Book: In Search Of Freedom: Journeys Through India and South-East Asia
Author: Sagari Chhabra
Pages: 348 pages
Price: Rs 499
A river is the sum total of numerous streams. India’s journey in search of freedom too could be compared to that of a river, with numerous tributaries adding to its flow. Historians tend to focus on the main stream and, over time, the memory of the feeder streams fades away.
Sagari Chhabra’s In Search Of Freedom: Journeys Through India and South-East Asia is an attempt to explore a few streams that fed the river of independence. A mixture of travelogue, documentation, testimonials, and story-telling, Chhabra, a filmmaker, comes up with a powerful narrative to rescue many brave freedom fighters from oblivion. Two broad streams emerge from her rambling, wide-eyed exploration of history. One, the role of women in the battle for freedom, especially in the Gandhian movement, and, two, the war of independence that raged in east Asia, which too saw a significant participation of women. This work is no means a gendered history, but there is a conscious attempt to retrieve the contribution of women to the freedom movement.
Mahatma Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose differed on the strategies to battle colonialism. Both, in their own ways, they believed that women ought to be in public life. People who came under their influence were transformed. Most of the women freedom fighters Chhabra meets are feisty souls, independent in mind and action, and who continue in public service in the true Gandhian spirit. Nirmalaben Desai, who worked with Jyotisangh, a Gandhian initiative established in Ahmedabad to train volunteers for the freedom struggle; Veerbalaben Nagarwadia, who participated in the Dandi March; Sarla Shah; Ela Bhatt of SEWA, among others — they continued on the path to Swaraj even after independence.
Chhabra comes across their soul sisters in Kanpur, Delhi, Punjab. Each of them has a story to tell and they do so with pride, and without rancour. Rajkumari Gupta, an associate of Chandra Sekhar Azad, spoke for all of them when she told the author, “Humko jo karna tha, kiya”. Barring, say, Colonel Lakshmi Sahgal, Dr Sushila Nayyar and Subhadra Joshi, most of Chhabra’s cast are persons unlikely to feature in any standard history of the freedom movement.
As Chhabra travels east in search of the ranis of the INA’s Rani of Jhansi regiment, she comes across persons who fought India’s war of independence without ever having set foot in their imagined home. Through the words of fighters like Janaky Thevar, who was second-in-command to Colonel Sahgal in the Rani of Jhansi regiment, the short-lived euphoria of INA and the legend of Bose come alive. The INA’s march to Kohima, the early wins, the setbacks in the Burmese jungles, have been told in the past too but in the testimonies of the participants Chhabra interviews it acquires a rare poignancy. They bring alive a forgotten past, when the freedom spirit energised the larger Indian nation that lived in the plantations of Malaysia, the bazaars of Penang, Singapore, Bangkok and Rangoon. Many of these men and women would have liked some recognition of their work from free India. D.R. Sharma, an INA veteran from Maymo near Mandalay in Myanmar, tells Chhabra: “In 60 years, no one has bothered to see me. No one ever came from India. I am so grateful to you.”