On this Independence Day, meet Madurai’s oldest living freedom fighter, I.Mayandi Bharathi, whose spirit remains intact at 97
On August 9 every year, the Gandhi Museum in Madurai holds a function to mark the anniversary of Quit India Movement. In the last five decades, guests and invitees to the function changed. Not I.Mayandi Bharathi.
This year his attendance was doubtful as he was admitted to the hospital for treatment of dysentery. But the 97-year-old was restless and got himself discharged in time for the function.
You cannot miss the fire in his eyes as he presses the flashback button. Listening to him is like going back to the black’n’white era and reliving the historic moments that our generation has only read about in books or seen in films.
Mayandi Bharathi is Madurai’s oldest living freedom fighter who unfailingly attends the City administration’s Independence-Day function every year. There are 150-odd freedom fighters in Madurai district who are seated in a special enclosure and Bharathi’s chair is never vacant.
Though it’s been 66 years, the voice of young revolutionaries, he says, still reverberate in his ears, “Down with British Imperialism…Long Live Revolution…Inquilab Zindabad.” He was part of many such rallies and protests and was jailed over a dozen times. His life changed when he was 14. His classroom window allowed him a peep into the street opposite to where Government Rajaji Hospital stands today. “There were no buildings then, only forests. Hidden inside the shrubs was a toddy shop run by the British,” he recalls.
As part of the Congress-led picketing of shops selling foreign cloth and liquor, the Seval Dal workers were lathi charged during a protest in 1932. Watching the action from his seat, Bharathi grew restless. He excused himself from the class, rid his school bag of the books and notebooks and filled it up with stones and pebbles instead. “I ran to the spot and supplied stones to the unarmed protestors to help them to hit back. I too got beaten up by the police,” he can’t hide his smile.
When he reached home late that evening, he was admonished by his worried parents and asked to keep off such desh-bhakti activities. As he ate that night’s meal with 23 other family members (he was the 11th child for his parents, his mother bore 13 children and his father’s second wife had another five), Bharathi knew that his parents had already lost him to the patriotic fervour.
After that Bharathi became a regular at every rally that popularised swadeshi goods and khadi and boycotted collection of war funds. He went to prison numerous times between 1940 and 1946 and met several leaders of freedom movement including Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar, K.P.Janaki Ammal, N.M.R.Subburaman, Sasivarna Thevar, Sitaramaiah, M.R.Venkatraman and A.Vaidyanatha Iyer who further inspired him.
Though he abided by Gandhian philosophy and principles, he was much in awe of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and was in the welcome committee when Netaji Bose visited Madurai in 1939. The mere recollection of the moment lit up his face. “I shook hands with him and remember he had a big hand. He told us the World War II had given us a golden opportunity to intensify the freedom struggle and win.”
An audacious freedom fighter characterised by altruistic values, Bharathi lives alone in a small cramped room on Kakathoppe Street in the heart of Madurai. At one end of the rectangular room is the kitchen and the other end has an old television perched on a small steel almirah. A charpoy in the centre seats him with support of pillows. His feet are swollen and he finds it difficult to walk without support. Every inch of space in the room, cot and the lone table is filled with papers, newspapers, booklets and books. He lives off the freedom fighters pension given by the Centre and is obviously too proud to admit that he has and continues to live in penury. He jokingly recalls how once his veshti was stolen by another patriot and he was left with only one for several months. “I never regretted the way I chose to live my life. I have no demands,” he says.
Bharathi has authored a dozen books – the first in 1939 and the latest this January – all on various aspects of the freedom struggle. He wrote for and edited the CPI journal Janashakti (1944-63) and the CPI-M’s Tamil daily Theekathir (1964-91). He laments though India attained “swaraj but sukhraj still eludes the people”. The lack of jobs and education, food and shelter, increasing crime and disrespect for women, the deepening caste-based and rich-poor divide – all dishearten him.
Remembered for giving fiery speeches, Bharathi wonders whether the billion-plus countrymen will ever be united to make India a super power and take on the challenges of modern society disabled by corruption and discrimination. Earlier, a leader’s call was enough to rouse the sentiments of the people and fight the British. But today, the so-called leaders ignore the welfare of the people, he rues.
Bharathi loves to narrate stories and meticulously maintains scrap books with photographs of leaders of the freedom movement along side notes scribbled by him. The day I called on him, he was working on his next book on the lives of different leaders. He saves his pension money to publish his books and distributes them among students, friends and laymen.
Driven by the dream of freedom, independence is Bharathi’s way of life.
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