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Through the scrolls of history

He cherishes his meeting with the Mahatma and Nehru's speeches he listened to in Parliament.

Ranganathan: A nostalgic moment. — Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

IT IS Independence Day - a day when the feeling of patriotism is at its peak. Television and radio channels relay programmes related to the Indian Independence. Newspapers are full of tales of freedom fighters who died heroically. Even young children hoist the national flag in their schools to celebrate this important day.

But one wonders if the present generation will ever understand the trauma and pain that our predecessors lived through in pre-independent India. Those who were around are still haunted by the horrors they and their families faced at the time. One of them is Capt. Ranganathan. As he narrates incidents from the past, he stares straight at the wall in front of him as if watching it happen on a screen. "When I was four, my grandmother told me that I could not get my morning cup of cocoa because two people were fighting. It was only when I was older that I realised the `fight' was the Second World War. It was 1939 and by default, pre-Independence India was also involved in the war."

He also recollects watching the unclothed and wounded captives brought from Singapore. "In 1941-42, they were brought in by the British to the Ravenshaw College in Cuttack, where my childhood was spent. It is the same college where Subhash Chandra Bose studied. The Quit India Movement made waves all over India and newspapers reported students leaving college shouting: `Strike! Strike!'"

Those days the atmosphere in British India was charged with sabotage, riots, and explosions. There was an uprising amongst the youth and one could come across a small political group forming in one's own nukkad. "There was no TV then. So people would collect together to (listen to) the radio, as not every family owned one."

Even as the political fervour reigned, there was a distinct imperialist segment in society. All the major government and civil posts such as IG of Police, Collectors, District Education Officers, principals of colleges, etc., were held by the British. "If my grandfather even dreamed of the white skin, he would perhaps get up and do shashtang namaskaar!" he laughs.

The dates and events are perfectly etched in Capt. Ranganathan's mind and for this he gives credit to his grandfather. "He was paralysed. So I used to sit down and read out the news aloud for him to hear." He also remembers reading about Hitler's suicide and the subsequent end of the War, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings that shook everyone, and incidents such as the Cabinet Mission, and so on. Later, young Ranganathan was sent to Coimbatore where he completed his basic education and learnt Hindi, "because it was a fad".

Inevitably he talks about Mahatma Gandhi. In fact, Capt. Ranganathan's father had once been Gandhiji's stenographer and worked for the Harijans' upliftment. People in the South eagerly awaited the Mahatma's visit when the frail leader undertook his walking tour of East India, appealing to people to maintain peace after the direct action call by the Muslim League. While Gandhiji was the most charismatic, Capt. Ranganathan says, stalwarts such as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, SardarVallabhai Patel, and Jawaharlal Nehru had their following too.

He even recalls listening to the famous "Ttryst with destiny" speech made by Nehru on August 14 at the stroke of midnight. Young Ranganathan was huddled by the radio with his friends, while his father was literally standing before the leader. "My father was a parliamentary reporter and was present at that moment when independent India's first Prime Minister was sworn in." When Ranganathan was studying in Delhi, he got several opportunities to listen to Nehru's speeches in Parliament as his father provided him with passes.

One incident he cherishes is when he won a prize in a recitation competition organised by the Ramakrishna Mission. Nehru presided over the prize-giving ceremony. He won a pat on the back from the Prime Minister for his superb recitation of the 11th chapter of the Bhagvad Gita.

Another memory he holds close to his heart is his meeting with the Mahatma. The date was January 23, 1948, and the occasion, the prayer meeting. Gandhiji had just broken his fast and was weak. "It was 5:30 p.m. on a Friday and we were eight feet away from the leader. There was something ethereal about it all. I could not believe I was seeing him in person. There was chaos amongst the crowd yet there was a quiet and calm radiance on Gandhiji's face... A clear inner calmness that is possible only through self control and self evolution."

The 500 to 600 people at the Birla House that day heard Gandhiji and his daughters sing Raghupati Raghva. "They even recited verses from the Koran, Bible, and shlokas from the second chapter of the Bhagvad Gita." Ranganathan was so inspired he promptly went home and learnt the shlokas himself. So great was the charisma of the Mahatma that on October 2, when he wanted M.S. Subbulakshmi to sing his favourite Mira bhajan, All India Radio specially made arrangements for the singer to learn it and sing it for him. "The bhajan was promptly recorded and sent back to Delhi, to be played in time for the birthday celebrations," Capt. Ranganathan recollects.

The newly independent India could not be with its most famous leader for long as he met his end on January 30, 1948. Capt. Ranganathan and his family heard the news at Wardha as they were heading for Madras from Delhi.

Capt. Ranganathan talks of the failed expectations of an independent India. "We were made to believe that milk and honey would flow, there would be no hunger or poverty. The papers predicted utopia." Perhaps this was to downplay the horrors of Partition, and the deracination of lakhs of people on either side of the border.

He traces the Kashmir problem to 1947, when the Pakistani troops entered into districts of Poonch, Baramullah, Rajouri, and so on, disguised as tribal people. In October 1947, he recalls seeing the Dakota planes take off every 15-20 minutes as the Indian Army was sent to fight them. These were the events that finally led the Maharaja of Kashmir to accede his kingdom to the Indian Government.

Capt. Ranganathan himself went on to serve the Indian Navy for 20 years, after which he joined the Merchant Navy and travelled around the world.

Even today this genial man keeps himself busy, with a healthy interest in everything around him. He can hold forth on issues ranging from politics to electoral reforms, his residential colony activities to the stray dog menace!


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