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!

Sagari Chhabra is a poet (The Professional Woman’s Dreams), playwright (The Gift) and an award-winning film-director (Now, I will Speak, True Freedom, Tatva and others). She has written and directed fifteen films which have won five awards. Her latest book, In Search Of Freedom (Harper Collins 2015) was awarded the National Laadli Media award. She lives in New Delhi.

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