Women at war: Vera Hildebrand on her book The Rani of Jhansi Regiment
Author Vera Hildebrand came to live in India because of her husband’s job, and was immediately stuck by the difference between Indian and Danish women. She talks to HT about her book on the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the first all-women infantry regiment in the world.Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 Updated: Jan 23, 2017 16:39 IST
Author Vera Hildebrand talks about her book on the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the first all-women infantry regiment in the world.
How did you think of the idea for this book?
I came to live in India because of my husband’s job and immediately it seemed to me that there was a difference between Indian women and Danish women. Especially in the home, Indian women were so nice to their husbands; they didn’t want to eat until they had eaten and so on. I thought this strange and thought I had to learn something about Indian women’s history. Then I read about the Rani of Jhansi regiment and I thought ‘Hey! Nowhere else in the world has there been a combat regiment of women and now Indians!’ I then asked around and I was introduced to Lakshmi Sehgal and I went to her house in Kanpur and stayed for five days talking about Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi regiment (of Bose’s Indian National Army) and then I thought ‘Well, I would like to meet as many of them as possible.’Then I went all over India, Malaysia, Singapore. One had moved to the United States. When I told people what I was doing they said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that there were women soldiers!’ More people should know about it and so I started writing it. As I was writing about it I realised I didn’t know nearly enough about Indian culture, history, so I started studying that. That’s why this book took so long to write. It took me eight years!
Your book Women at War; Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment is a great subject because it stands at the junction of feminist history, military history and national history.
There is a lot to look into because it really is interrelated. To understand Bose I had to learn about his family and what he read in college in order to see how he got his inspiration. He said that in the new, free India, Indian women need to have equal rights and equal responsibility. And I thought ‘Right, you don’t get anything without putting something in.’ He wanted women to do their part, to fight for freedom, and he started recruiting Indian women. And these young women were just amazing. I talked to them when they were in their late seventies and eighties and nineties and they just warmed my heart. They said you are asking me this but nobody ever wanted to know. One of them in Malaysia said when she got back her mother said, ‘OK you did what you wanted to do. Now the war is over and there is no difference in free India so now just don’t talk about it.’ I imagine some mothers would have wondered how to get their daughters married if it’s known that they had spent two years in the jungle with male soldiers and Japanese soldiers. But all of them except for one of them got married. All the women I met said that those years they spent in the Rani of Jhansi regiment were the best years of their life. I said but you had a good marriage, wonderful children, a good job.’ And they said yes, but there was nothing like being together with other women fighting for something that was greater than themselves. This is 65 years later.
Watch: In conversation with Vera Hildebrand, author of Women at War
There were rumours that Subhas Chandra Bose hadn’t really died.
Yes, I had read many of those books that said he had become a sadhu. I asked the Ranis and they said, ‘No, of course Netaji died’. They never called him Bose. They said he would have returned, he would have come back when he saw how the country was doing; he must have died in that airplane crash. I am absolutely convinced Bose died. It was not in his personality to see how things would go. He wanted so much for India to be free and for women to become equal and so on. He couldn’t have sat somewhere and contemplated life, no.
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