As one enters the house of Saraswathy Rajamani, one is struck by the number of photographs of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. They are everywhere, on the wall, on the table, inside the cabinet. For someone like her, it is quite understandable -- because not everyone spends her teenage years working for Netaji or for the Indian National Army -- that too as a spy.
After spending her growing years fighting courageously, often risking her own life, Saraswathy lives a lonely life of neglect and penury.
Till recently she had been living in a small, dilapidated, rented room. Thanks to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, she has a house now, albeit an old one in a colony.
Her sad story that appeared in a newspaper caught the chief minister's attention, and she was immediately allotted a house and a grant. However, it was unfortunate that it took so long for a government to notice a person who fought for India's freedom.
When I entered her house, Saraswathy was in no mood to talk. She was breathless -- a result of three previous heart attacks. A few visitors were just leaving.
"I have grown old and tired, and the family who visited me just now was very close to me but I couldn't remember who they are. My mind is forgetting everything; faces, voices and names." Her voice trailed off. She says she is 83. I think she's possibly 78, if she left the INA in 1945 as an eighteen year old.
A few minutes later, she started talking again; about her meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, her days with the INA, her work as a spy for the INA, etc.
Though frail and restricted to a liquid diet, her tired mind is agile enough to take a trip back through the years, images became clearer and she started recounting her life in Burma.
Let's go back about seventy years. Mahatma Gandhi was paying a visit to one of the richest Indians in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar). The man who owned a gold mine and his entire household gathered together to meet the Mahatma. Save one 10-year-old girl. The family looked for her, Rajamani, everywhere. The little girl was in the garden practising shooting. The Mahatma was shocked to see such a small girl play with a gun.
"Don't play with the gun, little girl," he told her.
"I am practising shooting so that I can kill the British," said she without even looking at him.
"Violence is not good, girl. We are fighting the British through non-violent ways. You should also do that," the Mahatma urged.
"We shoot and kill the looters, don't we? The British are looting India, and I am going to shoot at least one Britisher when I grow up," she would have none of the non-violence talk from the Mahatma.
As she grew up, she started hearing a lot about Netaji, and became very enamoured of him. Her chance to meet him and listen to his speech came only six years later when she was 16. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was speaking about liberating India. Unlike the Mahatma, Netaji urged everyone to take up arms and fight the British.
Rajamani was so impressed with his speech that when he asked the audience to donate, she removed all her gold and diamond jewellery and gave them to the Indian National Army. A young girl donating all her expensive jewellery did not fail to attract the attention of Netaji. On enquiry, he came to know that she was the daughter of one of the wealthiest Indians in Burma.
The very next day, Netaji arrived at her residence to return all the jewellery. He told her father, "Due to her innocence, she gave away all her jewellery. So, I have come to return it."
While her father smiled, an angry Rajamani said, "They are not my father's, they are mine. I gave all of them to you, and I will not take them back."
So stubborn was the girl that Netaji could not but admire her determination. "You have the wisdom only Goddess Saraswathi has. Lakshmi (money) comes and goes but not Saraswathi. So I name you Saraswathi."
Rajamani became Saraswathi Rajamani from that day onwards. Immediately, she urged Netaji to recruit her in his army.
Rajamani and five of her friends became members of the Indian National Army the following day. Netaji asked them to work as spies for the INA. All the girls dressed themselves as boys and worked in the camps and houses of British officers. For the next two years, they were boy spies.
"As a boy, my name was Mani. We diligently listened to all the conversation the British officers had and later on, all five of us discussed the information we had collected, and then conveyed it to Netaji. Those were very exciting days," said Rajamani, the excitement coming through even in her feeble voice.
The exciting days included a brush with death too. The instruction to them was that if they were caught by the British, they should immediately shoot themselves. But before one girl could do that, she was caught. Rajamani decided to do the rescue act.
"I went to the den as a dancer, drugged the Britishers and rescued my friend. As we were running for our lives, a Britisher shot at my right leg. I ran with my leg bleeding. Both of us climbed onto a tree and sat there for three days. Only on the fourth day, we came down. Netaji was so happy with our bravery that he saluted us and congratulated us several times. I was given a medal by the Japanese emperor himself," recounted a proud Rajamani.
Came the end of World War II. The Allies won the war, and Netaji decided to disband the INA. He asked all its members to return. Saraswathy Rajamani and her family gave away everything they had including the gold mines and made their way to India.
"Please don't ask what happened to us after we came back to India, and how we lived. I don't like to think or talk about it," Rajamani said firmly.
She closed her eyes for some time and then said in a low voice, "A hand that has only given things to people accepted money from the government a few days ago. I was in such dire straits that I could do only that."
She was referring to the money and the house donated to her by the Tamil Nadu government. Though she is very grateful to the chief minister, the very thought that what she accepted was charity, for the first time in her long life, troubled her.
"The CM was very nice. I went in my INA uniform, saluted her and said Jai Hind."
But the tired woman gets all fired up when she starts talking about Netaji. "He was so great that he could see what would happen tomorrow. He would surprise you all the time by coming in different disguises. He believed in Swami Vivekananda's ideals, and Netaji was like God to all of us."
So strong is her love for Netaji even today that she and some other freedom fighters have been assembling in Madurai on Netaji's birthday for the last several years. "We stand in front of his statue and salute, then meditate. Once I was in the ICU after a heart attack. I thought I would not be able to go but I do not know how it happened, I could go out just in time to be there to salute Netaji. It was a miracle! In the case of Netaji, miracles do happen."
She put on the INA cap and said apologetically, "I am tired. Otherwise, I would have worn the dress for you too to see."
As we were ready to go, she stood up, saluted and said, Jai Hind! And, the handshake! It was not the handshake of a tired old woman; it was warm and very strong, exactly like the woman.
Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj