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My gaze moved to a photo of Biji, my mother, placed on the mantelpiece. How many more mysteries were hidden behind that smile?
The fifth winner of our May 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Supriya Bansal.
The shrill ring of the phone woke me up. I had dozed off, after returning from the hospital an hour ago. Biji had to be admitted after her pneumonia had got complicated.
I picked up the phone. The voice on the other end spoke in a foreign accent, “Is this Rani Jaswinder Kaur’s home?”
I hesitated to reply; of course, it was Jaswinder Kaur … my mother’s home but Rani? My mother had no royal connections to boast of. She was just a retired school principal who loved gallivanting outdoors in the bitter winters of Punjab, doling out blankets to the needy and getting pneumonia in return.
“Yes, it is Jaswinder Kaur’s home, she’s my mother,” I replied.
“I’m writing a book about the Rani Jhansi Regiment, the women regiment of Indian National Army raised by Netaji. I wanted to interview her since I found some documents suggesting her association with it,” the lady on the phone said hesitantly.
My effort to convince her that she had probably got the wrong number was in vain. She was quite insistent. I couldn’t shake her off even after informing her about Biji’s medical condition. I finally gave in and asked her to meet us at the hospital the next day.
Perplexed, I walked animatedly to the kitchen. It was time to start dinner. Ajit Mamu liked his meals on time due to his diabetes.
I kept drifting back to the conversation on the phone as my fingers deftly molded and squeezed the dough into a soft mound.
What was she talking about…? Rani Jhansi regiment…? Netaji as in… Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose? Biji knew him? Was she a Rani?
Nah… It couldn’t be. It was out of the question.
We had lived in Punjab for as long as I could remember and considering I was also on the wrong side of the fifties; it had indeed been a long time.
Her life was like an open book and I knew every strange story buried inside.
Biji had never conformed to the societal norms. I was privy to the stories from her youth; how she had turned the tables on my father when he had tried to bring domestic violence into the equation of their marriage. She had not only given him a taste of his own medicine but had also walked out on him, with both her children in tow.
In the era when women were expected to bend over backward to accommodate their husbands, who could not only be philanderers but also incorrigible alcoholics like my father, her conduct was considered quite brazen, more so because she had no backup plan.
Her sanguine and unflappable spirit had not only vetoed out returning to Malaysia, her parental home but had also made her refuse any financial favors from her father. She had scraped a living by joining as an assistant teacher in a local missionary school and retiring as the school’s principal after years of dedicated service.
I knew all of this past like the back of my palm, but she had always been enigmatic and abstruse. I could never understand her but after all these years I had given up mulling over it.
Even during the trying times, I had seen her donating one-third of her salary to the ‘Indian Soldier board’. On our birthdays, instead of buying us gifts, she had always made special donations to the board. Upon inquiring, she’d say; they need it more than us Nimmi. The justification, of course, had always seemed vague and evasive but we, as her children had learned to live with it.
Notwithstanding her age, she was still involved in assisting absent soldiers’ families in hard times and assisting ex-servicemen to procure their pensions.
She had this crazy obsession with the Indian Armed Forces. Time and again, I had pestered her to slow down but she’d never paid heed to me. Biji always had this understated spunk about her.
But this Regiment business, it was way out. Even for Biji…
Ajit Mamu, a septuagenarian bachelor was a few years younger than Biji. After selling off his property in Malaysia, he had come to spend his autumn years with us.
As I cleared up the table, I casually mentioned the phone call.
He tilted his head and furrowed his brow, “But Jaswinder is a Rani, and she’s always been.” Noticing a sea of questions on my face, he sighed,” Don’t tell me! She’s never told you about it.” He signaled me to follow him. He fished out a battered diary from his cupboard and handed it to me.
“This was your Biji, a lifetime ago. The key to understanding her present lies in her past. She left it with me when she got married and moved to Punjab.”
That night as I turned the yellowed, withered pages of the diary, I heard my mother talking to me, in her usual impassioned voice. I gawked at the marvel my mother was, as her story unfolded before me.
They are already talking about getting me married. How can they? Amid such turbulence and turmoil!
I want to do something for India before I settle down and have kids.
It has been years since Bauji shifted here but I still notice his eyes welling up whenever he talks about his birthplace. I know he hates the British and would do anything to overthrow them. Why else would he follow the ongoing freedom struggle in India, so closely?
I still remember how he had fallen violently sick after reading that banned book, he had procured so meticulously; Jallianwala Bagh- the Amritsar Massacre.
Hiding behind holes and corners, I had read the book too, just to know the grounds for such an intense reaction from my otherwise calm and collected father.
Now that I’ve read it, I can never be the same!
I have to avenge my motherland; I wouldn’t hesitate to slay off those English if I had the opportunity!
I wheedled Bauji to let me tag along for the much-publicized rally of the Indian Independence League.
When Netaji appealed to the brave Indian women to form a ‘Death-defying-Regiment’ and to wield a sword just like the brave Rani of Jhansi, I felt he was addressing me.
His words stirred a somnolent passion and when he asked for aids to bolster the freedom struggle, I couldn’t stop myself from walking up to the podium and laying down my gold necklace in his hand.
His smile charged the air and the audience erupted into loud applause. I could see the proud glow on Bauji’s face when I walked back to him.
Netaji had already sown the seeds and when Dr. Laxmi arrived at our house to urge my enrollment in the Rani Jhansi Regiment of INA; I was ready. Her amiable personality added fuel to the already raging fire and I knew this my only chance to fulfill the cherished dream.
Much to my astonishment, it wasn’t too difficult to obtain signatures of approval from Bauji. I would never forget the look of admiration on Dr. Laxmi’s face when he said that he was proud that his daughter could bring his dream into fruition.
Dr. Laxmi addressed me as Rani because Netaji considers all the women cadets who join the regiment as reincarnation and embodiment of brave Rani of Jhansi. Many others like me have joined in.
The call for freedom of India, demands sacrifice and I am willing to offer myself.
There were no more entries in the diary but my curiosity was piqued. The night was melting away and the sky had softened into a silvery haze.
I sauntered towards the kitchen to make a cup of tea when I stopped in my track.
Ajit Mamu was seated on the jhoola, lost in his thoughts. Noticing my presence, he looked up, “I couldn’t sleep, kept thinking about Jaswinder bhenji. I knew you would have questions. I too had the same questions when she returned home two years after.”
I sat next to him as he continued, “For two years Jaswinder bhenji worked in clandestine operations deflecting military intelligence from the British Raj. Disguised as a man, she often took part in multiple rescue missions.
“As a Rani, she underwent military and combat training as well as weapon training including hand grenades and bayonet charges. Your Biji was also amongst the few who were chosen for advanced training in jungle warfare in Burma. She’s seen it all. She has seen the war up- close.
“She was able to fulfill her long-treasured dream before the Regiment was disbanded by Netaji and she returned home to Kuala Lumpur,” he concluded.
My jaw slackened, my eyes were fixed on his face, trying to decipher the implications of his last sentence.
Did I know Biji at all?
I could very well picture my Biji going after a British soldier. I knew she had that in her. A smile sneaked in on my face.
She did all that for a dream that had seeped from her father’s eyes into hers. My whole life fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. Everything started to make sense.
I’d always considered Biji, a self-reliant, dauntless woman with an unduly altruistic soul, but in a matter of few hours, I knew she was also a rebellious teenager, an insightful daughter, apart from being a spy, a soldier and a freedom –fighter.
My gaze moved to a photo of Biji placed on the mantelpiece. How many more mysteries were hidden behind that smile?
Could it get any stranger than that? One could never be sure when it came to Biji.
I couldn’t wait to get to the hospital and hear it straight from the horse’s mouth.
Author’s note: This is a fictional account based on true events in the past. The Rani of Jhansi regiment was the women’s regiment of the Indian National Army, raised in 1943 with volunteers from the expatriate population in South East Asia, led by Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan. More fascinating historical details can be found here, here and here.
Biji- Punjabi word for Mom
Bauji – Punjabi word for father
Bhenji – Punjabi word for sister
Jhoola- a swing (Hindi)
Indian Soldier board- a program centered around the welfare of past and present Indian soldiers and their dependents.
Editor’s note: French author Marguerite Duras (4 April 1914 – 3 March 1996) was one of a kind, and one of France’s early feminist women writers – a French novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, and experimental filmmaker. Her script for the film Hiroshima mon amour earned her a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards.
A rebel, she disowned her family name of Donnadieu when her first book, which was considered “too risqué” by her family, was published, and took the name of Duras, from her “village of her father’s origins, distancing herself from her family, and binding herself to the emanations of that place name, which is pronounced with a regionally southern French preference for a sibilant ‘S.’”
Much of her publishing career was a struggle against the hardwired misogyny and sexism, even more so in her career as a filmmaker, where she nevertheless came up with some extraordinary, cutting edge ideas. In the 1950s, male critics called her talent “masculine,” “hardball,” and “virile”—and they meant these as insults! As a ‘meek and feeble’ female, she was supposed to have no right to her air of aloofness and outspokenness, or even her confidence that was considered ‘outrageous’ in a woman.
Here are some of her books available in an English version.
The cue, perfect for a month that has Mother’s Day, is this quote by her: “Our mothers always remain the strangest, craziest people we’ve ever met.”
Supriya Bansal wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the film Khamosh Paani
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A Radiologist by profession and a mother of two.
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