Title: The Wrong Turn: Love and Betrayal in the Time of Netaji
Author: Sanjay Chopra & Namita Roy Ghose
Publisher: Om Books International 2017
Mark Anthony moved the people of Rome to kill Julius Caesar’s murderers for their “bloody treason” and Macbeth trembled over his own act of regicide. The ‘Mahabharata’ treats treason as mere palace intrigue – whether it is Karna treacherously relieved of his Kavach and Kundal, or Shakuni’s trickery fuelling hatred among the cousins. Clearer forms of seditious behaviour are seen in later history. Daulat Khan, Governor of Punjab, invited Babur into India hoping to overthrow Ibrahim Lodi of the Delhi Sultanate; Panipat happened and Babur decided to stay on. Around 230 years later, Mughal decadence allowed Europeans to dig their marauding heels in thanks largely to Mir Jafar at the Battle of Plassey. Traitors turn heroes or are hanged depending on which side of the line they find themselves at the end.
Who betrayed the herculean efforts of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in his heroic attempt to enter India through the North-East? Was it merely petty enmities between misguided and greedy or jilted and frustrated individuals that led to what has come to be known as one of the greatest British victories? Netaji remained controversial throughout his life … and continues to do so long thereafter. A semi-fictional work on him is, therefore, no means an undertaking. The nation hails him as a hero of independence movement; and he is certainly much more, far above and beyond being “eligible” for the Bharat Ratna. The novel by the two authors, Sanjay Chopra and Namita Roy Ghose, attempts to cover the troubled life and times with particular reference to Netaji’s work towards wresting India from the British by force. The failure of the attempt is well-known; was that the failure caused by betrayal? It is said that the British forces in Assam learned of the Japanese advance through Burma from fleeing refugees. The question that nags the reader, however, and, it that would have nagged the authors no less, is: what community would the traitor belong to? Would it be politically right to name any person who would be linked with any particular community?
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The story revolves around a near-degenerate son of a knighted Bengali who has to flee Calcutta and finds himself in an Indian National Army (INA) camp in Singapore. There, he falls for a young nurse from the Rani Jhansi Regiment- who in turn was someone else’s childhood sweetheart: fodder for betrayal in all its bitterness. The knighted Bengali back home in Calcutta is cheated out of his wealth by a wily (and greedy) “Mr Goopta” with significant contribution from his wife’s extravagant lifestyle. This Goopta expects the knight’s son to marry his daughter – and the spurning creates another large morsel for betrayal at the appropriate time. He also angles for a huge contract from the British authorities for felling of trees in parts of Assam – in exchange for news of the INA’s movements. Treason is compounded as Goopta has Bose’s close confidant (a Muslim!) on his payroll. There are also spirited fighters in the INA who believe in a separate Pakistan.
Bose appears in the novel at a stage when his affair with Emilie Schenkl (not mentioned in the book) is a wistful memory and his dialogue with Hitler is replaced by an alliance of sorts with Japan; a rough plan for the offensive against British forces on the North-eastern borders of India is nearly complete. At about this time, the near-degenerate referred to earlier (now a Major in the INA) is captured by the British army, along with another INA stalwart.
Two separate parts are made for betrayal: which of them was the traitor? What follows is the British quandary over the INA’s choice of Kohima over Imphal and their sudden understanding of the military brilliance in the strategy; and a description of the horrifying conflict which advances almost bullet-by-bullet, grenade-by-grenade; the hand-to-hand combat, the resistance offered by the skeleton guard at the District Collector’s residence and the battle at the tennis court – all described to the last detail of the stench of rotting human flesh. Like Tennyson’s depiction of the Battle of Balaclava, they fought to the last man although the soldier knew …someone had sold-out. What really picks the book out of the ordinary is the highlighting of the Battle of Kohima, a forgotten conflict that could have turned the tide against the British in India – referred to as “Stalingrad of the East” as it was an integral turning point in the war in Asia. In 2013, the British National Army Museum voted the Battle of Imphal and Kohima to be “Britain’s Greatest Battle”. The rivals incidentally, were D-Day and Waterloo, among others. Lord Mountbatten described the victory as “probably one of the greatest battles in history…” History within India has done great injustice to this conflict: defeat here would have placed India under Japan – Subhash Chandra Bose, notwithstanding.
Then comes the sorry end of the story where research and a series of inquiries set up by the Govt of India say that Subhash Chandra Bose boarded a plane for Japan, which exploded soon after it took off; Bose reportedly succumbed to severe burn injuries that same evening. The authors, however, choose to show the disappointed (though not dejected), Bose, leaving on a plane which is watched “till it is a speck in the sky”. The legend must go on.
The life and times of Subhash Chandra Bose do generate a certain amount of curiosity – and will continue to do so for decades to come. So the series of “betrayals” over matters petty and large keep the reader glued to the book. It is an engaging story but one has to accept that it takes courage to write about a legendary person like Bose without raising hackles anywhere.