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A life at the frontlines

india Updated: Mar 05, 2011 23:37 IST
Nilanjana Sengupta

Meet the last surviving member of Subhas Bose’s Rani of Jhansi regiment
At 83, Rasammah Bhupalan looks frail, her amber eyes clouded with age. A former member of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Rani of Jhansi regiment, she continues to be involved in many women’s causes. Unlike many of the regiment’s members, who were mobilised to fight as soldiers in Burma but went home and became homemakers, Bhupalan led an active public life afterwards, carrying Bose’s work forward — in her chosen field of education and women’s issues.
As I step into her living room overlooking a lake and swaying jackfruit trees in the quiet Petaling Jaya neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur, not far from the recognisable Petronas Towers, she deftly attends to an ailing husband and her work. She turns to me with a twinkle in her eye, “Netaji had written on my sister’s autograph book, ‘Live for others, if you want to live’,” she says. “I have never stopped doing that.”
Excerpts from an exclusive interview...

How did you end up joining the Rani of Jhansi Regiment?
I was just 16 years old when my sister and I signed up. We heard Netaji speaking at the Ipoh Club (a recreational club in Ipoh, Perak state’s capital) and after that, nothing could deter us. My mother, a widow with six children to bring up, was aghast. Captain Lakshmi, the regiment’s leader, spoke to her and only then did she relent. We went to the regiment’s headquarters in Waterloo Street in Singapore, and our training, rigorous in all aspects, began.

How was your experience in Burma?
First, we had to convince the Japanese that we were genuine soldiers and not like the comfort women (victims of enforced military sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of large parts of Asia) who accompanied their troops. Within the first week of our landing in Rangoon, on Netaji’s command, we prepared ourselves for a public demonstration of our military training. The Burmese and Japanese armies’ top brass watched from the dais — President Ba Maw, General Aung San, Count Terauchi. That day, I had the honour of carrying the Indian tri-colour.

Did you personally interact with Bose?
On a number of occasions. Oh, what a man he was! What indefatigable courage, what patriotic zeal! He could never forget that he had called us away from the safe sanctuary of our homes and that in this war of freedom, many girls might have to make the ultimate sacrifice. He was both father and mother to us.
We knew no fear, and, despite hardships, life was fun. Netaji would often invite us to watch documentary films. We produced plays and musical comedies. Netaji would sing along with us.

How did you carry Bose’s message forward?
Initially, I wanted to return to India, but after the partition of our country, I decided to make Malaysia my home. I have been a dedicated teacher for the past 35 years and retired as the principal of the Methodist College, Kuala Lumpur.

(Nilanjana Sengupta is a freelance writer and a visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.)