Article by Dr. Vidagdha Bennett
As January 23rd dawned in Kolkata, I did not have to think twice about my destination for the day. It had to be Netaji Bhawan, the ancestral home of the great Bengali freedom-fighter Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. January 23rd happened to be his 111th birth anniversary and the whole of Kolkata was flooded with pictures of this iconic figure.
Every year, no matter where he was in the world, my spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy, used to celebrate Netaji?s birthday. ?For a Bengali,? Sri Chinmoy said, ?these things are in our blood.? Sri Chinmoy looked upon Netaji not only as the foremost national leader of his day but as someone who was imbued with great spiritual depth. He was ?the beloved son of Heaven and earth,? Sri Chinmoy wrote. And, in the dedication to his landmark book on Netaji, published in 1997, Sri Chinmoy said:
Netaji, beauty of the Bengali heart you were.
Netaji, responsibility of the Indian life you were.
Netaji, capacity of the sub-continent-unity you were.
I wanted to experience the depth of this Bengali reverence for myself.
Unsure of my bearings, I took a taxi to 38/2 Elgin Road, South Kolkata. We pulled up just before Netaji Bhawan to find the street partially blocked and the house ringed by armed security guards in white uniforms. In fact, the whole scene was eerily similar to that fateful night of January 16th/17th, 1941, when Netaji made his Great Escape from the house ? under the very eyes of sixty-two members of the British C.I.D. (Criminal Intelligence Department) who were supposed to be detaining him under house arrest.
I was told by one of the guards that a special function would shortly be taking place and both the Governor of West Bengal and the Minister of External Affairs of India were expected. As a result, the house (now the Netaji Research Bureau) was closed for the day. I sat for a while on a narrow ledge on the other side of the street, among some elderly men who were drinking chai out of small earthenware cups and waiting, with the infinite patience of the Indian soul, for something to happen. It gave me time to study the stately yellow colonial-style mansion with its red and green trim. It was easy to imagine Subhas (he became known as Netaji, or ?revered leader?, after leaving the country) peering out through the shutters on the top floor, assessing the vigilance of the British surveillance and going over the daring escape plans he had formulated together with his young nephew and confidant, Sisir K. Bose.
Shyam Benegal in his 2005 film, ?Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero?, recreated this escape in meticulous detail. Around 1:30 a.m., Sisir nosed the German-made car ? a Wanderer, licence plate BLA 7169 ? out of the big double gates. Subhas was in the back seat, wearing a sherwani, loose pyjamas, a black fur cap and laced European shoes. His disguise was that of a Muslim, but he carried in his pocket a picture of Mother Kali, his tulsi beads and a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. His supposed occupation was that of a travelling insurance inspector.
Unsuspectingly and, in hindsight, astonishingly, the guards waved the car on. Perhaps the Gods were smiling on Subhas. Sisir took the Grand Trunk Road to Barari where his elder brother Asoke lived. On the way, Subhas spoke to him about the great Irish freedom-fighter Eamon de Valera whom he had met in Dublin in 1936. Perhaps he wished to diffuse the tension inside the car by diverting Sisir?s attention. ?At every moment,? Sri Chinmoy writes, ?death threatened to embrace not only Netaji but Sisir Bose himself.?
Eventually they arrived at Asoke?s house, but even then Subhas maintained his disguise in case the servants were listening to their conversation and one of them had been planted as a British agent. He slept in the guest bedroom and in the morning left on foot. Sisir and Asoke later overtook him on the road and drove him to Gomoh. There Subhas alighted from the car, walked across an overbridge, and caught the mail train to Delhi. They never saw him again.
From Delhi, Subhas took the Frontier Mail to Peshawar in the North West Frontier and subsequently made his way by tonga, truck, mule and foot across rugged terrain to Kabul, Afghanistan. During this journey, he was accompanied by Afghan guides. He was dressed as a Pathan and his face was unshaven. Not being able to speak the local tribal language Pashto, he posed as a mute. He reached Kabul on January 31st, 1941 and two months later, after a hazardous journey via Samarkand, Moscow and Rome during wartime conditions, he resurfaced in Berlin in the guise of an Italian nobleman, Signor Orlando Mazzotta.
The courage required to undertake such a journey was underlined by a recently declassified intelligence document which reveals that British agents were ordered to intercept and assassinate him before he reached Germany. Subhas had chosen to seek the aid of Germany in his struggle for independence on the basis of his belief that ?the enemy of my enemy is my friend.?
Meanwhile, back at Elgin Street, Subhas? elder brother Sarat and Sarat?s wife, Bivabati, kept up the illusion that Subhas was still in the house. His meals were delivered as usual and the plates returned to the kitchen empty. Then, after ten days had elapsed, they suddenly raised the alarm that Subhas had mysteriously ?disappeared?. The British were stupefied. How could someone simply vanish from such a closely guarded house? They launched an intensive manhunt throughout India to find him, posting police at every railway station, but by then Subhas was no longer on Indian soil. The next time he returned, it would be with his army of liberation, the I.N.A.
As Sri Chinmoy writes in his book about Netaji, ?His mission was to throw himself into the vortex of self-sacrificing activities with the view to liberating his Motherland from the shackles of foreign yoke.? He also emphasises that this decision was taken only ?after months of prayer and meditation.? Was it the right thing to do? After all, now he had become a fugitive from the law, an enemy of the state. He would nevermore see his dear ones in this life. Sri Chinmoy, at once a Bengali and a spiritual visionary, assures us:
When he escaped his home-internment, He was able to see every atom Of his Mother Bengal?s being Dancing with ecstasy?s height and depth.
After replaying all these historic events in my mind, I resolved to display something of the revered leader?s spirit. Crossing the street in full view of the police, I passed through the gates of Netaji Bhawan without securing the necessary permission. Fortunately, I was not stopped.
Just inside the entrance, set in marble in Netaji?s handwriting, are his deeply moving words:
"In this mortal world, everything perishes and will perish ? but ideas, ideals and dreams do not. One individual may die for an idea ? but that idea will, after his death, incarnate itself in a thousand lives. That is how the wheels of evolution move on and the ideas, ideals and dreams of one generation are bequeathed to the next? "
Everything he said spoke to my heart. In our times, we are struggling to come to terms with the fact that another great Bengali leader has left this mortal world ? Sri Chinmoy. We are heirs to his lofty ideals, ideals for which he lived and died. And if, as Netaji said, ?The progress of this world has depended on dreamers and their dreams,? then Sri Chinmoy was surely been one of the foremost peace-dreamers of the modern era.
Just past the entrance to Netaji Bhawan, housed in a glass case, is the famous Wanderer vehicle by which Netaji made his sensational escape. Continuing on, I saw that a large marquee had been set up at the rear of the house and it was there that the guests were gathering. National songs of the I.N.A. were being played over the loudspeakers and guests were being greeted by Professor Sugata Bose, the son of Sisir Bose. Professor Bose is the Gardiner Professor of History at Harvard University. Coincidentally, Sri Chinmoy had honoured him in New York a few years previously.
I sat down contentedly, sure that if Sri Chinmoy were alive, I would be doing exactly the same thing ? sitting in a function room in some remote corner of the globe, with Netaji?s photograph on the stage, beautifully garlanded, while Sri Chinmoy recounted stories about India?s independence movement and a choir sang his soul-stirring Bengali songs dedicated to Netaji.
Sri Chinmoy began this pattern in 1997, the year of the 50th anniversary of India?s Independence. During the first few weeks of the year, while in Takamatsu, Japan, Sri Chinmoy plunged into an unprecedented study of Netaji?s life and writings, devouring books and articles in both Bengali and English. Rare editions were sent to him from New York and Kolkata. He translated passages into English for which no translation had previously existed. He examined anew the politics of the era before Independence, and particularly the distinctions between the ideas of Netaji and those of Gandhi and Nehru. He felt the rebuffs that Gandhi had given Netaji as keenly as if they had been directed at him personally, becoming convinced that under Netaji?s leadership India would not have been partitioned. And, with every passing day, Netaji?s spirit sang in his blood until it seemed that Netaji?s living presence was with us in remote Takamatsu. Sri Chinmoy concluded his book by writing in his own hand a message to Netaji. It read, simply, ?Every Indian heart is your home.?
The book was finished, printed in New York, and sent by express courier back to Japan, reaching Sri Chinmoy, now in Kagoshima, the day before Netaji?s birthday. The following evening, we held the first major celebration of Netaji?s birthday. It was unforgettable.
Leaving Netaji Bhawan by taxi later that afternoon, after listening to the excellent speeches of the distinguished guests, I found myself stuck in traffic at the junction of Elgin and Chowringhee Roads. A parade was passing by, with marchers of different ages carrying photos of Netaji and the flag of his beloved Indian National Army. It brought home to me very vividly the fact that Netaji belongs not only to the intellectuals of Kolkata, whom I had just seen, but also to the common people. He was their leader, uniting Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsees and other religions under one banner. I recalled Netaji?s spirited call to the youth of Kolkata:
Arise, young men of Calcutta, with enthusiasm in your blood. The whole world has been made by the energy of man, by the power of enthusiasm, by the power of faith.
It is this rallying cry, containing echoes of Swami Vivekananda?s concept of manliness, that echoes even today, not just for Bengalis but for the whole world.