A life in service


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MY mother’s father, S. Swaminadhan, was a somewhat unusual Brahmin. He was a Palghat Iyer, the son of a lower-rung employee in the district court of Palghat who died when my grandfather was a young boy. A Nair tehsildar, my maternal great-grandfather, P. Govinda Menon, recognized his exceptional intelligence and helped him, both financially and with words of encouragement, to complete his studies. He then won scholarships to study law in Edinburgh and acquired a doctorate from Harvard. When he returned to Madras, his fellow caste-men insisted that he should perform the prayishchit (penance) for having crossed the black waters to go abroad where, no doubt, he had been exposed to every kind of pollution. Not only did he refuse to do any such thing but openly declared that if ever he did agree, he would attend the ceremony with a beefsteak in one hand and a bottle of whisky in the other – this despite the fact that he was a lifelong vegetarian and teetotaller, of his own choice, of course!

Grandfather soon became a successful lawyer in Madras and his thoughts often turned to his benefactor in Kerala. He wanted very much to repay him in some way and finally he decided to visit him and, in case he had an unmarried daughter, offer himself as a prospective son-in-law.

By the time my grandfather actually arrived at Vadakath House in Anakara village of Palghat district, my great-grandfather had been dead for several years. My great-grandmother, however, was very much alive. She was A.V. Lakshmikutty Amma, the beautiful, capable and strong-willed mistress of Vadakath House which she had shared with her late husband in the matrilinear tradition of the Malabar Nairs. My grandfather had met her often as a young boy and she had left a strong impression on his adolescent mind. In fact, it may have been this impression even more than his sense of gratitude to her husband which made him so keen to marry one of her daughters.

My great-grandmother was delighted to see him. He had been a favourite of hers as a young boy and she was happy to hear of his success. He was made welcome in the house and after he had offered his condolences and asked after the welfare of other members of the family, he came to the point of his visit. My great-grandmother was quite surprised by his offer. She told him that unfortunately all her daughters except for the youngest were married. And the youngest, Ammu, was just a little girl.

My grandfather asked if he could meet her anyway. Ammu turned out to be a self-confident 14 year old. My grandfather teased her and asked her if she would marry him. To his surprise and to the consternation of everyone else around her, she said she would but only if he promised to fulfil her conditions. Taking her seriously, he asked what those conditions were and she replied: I will not live in a village ever again but in a big city like Madras; I will be taught English by an English woman; and I will be free to do as I please. From what little I know about my grandfather, her reply and her conditions must have delighted him because he accepted every one of them and, in turn, my grandmother promised to marry him.



Once this was settled, my grandfather had many things to attend to. A marriage between a Brahmin man and a Nair woman was unthinkable at the time while a ‘sambandham’ between the two was an accepted social convention. According to this, a Brahmin younger son who was not allowed to marry a Brahmin girl entered into a relationship with a Nair woman according to which she continued to stay in her ancestral home, bearing his children who she looked after entirely and who grew up to inherit their respective shares in her share of her ancestral property. Not only did they have nothing to do with their Brahmin relatives but their own father never deigned to touch them since this would pollute him! Nothing could be more abhorrent to my grandfather than the repugnant caste system and the many inequalities that it engendered. He was determined to ensure that his own marriage to Ammu was legal in every sense of the term and that she and their children became his legal heirs. He therefore embarked on a long and tortuous course that brought him to the brink of a nervous breakdown.



The feudal lord of the Nairs of the area was the Zamorin of Calicut to whom my grandfather took his request. A hornet’s nest of controversy, viciousness and furious debate was stirred up in the Madras Presidency of which Malabar was at the time a part. Much later, the Zamorin gave his grudging consent but the Brahmin community boycotted the marriage and the feast that followed it. But the marriage did take place and my grandparents left for Madras soon after. My grandfather, however, was still not satisfied that all had been done to make his marriage legally secure and so, at the first opportunity, he took Ammu to England and married her all over again in a registry office.

In a few years, their son, Govind, and daughter, Lakshmi, were born. They were followed by another daughter, Mrinalini, and Subram, their youngest. All four children were brought up absolutely equal with no gender bias whatsoever. The only difference was that the two boys were sent off to England very young, first to school and then to university. While Govind held back his tears stoically when he was sent off, Subram wept throughout the long boat journey. The girls were spared these tragic separations and went to the best school that Madras had to offer.

Lakshmi was a beautiful child who turned into an even more beautiful young girl and then, perhaps, into an even more beautiful woman. She had long hair, large eyes that retained their innocence and purity even when she had aged, and a glowing complexion. And she had very fair skin. The combination of all these factors ensured that she was drowned in compliments and ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ practically from the moment she was born. Had this resulted in her turning into an insufferable spoilt brat, it would have been more than understandable. The incredible thing is that it did not.

Her brother Govind, a man more given to acerbic wit than pretty compliments said about her with a sense of wonder quite foreign to him, ‘She is the only beautiful woman I know who doesn’t have a vain bone in her body. Vanity is something completely foreign to her. She has always been totally unspoilt.’ She was one of those people who just did what came most naturally to her – living for others – without being in the least concerned with either recompense or recognition.



Meanwhile, her mother Ammu had become one of the leading lights of Madras society. She was the first woman to get a driving licence and own a car. She had a smart coach drawn by two well-matched horses in which she drove herself along Marina beach. She played tennis and threw successful parties at which the elite, both British and Indian, played Dumb Charades and had a jolly good time. But she was by no means an empty-headed social butterfly.

An intelligent woman who always kept a link with her roots, her village, her large family, different members of which belonged to various economic and social classes, and who was free of all forms of snobbery, she was soon attracted to the Swadeshi movement in Madras. It was the social content of the movement that attracted her as much as the political. Issues of caste and gender oppression struck an immediate chord and the agitation against foreign liquor and cloth won her wholehearted support. Lakshmi vividly remembers the huge bonfire in their front lawn, a bonfire stoked by an unending stream of lacy frocks, pretty dolls and chiffon sarees. She remembers feeling both miserable and elated, claiming that when it was all over she did not feel any regret.



This bonfire is one of Lakshmi’s early memories. But there are others as well. Because their school was close to her father’s brother’s house, Lakshmi and her sister, Mrinalini would go there in the afternoon to have lunch which was sent from home. One day, she asked her mother if they could eat sitting on the floor at their own home as they did at their uncle’s. It was then that her mother found out that her Brahmin in-laws were making her half-caste children sit on the floor. She was furious and complained to her husband. He told her that the best way to teach them a lesson was to make sure that the children’s’ tiffin always contained plenty of meat and lots of bones!

But, of course, caste prejudice, while it may have emanated from the Brahmins, did not end with them. Lakshmi remembers her grandmother (who taught her to swim in the natural pond at Vadakath telling her not to touch scheduled caste children and that if she did she would go blind. Of course, Lakshmi immediately ran out of the house and, hugging a little child, returned shouting ‘See, I’m not blind.’

Dr. Swaminadhan died in l930 when Ammu was only 30 years old. His death revealed many of his unusual attributes as had his life. Before dying he told his wife that on no account was she to break her bangles, shave her head, stop applying kum kum on her forehead or wearing coloured sarees. He also told her that she would never need to ask either of her sons or anyone else for any kind of financial help for as long as she lived. She would also never have to be dependent on anyone else for the roof over her head.

As a result, Ammu was an independent woman who lived in her own home till her death many years later. As far as his children and their children were concerned, Dr. Swaminadhan proved to be an exemplary father and grandfather. He left his moveable wealth equally divided between his daughters and sons and his property equally divided between their children. In the year 1930 what he did was truly hitherto unheard of.



When Lakshmi finished studying science in college in 1932 she had the option to go abroad for further studies, as had been promised by her father, but she was determined to become a doctor and so she joined medical college the same year. Her college years were eventful. Apart from the pressure of studies, political activity surrounded her both at home and outside. By this time, her mother had become active in the Congress party and in the All India Women’s Conference. But Lakshmi was attracted to a more militant brand of politics. She heard and was impressed by Subhash Chandra Bose, the charismatic Congress President.

Closer to home, Sarojini Naidu’s sister Suhasini Chattopadhyaya, who was the first woman to join the Communist Party of India, spent some of her underground years as Ammu’s guest in Madras. She spent hours talking to Lakshmi who was enthralled by her tales of the Russian Revolution and the heroic martyrdom of the German Communists. She regaled her with renditions not only of the Inter-nationale in her impressive baritone but also ‘Somebody over there really loves me’, which she sang to the ‘wretched’ policemen who stood outside the house waiting to nab her as she came out!



Communist ideas and ideals could not but appeal to Lakshmi who was often caught stealing food and clothes from the house to distribute to poor patients in the government hospital where she was, by now, an intern. (A sad postscript to this: when Ammu was old and very ill, lapsing into a coma off and on, Lakshmi was in Madras looking after her. One night, the nurse removed her gold chain and ring which she thought were chafing her skin and gave them to Lakshmi for safe keeping. Ammu recovered during the night and her fingers started searching for the chain and the ring. The nurse told her reassuringly, ‘I have given them to your daughter.’ This made Ammu wake up with a start and she said, ‘Take them back quickly otherwise she will give them to the Communists!’)

Meanwhile, Lakshmi’s turbulent private life was pushing her in different directions. In her fourth year of medical college, she met a dashing Tata Air pilot who fell head over heels in love with her and, without much thought, she married him. When I asked her why on earth she had done such a thing, she said, ‘Well, it was actually just a pleasant flirtation between us but my mother was so upset and critical that I thought it would be better to marry him. So I did.’ She spent all of three months of married life in Bombay and then returned to her medical studies in Madras! Soon, she was involved with a class fellow but because her pilot-husband was not agreeable to a divorce, they could not marry. This drove them to an attempted suicide which fortunately they survived and he went off to Singapore to practice medicine.

Lakshmi’s favourite cousin, Kutty, and his much-loved wife, Padmini, were also in Singapore. She took advantage of this to leave Madras and follow her friend. Soon they had established a successful practice and a happy life together. Lakshmi had a large number of poor patients, migrant Indians who worked in the plantations or in various menial and ill-paid jobs. She was also closely associated with the India Independence League which functioned as a branch of the Congress party in Singapore.



Those were momentous times. The war was raging on the eastern front and the Japanese seemed to be growing stronger with each passing day. Singapore, however, was believed to be an invincible British bastion but in 1942 this illusion lay shattered when the Japanese attacked and forced the British army to surrender. The bulk of this army and many of its officers were actually Indians. While they had fought bravely and loyally for ‘their’ King, they could not help but be influenced by the patriotic winds that were blowing throughout the length and breadth of India. Many of the officers, especially, were also only too conscious of the racism of their British officers and had often suffered humiliation at their hands.

After the surrender by the British, the Japanese made the Indian men and officers a breathtaking offer. They were prepared to help them constitute an army for the liberation of India. Furious debates raged throughout the POW camp. Many of the officers came from families that had served the British for generations. They suffered bitter divisions of loyalty. Many of them could not bear the thought of being untrue to their salt. Others felt that their primary loyalty was to their nascent nation, that enslaved peoples had the inherent right to revolt.



My father, Prem Sahgal, was one of the young officers who took the lead in convincing others that they should opt for an army of liberation. In his student days in Lahore, he had been a courier for the young revolutionaries around Bhagat Singh. Later on, disillusioned by Gandhi’s tactics which he considered cowardly, he resumed his studies and then joined the army. He somehow felt that this was the only place where he could conclusively prove that he was as good if not better than his White Masters.

As part of the group of officers who accepted the Japanese offer, my father was granted a certain amount of freedom and could meet other Indians in Singapore. One of these was Lakshmi who immediately became completely involved in all the discussion and debate surrounding the birth of the Indian National Army. She agreed passionately with my father and, along with other members of the India Independence League, assisted him and his colleagues in every way possible.

There were several difficulties though. The seniormost officer to have accepted the Japanese offer, General Mohan Singh, had second thoughts and opted out. The Japanese in turn, inducted an old Indian revolutionary, Rash Behari Bose who had escaped capture by the British by going into self-exile in Japan, and brought him to Singapore as head of the INA. But he had been out of touch with India for too long. He realized that he was not acceptable to the officers and men of the INA. To his eternal credit he suggested to the Japanese that they somehow bring Subhash Chandra Bose from Berlin.

While under house arrest after the call for the Quit India Movement was given in August l942, Subhash Chandra Bose dramatically escaped to Europe through Afghanistan and Central Asia. On arrival in Berlin he organized the Indian students in Germany to form an Indian National Army. Working on the theory that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, he attempted to persuade the German government and Hitler to support this army’s entry into India. Logistics and the war situation just did not allow this to happen and the German government agreed to the Japanese request to send Bose to Singapore. He left by submarine at a time when the war at sea was raging and arrived in Tokyo from where he left for Singapore reaching there on 3 July l943.



The India Independence League in Singapore organized a huge rally on the 6th. All the men and officers who had rallied to the Indian National Army were there in their military formations and so was almost every member of the Indian community in the city. Netaji, as Subhash was now known, made an inspiring speech in which he promised them their freedom in exchange for blood. He also appealed to the Indian community to contribute generously so that the INA could truly be Indian and not an army of Japanese stooges.

That evening, Netaji met with the leaders of the India Independence League and placed his astonishing proposal before them. He was determined to raise and train a regiment of Indian women. The Japanese had laughed him out of court but he remained firm, determined that he would ask his own countrymen to contribute to the cost of this unusual regiment. He asked the League members to suggest the name of a woman who could lead the regiment. For the moment, this was the only problem he could foresee. He was convinced that once a leader was identified, recruitment would not be a problem. Lakshmi’s name was suggested.

The sense of elation created by the enthusiastic response to Netaji’s inspiring call for sacrifice completely enthralled Lakshmi. She met him the next day. Even before he had completed his proposal, she accepted. All thoughts of her practice, of the life she shared with her colleague were completely overwhelmed by the conviction that this somehow was the moment that her entire life had been leading up to. She continued at home for a few months but all her waking hours were spent in the INA office. One can only imagine what her partner went through.



Many years later, he came to Delhi. He was very ill and confined to his son’s house, allowed only a short drive in the evenings. My uncle Kutty was also in Delhi at the time and the two friends occasionally met. The doctor from Singapore once mentioned to Kutty that he would like to meet Lakshmi before he died. A few weeks later, Lakshmi was in town and the three of them met over tea at Kutty’s house. The tea lasted a long time and the doctor’s son, with whom he was staying, was extremely worried when his father did not return at the usual time. He told me much later that when father did come home, he looked radiant. All he said to his son with a smile was, ‘I met Lakshmi.’

Lakshmi was appointed the commanding officer of what became the Rani of Jhansi Regiment and later joined Netaji’s Council of Ministers of the Provisional Government of Azad Hind as its only woman minister. Her friendship with Prem Sahgal also matured, but according to her, there was little time for romance.



The recruitment of the ‘Ranis’ for the women’s’ regiment is an inspiring illustration of what the most ordinary of women can do when given the slightest of opportunities. When news spread in Singapore that such a regiment was to be formed, hundreds of young women from the city-state and from different parts of Malaya offered themselves for training and battle. They belonged to all social classes and communities but were, for the most part, poor or lower middle class South Indian women. The response was so overwhelming that many of them had to be turned away, weeping. Training started with an initial batch of 300 women in Singapore. A few months later, another 100 were recruited in Rangoon, Burma and a training camp was started there. Finally, there were more than 1200 recruits. Of them 200 were trained as nurses though all of them received military training as demanding as that of the male soldiers. The Rani of Jhansi Regiment was not a ‘nursing’ unit as many people believe. It was trained for combat and sent to fight on the Burma front.

Manavati Arya was born and brought up in Burma. She was a member of the India Independence League and later joined the INA in an administrative capacity although she too received some military training and later led a section of the women soldiers to the front. She often met Lakshmi during her visits to Rangoon and other parts of Burma, and has many memories of her. She laughs and says that Lakshmi struggled heroically to learn Hindi but could never achieve fluency (a problem that persists till today, despite having lived in Uttar Pradesh for the last 50 years and more!).

She remembers that when Lakshmi arrived in Rangoon when the headquarters shifted there, two big suitcases of her clothes followed. Within minutes of unpacking, she had given away most of them. One particularly beautiful and soft blanket she decided to keep for herself. The next morning, Manavati saw her speaking to an old, sickly South Indian man who was obviously very poor. He told Lakshmi that he never stopped feeling cold. Of course, she immediately gave him her blanket.

Manavati also remembers that despite being the commander of the regiment and a cabinet minister to boot, Lakshmi was never bossy or authoritarian. She was always friendly and affectionate towards all the women soldiers and when they queued up for a meal, plate in hand, she did the same.



When the INA headquarters moved to Rangoon, so did the Ranis. Soon they followed other units to the front where they engaged in actual combat. By this time, the tide of war had turned against the Axis powers and the men and women of the INA stood no chance against the Allied forces that fought them on the ground and pounded them mercilessly from the sky. Actually, people like Prem and Lakshmi had not really believed that they would defeat the British militarily, but felt that if only they could enter Indian territory, the people would be inspired to rise up against their colonial masters and drive them out. It is truly tragic that so few people in India have any knowledge or understanding of this unique and inspiring chapter in the history of our freedom struggle.

Prem, along with many other officers and men, was arrested by the British in May l945. He was brought to Delhi and imprisoned in the Red Fort. In an incredible act of stupidity, the British government decided to hold a public trial of three officers – Prem Sahgal, a Hindu, Shahnawaz, a Muslim and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, a Sikh – in the Red Fort so that the whole world could be convinced of their treachery. In the emotionally charged atmosphere of the times when millions of Indians were determined no longer to wait for their freedom, this trial evoked memories of the Great Mutiny of l857, the first War of Indian Independence. The accused, by virtue of the fact that they represented the three major religious communities of the country at a time when it was being vivisected in the name of religion by wily politicians, aided and abetted by their British rulers, enjoyed a huge tidal wave of public support. This wave did not leave the armed forces untouched and, in all likelihood, infected them with the very virus of disloyalty against which the British were desperately trying to create public disgust.



Lakshmi was arrested only in July 1945 and kept under house arrest in Rangoon where she lived with a sympathetic and hospitable Burmese family. Many of the officers of the British Army stationed in Rangoon or passing through were, of course, Indians. Many were either friends of Lakshmi’s family or, in any case, extremely sympathetic towards her. One of them was Thimayya, the senior-most Indian Army officer to pass through Rangoon at the time. He later became the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army. An old family friend, he was a constant visitor, much to the consternation of the soldiers who were supposed to be guarding Lakshmi in captivity! Lakshmi was even allowed to practice medicine during this period of very lax captivity. All limits were transgressed, however, when on 21 October she addressed a public meeting commemorating the anniversary of the formation of the Provisional Government of Azad Hind. This event received wide coverage and the British rulers in India were not amused. Orders were issued for Lakshmi to be transferred to Kalaw in the interior. Here too she was given her own house and establishment. Old friends like the Sardar Ishwar Singh family lived nearby, so she was well looked after.



Meanwhile, the Constituent Assembly began its sessions in Delhi. Ammu Swaminathan was an elected member from Dindigul and she, along with many others, pressed for Lakshmi’s early release and return to India. Finally, in August l946 – after the Red Fort trial was over and the three accused, first sentenced to hanging and then to transportation for life, were given royal pardons because of popular pressure.

Lakshmi was brought to Calcutta from Rangoon by plane and set free at Dum Dum airport. She did not have a penny in her pocket but she did have her younger brother Subram’s address in the city. She took a taxi and told the driver that her brother would pay the fare. The driver turned around, took a close look at her and said delightedly, ‘I will drive you around anywhere you like for as long as you like as my guest!’ On reaching Subram’s flat, she found it locked. Her sister-in-law had left for Lahore to have a baby and Subram was on tour. (She later learned that her mother had been going to the airport everyday for the past ten days with her son, hoping to receive Lakshmi. Finally, she had given up and left for Delhi the previous evening).

The British officer who had accompanied Lakshmi from Rangoon checked into the Grand Hotel where he met Aurobindo Bose, a relative of Netaji’s who seemed to be anxiously looking for someone. He went up to him and said, ‘I think I know who you are looking for. You will probably find her at her brother’s.’ Aurobindo rushed to Subram’s flat and found Lakshmi sitting on the steps, quite forlorn. He took her to the Bose family home and she left for Delhi the next morning.

Prem was also in Delhi and the next few days, weeks and months were hectic and exciting. The INA heroes and heroine were the darlings of the nation who wanted to do nothing else but fete them. They, however, had serious work to do: hundreds of INA personnel and their families were coming to India, sick, wounded and destitute, and the priority was to collect an INA Relief Fund. While Prem stayed on in Delhi (he was Secretary and Jawaharlal Nehru, President of the Relief Committee), Lakshmi went to Madras where a huge camp for the INA refugees was set up and then on to Kerala. Her cousin Susheela remembers the day that Lakshmi arrived in Anakara. From the local railway station, she had to cross the dry riverbed to the village and soon she was at the head of a huge procession of excited men, women and children. Finally, she reached Vadakath House where her grandmother was waiting for her with tears streaming down her cheeks.



Prem and Lakshmi married in Lahore in March 1947. Rioting, already sporadic, was becoming more bloody and vicious as the mandarins in Delhi drew lines across the map of the subcontinent. They did not stay long, and soon left for Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh where Prem, who was ‘unemployable’ in what was still British India, had found a job in a textile mill. They did not expect to stay in the hot, dusty town for long, but ended up spending the rest of their lives there.

While many rejoiced on August 15, Prem, Lakshmi and many of their INA friends were heartbroken. Their interest in politics turned cynical and they got more and more involved with their professions. Lakshmi had more than enough on her plate, attending to the Punjabi refugees that came streaming into Kanpur as also the large Muslim population that was no longer welcomed by most of the Hindu doctors.

Soon they had two daughters, a hectic social life which included tennis parties and amateur dramatics alongside hours devoted to welfare activities. Then in 1971, millions of refugees from East Bengal streamed into India. Lakshmi joined a medical camp at the border run by the People’s Relief Committee which had strong affiliations to the CPI(M) in West Bengal. The tireless devotion and commitment of her colleagues made a strong impression on her, and long discussions with them soon erased her anger with the Communists’ mistaken understanding of Netaji and his strategies for winning independence. After returning to Kanpur, Lakshmi became a CPI(M) member and was active first in the trade unions and then in the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in which many women party members worked.

In 2002, Lakshmi was the joint Left candidate for the post of President of India, the first woman to run for office. Her campaign was unique for the enthusiasm that it generated, even though there was no chance of her winning. ‘Just like the INA,’ she said. ‘We may have lost the battle but we did win the war for independence and something like that is going to happen again!’ Close to 90 she still practices medicine, treating the poor, railing against a globalization that is making medicines expensive and crippling public health services – and remains a most enthusiastic political activist.