Subhas Chandra Bose, ‘Netaji’, has appeared on several stamps issued by the Indian Postal Department. Kolkata’s international airport is named after him, as is the island formerly known as Ross Island in the Andamans. His defiant slogan—“Give me blood and I will give you freedom!”—has become near-legendary.
His life and his death, however, remain shrouded in mystery: who, exactly, was this enigmatic man who dared to cross Mahatma Gandhi himself and resorted to teaming up with Hitler, Mussolini and Japan in his quest to take down the British?
Vishwas Patil’s epic based on the life of the remarkable Subhas Chandra Bose begins with the trial, in the winter of 1945, of Shah Nawaz Khan, Prem Sehgal and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, three officers of the Indian National Army, the INA.
From there, Patil takes the story back, rewinding to the early years of the 20th century, to when an impressionable schoolboy in Cuttack, the son of Jankinath Bose, began to show a marked preference for the company of revolutionaries.
Mahanayak: Subhas Chandra Bose spans a period of less than 50 years, from Bose’s boyhood to his (supposed) death en route to Manchuria in 1945. The cast of characters is huge, ranging from Bose’s family to his associates over the years, fellow politicians and freedom-fighters, soldiers, diplomats, even his enemies.
Patil digs deep into research material to build up part-fictional, part-factual dialogues and interactions to show how Bose went from being a young man more or less destined for a distinguished career as a brown sahib in the ICS, to being the British Raj’s most vicious opponent.
Bose’s career as a politician, his changing dynamics with people (in particular Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru), and his career arc—from twice-elected Congress President, to the outcast he eventually became, at odds with Gandhi’s policy of non-violence—form the first half of this book.
The rest of the novel deals with Bose’s life outside India, when India having become unsafe for him and prospects for support against the British seeming brighter with the Axis powers, Bose went to Europe.
From here to East Asia, to the jungles of Burma and the palaces of Tokyo, is a long haul, and Patil pulls it off well, creating a stunningly vivid picture of what it must have been like to be one of Netaji’s army, intent on heading to Delhi to hoist the Tricolour on the Red Fort.
This is not an easy book to read.
For one, it has a tendency to be melodramatic. For another, the seemingly unending political machinations that rule the first half of the book begin to drag after a while.
Also, there are too many characters who are merely named and play almost no part in the events—or, alternately (like Jyotirmoyee, Shreshti and Ila), briefly figure in a fleeting incident, without any explanation of who they are. At times it appears that Patil’s research was so extensive that he could not decide where to stop.
Ultimately, however, it is Patil’s research that makes Mahanayak what it is. The sheer scope and depth of his research shine through in the way he pieces together Bose’s life, tracing not just his path but also delving into the mind and heart of his subject in an attempt to show what made Bose the man he was.
The book ends up being not merely an interesting insight into Bose, but also into the Indian freedom movement and the many hurdles it had to face. An admirable book.
Keerti Ramachandra’s translation is adequate, though she does have a tendency to literally translate idioms from Marathi into English. Also, a little research would have done no harm: transcribing Repulse as Ripples (for HMS Repulse, the British battlecruiser sunk by the Japanese) or Victor Bulmer-Lytton instead of Victor Bulwer-Lytton is a trifle careless.