When I look back, it was a time when foreigners could only travel from airport to airport under the country’s military junta and things could have gone terribly wrong.” From the expanse of sea that serves as backdrop to our conversation in his apartment in Juhu, Marathi author Vishwas Patil describes his adventures through the forests of Myanmar, as he crisscrossed the globe from Germany, Italy, England and France to Japan, Thailand, Imphal and Kohima, retracing the steps of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
The seven-year-long journey, involving exhaustive travel and research, would eventually lead to the hugely successful Marathi novel, Mahanayak (1998), translated into English this year by Keerti Ramachandra.
But the 600-page work of historical and biographical fiction is just one of Patil’s several literary achievements. His living room is lined with numerous awards. A Dirge for the Damned , first published in Marathi as Jhāḍājhaḍatī, won Patil the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1992.
Patil talks of how his imagination was fired by Bose’s story from the time he read about him in the local newspaper as a 10-year-old boy growing up in the small village of Nerle in Maharashtra.
Filling the gaps
Taking on a historical figure who continues to intrigue the nation and whose life and death are still hotly debated can be a daunting task and I ask Patil what compelled him to choose this story. “There were many gaps in the facts and events known about Netaji’s life. Singapore to Delhi is a long distance of 3,000 to 4,000 kilometres, so ‘Chalo Dilli’ was not as simple as it sounds,” he says. Patil’s extensive research fills in those gaps, covering war papers in Japan, family records in Germany, and conversations with historians, Bose’s compatriots and Japanese comrades who were still alive when Patil embarked on his journey.
With the help of friend and poet, D.M. Mulay, the Indian consul in Japan at the time, Patil met Bose’s wartime companions and prominent figures like the granddaughter of General Tojo Hideki (Japan’s wartime Prime Minister), as well as Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal, who famously set up the women’s wing of the INA. (Interestingly, he also met K.V. Narayanan, who was Southeast Asia correspondent for The Hindu for 50 years.) Later, Patil accompanied a group of visiting American war veterans who had fought Bose and the INA, on a month-long trip through Myanmar.
Mahanayak ’s appeal lies in this extensive historical research. The INA’s contribution to the cause of Indian independence by putting pressure on the already beleaguered and exhausted Empire is well known. What is not so well known, says Patil, is that Bose’s army was close to victory in 1944; the British were ready with surrender orders.
The author’s deep admiration for Bose is evident — the book elevates him to the status of a demi-god. One might have preferred to see Bose as a more flawed character and for the book to have more grey areas. While the part describing Bose’s meeting with Hitler is disappointing, Patil’s reading of the wartime files, and his journey through the jungles of Myanmar pay off in the end, for it is the last leg of the novel, containing descriptions of Bose’s trudge through Burma, that comes across as real.
On the other hand, filial and romantic relationships, including that between Emilie Schenkl and Bose, come across as simplistic and excessively sentimental. Dialogues often tend towards melodrama; one would have preferred less speech at times, with more left unsaid and open to interpretation.
“The novel has Germans, Italians, Japanese, all speaking in Marathi which made the translation tricky,” says translator Keerti Ramachandra, sharing the process and the challenges of the translation. Her greatest concern, she says, was to translate the dialogues right. She elucidates the numerous subtleties of Marathi that were difficult to interpret. In Mahanayak , while the primary research was in English, Patil’s narration has a distinct Marathi tone and register. In the original, the emotional response of Schenkl to Bose is Indianised for the Marathi reader, but Ramachandra had to keep in mind Schenkl’s Austrian sensibility for an English readership.
Ramachandra had access to the books that Patil had read and the process went beyond the act of translation itself. “Only if a translator is as involved with and emotionally invested in the characters as the writer can the translation be as close to the original as possible. The translator needs to live with the characters, which Keerti did,” says Patil.
So where does research end and fiction begin in a historical novel? It’s a tricky balance, says Patil. There is the danger of both being too factual or of distorting history. “It is eventually a play between imagination and reality.” In that, the book succeeds, of interspersing new facts with fiction.
Patil believes the success of Mahanayak lies in the fact that it narrates what actually happened on the battlefield, providing hitherto unknown details. Yet, after listening to the author’s adventures, I feel that one might well write a travelogue detailing his experiences, along the lines of Mishi Saran’s Chasing the Monk’s Shadow:A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang.
The interviewer is a freelance writer based in Mumbai. She is the author of the novel,Wanderers, All.
What is not well known, says Patil, is that Bose’s army was close to victory in 1944; the British were ready with surrender orders