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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 28 New Delhi July 4, 2015

A Unique Journey—a Spiritual Voyage and a Quest for Freedom

Monday 6 July 2015


by Amrita Bhalla

In Search of Freedom: Journeys Through India and South-East Asia by Sagari Chhabra; Harper Collins Publishers India; 2015; pages; (i to x) + 344; Rs 499.

“We were always there,... But you discovered us.”

“If it wasn’t for you, Gouridi, my generation and I wouldn’t be walking in a free India!” I responded with a deep sense of gratitude and humility as I acknowledged the privileges of being born free.

Sagari Chhabra’s In Search of Freedom: Journeys Through India and South-East Asia, takes the reader too through a thought-provoking experience of meetings with people who gave “the best years of their lives for OUR tomorrow”. A journey that took the writer through Ahmedabad, Kanpur, Calcutta, Chandigarh, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Burma—travels that brought her face-to-face with unacknowledged, unrecognised and unsung heroes of the Freedom Struggle in India. The author writes feelingly about the emotional, epiphanic moment of realisation about the urgent need to “hear, record, feel and experience the deeds of the Freedom Fighters, before they were gone and all was reduced to hearsay”. (p. 101) The urgency to travel and record came with a force as at the premier of her film, Asli Azaadi, Chhabra noticed the Freedom Fighters who came and lit a candle — “Lakshmi Sahgal’s tough military demeanour melted, I saw her dabbing moist eyes, Rajkumari Gupta at 92 thought nothing of catching a train from Kanpur...” Many in their families did not even know about their stellar participation in the Freedom Struggle. For the author, the recording of their oral histories became a mission — to record a first person narrative of those who had given the best years of their lives for OUR tomorrow. As she says in the Introduction, “why had they not been recognised, feted and honoured, or at the very least even received a paltry pension?” (p. 3)

Chhabra launched into this journey, praise-worthy indeed to be not a collector of things but a Recollector of Memories. As she says, she also wanted to know her own roots amidst a fast-changing cacophony of consumerism: and to “create an inventory of my own heritage before it disappeared”.

Painstaking work, Chhabra recorded on audio tape and on video (where possible), took notes and photographs and accessed archives to produce an outstanding work, meticulously presented. The urgent need to travel followed the viewing of the silent black and white films at the Films Division and going through dusty files in the Freedom Fighters Office at Lok Nayak Bhavan—abysmally under-recorded, and as she says there were ”no interviews and no voices orfeelings expressed”. Chhabra describes her meeting with Veer Bala Ben, one of the last surviving participants of the Dandi March—“the effect was electrifying”. Such is the effect on the reader through her meeting with Nirmala Ben, Veer Bala Ben, Ela Bhatt in Ahmedadbad, as indeed Col. Lakshmi Sahgal whose memory “was sharp, her comments scathing and her tongue a trifle ascerbic”. (p. 33) Extraordinary women whose accounts must be recorded for posterity, says the author as she travels also to Kanpur (Gyan Kaur, Manvati Arya, Rajkumari Gupta, Narayani Tripath), to Calcutta (Aruna Ganguly Chatterji, Pratima Sen), to Chandigarh (Sarla Sharma, Krishna Thapar) and to Delhi (Janaky Thevar, Sushila Nayar). The sentiment expressed by all was of an admirable spirit and courage “at that time we had so much courage, we could do anything without fear”.

In Search of Freedom takes the reader to the most extraordinary encounters in Thailand, Malaysia and Burma, meetings with erstwhile Freedom Fighters—ignored, marginalised, forgotten.The author felt exhilarated in Penang in Malaysia and writes: “So much of my freedom had been dreamt of and dared for from this soil that my spirit soared as my feet touched the moist earth. I was in Penang, where the INA’s secret service originated, and everything here was touched by the spirit of freedom.” (p. 197) However, the sentiment repeated time and again by the Freedom Fighters expressed a sense of disappointment. As a son said, “With all the sacrifices she and her family undertook for the country, what did the government do for her?”

The outstanding section of this journey, undoub-tedly, is the author’s experience, recorded in Burma—though as she says, she felt like “a bird in a cage in the longest running, most tyrannical military dictatorship of the world”. (p. 239) Though she was espied on, denied right of movement, her phone was tapped, and she was under surveillance, this section encapsu-lates the major issue—the status of the Freedom Fighters or more precisely the lack of status. “I am not a citizen of any country.... I am a citizen of no country... bereft of citizenship of either country. Yes we get nothing. Nothing at all.” Deprived of citizenship and rights of pension, the plea of Perumal is heart-wrenching. “We really want to teach our children their mother tongue. We want them to read Tamil, but the Indian Embassy has stopped the supply of free Tamil newspapers and magazines.” (p. 252) The issue of reward, however, is categorically refuted. “No... I did not do the work seeking anything. It was a duty towards my country. I would do it again.” (p. 252) As Chhabra’s research, first hand, states, there are 400,000 people of Indian origin in Burma, stateless. Her encounter in Ziawadi displays the enthusiasm of people of Indian origin waiting to tell their story. “They welcomed me saying, ‘Tum to hamare desh ki ho (You are from our land)’.”

The section in the book on Burma includes an account also of the present political situation in Burma, the imprisonment of Aung San Sui Kyi—“Where had this lone woman found so much courage, and how had she learnt the principles of ahimsa and Satyagraha?” (p. 277) Chhabra refers to Burma as a glass-palace prison. Her travels through Mandalay, Maymyo and Mingun, and Pagan made her ecstatic—“Everything here was ethereal and sacred...” Then she wondered, “how many times the bell had to toll for the world to awaken to Burma’s predicament?” (p. 301) The author’s travels in search of Freedom brings home many lessons for her (and us) too—of the sacrifice of innumerable, unsung heroes, “So many gave their lives for OUR freedom and we had not even acknowledged them... we did not even know the truth about them.”

The author considers it her privilege to have undertaken this unique journey, almost a pilgrimage, a spiritual voyage, a quest for freedom. While we are finally free from imperial power, the thirst for real freedom remains all pervasive—freedom from fear and hunger, desire for dignity, equality and justice. The author found the spirit of freedom embodied in the souls of the people, not seeking the good life but extending themselves to work for a cause. Indeed, it is in fact the reader’s privilege to embark on this journey and to ask questions about the status of freedom and Freedom Fighters—used and forgotten—and to carry on questioning.

The reviewer is an Associate Professor in English, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi

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