No other Indian political leader so captivated Bengal as Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945). His moon-faced, bespectacled and garlanded portrait in army uniform is still ceremoniously displayed in temporary memorial shrines in Calcutta thrice a year: on Bose's birthday, Republic Day and Independence Day. Even the city's airport is named after him.
Yet, unlike Gandhi and Nehru, Bose is hardly known in the West. This biography of Bose is a reworking of an earlier one by the unrelated Mihir Bose, The Lost Hero (1982), though that work is, oddly, not mentioned in the author's credits. Like its predecessor, this new book seeks to redress the Western imbalance.
Subhas Chandra Bose's life had the drama of a thriller. He was the son of a prominent Calcutta lawyer and the product of Western education in Calcutta and Cambridge but became a freedom fighter against British rule. In and out of jail, he staged a daring escape from British surveillance in 1941. Disguised as a Muslim gentleman and then as a mute Pathan, Bose finally reappeared as Orlando Mazzotta in Nazi Berlin.
There, he lived in a luxurious house with quasi-diplomatic status, demanding to be addressed as "Your Excellency". He fell in love with his secretary, an Austrian woman named Emilie Schenkel, whom he married out of middle-aged angst and who bore him a daughter. He started the Free India Centre, staffed by Indians who called him Netaji (Respected Leader). He published anti-British material, made radio broadcasts to India in several languages, and even had an audience with Hitler. Then, un-able to secure support from the Nazis, Bose left for Japan, travelling by submarine in early 1943 as Matsuda, the Japanese version of Mazzotta.
In the Far East, he formed an Indian National Army from Indian prisoners-of-war and from the expatriate Indian civilian population, and became its supreme commander. The INA accompanied Japan's Imperial Army in its attempted invasion of India - a disastrous strategy. Bose's poorly prepared soldiers had no chance against the strong British defence. More than half died, many from disease, while a few escaped. In May 1945, the INA surrendered, but Bose fled and, three days after the Allied victory over Japan in August, boarded an aeroplane in Formosa bound for Manchuria, which crashed. He was killed.
There is ample evidence of Bose's death in 1945, but many Bengalis refuse to believe it. Even today, Indian inquiry commissions continue to look into the circumstances of his death and fuel wild speculation, for example, that he escaped to Russia and died in a gulag. Perhaps the lack of moral leadership in Indian politics has created a psychological necessity to turn Bose into a hero.
The precise nature of Bose's collaboration with Japan, Germany and Italy in the war is debatable. Certainly he failed to see the evil in Nazism, blinded by his anti-British motto, "My enemy's enemy is my friend". He was also wrong in believing that as soon as the INA reached Assam, there would be a spontaneous uprising against the Raj. Yet he did his best for India, even if he was misguided.
This well-researched book contains some recently released classified material, which will be of some interest to specialists. Sadly, unlike the 1982 biography, it has no index and contains a number of typographical errors.
Krishna Dutta is the author of Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History .
Raj, Secrets, Revolution: A Life of Subhas Chandra Bose
Author - Mihir Bose
Publisher - Grice Chapman
Pages - 326
Price - £15.95
ISBN - 0 9545726 4 5