During World War II, Subhas Chandra Bose formed a women-only contingent in his Indian National Army to fight for India’s freedom, named the Rani Jhansi Regiment. The recruits to this wing, formed in the year 1943, were women living in Indian communities in South East Asia. Many of them joined the force fired by Bose’s inspiring speeches and his call for freeing India from the Colonial British. But for many women it was also an opportunity to grab a chance to get freedom for themselves.

For them, joining the regiment presented a way out of their difficulties, to escape hunger, slavery, sexual abuse, controlling husbands and oppressive employers. Although there is no historical record to show the exact number of the women in the regiment, historians and researchers put the number anywhere between 500 to 5000.

Meira Chand’s ninth novel, Sacred Waters, portrays the life of Sita, a woman who joins the Rani Jhansi regiment from Singapore. It records her journey of transformation from an unlettered village girl in India to a soldier who is not averse to using her rifle to kill the enemy. The novel also tells the story of Amita, Sita’s daughter, an academic at a university in Singapore, and the challenges she has to face in the modern world as a woman.

Chand’s previous novel, A Different Sky, which follows the lives of three families from different nationalities living in Singapore in the years leading up to the country’s independence, received much acclaim around the world. It was on Oprah Winfrey’s recommended reading list and was long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2012.

While A Different Sky, set in Singapore, follows the tumultuous events and the fabric of the society during the rule of the British and subsequent occupation by the Japanese, Sacred Waters, too, touches upon the Japanese occupation of Singapore besides the movement to free India from its colonial rulers. The focus of the novel, however, remains the vivid exploration of what it meant to be a woman in underprivileged homes in societies ruled by patriarchal attitudes in the mid twentieth century.

The back story

Sacred Waters begins with a powerful image. A five-year-old Sita and her mother are out searching for herbs for a poultice when her mother suddenly takes shelter in between plants. She soon gets up with a writhing, crying, bundle and walks towards the river. As Sita watches her mother with curiosity, she sees her dropping the bundle into the murky waters of the river.

When she screams in terror, her mother tells her that it was just a girl. When Sita cries out in anguish her mother consoles her saying that the Devi will take care of her drowned sister. The memory of losing her sister never leaves Sita, and an unquenchable desire rises within her to know her sister better and to protect her.

Through Sita’s experiences, Chand brings in the practice of female infanticide and the plight of widows in India in the early years of the twentieth century. Even when her brother brings her to Singapore and gets her married to his friend, she does not have the luxury to make choices in her life. Joining the Rani Jhansi regiment against her husband’s will is her first act of independence, and it goes on to change her in ways she never imagined.

The novel weaves together the stories of Sita and her daughter, an academic in a University at Singapore. Amita, who has never taken the trouble to go beyond the stories of her mother’s past that she has heard, learns new details about her when her colleague interviews her mother for a book on the Indian National Army.

The personal battles

Chand sensitively portrays how women from lands living far away from their homeland arrive to answer Bose’s call for women fighters, a rarity in those times. For some of the women it is an opportunity to escape the shackles of slavery and oppression. In meticulous detail, she sketches out the transformation of the women from shy, diffident creatures who can barely speak their names to smart soldiers adept at combat. When Sita finds herself facing the enemy in the forests of Burma, she takes advantage of the surprise of an enemy soldier at finding a woman with a weapon, and strikes to kill, though later she feels remorse at her act of self-preservation.

The INA and their Japanese allies are forced to retreat when they are unable to enter India through Burma and subsequently Bose disbands the regiment. When the Ranis return home, they encounter derision at their failed attempt to fight the British soldiers and gain independence for India. Sita’s quest to find her sister ends with the bond she forges with the women in her unit. Chand portrays in detail Bose’s concern for the safety of the women in the regiment and his personal involvement in ensuring that the recruits get back home safely after the unit disbands.

While Sita’s story dominates the storyline, we see the challenges facing modern women in the story of Amita. This story arc is secondary to that of Sita’s adventurous journey but it serves as a canvas to depict the choices and challenges to women through the years.

Sacred Waters provides a glimpse of Bose’s efforts to get independence for India by forging alliances with forces which had their own agenda in the region. The author has taken great care to ensure that the story remains true to history for the most part and this makes the book all the more interesting.

Sacred Waters, Meira Chand, Marshall Cavendish International.