reprinted from Boulevard, Vol. 36 №1, Fall 2020
Every family has a prevailing mythos about the role they played in history. It becomes a kind of origin story — anything that happened before that moment falls away. On my mother’s side, that story begins with my grandmother’s enthusiasm for the rebel army to which she sent her two teenaged daughters. My grandparents were Bengali ex-pats living in Burma, my grandfather serving as a physician to the Burmese prime minister’s family. In 1943, their paths crossed with the nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose when he came to Burma after a failed experiment in Berlin. He called on Indian families in the area to enlist their daughters into the all-female Rani Jhansi Bahini, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army. Thus my two eldest aunts, aged 14 and 17, went off to boot camp, proving we were willing to fight to the death for India’s freedom.
It was always strange to hear my demure mother talk so fondly of the militant history into which she was born. Bose is honorifically called Netaji (leader), and at three months old, my mother played Baby Netaji in a stage play. Reportedly she cried during her entire performance. And in 1945, when she was just a toddler, her sisters came home from their preparation for battle and took on the domestic chore of helping my grandmother run her household. That included raising my mother, the youngest of six children.
The accounts of how my grandparents met Bose are hazy. The stories tend to repeat, so that when you sit down to record them you realize there are only a handful. I know that when the war ended, Bose gave my grandparents some personal items to take to Calcutta. He was leaving Burma and heading for the Soviet Union to pursue his next strategy for national liberation, but he never made it. He died in a mysterious plane crash that has spawned countless, enduring conspiracy theories. Bose’s brother came to Calcutta to retrieve those items in 1946, leaving behind one silver lighter for my eldest aunt.
Even without a mysterious death, Bose’s story is full of subversive intrigue. He was a self-described socialist, though never a member of any socialist or communist party, and emerged through the 1930s as a key figure in the left wing of the Congress Party, the main voice of Gandhi’s non-violent independence movement. He broke away from Gandhi after the start of World War II, disagreeing with Gandhi’s decision to call for “individual satyagraha” (passive resistance) instead of a coordinated national strategy to damage the Raj in their moment of weakness.
There was also romance. While exiled in Vienna in the early 1930s, Bose began a love affair with an Austrian woman named Emilie Schenkl. They later married in secret and had one daughter. Schenkl was with him in Nazi Germany, where he formed the first iteration of the Indian National Army from captured prisoners of war. His overtures to Hitler were rightly controversial, with Indian leftists denouncing him as a fascist sympathizer. It seems to have been more an adherence to a short sighted pragmatism, the belief that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” He took this doctrine to Burma in 1943, where he met my grandparents and recruited my aunts into his fledgling women’s regiment. He believed strongly that women should be full participants in society, writing to his niece Gita, “The lives of women are no less valuable than the lives of men.”
During this time, Bose also aided in the Japanese invasion of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. On one of these small islands, he raised a flag of free India while the Japanese occupying army slaughtered, imprisoned, and tortured the native population. In 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an aspiring Hitler himself, renamed that island after Bose, a move popular among contemporary Indian fascists but not the island’s inhabitants.
I never knew my grandmother, but like Bose her legacy is controversial. She was married at thirteen to my grandfather, who was in his twenties, and had her first child at sixteen. She never received a formal education and by all accounts was not that interested in mothering. In their old age, three of my aunts spoke in coded but bitter words about her, with only my mother left to defend her as someone who had many talents and sought various avenues for her considerable intellectual gifts — embroidery, dressmaking, chess, cooking, building construction, driving (in the streets of Calcutta, no less), and while it lasted — the armed overthrow of British rule.
The aunt who was 14 when she left home to become a soldier now lives independently in an apartment in Kolkata. She has lost touch with reality enough to insist she is a hundred years old instead of her actual age of ninety. She gets a pension from the Indian government for her service to the I.N.A. and talks often of her time in the Rani Jhansi regiment, though much of it is incoherent. She repeats one story of leaving the camp for an outing when their car broke down. Forced to walk back, they passed Netaji’s house and were invited in. He spoke to them warmly and fed them a little rice — there wasn’t much since everything was rationed — before sending them back to the camp. The next day they received a letter from him citing a dress code violation. All the girls had been wearing sandals instead of combat boots.
A few years after Bose’s death, India’s birth as an independent state was convulsive and bloody, with partition creating one of the largest mass migrations in human history and killing more than a million people. Decades after Gandhi and Bose argued about the road to freedom, the question of what freedom is and how we get there still hovers in the suffocating air. The whole world wants to know, how do we get free? When do we get free?