Netaji: the man behind the legend

Published - August 23, 2011 10:52 am IST

Chennai: 28/06/2011: The Hindu: OEB: Book Review Column: 
Title: Sugata Bose His majesty's Opponent.
Author: Sugata Bose.

Chennai: 28/06/2011: The Hindu: OEB: Book Review Column: Title: Sugata Bose His majesty's Opponent. Author: Sugata Bose.

Maintaining clinical objectivity is of crucial importance to any biographer; more so when the subject and author have a common family tree. Sugata Bose has gone about the task admirably, as he peeps into history to reveal the man behind the legend, the visionary behind the warrior-hero that was his granduncle Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

His Majesty's Opponent is a compelling and gripping account of the life of a great adventurer played out in the theatre of India's struggle against British imperialism. It cuts through the persona, providing fresh insights into the working of Netaji's mind.

The narrative moves swiftly and is studded with anecdotes from the saga of Netaji's fight for India's freedom — whether from the prisons where he was incarcerated or while in exile. The photographs, courtesy the Netaji Research Bureau, and the facsimiles of some of his letters serve to heighten the reading experience.

The image that emerges, as one travels from one chapter to another, is of a man whose life is much more captivating than what the myths woven around it suggest and whose personality had many more dimensions than what the previous chroniclers have identified and written about. For this, Sugata Bose deserves to be particularly commended.

Understand him

Painstaking and thorough research has obviously gone into his effort. He has drawn upon Netaji's correspondences and unpublished family archives to reconstruct his thoughts both in the private and public spheres of life which go to widen one's understanding of him. Savour this from Netaji's letter written in the 1920s to his brother Sarat from the Mandalay jail: ”I am sure that when we are locked in a night we look like so many human beasts prowling about in a lighted cage … at the same time, no one who possesses any sense of humour can fail to enjoy the experience.”

The experience Subhas Bose had behind bars brought out the stoic and the resolute in him. On a different occasion and on a more sombre note, he points out to Romain Rolland that spending one's best and most creative years behind prison walls is a “price” which enslaved people in the world have always paid and will have to pay always.

One aspect the author has taken special care to highlight is Netaji's philosophical bent of mind, a constructive element that steered him through the hurly-burly of nationalist politics and its intrigues. As for the political line of Deshnayak (“Leader of the country”), an appellation given to him by Rabindranath Tagore, it was severely anti-imperialist, although, as pointed out in the book, not uncritically nationalist. His belief in the socialist reconstruction of free India also placed him at odds with Mahatma Gandhi. But, the author observes, Netaji — who, quoting poet J.H. Gurney, once said “… my conscience is my own” — did not let his political differences with Gandhiji get the better of the high regard he had for the Mahatma at the personal level.

It bears mention that Netaji earned the scorn of many a contemporary in the nation's political establishment for having favoured a spell of authoritarian regime immediately after Independence in order to facilitate the dramatic social and economic transformation he dreamt of. This has also been the subject of critical review by students of history in subsequent years. He might have advocated a ‘strong state' for ushering in revolutionary changes, but, as author Bose says, “it is doubtful that he would have been personally enamoured of the trappings of state power.”

Poignant moments

And then there are the poignant moments — not surprising in the life-story of a person whose every moment of staying away from his country was suffused by the yearning to return home, suffering as he was the pangs of separation from the woman he loved. “If fate should thus separate us in this life — I shall long for you in my next life,” Netaji wrote to Emilie Schenkl in the spring of 1936 before he left Europe for India. This eminently readable book clearly brings out that Netaji's life is one of sacrifice at the altar of India's freedom. As Sugata Bose notes, it was his immense sacrifice that made Netaji the heir to what was indeed “A Life Immortal”; an apposite title for the final chapter that speaks of the mortal end of a national hero who is deathless.

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