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Book Review: Women At War: Subhas Chandra Bose And The Rani Of Jhansi Regiment by Vera Hildebrand

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The historical Rani of Jhansi, 19th century Maratha queen and Indian nationalist, is frequently portrayed on a rearing horse, brandishing a sword with an infant tied to her back. That last detail is pure fiction: the child in question, ostensibly her son, was 10 years old at the time of the battle memorialised, and no evidence exists of his having accompanied her in combat. The maharani’s role of mother – a pleasing one within the patriarchal realm – is merely reinforced by the symbol. Nearly a century later, it was her spirit (or at least, symbol) that Subhas Chandra Bose called upon to form the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the Indian National Army’s all-woman unit.

Largely considered a footnote of sorts in the anti-colonial struggle, the RJR was primarily given interest due to its charismatic Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan, who later became the illustrious Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal. Vera Hildebrand’s Women At War: Subhas Chandra Bose And The Rani Of Jhansi Regiment does not simply stop at the cursory, but separates fact from myth, and fills in gaps in public knowledge. Swaminathan’s own memoirs were largely embellished with vivid scenes of combat – which the Regiment never actually participated in firsthand. The RJR propaganda project, and Bose’s order to destroy INA records, also created misperceptions. The book presents a compelling case that what actually happened is more interesting by far.

Bose organised the RJR in 1943 in what is now Singapore, and the total number of recruits is an estimated 450. These recruits were often teenage girls – even as young as 12 – although rules stipulated that they had to be over 18 years old. Dr Swaminathan and other Indian women like the teacher Protima Sen in Burma were tasked with convincing parents to sign the permission slip (curiously, married women were required to obtain this from their husbands, a point that undermines the stated premise of gender equality).

Hildebrand sets the context of the Indian independence struggle and charts Bose’s personal and political growth extensively. Numerous gender-related issues abound in the formation, and indeed legacy, of the RJR. Bose initially shared Gandhi’s prudish views on sexuality, and was even disappointed that his own firstborn was a girl, but later grew to become an advocate of birth control and women’s rights. Gandhi used women in sexist ways in the freedom struggle, and it is clear from this book that some of Bose’s initial motivations were also objectifying in nature. He eventually developed the view that complete gender equality also meant military action. That the RJR did not engage in combat disappointed all concerned. Hildebrand’s neutral, thorough research allows for a wide range of questions to emerge. For instance: did Bose select impoverished illiterate women for the task as their bodies, and lives, were considered more expendable? The historian H.N. Pandit suggests that the entire enterprise was to shock, and thereby destabilize, the British army with the sight of slain women on the frontlines.

The little known, and thoroughly fascinating, truth about the RJR is that most of its members had never been to India. 60% of them were young Tamil women from the Malayan plantations. 20% were Sikh (Hildebrand was unable to find any surviving Ranis from this category). Joining them were college-educated, Burma-raised women and others from various parts of the motherland. Hildebrand’s extraordinary research culminated in interviews with all the living Ranis that she could track down, the majority of whom are elderly Malaysian ladies. A centrefold of photographs attests to Hildebrand’s description of them as “sweet old women” – but more importantly, sweet old women who still remembered their bayonet exercises, which they gladly demonstrated to her, even when unable to rise out of their seats. “With a grimace and a grunt these octogenarians thrust the rifle hard forward, and made a swift upward movement with the fancied bayonet. The training mantra still etched in their brains, ‘[Maaro, kheencho, dekho] – kill, pull out, look.’ Then they usually smiled and said, ‘That’s how you kill the enemy.’”

For two years, the Ranis trained as soldiers, although it emerges that they were ill-prepared for the jungle. While they did not go to war, their time in Rangoon in particular contained many grueling demands, including long-distance night marches and jungle treks. The RJR was formally disbanded in 15 August 1945, just three days before Bose’s sudden death in a plane crash, although groups had been sent home at various points for some months. Hildebrand writes that most of the Ranis “found no audience” for their stories, instead quietly assimilating back into ordinary life, and sometimes concealing their military participation in order to do so.

This participation, lionised as being for race and motherland, was in fact more likely to have been about poverty or about escaping oppression. At 14 years old, Rani Muniammah, the daughter of a rubber tapper, was encouraged to join the RJR so as to have regular meals. Decades later, in a living room with a dominating portrait of Bose, she repeats army slogans to Hildebrand but admits it wasn’t until she enlisted that she had considered the Indian identity. Rani Janaki Bai, too, was encouraged by her father to enlist in order to avoid an arranged marriage. Hildebrand further contextualises the background from which most of the Ranis came: “Many of the women who joined the Regiment from the large rubber estates in Malaya lived and worked under conditions that approached slavery. Sexual abuse by the mainly white estate managers was a common occurrence. The Rani of Jhansi Regiment offered an environment where for the first time the young women found themselves respected and freed of the social stigma of ‘coolie’ status.” After their stint in the RJR, Ranis Rasammah Navarednam Bhupalan and Janaki Thevar Athinahappan turned their attention toward Malaysian independence (won in 1957) and various social justice causes thereafter. However, the book glosses over the problems of race in Malaysia.

The RJR belongs not only to Indian history, but to South East Asian history as well; Hildebrand notes the absence of material on them in Malaysian archives. They were willing to fight, and even to kill or to die, for India’s independence, but as Rani Janaki Bai tells her, “In India we would be foreigners.” The story of the RJR is shot through with far deeper colonial implications: born and raised in South East Asia, but belonging to disenfranchised communities in a region with sociopolitical problems that did not allow them to forget their roots, and with no sentimental attachments to India other than those roused by Bose, these women complicate facile narratives of patriotism.

This book is very much a historian’s tract, not a biographer’s. While the Ranis’ intricate personal stories are not explored in depth, Hildebrand clearly classifies apocrypha as such but uses it in an enlivening fashion. For instance, there is mention of a secret service within the Regiment, which involved a blood oath. Thirty or so Ranis were said to have cut their own fingers to paint a tilak on Bose’s forehead before signing a pledge; Bose was said to have wept with joy at this sacrament. Rani Mommata Gupta, meanwhile, insisted to Hildebrand that a hole had been drilled in one of her teeth, in which she was meant to smuggle microfilm to India.

This much is poignantly, powerfully made clear: what these unlikely soldiers experienced was not only an unusual adventure, but in a strange way a reprieve. As Hildebrand notes, many Ranis described those two years as the best ones of their lives. Their lives before they enlisted were chiefly as daughters; after, they continued in ways that largely recognised them only as wives, mothers, widows and grandmothers. Women At War is a fascinating testament to some women that history almost forgot, who like the apocryphal baby on the back of the original Rani herself have never been seen as anything other than figurative.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.

The Venus Flytrap: A Scarless Journey To A Stolen Beach

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In retrospect, it’s difficult to tell you exactly what I had hoped for. I had made precise calculations: I trusted that Singaporean efficiency would get me out of the airport in thirty minutes, and that proximity and familiarity would take me to the place itself within that hour. My transit was for five hours, my baggage already checked-in. I had my visa, acquired specifically for one purpose. Not a feast or a tryst, but a visit to a small beach by a mangrove that I had been going to, sometimes in secret, since I was 19. The first time I had gone to Pasir Ris, and every time that followed, I had called that purpose a pilgrimage.

I’ll admit this: I knew it would be different this time.

I walked through a new mall and arrived somewhere almost recognisable. Where there had been chalets was an expanding resort, construction in progress. The park was tidy. Something was missing. I gazed at trees I had known as a younger self and wondered what they had witnessed since.

The lapping water, too, was further inland than I remembered. It is said that the ‘ris’ the beach is named for is ‘keris’ – a weapon native to the Malayan region, with a thin, undulating blade. But even that slim strip of shoreline had diminished. It was a hot day; the sun would not set for almost three more hours. These could not be just tidal vagaries.

Six years since my last visit, a long time only if the interim years had not been what they were. I’d known about the resort development, and had steeled myself for disappointment. But it was not quite that: my experience this time in Pasir Ris was of having outlived something. There was old magic in that mangrove beach, this I can promise you. It was gone, and not for any reason as self-evident as urban progress.

I went back, but it was already gone.

I had stolen the beach from someone, a long time ago. I had made it mine by way of pining and prose. By right I should have lost it, for what I had done. But of all the places that are no longer within my reach, this is the one that most feels like I had let it go.

There’s a feralness in me that makes me crave saltwater, cherish tree roots and place my cheek against the earth to weep or to listen. I know that, though quietly, that is still alive. It should have torn me to see my stolen beach stolen from me. Instead I sought it, touched base, and simply walked away.

Everything that is valuable to me about Pasir Ris is safely stored in the pages of a novel I started writing after that first journey and still haven’t finished. I have loved other places since, lost them, had other preciousness stolen from me, made other reparations.

How strangely scarless it is: to lose but still belong to the things I took and didn’t keep – in fragments of a story, memories of a wilder self, pages and pages of an incomplete pilgrimage.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 18th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Places Called Home

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Long after most of the shops had closed in the small city of Darwin, we were having a late dinner of streetside gyros, when the interlude of an inebriated and entertaining stranger to whom we’d lied, saying we were all locals (until my clumsy handling of the gyros gave me away), veered the conversation toward homes and homelands. A mixed group of two Australians, two Malaysians and yours truly – new friends and old – in the city for a literary festival, all of us had travelled widely and were involved with culture, lawmaking or indigenous interests. I expressed the opinion that I find ethnonationalistic separatism deplorable, because it reinforces divisions instead of harmonizing them, and because identity relies on emotional geography, which political cartography can only brutalize. The other Ceylonese person at the table disagreed, citing the example of India’s state divisions upon independence, and the recently-sovereign Timor Leste. Just then, surreally, the Sri Lankan anthem began to play. Here on a hot night in northern Australia, a cricket match on TV, and there it was, emotional geography in a nutshell: memory, coincidence, the things that bind.

The following week, I was in Singapore, the city I most feel at home in, although I have never technically been a resident. It was the first time in two and a half years that I was there for longer than a day’s transit, yet I fell back into its pace and energy instantly. All of my old haunts: the bolt-rope beach which is the key setting of my novel forever-in-progress, the red light district where I would stay overnight in those poorer, madder days in which I lived in Kuala Lumpur on a visa that required me to exit that country every month, the mall in a far suburb where I’d visit a now-estranged uncle, where I’d ironically enough been invited to read. When people stopped me to ask for directions, I could give it to them. I can do without maps, I have had as many homes as a hermit crab, but emotional geography is something I cannot do without.

I felt like myself again: an antevasin, one who lives on the border, in sight of more than one world, belonging to either and neither. In Darwin I had chatted with East Timorese and Indonesians in Bahasa, in which I am fluent; in Singapore I felt at once shy and amused that two baristas were discussing how pretty I was in that same language, thinking I couldn’t understand them. I was ripe with a sense of belonging, deeply connected to every moment and at ease in it, comfortable in both my otherness and my familiarity.

How long does one have to know a place before an emotional geography is charted? In Chennai, which has been my base for almost three years, I have none. I know this because in the many contortions I have attempted in order to peg my angularities into this determinedly round hole (what kind I’ll leave you to guess), I have tried very hard to create it. But emotional geography is not something that can be willed, no matter how varied the experiences one engages in. Here’s a more relevant question, maybe: how long can one remain in a place without an emotional geography to it?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Readings in Singapore

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Because I’m just a genius that way, I went and practically double-booked myself for two readings on Friday May 21, genuinely thinking (until I pulled the two confirming emails up side by side) that one was on Friday and the other on Saturday. Some apologetic phone calls later, I managed to buy myself a half hour to dash to the other end of town, or rather, country. This should be interesting!

I had a wonderful time in Darwin at the Wordstorm Festival of Australasian Writing, and am taking a few days’ transit in my favourite city – Singapore. So, for the first time since December 2007, when I was here for the Singapore Writers’ Festival, I’ve got a couple of events scheduled for May 21:

4pm (sharp!) – A reading at FOST Gallery, 65 Kim Yam Road. RSVP Clarissa Cortes at clarissa@fostgallery.com or on 6836 2661.
5.30pm – A reading and discussion with Heartlands Book Club at Bukit Batok Public Library, West Mall. RSVP Kweh Soon Huat at soon_huat_KWEH@nlb.gov.sg.

Please note that RSVPs are required for both events. I will have copies of Witchcraft and lipstick, and at least for the Library event, an even breathier voice than usual thanks to all that running between venues!

The Venus Flytrap: Earthbound

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This is how it happens. I’m on transit in Singapore for a day. It’s too early in the morning for the part of Chinatown I’m in, but by luck, Kenny Leck appears just as I arrive at his bookshop, which supports my work. We talk business while the resident kitten pounces on me and gnaws at my handbag, and then I ask Kenny what I can do in the area. I have two hours to spare. That’s when he tells me about the firewalking.

The Ubud Writers’ Festival 2008 is over, and I am returning from a blissful week in Bali. Still, it hadn’t happened yet. I had sat beside a delightful and drunk Vikram Seth at dinner, made friends with the charmingly debonair Alberto Ruy Sánchez (who never failed to greet me with two firm kisses at every opportunity), and traded glamorous gossip with one of Asia’s foremost arts journalists in an airport lounge. I had left my lipstick prints and autographs on dozens of books and brochures, was confronted by the happy emergency of the festival’s bookshop selling out my book even before my first panel appearance, and had a session discussing sexuality in India land me an improbable but sincere invitation to perform at a Tam-brahm wedding. Readings, panels, a shoot for a documentary, a handful of print and radio interviews, and the more fulfilling private conversations with individual fans. All that. But not that.

It just hadn’t happened. I hadn’t been stopped in my tracks by the egomaniacal euphoria that is supposed to overcome an author upon the publication of her first book. My ambivalence was disappointing.

I seek out the temple Kenny has pointed me toward. It’s unabashedly touristy, with a mini-arena set up around the pit and coupons on sale for photographers. I am waved through in spite of my conspicuous DSLR. The actual firewalking has just ended, and a priest turns a hose on full force across the coals, rousing billows of steam.

Sometime during the processions – figures of Draupadi, Arjuna and Aravan’s head among them – it starts to rain, and I discover that I am tearing up. Something I have been holding within me for weeks is coming loose. I’m sure nobody cares – in a corner, four people try to hold down the wild, vibrating body of a woman in possession. There are chants and drumming. What happens in this temple, commercial as it is, is electrifying.

When I have had enough, I will lay my head on the ground outside the pit and weep into the earth. I have spent my week in paradise in muted fear: someone I love is seriously ill. Somewhere in the genes we share are the traditions of firewalking and Draupadi worship, traditions I have never witnessed till now. My book is beside me, and I know now it is mine. This is what I have been waiting for: a moment when there is no disconnect between the life I have known and the one I am consolidating. Affirmation that no matter how far I dare to test the tethers to my roots, all things move in circles.

Accomplishment doesn’t taste like the otherworldly thing I expected. Perhaps the most enduring success is not that which catapults a person into an unfamiliar stratosphere, but one that brings her back to herself, that gathers up all the rudiments of her life and binds them to her like a talisman for the length of the journey that is yet to come. I understand why I cried into the hot ground beside the coal pit: what was meant for me was not elevation, but that which, necessarily, must keep me earthbound.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.