There were two reasons Gour Hari Das was glad to be going to prison in 1945. “I was happy to being going to jail for my country,” says the 84-year-old. “And we had been told we would be taken to the Balasore district jail by train, which was considered a marvel in those days. It was like travelling by air! The sight of the steam engine, the chhuk-chhuk sound, the flying sparks, the whistle — I still remember it.”
Das was 14 at the time. He, his father and his elder brother would spend nearly two months in jail, as punishment for raising the unofficial flag of India in their village of Ikda in Orissa on January 26, 1945. “I am the son of a freedom fighter and Gandhian [Hari Das]. I had documents showing the time that I had spent in jail. Still, the state government officials would say things like, ‘You look too young to have fought for independence’,” Das says.
“Then they misread my jail tenure as 18 days instead of 1 month and 28 days. The cut-off for the recognition was one month, and it took me a year to convince them that I met that criterion.”
In all, it took Das 30 years to be recognised by the government as a freedom fighter. His two struggles have now been immortalised in the film Gour Hari Dastaan:
The Freedom File, directed by Ananth Mahadevan and released in theatres this past Friday. But Das is neither bitter nor angry. Just disappointed.
“I am not happy with corruption I see in independent India,” he says. “Politically and economically it is thriving, but the country is so corrupt that you fear stepping out of your home. Times under the British were better, in some ways. Now, only if you give something first will your work be done. Earlier, a box of sweets or a fruit basket would be gifted, but after the work was done. Nobody would ask for favours.”
Dressed in white, with a winsome smile, Das is warm and grandfatherly, investing each question with equal attention.
“You have to speak a little louder. My right ear doesn’t work. Actually both are gone,” he says, chuckling. “When they first installed these hearing aids, I could hear things at a distance but not close by. So I asked him to tweak it. After that everything close was so unbearably amplified that I complained again. Now I don’t like using them.” He chuckles again.
What upset him most about the delay in issuing the freedom fighter certificate, he continues, were the aspersions cast on his character — and the fact that they had turned his memories into ghosts.
“The government in 2007 suspected that I was drawing benefits from the Odisha government. They started casting doubts on the authenticity of my birth certificate too,” Das says, turning the pages of his ‘Freedom File’, where he saved documents dating back to 1945. As he looks through them, memories return.
“I met Bapu in 1944,” he says, smiling. “There was a meeting in West Bengal. All of us had gone to hear him speak. It was the only time I ever met the man, but he patted me on the head.”
That pat caused a bit of an upset in the youth group present at the meet. “Everyone was complaining, ‘Why did Bapu pat Gour and not me’,” Das says.
Das now lives on the outskirts of Mumbai, a city he moved to in the 1950s so that he could work with the Khadi and Village Industries Commission.
He and his wife have a one-bedroom home. His two grown sons live in neighbouring flats with their families.
“There were times when no one — not even my family — understood why I was fighting for that certificate. ‘It’s been decades,’ they would say. ‘Let it go.’ But I couldn’t. It became a matter of principle.”
Now, it’s in his own mind that Das struggles to keep the memories alive. “It’s becoming hard for me to find words to express myself,” he says.
But some things won’t change. Das recently travelled in a two-tier AC train coach and had the seat above him fall on his back.
“That rake dated back to 1985. I have written to the railway authorities. Such shoddy service is also a kind of injustice,” he says. “That is the message I hope to send out through the film. For the viewer, especially the next-generation viewer, the moral should be, always raise your voice against injustice. Always.”