Book Review | Diary of 17-yr-old girl of Netaji’s INA evokes Bengal’s heady past

The Asian Age.  | Indranil Banerjie

Review of 'The War Diary of Asha-San' by Lt Bharati ‘Asha’ Sahay Choudhry

Cover photo of 'The War Diary of Asha-San' by Lt Bharati ‘Asha’ Sahay Choudhry (Photo by arrangement)

Patriotism is a dirty word in India nowadays. Patriots are considered at par with jingoists, fanatics, right-wingers, and nationalists. Liberal India lives in the conjured world of universal brotherhood and a world without borders.
While patriotism might be passe today, at one time not so long ago it was a powerful idea that motivated hundreds of thousands of ordinary Indians to stand up against one of the most oppressive forces in history: British colonialism.

Reading the diary of Asha-San, a teenager who was willing to sacrifice her life to free her country of British rule, is to rediscover a magic that our jaded generation has long lost. There was a simplicity in the patriotic passion of those years that this diary captures. It was a time of intense hope so utterly unlike our times. The fire had been lit by the charismatic Netaji Subhas Bose whose clarion call “Give me blood, and I will give you freedom” had electrified Indians wherever they lived.

Asha-San had grown up in Japan where her father Anand Mohan Sahay (a close compatriot of Netaji) had settled in the 1920s after fleeing from British India. She and her siblings had been raised by their Bengali mother, Sati nee Sen, niece of Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, in very difficult conditions, especially once the war came to Nippon.

One passage reads: “On our way to college, there is an attack, and we rush into a trench. Looking up, we see a throng of American B-29 bombers hovering over us. We call them mosquitoes — because they make a buzzing sound on approach and are smacked down to the ground like pests. Here they come, swarm after swarm, their propellors slicing the thin air. Two Mosquitoes and one Japanese airplane are on fire. They glide smoothly towards the ground, one after the other. The Japanese pilot, sun glinting against his green wings, waves his handkerchief, bidding farewell to the world. Taking leave from the red sky and the white earth, he becomes a martyr.”

Another day and more Mosquitoes: “As soon as I return home, the siren begins to howl — bo-bo-bo-bo. The enemy pilots have reached the periphery of Tokyo. In a few minutes, carpet-bombing will begin. Snatching the bag of priceless rice along with a first-aid kit and a helmet filled with cotton, I rush to the trenches with Tulu. The Mosquitoes arrive soon after, dual sirens screeching around us. Bombing begins almost immediately…The spectacle is truly entertaining: imagine thousands of needles piercing the sky, a tapestry, a theatre like no other. Cinder and fire. Flaring planes, both American and Japanese, engaged in a duel to death.”

Food is scarce, Japan is losing the war and Netaji’s Indian National Army (INA) too has suffered a severe defeat at the battle of Imphal. It is the spring of 1945 and Netaji and his followers are gradually preparing to rise from the ground again to fight the British. Asha-San, then just 17, volunteers to join the INA’s Rani Jhansi Regiment. She takes a train along with her father passing through destroyed cities and after a journey of several weeks, including a long pause in Formosa (Taiwan), stopovers in Saigon and other places, finally reaches the INA camp in Thailand where Netaji is camping after retreating from Manipur.

Here begins a new chapter of her life, military training and hopes of marching into India. But the British are slowly closing in and even their camp comes under air attack. While she trains at the camp, at the end of summer comes the news that America has dropped atom bombs on Japanese cities killing millions. Netaji rushes to Tokyo and dies on the way in an air crash. A few days later, Americans barge into their camp to arrest their officers and soldiers. It is all over for the INA.
Netaji’s ashes are carried to Tokyo by Colonel Habib ur Rahman and Shri AS Ayer and taken to Asha-San’s house where her mother is present. Asha-San’s mother recalls: “At the beginning of September, a car suddenly stopped in front of our house. I went outside and saw Colonel Habib, Shri Ayer and Rama Murti standing there. Habib Bhai said: ‘Sister, I have brought Netaji. What shall I do with him?’ I said: ‘For Netaji and for those who loved him, the door of the Sahay house is always open.’ They all came inside. Habib Bhai placed the urn in the showcase of our living room. We lit incense sticks and paid our respects… On 18 September, we took Netaji to Renko-ji Temple… Nachiappan had the good fate of carrying Netaji’s ashes to Renko-ji in his hands. At noon, our silent procession left home and we walked three kilometres to Renko-ji temple… Renko-ji’s main priest, Rev. Mochizuki, and six other priests performed the last rites together. I requested Rev. Mochizuki to keep Netaji’s ashes safely till someone comes from India. He pledged that no one would be permitted to touch the urn.”

That urn still sits in Tokyo’s Renko-ji temple. Many Indian dignitaries including Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru have visited the temple but no one has brought the ashes back. Even the memories of those patriotic times have faded. Asha-San’s little diary, however, will remain a powerful reminder of those sad but heady days.

The War Diary of Asha-San
By Lt Bharati ‘Asha’ Sahay Choudhry
Translated by Tanvi Srivastava
pp. 225, Rs 599