Asha-san at the Rani of Jhansi regiment
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An Indian teenager’s eventful years in Japan during World War II tell the story of the Indian National Army

January 20, 2023 09:01 am | Updated January 21, 2023 03:35 pm IST

Subhas Chandra Bose with his Indian National Army (INA). At 17, Asha-san lived her dream of meeting Bose and joining the Rani Jhansi Regiment of the INA.

Subhas Chandra Bose with his Indian National Army (INA). At 17, Asha-san lived her dream of meeting Bose and joining the Rani Jhansi Regiment of the INA. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

The memories of 95-year-old Lt. Bharati Asha Sahay Choudhry’s struggles and sacrifice would have been lost if she (in the picture) had not translated it into Hindi in 1973.

The memories of 95-year-old Lt. Bharati Asha Sahay Choudhry’s struggles and sacrifice would have been lost if she (in the picture) had not translated it into Hindi in 1973. | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Eighty years ago, a teenaged girl born to Indian parents in war-ravaged Japan, wrote down her aspirations and dreams in a diary. She recorded her thoughts on the impact of World War II on ordinary people, her unbound admiration for Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and her unwavering love for her motherland in the language she knew best — Japanese. At 17, she lived her dream of meeting Bose and joining the Rani Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army (INA). As Lt. Bharati Asha Sahay Choudhry, the young girl learnt how to shoot and what it meant to fight for a country she had never seen but wanted to serve like a true patriot.

The memories of Asha-san’s (as she was respectfully called in Japanese) struggles and sacrifice would have been lost in the pages of her diary if she had not herself translated it into Hindi in 1973. Half-a-century later, her grand daughter-in-law, Tanvi Srivastava, has translated the Hindi diary into English as The War Diary of Asha-san: From Tokyo to Netaji’s Indian National Army. Edited excerpts from an interview with Srivastava before the 126th birth anniversary of Netaji on January 23.

What turned you to translation from writing fiction and short stories?

During COVID lockdown, I applied for a writing mentorship inspired by an article by Jhumpa Lahiri where she said, if you are an aspiring writer and want to improve your craft of writing, try your hand at translation. I stumbled upon Asha-san’s diary on my bookshelf and my mentor at the writing workshop, Saad, a Bangladeshi fiction writer, encouraged me to take the plunge. 

Original texts tend to get lost in translation. You took up Asha-san’s diary which was already translated from Japanese to Hindi?

Asha-san’s courage and voice in the stories were mesmerising. I did not have to worry about the plot or how the story is progressing but focus on the language discovering the characters. The first round of literal translation took less than two months. 

‘The book is not just a simple memoir. It is rich in history and you cannot make factual edits,’ says Tanvi Srivastava, grand daughter-in-law of Asha-san pictured here.

‘The book is not just a simple memoir. It is rich in history and you cannot make factual edits,’ says Tanvi Srivastava, grand daughter-in-law of Asha-san pictured here. | Photo Credit: special arrangement

How far could you remain true to the original text from the 1940s? 

The original text is sacrosanct. But the book is not just a simple memoir. It is rich in history and you cannot make factual edits. I researched for accuracy of events mentioned in the book. The Hindi text was dense. I simplified it and allowed the language to flow in present tense to make it riveting. Naresh Dudani, a collector of old magazines in Ahmedabad, scanned and sent me the Hindi translation that was first serialised into three parts in Dharmyug magazine in 1973 and later a book was published in Hindi in 1981. I had different versions to match and rely on.

As a family member, did it make your task difficult?

I was lucky that I could spend time with Asha-san, (now 95 years and lives with her son Sanjay Choudhry in Patna) as she narrated lot of other anecdotes. The essence of the story remains the same but when stories are buried in languages, translation is like a magical excavation expedition. 

What is the most memorable part of the diary? 

It recorded an interesting period in history. The diary starts from 1943 when Netaji arrives in Japan and Asha-san meets him in a hotel with her mother and tells him she wants to join the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Her journey to the camp in Bangkok to receive Army training is nothing short of a thriller. When the war starts, she documents bombs falling, life without food, hiding in trenches, meeting the kamikaze pilots, her imprisonment and return to India — everything gives you goosebumps. 

How challenging was it to be a first-time translator of a book that is an important part of India’s history?  

I was careful about fact-checking and matching the different narratives, digging into history for accuracy of timeline and chronology of events. I read old books, official papers and British Intelligence files at the National Archives. The original diary has Haikus by Asha-san and she focuses on nature and minimalism. I have tried to get in the sensibilities of the Japanese language and their concepts.

Does Asha-san’s writing compare with ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’?

I re-read Anne Frank; she was born the same year as Asha-san but was few years younger when she wrote her diary. There is a striking similarity in terms of their voices; both were headstrong teenagers, funny and opinionated; both were patriotic who put the cause above themselves and the turmoil in their lives. Asha-san’s diary will resonate with a wide audience. It is a liberating experience to bring back stories from the past, and the current wave of translations is a good sign as there is a lot of material around the freedom movement yet to be tapped.

The War Diary of Asha-san: From Tokyo to Netaji’s Indian National Army; Lt. Bharati ‘Asha’ Sahay Choudhry, translated by Tanvi Srivastava, HarperCollins, ₹599.

soma.basu@thehindu.co.in

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