Vera Hildebrand’s book, Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, explores the story of a women’s regiment in Bose’s Indian National Army. Excerpts from an interview on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival.
Your book is on a fascinating subject. How did you choose it?
I come from Denmark. When I was growing up, it never occurred to me that girls didn’t have the same rights as boys. When I first came to India in 2001, I met a lot of really accomplished women. And they were bossing people around in the workplace…but when I went to the homes of a few of them, their behaviour was very different.
They were deferring to their husbands all the time. Women in Denmark didn’t do that! I thought it was interesting. I knew next to nothing about India, except where on the map it was. So I thought I would investigate and try and find out, what is Indian women’s history? And I found out there was very little written about it.
That was 2001-2002. But when I looked, I stumbled upon the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. And I thought, this doesn’t go together. I had not heard (of it), and I started investigating. There was no women’s regiment in combat at the time, not even in Israel. The United States had no women in combat. So I thought, that’s really strange.
At the time you didn’t have the idea of writing a book about it. It was just a personal project.
Yeah. And people would say, that’s so interesting. I didn’t know there was a Rani of Jhansi Regiment. So I thought, hey, maybe I should write it up. I then thought it would be a good idea to interview the women in the regiment. That was quite a task. Because they lived all over Malaysia, all over India, Singapore, and one had moved to Long Island in New York! I then travelled about, interviewing them, and by that time I was writing the book.
But I needed, as I realised, a lot more information about India. I had lived here for a while but I didn’t know all the things you would have learned from your grandparents and from living here and from school and so on. So I started studying what I could: Indian history, culture, religion, and so on. That’s why it took me so long – it took me eight years to write the book. But I really loved it all the time.
Was none of these women reluctant to talk to you? Were they all happy to share their experiences?
No, not all. Most of the numbers I called and asked if they were a Rani – they would say, yeah, one minute, or it’s my grandmother. And they would say, “When can you come?” I stayed at the homes of several, they invited me to stay there. Almost all of them were really eager to tell their stories. They would ask, why are you doing this and are you talking to other Ranis? I said, yes, I’m trying to find as many as I can because I want to tell the story. And they said, we would love for the story to be told.
One woman carefully explained why she didn’t want to be interviewed. We talked for a long time, but she would not allow me to use her name. She said, “When I joined I was just a young girl. I did not know what war was. I did not know what Netaji wanted. I thought ‘fight for freedom’ was wonderful. But later, after the war, I realised what Bose’s politics were, what arrangement Bose had made with the Japanese, how he was against Gandhi, and I did not agree with that. That’s a closed chapter, and I do not want to contribute to his story.”
I said I would use what she had told me but not use her name. Her sister was the same way. When you are fourteen or fifteen, it’s exciting: “This is a good thing, I want to do this.” But later on you say, “I didn’t understand all the aspects of it.”
These are such interesting stories, and not all that long ago. Why do you think these stories were lost? These women are still around.
Yes, they are still around, but nobody was interested.
The women felt that they signed up to do something good: India’s freedom. Janaki Thevar was 17 when she joined. She was aware that this was also a fight for equal rights for women. She died around two years ago. But the others didn’t think this was women’s liberation as much as they thought, here is an opportunity for me to do something that is not just get married at a young age and have some babies and take charge of the kitchen.
So when they came back, many of them said, people weren’t curious. They didn’t want to hear. One of them said, “I didn’t even tell my husband.” Others were afraid their husbands would think they had done something bad being in the jungle with men for two years and so on. But they were very well protected by Bose. He took care of their reputations and their lives.
There seems to be some hero worship of Bose among some of them. Some women joined the regiment because he was so charismatic.
And they talked about him with tears in their eyes! Oh, this woman, she…her husband had died many years ago, and her son had died two years previously, and she was in a rented room that was absolutely sparkling clean, and there was nothing, no decorations or anything. Then she pulled out a little picture of Bose and said, “This is always with me.” And she said, “I want people to know what a great man he was. I want people to know what he did for us.”
The women felt that he did something for them, that he gave them a chance to be equal to men, to do their bit. I think that’s really wonderful.
You’ve also written about how he didn’t have very liberated views in the beginning but he grew to be quite a champion of women’s rights.
He was brought up in a very old-fashioned family. His father was much older than his mother; she was only fourteen or something like that when they got married. He grew up with the old-fashioned Indian upper middle class outlook.
But, he said, half of India’s population is women, and they should be used [in the fight for freedom]. He felt they should have rights and they should have responsibilities. He was apparently shy, so he did not joke around or flirt or anything like that. But he did think that women were equals, and he tried to persuade many women to join the Congress, and to make a contribution to the freedom fight and to building a new India.
When it came to taking care of these young girls, he felt fatherly and protective towards them. He sent them candy and he would call them in if they were sad and talk to them. He spent a lot of time making sure they had what they needed, that they were entertained, that they were learning. He was very very kind to them. They all adored him. They thought he was godlike.
They told you about how they loved wielding the bayonet and they acted it out for you.
Yes, they were really old ladies and they got up and showed me how you use a bayonet to kill.
That’s exploding a stereotype, that women in that age…
Not just in that age, even today. The first women combat soldiers just became part of the American army a year or so ago. That these women were being trained to do combat – that was a completely new idea.
How many women were in the regiment? You mentioned there were reports of around five thousand.
There were around 450. I did a lot of research to find out exactly. It was probably no more than 420, but definitely not more than 450.
Speaking of exploding stereotypes, the title of your book makes that very explicit. Was that a conscious decision?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Yes. I thought they were really women going to war.
Some of them weren’t even women, they were young girls.
Yes, one was 12 years old!
Were they all foot soldiers?
Yes, they were foot soldiers.
Captain Lakshmi Sahgal was in charge of the regiment.
For the first five months, then she was transferred to Burma. Janaki Thevar, the young girl, became the commanding officer as the Ranis went to Rangoon. Then some of the Ranis went to Maymyo, which was as close as they got to the frontline.
You’ve written about Captain Sahgal being personally invested in recruiting women and going to girls’ houses and persuading their parents to give permission.
She was a women’s liberator. Absolutely. She continued to advocate for women’s rights, and she was a medical doctor, a gynaecologist. She kept fighting against female infanticide. She was 92 when I visited her, and she was talking about (the fact) that it was terrible that there was such a high rate of female infanticide in some Punjab villages, that there were no girls.
She talked about war as an “exciting and adventurous experience”.
They were young. They didn’t know. I asked them, would you be able to kill? Some of them said, “I’m glad I didn’t have to make that choice.” But most of them said, “We were trained for it! Of course we would have killed.” But I wonder if they knew what it would have meant to kill someone.
They didn’t kill anybody. But they all told me the story of the two women who were killed while they were retreating. Everyone mentioned this story. Two of the Ranis were sitting right across from the women who were killed, and all these years later they were still affected by it. I think they would have been very affected had they killed somebody in combat.
You’ve referred to them throughout as Ranis. Is that how they referred to themselves or how the rest of the army referred to them?
Yeah. That was what Bose called them. The regiment of course was named after Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. Bose was a very intelligent man and he was also good with words. And I’m sure he thought about it before he made the regiment and what they were going to be called.
But there was a lot of resentment from the husbands of these women and from other men. Some of them seemed quite threatened by the idea that women could wield arms.
Of course. People who saw them march in Singapore or Rangoon dismissed the seriousness of it. “We’re sure it’s just propaganda. They look so good marching.” But the Ranis definitely did not think that it was propaganda. They were training to go into combat.
Some of the male soldiers, especially the Sikhs, said, Sikh women also fight, and we think that it was great. But most men thought it was a bad idea. The ones who were closest and most loyal to Bose tried to put a good face on it. But the Japanese thought it was preposterous. Why spend money on women? They said the women will need soldiers to protect them! Bose said no, no, no. But they did: they were protected by male INA soldiers.
Some of these women have remained friends since their time in the regiment.
Absolutely. Some of them said, “Those were the two best years of my life.” I said, “You had a great job, your husband, your children.”
“Yes, those are all important,” they said, “but those were the best years of my life. I was happy, I was proud of myself, I was proud of my country.”
Clearly, if you are working together every day with a small group of women, you feel empowered. One of them, Rasammah Bhupalan, married a doctor and she had, I think, five children and she was so proud of being a very good shot. She became a datuk, which is the highest title you can get in Malaysia; she got it for her work to get equal pay for women school teachers.
She said, “I was such a good shot, and I got the second prize, just behind my good friend Janaki Bai.” Sixty-five or seventy years later, with all the honours that this woman has got, she still remembers that she got the second prize in shooting, and she was so happy, so enthusiastic, about it. “I’m proud of my service,” she said.
How do you think these experiences changed these women?
I don’t know. I think you have to be pretty special to sign up in the first place. These were young women with brains and energy and courage who wanted something else. They didn’t want to follow the path. Among the ones I had names of and heard about, there were four medical doctors. There were many school teachers: probably 12 to 15. They had advanced degrees.
So they were trailblazers.
I think that they had it in them. And having had a taste of “I can do it”, they continued. My statistics are not valuable because they are so small, but several of them got divorced. One of them said, “My husband was an alcoholic, and I wasn’t going to stand for it, and I divorced him and I took my daughter and I got a job.” And her daughter was in the other room and she said, “Yeah you did well. Good job, mom.”
Another woman, also a schoolteacher, left her husband because of his philandering. She took her son and her daughter and moved away. Her daughter was a school teacher, and she didn’t want to get married. She wanted to follow her mother’s example.
There was a lot of camaraderie among these women. Did they also help each other, support each other in their work?
These women clearly became friends. They also told me about minor rivalries. One of them said, “This person exploited my sister. She kept using her ideas and presenting them as her own. So I told her not to do that.”
So, very much a regular workplace.
Exactly. They talked about each other with great fondness, but there was also competition. “Are you also going to talk to such-and-such? She doesn’t have much to say.” That happened a couple of times.
Were some of them in touch with each other?
Yes, some of them by phone. And they’d ask me about their friends who had moved away, “Did you see my friend? Does she have a nice house?” One woman I met in Delhi – she’s 92 – said, “How is such-and-such?” and I said, “She died two months ago.” And at that age, it’s a regular occurrence. It must be a little frightening to be the last one standing.
What’s next for you? Are you working on another book?
I didn’t want to stop, but I felt I had to stop. My family thought it was time – including my dog, he thought it was time for him to take some walks.
I am right now working on a book with Namita Gokhale, a new collection of stories by Hans Christian Andersen. I’m making a new translation from Danish. It will be a serious societal, cultural comment on Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, not the Disney versions. And we will have questions or discussion topics for grandparents or parents who are reading these books to children. It’s due to come out in December this year.