Devdas Chhotray
In January 2005, as an additional secretary in ministry of home affairs looking after department of Justice, I was excited about our second float that would traverse Vijay Path during the upcoming Republic Day. The year before, we had put up a tableau of the Supreme Court, guarded by the mythical deity of Justice, which won an award.
Since themes of Republic Day floats ordinarily relate to the working of sponsoring ministries, we conceived the historic INA trial (1945) as our theme. Our float depicted the courtroom scene, with the majestic ramparts of Red Fort as the backdrop. The most amazing feature was a huge bust of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, almost 30 feet high, in INA fatigues, an outstretched arm once pointed at British India from the partly liberated Burma and Andamans, with the clarion call of “Delhi chalo”. It received a rousing reception.
When the monolith of Netaji’s likeness descended from Raisina Hills, the cheering crowd along the boulevard went into a frenzy. As the media observed, never before in Delhi had such a gigantic statue of Netaji rolled down Vijay Path as a part of the country’s most known annual pageant. The float was adjudged for award, marking our second consecutive victory.
The then defence minister Pranab Mukherjee, while giving away the award, was curious to know whose idea it was to place Netaji in the frame. This gladdened my heart and affirmed the rightness of my choice.
I was always passionate about Bose. I belong to Cuttack, the erstwhile capital of Odisha, where Bose was born in January 1897. I went to the same school, Ravenshaw Collegiate, from where he matriculated in 1913, securing second position in Calcutta University. And I live in Odia Bazar, where in the palatial Janakinath Bhavan, his family home, he spent the first 17 years of his life. While walking to school in the 1950s, I would imagine Bose taking the same road by foot or by carriage half a century before.
Such physical proximity to Bose’s grooming years, through immovables and artefacts, his house and school, all within walking distance, were a source of envy for my Bengali friends in Calcutta. I would spin stories to startle them and then almost believe them myself. I would imagine the middle row seat under the fan, assigned to me in Class VIII-A, was where Bose sat. I had no clue if he wore glasses in school, but I imagined he did and drew warmth of company. I was the lone bespectacled child in school and often ragged as a Bengali boy! Walking in the quadrangle of his house at Odia Bazar, now a museum, I would imagine his footfalls on the stairs or his reclining posture in the study in mild afternoon light, reading letters to his mother, and gazing at his Cambridge and INA memorabilia. In Calcutta addas with my friends, these were fancy stories.
Much later, when I became vice-chancellor of Ravenshaw University, a young Bengali woman from Calcutta, Sohini Das, on an outreach tour, visited me. She asked if Bose had studied in Ravenshaw. He did not. I have always felt a little deprived while stating this fact. While Bose was in Ravenshaw Collegiate, from 1909 to 1913, he left for Presidency in Calcutta for graduation.
Sohini’s eyes glimmered when I promised to take her to Bose’s house and school. This was my favourite track as a guide of Cuttack. Sohini scanned the house and its preserves, from furniture to photographs, and looked longingly at his sepia-coloured handwritings. She confided in me that as a little girl, she always imagined herself as married to Bose. What appealed to her was his valour in both words and deeds.
Though married to an American diplomat, she moved about the house with ardency of a new bride in the abode of her in-laws, played the jealous wife at the mention of Emilie Schenkl, and resented in no uncertain terms my assertion that in many ways Bose was an Odia. Sohini behaved as if she was crossing borders between two births.
Then we then walked to his school that is built in two blocks — the front one in yellow Georgian style for faculty and administration and the rear in colonial red brick for classes, with a huge adjoining playground. The doors and windows were tall with Venetian shutters. I told her how the school evolved from 1841 as the first English-medium School of Odisha to its christening as Ravenshaw Collegiate in 1875. The school was the cradle for Ravenshaw College as intermediate classes were opened in its precincts.
The school’s centenary was observed in 1954, the year of my entry. The centenary souvenir cover, drawn by art teacher Bhagwan Das, had three flames emerging from a torch, each presenting the visage of an ex-student. Flanked by portraits of Madhusudan Das and Pyarimohan Acharya, Bose in his INA tunic and round spectacles burned bright in the middle. It was my first countenance with the star of Cuttack. A sense of glory for sharing the same institution and the same neighbourhood had always compensated for any momentary loss of self-esteem in me. For me, he was an incarnation of Vivekananda.
Once, media persons had asked me if the Odisha government was doing enough to preserve his memory and if that was comparable with what Bengal was doing. I said it was time to go beyond the old colonial Bengali-Odia schism and its blinkers. We must firmly believe that Netaji was as much Odia by birth and upbringing as he was Bengali or Indian. Claiming him as Odia is not a parochial pursuit, but a pursuit of right heritage. In Odisha, the springing tiger was in the making. Odias, therefore, should never shy away from claiming SB as their own, no matter how precious little governments may do.
Aspects of Bose’s Odisha connections may not fill up volumes in a relentless life of many worlds, but they had a vital formative impact. His reminiscences of Ravenshaw Collegiate in his unfinished autobiography “An Indian Pilgrim” are significant.
He joined the school in January 1909 and almost immediately noticed changes occurring within. The then headmaster Beni Madhav Das, who induced in him a deep craving for value system in life, made the strongest impact on his mind.
Contrary to partisan perception, Bose had referred to a happy mélange of teachers and students belonging to Odia and Bengali communities at the school. He felt gratified that his parents were seldom discourteous to Odias. His father, Janakinath Bose, had migrated to Cuttack in 1880s and was a well-known lawyer. The family was remembered even after they left for Calcutta. When Bose’s daughter Anita, barely 18 then, visited the ancestral house in 1960s, newspapers were full of loving anecdotes from her on Bose.
Even after leaving for Calcutta, Bose was a part of the assertion of the Odia identity in 1920s. He collaborated with Pandit Gopabandhu Das in articulating issues of Odia labourers and dockworkers. He spoke in Odia at a Calcutta meeting drawing huge cheers. His nostalgia for Odisha was evident from expressions and utterances such as “The best part of my life was spent in Odisha...”, “Being a son of Utkal, my heart is always there...” and the like.
The constitution of Forward Bloc in May 1939, as a new grouping inside the Congress, to rally all anti-imperialist and radical elements drew predictable flak from mainstream Congressmen here.
But his faithful supporters had a sizeable number of young Odias, mostly students, recruited through afternoon meetings at Ravenshaw College and through All-Orissa Students Federation.
Satish Guha, part of Bose’s team, was proactive in Puri to recruit locals. There was a fiery band of young Odia youth who were beholden to Bose. The INA too had an Odia component. Most soldiers were from Ganjam and Puri. Of the 1,100 east and south Indian civilians detained in Burma, many were Odias. About 55 Odia soldiers of the INA were kept in the central jail of Rangoon.
Bose’s Odia connections remained in virtually every activity of his.
A tender chord is struck in his relationship with Cuttack. Like Rome, the Cuttack of Bose was not built in a day. This ancient city has seen the rise and fall of a thousand years. It was built as a military cantonment, in the delta of two rivers in 989AD, and it remained Odisha’s capital till 1948. The new capital, Bhubaneswar, has virtually grown out of it and its cultural and commercial primacy has always placed Cuttack on a separate footing.
Bose loved the city of his birth. He loved the river Mahanadi, on whose bridge he would relax in winter sun and prepare his anti-English shenanigans. It is the heat and dust of Cuttack that prepared him for the sterner stuff of future. That intense 16-year-old lad of Odia Bazar has since become the brightest star in the firmament of this city of thousand years.

The Telegraph

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