“India is my first love and only love,” that is what he told me’ – Frau Emilie Schenkl said to this writer in the course of a conversation in her Vienna home.

But Mr ACN Nambiar, who was Netaji’s closest and most senior associate in Europe and knows Emilie well, thinks otherwise. When my husband Sisir and I met him at his home in Zurich [in autumn 1971], he told us in precisely the following words: ‘No, it was not. He was deeply in love with her, you see. You see, in fact, it was an enormous, intense love for her that he had. He was very much in love with her, you see, that I know.’

Emilie Schenkl is an intensely private person and very averse to publicity. Yet, no discussion of the important women in Netaji’s wife can be complete without the woman he chose to be his wife! When I told Frau Schenkl that I wanted to include her in my study of the women who influenced Netaji most – alongside his mother Prabhabati Bose, his adopted mother Basanti Debi (Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das’s wife) and Bivabati Bose, the wife of his older brother Sarat Chandra Bose – she laughed and said: ‘I was not an important woman in his life at all!’ That, however, is very far from true.

It seems that Subhas Chandra Bose and Emilie Schenkl hit it off almost immediately upon meeting in Vienna in June 1934. Netaji needed someone who knew English and had typing skills to type up the manuscript of his book The Indian Struggle. He asked an Indian friend who recommended a young woman of twenty-three, Emilie Schenkl.

In the preface to The Indian Struggle, dated 29 November, 1934, Subhas Chandra Bose wrote: ‘In conclusion, I have to express my thanks to Fraulein E Schenkl who assisted me in writing this book and to all those friends who have been of help to me in many ways.’ She was the only person thanked by name in the preface.

From 1934 onwards, Subhas and Emilie kept in touch with each other through very regular correspondence – he wrote to her even at the busiest times and also from jail – and he came to Vienna
every time he visited Europe. They went together to Bad Gastein, a spa resort in Austria’s Salzburg province, as well as to Carlsbad/Karlovy Vary, a spa town in Czechoslovakia.

Back in Calcutta, Basanti Debi once asked Subhas sometime in the later 1930s why he was so fond of Vienna and if there was a special someone there. Her query was largely in jest and to her surprise, she has told this writer, Subhas became flushed and made a spluttering denial. Auntie Emilie tells me that Subhas mentioned the incident to her and felt that Basanti Debi had sensed something was afoot!

Netaji arrived in Berlin on 2 April 1941, two and a half months after his escape from India began with my future husband Sisir secretly driving him out of Calcutta on the night of 16–17 January 1941. The very next day, 3 April, he wrote to Emilie in Vienna: ‘You will be surprised to get this letter from me and even more surprised to know that I am writing this from Berlin.’

He asked her if she could join him in Berlin as quickly as possible and cautioned her that she should address him as Orlando Mazzotta – the Italian pseudonym under which he had travelled from Kabul to Berlin via the Soviet Union – in her reply to his letter.

In the Third Reich, relationships with foreigners deemed to be non-Aryan and racially inferior were frowned upon. Auntie Emilie says it was discreetly suggested to her that she should break off the relationship. She was asked to do so tactfully, under some pretext or other, without hurting feelings. There was much secretiveness about the relationship because of such circumstances, and Netaji
too was perhaps unsure what the repercussions in India might be.

After the birth of their daughter Anita on 29 November 1942, Netaji came to see her and the child in Vienna in December, accompanied by ACN Nambiar. The two had to make all sorts of feints to dodge the Nazi security services.

Netaji had come to Vienna once before the birth as well. He came to say goodbye to Emilie because it seemed he was all set to leave for East Asia in October 1942, by air from Rome. But that plan leaked out from the Italian government and had to be given up. His departure was then delayed by another three months.

In the meantime, the baby was born. Leaving her six-week-old daughter in the care of her mother, Emilie came to Berlin to spend the last few weeks with Subhas. A lot of preparations had to be made. Netaji was in constant readiness to leave at very short notice. This time the plan was successfully kept secret. So much so that even Abid Hasan, who was to accompany Netaji, was not told anything of
detail. Abid Hasan apparently thought they were going to Greece and he carried a Greek grammar book with him! [Netaji embarked on the three-month submarine journey to East Asia from the port of
Kiel in northern Germany on 9 February 1943.

Subhas Chandra Bose and Emilie Schenkl in Bad Gastein, Salzburg Province, Austria, March 1936| Courtesy of Netaji Research Bureau, Kolkata

Then, early in the morning of 8 February 1943, Netaji quietly left his residence on Berlin’sSophienstrasse. Emilie stayed on there for a few more days, on his instruction, in order to keep up appearances. She was never to see him again.

An incendiary bomb hit Sophienstrasse in the latter stages of the war and gutted the house, a large villa with almost thirty rooms. The house in which Subhas Chandra Bose lived for nearly two years with his wife no longer exists; indeed, even the street is not there any longer, Sisir and I found. But Emilie receives a Christmas card from the former lady housekeeper even today.

Emilie Schenkl had not left her job in Vienna and was on a temporary transfer to Berlin. The authorities there asked her if she would like a permanent posting in Berlin. She declined and
came back to her own city, and has lived there ever since. In the last phase of the war and the months
that followed, life was very hard for her.

The worst moment was when, sitting in her kitchen one evening in August 1945, she suddenly heard on the radio that the ‘Indian Quisling’ Subhas Bose had been killed in an air crash in Formosa (as Taiwan was known then). Her mother and sister looked at her in shock. Emilie got up slowly and went to the bedroom where Anita, not yet three, was peacefully sleeping. She kneeled by the bed. ‘And I wept,’ she told me and Sisir.

Around that time, Emilie’s apartment was searched by British Army officers who took away several letters written to her by Netaji, never to be returned.

Just before embarking on his submarine journey across the world in early February of 1943, Netaji had handwritten a deeply personal letter in Bengali to his older brother Sarat Chandra Bose, which
reached the latter in India after the end of the war. The English translation of the letter reads:

Revered Mejdada,

I am again about to embark on a perilous journey. This time towards home. I may not see the end of the road. If I meet such a danger during the journey I will not be able to communicate with you again in this life. Therefore I am giving you some news today – it will reach you in due course. I have married here
and I have a daughter. In my absence please give my wife and daughter a little affection – as you have to me all my life. My last prayer before God is that my wife and daughter complete my unfinished tasks.
Please accept my deepest respects, and convey the same to Mother, Mejoboudidi, and other elders.

Your affectionate brother,
Berlin, 8 February 1943

In November 1948, Sarat Chandra Bose visited Vienna during an extensive tour of Europe, accompanied by Bivabati and Sisir. There they met Emilie, Anita and Emilie’s mother. It was a truly
moving and memorable experience.

Did Emilie Schenkl influence Subhas Chandra Bose the political leader? That does not seem to have been the case. It was a purely personal connection between two people. Yet, she was very influenced
by him. She gained a very impressive understanding of India’s history, society, culture and politics from him. Even her Oxford English Dictionary, which I had occasion to use once in Vienna, was, she told me, a gift from her beloved Subhas.

Excerpted with permission from Netaji: Subhas Chandra Bose’s Life, Politics & Struggle, Krishna Bose, edited and translated by Sumantra Bose, Picador India.