Bose, the unforgotten hero

Vijay Lokapally | Updated on November 21, 2020

Never say bye: Many Bose followers still refuse to accept that he died in an air crash   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Icons have come and gone, but the writer’s admiration for Netaji hasn’t withered

I don’t know why it became an obsession with me, but all through my childhood, I wished to be like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. As a six-year-old, I wanted to be a part of the Indian National Army (INA) when my father, who brought me up on stories from India’s struggle for independence, introduced me to the world of books on culture and history. It was a fascinating journey into the wonderful past of our heroes.

In the ’60s, with little entertainment other than spending your time on the playfields or in libraries, cinema was a welcome medium. Sapru House, a sprawling library-cum-auditorium in central Delhi, used to screen films for children, and my father once got me tickets for a film festival that was being held there. Of the movies I saw, there was one on Bose — called Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose — and it left a huge impression on me.

Actor Abhi Bhattacharya played the role of the freedom fighter, and he became my favourite hero. I saw Bose in him, and, in Bose, I saw the light of life, really: How to stand up for one’s rights and how to sacrifice a cosy life to embrace the harsh aspects of a struggle.

After seeing the film, I pleaded with my father to buy me an INA uniform. I wanted to dress up like Bose at the annual school cultural festival. “Tum mujhe khoon do, mai tumhein azadi doonga (Give me blood and I will give you freedom!),” was a slogan that I had mastered well enough to merit a glowing mention from my teachers.

I would’ve loved to have met this charismatic leader from India’s past. He was an eternal icon, though I must admit that my heroes changed at times. For a while, my idol was Swami Vivekananda, the monk who won the West at 30 with his stirring speech at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. There was Donald Bradman, too, who popularised cricket with his amazing feats and I was also under the spell of Bhagat Singh, an extraordinary freedom fighter. But Bose was always there: I collected books on him and continued to gather inspiring information about his life.

The more I read about Bose, the more I revered him. He was enigmatic in many ways, as recorded by historians. I wish I’d met Bose and cleared a few doubts that occasionally plagued me. I would’ve liked to have probed the ideological differences that he had with MK Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Did his respect for them never diminish, as is believed? He was twice elected president of the Congress, but why then did he choose the path of revolution for India’s Independence — a decision that took him away from the course chosen by Gandhi and Nehru?

Like millions of others, I refused to accept that Bose died in an air crash in August 1945. How could my hero die? For many years, reports would emerge about Bose being spotted in some corner or the other of the world. His legion of followers would demand fresh investigations into his disappearance. He was not dead, but in hiding, many would insist. There was hope that he was living somewhere, and would — at the right time — make an appearance.

For me, the most captivating chapter from his life was his escape from British surveillance after being put under house arrest in Calcutta. It was this stirring incident that led me — many times — to his residence, later known as Netaji Bhavan, during my visits to the City of Joy on assignments to cover cricket.

I fulfilled my desire to visit Bose’s home during my very first trip to Calcutta in 1984. It was nothing less than a pilgrimage for me, as I set foot in his ancestral house. He was placed under house arrest here but our hero pulled off a sensational escape in the early hours of January 17, 1941. We were informed that his bedroom and study had been preserved in the condition that they were then in.

It was a strange yet pleasant feeling. I felt as if Bose was around me. Walking up the stairs and settling in the study, it seemed as if I going to meet him. What a silly thought, but then I was dreaming of my hero. And heroes don’t die. In all my subsequent visits to Calcutta, now Kolkata, a visit to Netaji Bhavan at Elgin Road was a must. I would always get goosebumps when I observed the staircase used by him to slip out of his house, and the Audi Wanderer W24 that took him to the Gomoh railway station in present-day Jharkhand from where he boarded a train to Delhi.

Each visit to Netaji Bhavan brought me closer to Bose. He had been so richly preserved in books and recordings there. My collection over the years has swelled too. With time, I misplaced the INA uniform that my father had so lovingly organised for me. But Bose has always stayed with me.

(If Only is an occasional column on people — real or fictional — we wish we had met)

Vijay Lokapally is a Delhi-based sports journalist

Published on November 21, 2020

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