It is a curious thing that in India a political figure is not as good as he/she actually is/was, rather what the ruling establishment wants to make of him/her. Thus while a range of political figures are showered with all the attention under a dispensation, a completely different range of figures fare better under a different dispensation.
The people of Bengal have maintained that their greatest protagonist for the freedom struggle, Subhas Chandra Bose, was always subjected to neglect by the Congress, because of the fundamental differences Bose had with the party’s official line. Hence, while Bose has figured consistently in Bengali books, and attracted the attention of historians abroad, very little serious historical work has been done on him in India outside Bengal.
The volume under review is not the work of a professional historian; it is the memoir of one of Bose’s nephews, a protagonist of the great escape drama staged by Bose, eluding British surveillance to join the Axis powers in a bid to pose a military challenge to the British at the time of World War II.
The book is the English version of a Bengali original, Basu-bari, originally published in the popular Bengali fortnightly Anandamela in the early 1980s. Sisir Bose, the son of Subhas’s elder brother and prominent member of the Bengal Congress, Sarat Chandra Bose, had driven “Uncle Subhas” in the dead of the night in 1940 out of his internment in Calcutta. Sisir did not seem to have harboured any political ambition. Otherwise, his incarceration in the Red Fort, the infamous Lahore fort, and that of Lyallpur would have sufficed to make a flourishing political career for Sisir in the footsteps of his father and uncle—political careers in India have been built on far less. Instead, he went back to his chosen career, medicine, after 1947 and won recognition for his work.
More than four decades after he had helped Subhas escape, when he set down to write about his famous uncle and nearly-as-famous father, Sisir simply recounted his personal experiences from the ringside of India’s freedom movement before his uncle veritably dragged Sisir into the arena of India’s freedom movement. The book does not provide the reader with any major historical insight, nor even discloses any dramatic piece of information, nor pretends to aspire to ruffle any feathers anywhere. It provides a very lucid narrative of the politics of the Bose brothers in Bengal from the mid-30s to the death of Sarat Bose in 1950, neatly woven into a tapestry of the quotidian aspects of the Bose households of Elgin Road and Woodburn Park—the latter being the forte of the book. The book provides the most detailed account possible of the night Subhas escaped from his Elgin Road residence.
More importantly, the book provides fascinating snippets of some of the most significant dramatis personae of India’s freedom struggle, revealing the human side to some of the stalwarts of India nationalism—ranging from CR Das’s ties with the Bose household; Gandhi’s charging `5 for every autograph he gave out, by way of mobilising funds for the freedom movement; Nehru sharing his food with the children of the Bose household, or later, comparing his own smoking habits as PM with that of Bose during the war (as one would, speaking of a long-lost friend). It can lay to rest (should anyone mean to) some myths about Bose’s equations with Gandhi and Nehru (among others) that the Bengalis have nurtured for ages. The book should be read by anyone with interest in the human face of our nationalist heroes.