ity of my words and agreed to take me there. It was a hum­ble home but ablaze with colour­ful pic­tures of In­dian gods and god­desses. I got an ef­fu­sive wel­come from his wife, chil­dren and grand­chil­dren who crowded around to meet ‘the lady from In­dia,’ as he de­scribed me. When I switched on the recorder he said, ‘I was born in Ran­goon in 1928. I joined the free­dom strug­gle for the sake of free­dom. At first I got a mil­i­tary train­ing… I joined the pro­pa­ganda de­part­ment and then the Azad Hind Bank as a col­lec­tor of donations.’ He told me he was ar­rested and kept in­side the Ran­goon jail. Then he in­formed me, ‘I am not a cit­i­zen of any coun­try. Nor are my chil­dren or my eight grand­chil­dren. I want the In­dian gov­ern­ment to help us get cit­i­zen­ship’.

The road to Chin­naya’s house was wa­ter-logged and it was a balancing act to walk on the bricks that were laid there. Chin­naya was blind, poor and sat on his haunches un­der a makeshift roof. He too had been a free­dom fighter but had no cit­i­zen­ship of any coun­try. His wife took out a piece of pa­per, care­fully wrapped in plas­tic, from a black tin trunk. ‘It’s a For­eign­ers’ Regis­tra­tion Cer­tifi­cate’ ex­plained Chin­naya to me, ‘I have to pay to get it re­newed ev­ery year.’ ‘Do you re­gret serv­ing in the INA?’ I asked. But he re­sponded by singing the INA an­them ‘Shubh sukh chain...’ and for a mo­ment I was grate­ful that he was blind and could not see the tears of

shame run­ning down my face.

It took a long while for the per­mis­sion to come from the au­thor­i­ties for my travel to Zi­awaddy and Kyau­taga. The land­lord rented me the car and driver – so he could keep me un­der sur­veil­lance – and I had to take a ‘lia­son of­fi­cer’ whose ex­penses had to be borne by me. My vision of Burma turned green and gold; I saw lush, paddy fields and a pro­fu­sion of pago­das. Na­ture had ex­pressed her­self abun­dantly, but its own peo­ple could not do the same. This was a land blessed by the gods, blighted by its mil­i­tary.

I met a score of old men who re­counted their heroic acts – fight­ing for In­dia’s free­dom – but they were not ci­ti­zens. When I asked a tena­cious look­ing, old man, Shankar Nath, if he sought a pen­sion? He replied, ‘I did not join the free­dom strug­gle to beg for money. If they want to give me a pen­sion, they can. But I didn’t join the free­dom strug­gle for that.’ I recorded ev­ery one of them and took photographs con­sci­en­tiously; but I made sure to tell them I was not rep­re­sent­ing the gov­ern­ment.

I car­ried Peru­mal’s let­ter to the vis­it­ing For­eign Sec­re­tary, well aware that he could get into trou­ble if he did so him­self. But this was not liked by the of­fi­cials and I was sum­moned and ad­mon­ished. Claus­tro­pho­bic, I now sought per­mis­sion to travel to Up­per Burma. I went to Man­dalay and saw the fa­bled glass palace from where King Thibaw and Queen Su­pay­alat were cap­tured, im­pris­oned and ex­iled to In­dia. Fi­nally I reached the town where time stood still – Maymyo; it had a clock tower and men and women wan­dered around in ly­ongis. I drank tea at a lo­cal teashop and shared my search with the owner. He took me to meet D.R Sharma. As I recorded his tes­ti­mony, Sharma broke down and cried, ‘In sixty years no one has both­ered to come to see me from In­dia.’

I wrote to pow­er­ful and in­flu­en­tial peo­ple about giv­ing our free­dom fight­ers cit­i­zen­ship and pen­sions to those who were in south-east Asia; but my let­ters re­ceived ei­ther a per­func­tory ac­knowl­edge­ment or were met with an eerie si­lence.

Yet I also knew within the sto­ries of th­ese unknown, un­ac­knowl­edged peo­ple, lay the se­crets of the world’s lost moral di­rec­tion and heart. They knew how to seek free­dom from an em­pire and a free state’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to record mem­ory, se­lec­tively. They are free!

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.