“Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34” by Manini Chatterjee

Do and Die

19th April 1930. “The Government regrets to have to announce that the railway and police armouries at Chittagong were attacked on the night of 18th-19th April by a body of insurgents, estimated at about 100, and were gutted. Details are not yet fully known. Telegraphic communications were interfered with but are being restored. A train was also derailed on the night of April 18th….”

This book gives a minute by minute account of what the British called the ‘Chittagong Armoury Raid.’ Surjya Sen, reverently called ‘Masterda,’ was the elusive, enigmatic mastermind behind this daring act. Ambika Chakravati and Ananta Singh were among his closest associates.

In October 1924, the Bengal government arrested many revolutionaries for “suspected terror links,” among them Subhash Chandra Bose. Surjya Sen was jailed for two years from October 1926 and released two years later along with several others from Chittagong. They forged a group, generating funds, procuring arms and preparing for combat. Officially, they were all members of the Congress party.

In February 1929, Surjya Sen was elected secretary of the Chittagong District Congress Committee. He virtually lived in the party office, recruiting and training youngsters for an armed revolt. On 15th September, there was a massive demonstration when Jatin Das died in Lahore jail after a 63 day hunger strike. On 15th October, the Chittagong revolutionaries adopted the ‘Death Program’ – to do and die. They called themselves the Indian Republican Army and vowed to re-enact the Easter Rising that had occurred three years ago in Dublin, Ireland.

On 18th April 1930, the IRA carried out their action plan with 64 revolutionaries. The youngest was only 14 years old. They got the arms but not the ammunition. Without ammunition there was no way they could hold the positions they had captured. So they retreated after setting the armoury on fire. Himangshu Sen, badly burned in the process was safely evacuated but died a few days later.

The fugitives were hunted down and on 22nd April at the Battle of Jalalabad, 10 youngsters died fighting. Harigopal Bal, the first to fall, called out to his brother Lokenath Bal, “I’m on my way, you carry on.” Later the British would throw the bodies in a heap, pour petrol over them and set them alight. Two days later, Ardhendhu Dastidar and Matilal Kanungo died of wounds sustained in the battle.

Gandhi did not speak of these martyrs. The author wryly remarks that, “Even martyrdom lies in the ideology of the bestower”.

42 survivors melted way into the surrounding villages, splitting into two groups, one led by Masterda and Nirmal Sen, the other by Lokenath Bal. The army undertook combing operations, motor launches searched the river, and aircraft made aerial surveys but the boys could not be traced. Amarendra Nandi, who had been sent on a reconnaissance mission to Chittagong town died in a police encounter on 24th April.

Masterda soon ordered his group to disperse. Those who were unknown to the police were advised to return home. Masterda told the young Subodh Roy that if he was tortured by the police he should not divulge any names. “Remember at the time the martyrs who gave you their lives in the Jalalabad Hill,” he said. Subodh remembered the leader’s words when days later he was mercilessly beaten by the police.

There were other encounters, other martyrs. On June 28th, Ananta Singh, one of the most charismatic ring-leaders, surrendered. Soon after his arrival in jail the few youngsters who had given confessional statements retracted them one by one. The government could not find a single approver. Sarat Chandra Bose, elder brother of Subhash Chandra Bose, stepped up to represent Ananta Singh at the trial.

On 25th August in Calcutta a bid to assassinate Police Commissioner, Charles Tegart, misfired. A few were injured, and Anuja Sengupta died in the blast. Four days later Bengal’s Inspector General of Police, Lowman was shot in Dacca and died of his injuries. The shooter escaped.

On 2nd September the British discovered that a few of the absconders were being sheltered at the French enclave of Chandernagore. They attacked the hideout, and Jiban Goshal (Makhan) was killed. Lokenath Bal, Ganesh Ghosh and Ananda Gupta were captured. Makhan was accorded an emotional farewell as the entire populace paid respects to the martyr. The people of the settlement passed a resolution condemning the British action on French soil.

Ramkrishna Biswas was hanged on 4th August 1931 for attempting to assassinate Lowman’s successor on 1st December 1930. Kalipada Chakravarty was awarded transportation for life.

Pritilata Wadedar led the Pahartali Raid and died a martyr on 24th September 1932. It was a classic case of a woman leading men in action. A leaflet issued after the Pahartali raid read, “….the Indian Republican Army plunges today in this bloody revenge and lets the British rulers know that however weak and helpless, India will never tolerate these sorts of wanton barbarity with equanimity and silence.” There were no arrests.

All this and more are an integral part of India’s independence struggle. The Dynamite Conspiracy case, the Dhalghat encounter that claimed the lives of Nirmal Sen and Apurba (Bhola) Sen, the Gohira encounter and a variety of other events come alive in the pages of this book.

Masterda was finally captured in February 1933, while Kalpana Dutta and others survived the encounter only to be arrested a month later in a shootout at Gohira. When the Special Tribunal announced its verdict in August 1933, it was death for Masterda and Tarakeshwar Dastidar. Kalpana was got a reduced sentence – transportation for life – in view of the fact that she was only 19 years old and a woman.

Surjya Sen and Tarakeshwar Dastidar were hanged in secret on 12th January 1934 and their bodies dumped in the Bay of Bengal. When Independence came in 1947, new generations were led to believe that the ‘transfer of power’ was the result of non-violent struggle.

Overall assessment: Must read.

Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War” by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara


This is a book about the Cuban Revolution by one of its legendary heroes. It was compiled in 1963, four years after the triumph of the guerrilla war that brought Fidel Castro to power on 1st January 1959. Argentine doctor-turned-guerrilla fighter Ernesto Guevara de la Serna had fought shoulder to shoulder with his Cuban comrades to overthrow the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. A universal symbol of resistance to oppression and injustice, Che believed that revolutionary uprising was the only path to liberation of oppressed peoples.

Talking of his harrowing experiences in the first few days after the small band of warriors landed in Cuba on 2nd December 1956, and all but 20 of the 82 men died in combat, Che writes, “I immediately began to think of the best way to die, since in that minute all seemed lost. I remembered an old Jack London story in which the hero, aware that he is about to freeze to death in Alaskan ice, leans against a tree and prepares to die with dignity. That was the only thing that came to my mind.”

The innocence of youth is striking. “As a trophy from the Battle of La Plata, I had taken a helmet from one of Batista’s corporals, and I wore it with great pride.” The helplessness of the invalid is apparent. “My asthma was somewhat aggravated and the lack of medicine meant I was almost as immobile as the wounded.”

The mind of the quintessential revolutionary is evident. “The people in the Sierra Maestra grow like wild flowers, untended and without care, and they wear themselves out rapidly, working without reward. We began to feel in our bones the need for a definitive change in the life of the people.”

The sensitive humanist also surfaces from time to time. “Blind and unrewarded sacrifices also made the revolution. Those of us who today see its achievements have the responsibility to remember those who fell along the way, and to work for a future where there will be fewer stragglers.”

Che describes his efforts at dentistry with characteristic humour. “Besides the meagerness of my skill, we had no anaesthetic, so I frequently used ‘psychological anaesthesia’ – a few harsh epithets when my patients complained too much about the work going on in their mouths.” When Batista’s forces leave behind a trail of destruction after failing to find the guerrillas, Che observes: “In the midst of the smoking ruins we found nothing but some cats and a pig; they had escaped the destructive fury of the invaders only to fall into our gullets.”

Che recounts his meeting with Fidel Castro in Mexico City in 1955, tells us how they both landed in jail, how they bribed their way out and how they made the dangerous sea crossing to land on Cuban shores after running out of food, water and fuel. “It was a shipwreck rather than a landing,” he writes. He describes how they ate raw crabs, horse meat and anything they could lay their hands on, how they drew water from holes in the rocks using hollowed out sticks, and how they dealt ruthlessly with traitors and informers.

There is deep pathos in his references to fallen comrades. “We must make time to weep for our fallen companeros while we sharpen our machetes.”

If Che Guevara hadn’t become a guerrilla commander he could have been a best-selling author. He was such a prolific writer – and he had so much to say.

Overall Assessment: Must read.

YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2006 (first published in Spanish in 1963)

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan


“If you do not have a sword,” Jesus instructed his disciples, “go sell your cloak and buy one.” Was this the same man who said, “Turn the other cheek” and “Love thy neighbour as thyself”?

Iranian born American author Reza Aslan makes a valiant attempt to unveil the real Jesus – and in the process unearths some curious facts. The gospels were recorded by Greek speaking diaspora Jews. The gospel of Luke was written in Antioch and that of John in Ephesus. Almost every story written about Jesus was composed after the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 C.E. (In 70 C.E., the Romans razed Jerusalem to the ground.) The Kingdom of God never came. But Jesus, the messiah, was gradually transformed from a revolutionary nationalist into a spiritual leader espousing a message of peace and brotherhood.

Belief in the resurrection of Jesus seems to have pre-dated the gospels and other written sources. But only two facts about Jesus are absolutely certain: Firstly, that he was a charismatic preacher who led a Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century. Secondly, that Rome crucified him for this crime. The plaque they placed above his head on the cross read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. (However, Mathew and Luke claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.) There’s no evidence for the ‘born in the manger’ story or the ‘immaculate conception’ theory.

Jesus performed faith cure and exorcism – and never exacted a fee. There’s more historical material confirming his miracles than either his birth or his death.

Jerusalem had a history of conflict long before the birth of the saviour. The story of Moses and the great exodus is well known. But the Jews did not live happily ever after in the Promised Land. The Babylonians obliterated King Solomon’s temple in 586 B.C.E. Later they were defeated by the Persians who allowed the enslaved Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Then Jerusalem fell to Alexander the Great and was subsequently ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty. In 164 B.C.E. the Jews regained power and held it for the next 100 years. Roman dominion began in 63 B.C.E., and when Herod died in 4 B.C.E. a period of violent uprisings followed. Jesus was born sometime between 4 B.C.E. and the takeover of Jerusalem by Roman troops in 6 C.E.

In 28 C.E. an ascetic preacher, John the Baptist, began baptizing people in the River Jordan. Jesus was baptised by him – and probably began his ministry as John’s disciple. Sometime between 28 and 30 C.E. John the Baptist was put to death by Herod Antipas, one of Pontius Pilate’s lieutenants.

After his baptism Jesus went out into the wilderness of Judea – and returned home only after the arrest of his mentor. By then he had metamorphosed into a preacher. He called himself ‘Son of Man’. He had both male and female disciples who followed him from place to place. Women disciples named in the New Testament include Joanna, Mary, Salome, Susanna and Mary of Magdala.

The matter of Jesus’ bachelorhood also remains unresolved. Celibacy was extremely rare in Jewish society, being restricted to monastic orders such as the Essenes (custodians of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

The prophet Isaiah had foretold that Israel would be redeemed, that God’s Kingdom would be established on earth. Jesus merely said the Kingdom of God is at hand. But it amounted to saying the end of the Roman Empire was imminent. His “blessed are the poor….” statement implied a reversal of the prevailing social order. It was a call to rebellion. Consider this quote from Matthew and Luke, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.”

After Jesus’ death his brother James became leader of the early Christians. The Lord did have brothers and sisters – which goes to disprove his mother’s perpetual virginity. Joseph, the father, disappears after the infancy narratives. He is mentioned only by Matthew and Luke, as is the story of the virgin birth. According to the gospel of Mark, when Jesus first begins preaching in Nazareth, the villagers ask, “Is this not Mary’s son?” Males in Palestine were never called by their mothers’ names. Burial after crucifixion was not normal practice either. It was customary to leave the corpses on the cross to be devoured by dogs and birds of prey. So why and how did Jesus get a burial?

Saul of Tarsus (who became Paul after his conversion) rejected Jewish law and began teaching believers not to circumcise their children. He had serious conflicts with James and the apostles. In the early sixties Paul was arrested and extradited to Rome, where Peter, the first of the 12 apostles was already living. In 66 C.E. as Jerusalem erupted in revolt, the emperor Nero had Peter and Paul executed. Their martyrdom made them the most important figures of Christiandom. There had been messiahs and martyrs before and after Jesus, but today he alone is God.

Though James headed the first Christian community and eventually died a martyr, he was overlooked in later chronicles, and almost wholly excised from the New Testament.

The book throws light on some ancient Jewish traditions. I was struck by the uncanny resemblance of the daily rites of the Temple of Jerusalem to that of our Hindu temples. The burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, the sounding of trumpets, and the animal sacrifices (which are now unlawful), the purification rituals and the shaving of heads would be all too familiar to any practising Hindu. Menstruating women were not allowed to enter the Temple.

Overall Assessment: Great read, though it does appear that the author has a bee in his bonnet.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
AUTHOR: Reza Aslan
PUBLISHER: The Westbourne Press

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Without Fear: The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh” by Kuldip Nayar

Without Fear

A mother who advises her young son to shout ‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ when he stands at the gallows. Vidyavati Kaur, mother of Bhagat Singh. We ought to remember her name. It’s the least we can do.

23rd March, 1931. Lahore Central Jail. 3 young revolutionaries are hanged – Bhagat Singh, Shivram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar. That’s when the countdown begins. The beginning of the collapse of the mighty British Empire.

Bhagat Singh once said to Congress leader Bhimsen Sachar, “Revolutionaries have to die because the cause they represent is strengthened by sacrifice – not by an appeal in court.” When asked by his lawyer Pran Nath Mehta just two hours before his execution whether he had any message for the nation, Bhagat Singh said, “Just the two messages : ‘Down with Imperialism!’ and ‘Long live Revolution!’”

In an article titled ‘Why I am an Atheist’, Bhagat Singh wrote, “I am going to sacrifice my life for a cause. What more consolation can there be? A God-believing Hindu may expect to be reborn a king; a Muslim or a Christian may dream of the luxuries he hopes to enjoy in paradise as a reward for his sufferings and sacrifices. What hopes should I entertain? I know that it will be the end when the rope is tightened around my neck and the rafters removed from under my feet.”

When Bhagat Singh and the other defendants entered the court singing, “Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai, dekhna hai zor kitna bazua-i-katil mein hai, Waqt ane de bata deinge tujheeh asman, ham abhi se kya batain, kya hamare dil emin hai,” the British judge summoned the public prosecutor and demanded a translation. It was the 5th of May 1930. The poem is believed to have been composed by Ram Prasad Bismil, another HSRA member, who had been executed on 19th December 1927 for the Kakori train robbery.

Bhagat Singh wrote 4 books in jail. All of them disappeared without a trace. The titles were: The History of the Revolutionary Movement in India, The Ideal of Socialism, At the Door of Death, and Autobiography. Mathura Das Thapar, brother of Sukhdev brought a copy of the ‘Proceedings Book of the Lahore Conspiracy Case’ from Pakistan to India and deposited it with the National Archives in New Delhi. Sukhdev had scribbled comments in the margins before his execution.

The average age of the 28 accused in the Lahore Conspiracy case was 22. Jatindra Nath Das died after 63 days of fasting in jail. The British made the cryptic announcement: “J. N. Das died yesterday at about 1-10 p.m. His brother K. C. Das received Rs. 600 from Subhash Chandra Bose from Calcutta to pay for the carriage of the body by car.”

Bhagat Singh surpassed the 97-day world record for hunger strikes, set by an Irish revolutionary. He fasted for 116 days in 1929 along with several other revolutionaries. A daring plan was hatched to rescue Bhagat Singh and others from jail. It ended in a fiasco when a bomb exploded in Bhagwati Charan’s hand killing him on the spot. Nine months later Chandrasekhar Azad died fighting the police at Allahabad.

Inspector W J C fern, a British officer who was at the scene of Saunders’ killing failed to recognize Bhagat Singh at the identification parade. It was the testimony of the five approvers that sealed his fate.

Bhagat Singh once wrote to his mother Vidyavati Kaur, “I have no doubt that my country will one day be free. But I am afraid that the brown sahibs are going to sit in the chairs the white sahibs will vacate.”

Udham Singh and Bhagat Singh met in Lahore Central Jail. The former told the latter that one day he would go to England and kill Michael O’Dwyer who had been Lieutenant Governor of Punjab when the Jallianwala Bagh massacre had been committed. Nine years after Bhagat Singh was hanged, Udham Singh managed to fulfil his promise. On 13th March 1940 he shot dead O’Dwyer in London, a full 21 years after the gory event in Amritsar.

The book throws light on many crucial historical facts – and highlights refreshingly different perspectives. The good the bad and the ugly appear in different shades of black, white and grey. All men and women born in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the United Kingdom should read this book.

Overall assessment: A brilliant book about an immortal subject. Do read more than once.

Without Fear: The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh
Author: Kuldip Nayar
Publisher : Harper Collins (First published in 2000 by Har-Anand Publications)
Year of Publication: 2007

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

Killing Lincoln

Lincoln has his premonitions. Two weeks before the assassination, he has a nightmare which he recounts to his wife and colleagues after a few days: “There seemed to be death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room. No living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. It was light in all the rooms. Every object was familiar to me. ” Lincoln goes on to describe how he reaches the East Room and finds a corpse surrounded by soldiers and mourners. He asks one of the soldiers, “Who is dead in the White House?” Pat came the reply, “The President. He was killed by an assassin.” Thereupon the crowd burst into a loud outpouring of grief.

Bill O’Reilly is a household name in America. Together with Martin Dugard, a historian, he puts together a highly interesting account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on 14th April, 1865. The history books had told us the dark deed was done by an actor, John Wilkes Booth. And we knew there were unexplained coincidences and conspiracy theories. This book tells us a lot more. The authors adopt a countdown format, with the narrative beginning six weeks before the assassination. The events of each day are outlined minute by minute. These are the concluding days of the Civil War and there is violence, bitterness and hatred all around.

It wasn’t a lone wolf attack. There were co-conspirators.William Seward, Secretary of State, who was seriously ill was attacked in his bed on the same day at the same time. He was wounded but survived. Seward went on to buy Alaska for the United States.

While Booth was shot dead 12 days later, 4 others were sent to the gallows within 3 months while a few more served prison sentences. Lewis Powell, the man who attacked Seward, was among those hanged. Mary Suratt, who provided arms and lodging to the conspirators became the first and only woman to be hanged in the United States. Whispers were doing the rounds that Edwin M Stanton, Secretary of War, formerly a brilliant Ohio lawyer, was somehow in the know of things. Was he among the conspirators? No evidence could be found.

The Montreal based J J Chaffey Company had paid $15000 to Booth and a whopping $150,000 to one Lafayette Bayer, a former spy, who was hand-picked by Stanton to head the man-hunt for Booth.

A telegram was sent to Chicago from Water Street on April 2nd, 1865, stating, ” J W Booth will ship oysters until Saturday 15th.” Booth never had anything to do with oysters or shipping but he shot Lincoln on April 14th. After his death, 18 pages of his diary mysteriously disappeared. Booth could have been captured alive but he was killed.The diary was found on him, but the contents were revealed only two years later, when Stanton handed it over. Did he remove the missing pages? It is anybody’s guess. Apparently it was Lafayette Baker who had handed it over to Stanton. This was revealed in 1867 when Baker published a book. Baker feared he would be killed – and he was.

Strange coincidences were a dime a dozen. On the day of the assassination, Lincoln’s bodyguard went on a drinking binge leaving the President unguarded at Ford Theatre. And he was never punished! Earlier, Lincoln’s eldest son Robert had been pushed from a railway platform on to the path of an incoming train. And guess who hauled him to safety? It was none other than Edwin Booth, elder brother of John Wilkes Booth. Another twist in the tale: Robert Lincoln was enamoured of Lucy Hale, who had secretly agreed to marry John Wilkes Booth.

Does the book merit a read? You bet!

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever
Authors: Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication Date: September 2011

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma” by Thant Myint-U

The River of Lost Footsteps

I really, truly loved this book. Let me tell you why. Myanmar is India’s neighbour alright but this is the first time I came across a book written by a Burmese author. It is both historical and personal and tells us what has been happening in this closeted country during the last 100 years. The legacies of British colonialism, the brutalities of the Second World War, the bloody civil war of the late 1940s, the Chinese invasion in the 1950s, independence in the 1960s and subsequent rule by the military are laid bare with rare insight and political acumen.

India and Burma have overlapping histories and a common experience of British occupation. Having lived in India all my life, I had read history and understood international relations through my own special nationalist prism. I found Myint-U’s perception of historical events refreshingly different and authentic too.

The book provides much food for thought. The author points out that like Bahadur Shah Zafar, India’s last emperor, who was exiled to Rangoon, Burma’s last king, Thibaw, was exiled to Ratnagiri in India. His description of the fall of Singapore in 1942 to Japanese forces is revealing: “Despite all the frenzied preparation (at the expense of Burma), the ‘impregnable fortress’ of Singapore fell on 15 February, and Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, with knobby knees and in short khakhi trousers, surrendered at the Ford motor factory to the much smaller force of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the bull-necked ‘Tiger of Malaya’. No fewer than seventy-thousand imperial troops – British, Australians and Indians – had been defeated by thirty thousand Japanese.”

The author informs us that the Buddha died in 484 B.C. at the age of 80 after eating contaminated pork. When Chandragupta Maurya defeated Alexander’s general Seleucus Nicator and a peace treaty was concluded, the Macedonians “ceded most of the occupied territory in return for five hundred elephants.” The Burmese word for college, tekkatho is derived from Taxila. When Pagan was at the height of its glory in the 12th century, the kings and nobles wrote in Sanskrit and Pali and experimented with various Indian scripts until finally the Burmese language was reduced to writing (with a script from South India).

In 1106 when a delegation from Pagan reached the Chinese imperial court at Kaifeng, the emperor ordered that they be accorded the same rank and respect as the Cholas of South India. (The author calls them Colas. I guess he too is a victim of Americanization!) However, the Grand Council observed that the Colas were subordinate to the Sri Vijaya Kingdom of Sumatra whereas Pagan was now a big and independent kingdom. (This was one hundred years after Raja Raja Chola built the Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur.)

In 1657 following the death of Shah Jahan, when Aurangzeb seized the throne, his brother Shah Shuja fled to Burma with his family and was sheltered by Sanda Thudamma, the king of Arakan. The king soon fell in love with Shah Shuja’s daughter Ameena and asked for her hand. Shah Shuja was horrified – and planned a coup in response. The plot was discovered and Shah Shuja fled to the jungle, where he was captured and killed. The princesses ended up in Thudamma’s harem, but soon afterward the king suspected another plot and slaughtered all the members of the Mughal royal family, including a visibly pregnant Ameena. A furious Aurangzeb besieged the Burmese kingdom. A year later when Chittagong fell to the Mughals, two thousand Arakanese were sold into slavery.

Ayutthaya, the capita of Siam (named after Ayodhya of the Ramayana), was razed to the ground by the Burmese in 1767. In the 18th century they were on an invasion spree – they routinely invaded Manipur, and on one occasion almost wiped out the entire population. In 1817 they occupied Assam.

Here’s something I really need to share: “The modern war rocket started its life, not in the West, as one might expect, but in India. In 1799, as the British laid siege to Seringapatam , Colonel Arthur Wellesly (the future duke of Wellington) advanced with his men toward a small hill nearby, only to be attacked by a tremendous barrage of rocket fire and forced to flee in complete disarray. When the fortress finally fell, among the enormous loot sent away to England were two specimens of Mysorean rockets.” This triggered a vigorous R&D program at the Royal Woolwich Arsenal and an improved version soon emerged – the Congreve rocket. Eight years later Copenhagen received the first shower of 40,000 rockets. In 1812 Washington DC was bombarded, burnt, and captured for the day. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The author can be forgiven for saying that Bihar is the birthplace of the Buddha. It was Gautama’s karma bhumi after all. What if he was born in Lumbini in Nepal?

Overall Assessment: Absolutely brilliant.

The River of Lost Footsteps – A Personal History of Burma
AUTHOR: Thant Myint-U
PUBLISHER: Faber and Faber Ltd., Bloomsbury House, UK

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan” by Shrabani Basu

Spy Princess

I’d read “Victoria and Abdul” by Shrabani Basu and I’d been really, really impressed. It was about Queen Victoria striking up a great friendship with a young man, Abdul Karim, who had been brought from India to work in the palace. The stupendous amount of research that formed the basis for that book and the author’s way with words had made it a most enjoyable read. So I picked up the “Spy Princess” with a basket of great expectations. Noor is a fascinating subject, firstly because she was a spy, and secondly because she was a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the Lion of Mysore who died fighting the British in 1799. The book, however, disappoints as it enlightens. Too many characters, too many details, too many sub-plots make it a tiring read.

Born in Moscow to Hazrat Inayat Khan, an Indian prince who was a Sufi singer, and an American woman, Ora Ray Baker, Noor-un-nisa was the eldest of four siblings, and lived mostly in Paris and London. Neither her genteel upbringing in the Sufi tradition nor her sensitive, refined temperament had prepared her for the stupendous role she was to play during the crucial years of World War II. Noor was executed by the Nazis at the Dachau concentration camp on 13th September 1944. It was only two years after the war ended that this fact became known. On 16th June 1943 she had been airdropped in France along with three others, none of whom survived the war.

Noor’s story is a saga of personal tragedies. At twelve she fell in love with a Dutch boy but her parents didn’t approve. Her father wanted her to marry Alladatt Khan, a man from Baroda, but that was not to be. Noor lost her father when she was thirteen, and took upon herself the burden of looking after her mother and younger siblings. In a short story titled ‘Echo’ she wrote: “Amongst the nymphs who lived on a high mountain slope was a little one who talked and talked and jabbered and chattered, even more than the crickets in the grass, and more than the sparrows in the trees. Her name was Echo.” She soon began contributing poems and children’s stories in magazines and radio.

Noor had learnt the basic Indian ragas from her father and played the harp and the piano. While studying music at the Ecole Normale de Musique, she was involved with a Turkish Jew. The relationship lasted six years and left her emotionally drained.

Noor graduated in child psychology from the Sorbonne in 1938. Her English translation of the Jataka Tales was published in England in 1939. In 1940, she broke off her engagement and decided to move to England with her family. Hours after the fall of Paris they set sail on the last boat to leave France. In November Noor joined the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). Later she was chosen as an SOE (Special Operations Executive) agent and became the first woman radio operator to be infiltrated into occupied France to aid the Resistance. The average survival span for a radio operator was estimated by the SOE to be six weeks, and Noor was briefed about this. Her acceptance of the fatal assignment was whole-hearted.

Before leaving England, Noor told her family she was engaged to a British officer and they would marry when the war ended. The mystery man was never identified. In Paris, Noor was linked to Antelme (who was later executed by the Germans) but the nature of their relationship is uncertain. It was wartime after all – and Noor was an unfailing romantic.

For four months after landing in France Noor evaded capture, changing locations frequently, changing her appearance occasionally, and relying on her network of friends who provided cover. She was eventually betrayed and fell into the hands of the Gestapo. When Ernest Vogt at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris told Noor her sacrifice had been in vain, she replied calmly, “I have served my country. That is my recompense.” After making two daring escape attempts, Noor was labelled “highly dangerous” and transported to a prison where she was kept shackled for the next ten months. Despite interrogation, abuse and torture she revealed nothing and remained defiant until her last breath. She was only thirty when she died.

Had the SOE deliberately sent innocent girls to their deaths, knowing they would never return? The compulsions of a country at war cannot be viewed through a peace-time lens, and obviously one cannot expect simple answers.

In 1949, the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian honour was bestowed upon Noor. France had awarded her their highest civilian honour in January 1946. Every year on Bastille Day (14th July) a band plays outside her childhood home, Fazal Manzil, on the rue de la Tuilerie. A square in Suresnes is named Cours Madeleine (The French know her by her code name ‘Madeleine’). There is a plaque in her honour at Dachau in Germany, and another at Grignon in France where she made her first transmission. In 2012 a bronze bust of the ‘spy princess’ was unveiled in Gordon Square Gardens, London.

Overall Assessment: Despite its shortcomings, this is a book that begs to be read.

Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan
AUTHOR: Shrabani Basu
PUBLISHER: Sutton Publishing, UK

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan

The Silk Roads

Penned by an Oxford scholar, this 600 page chronicle has the potential to cause a paradigm shift in your world view. The narrative is embellished with nuggets of information about the ancient and modern worlds. It deftly removes the mask of ‘civilization’ from the face of Europe and reveals the true motivation behind many historically significant moves.

• The Prophet Mohammed’s last words: “Let there not be two religions in Arabia.”
• The faithful (Muslims) had initially been told to face Jerusalem when they prayed. It was only in 628 (six years after his flight to Medina) that Mohammed decided on Mecca.
• When Mohammed came to Yathrib (Medina) the Jews in the town concluded a mutual defence agreement that offered protection for their faith and property. However, one rabbi opined that Mohammed was a false prophet, ‘for prophets do not come armed with a sword’.
• Muslims were tolerant towards other religions during the early decades of Islam. They rebuilt the church at Edessa (Turkey) when it was damaged by an earthquake in 679. The mosque of the Dome of the Rock, constructed at the start of the 690s, had mosaic inscriptions mentioning not only Mohammed but also Jesus and Mary. Muslim attitudes towards ‘kafirs’ hardened towards the end of the seventh century as a result of the antagonism between rival factions for the control of Islam. (Of the first four caliphs, three were murdered.)
• The Arab conquest of Sindh (Pakistan) in 711 yielded 60 million dirhams in immediate gains (not accounting for future taxes).
• “Islamic societies generally distributed wealth more evenly than their Christian counterparts, largely thanks to very detailed instructions set out in the Quran about legacies.”

• The customary greeting in Italy, ‘Ciao’ does not mean ‘hello’ – it means ‘I am your slave.’
• Venetian merchants became involved in the slave trade in the mid 8th century.
• From the 8th to the 10th centuries, slaves were the currency used for trade between Europe and the East. Money was a later addition.
• A ninth century prayer from France: “Save us, O Lord, from the Savage Norsemen who destroy our country; they take away….our young, virgin boys.”
• The Roman empire at its height required 250,000 to 400,000 new slaves annually to maintain its slave population, but the size of the market was substantially larger in the Arab world (centuries later).
• One writer opined, “There is no equal to the Turkish slaves among all the slaves of the earth.” Another account mentions a Caliph and his wife owning a thousand slave girls each.
• There were guide-books for slave-purchase. Wrote one 11th century author, “Of all the black (slaves), the Nubian women are the most agreeable, tender and polite.”
• Jewish merchants played a key role in trafficking boys and girls from Europe and castrating the males on arrival. Eunuchs were highly valued. “If you took Slavic twins, wrote one Arabic author in this period, and castrated one, he would certainly become more skilful and ‘more lively in intelligence and conversation’ than this brother – who would remain ignorant, foolish and exhibit the innate simple-mindedness of the Slavs.”
• The Arabic word for eunuch comes from the ethnic label referring to Slavs.

• Rustichello of Pisa and Marco Polo of Venice struck up a friendship in a Genoese prison. Genoa had been victorious in separate naval battles against Pisa and Venice – and the poor men had been captured. Rustichello had spent a decade in prison before the world traveller came along. It was he who carefully recorded “The Travels of Marco Polo”.
• The Mongols were “far removed from our common perceptions of them.” They combined military dominance and selective brutality with religious tolerance, political savvy and liberal taxation.
• The Incas had meticulously recorded births and deaths.
• Elihu Yale was Governor of Madras for 5 years. He returned from India with priceless loot that included five tons of spices, diamonds and precious objects. Before his death (in Wales) he donated generously to a college in Connecticut that now bears his name. (Wikipedia describes Yale as merchant, philanthropist and slave trader.)
• European powers often resolved their disputes by exchanging their colonies. Madras changed hands between the French and the British. When Portugal ceded Bombay to Britain as part of the dowry of Catharine of Braganza in the 1660s, the Portuguese Governor of Bombay predicted that this move would spell the end of Portugal’s empire in India. It did.
• After Robert Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal in 1757, over two million pounds flowed into the pockets of East India Company employees. Clive became the richest man in the world. The Bengal Famine of 1770 followed soon thereafter.

Everything about this book is interesting. The fonts are reader-friendly but you need both hands to hold the book.

An unforgiveable faux pas: The Guru Granth Saheb is described as “the great scared text of Sikhism.”

Overall assessment: It would make Oxford proud.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
AUTHOR: Peter Frankopan
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram” by Dang Thuy Tram

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace

At the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Ming City, Vietnam, I paid the princely sum of fifteen US dollars for the diary of a dead woman I had never heard of. As I began to read, the realization dawned on me that hers was a true rendering of history – and every word was dynamite. This was no ordinary woman, no white-collared doctor, no run-of- the-mill revolutionary. She had the heart of a humanist, the soul of a poet, and the grit of a guerrilla fighter. “For the first time I dig a grave to bury a comrade. The shovel hits a rock, and sparks fly like the flame of hatred in my heart.”

On 22nd June 1970, Dr. Dang Thuy Tram, barely aged 28, was shot dead by American soldiers as she walked along a remote trail in Duc Pho with three others. Her diary made its way to the United States and remained for decades in the possession of Fred Whitehurst who worked for the FBI, turned whistleblower, and finally tracked down Thuy’s aged mother in Hanoi to hand over the precious memoir. Published in 2005, the diary was an instantaneous hit. The English translation emerged in 2007. Thuy’s last words express her deep anguish and sense of hopelessness in the face of a powerful destiny: “I am no longer a child. I have grown up. I have passed trials of peril but somehow, at this moment, I yearn deeply for Mom’s caring hand. Even the hand of a dear one or that of an acquaintance would be enough. Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.”

Born in a cultured, ‘bourgeois’ family, Thuy learnt to play the guitar and the violin. She qualified as a doctor and was accepted for higher studies in surgical ophthalmology. Yet she chose to move south and join the resistance in December 1966. Her beloved country was at war and America was no mean foe. Part of her motivation was her desire to re-unite with the love of her life, a man she simply calls ‘M’. Thuy had loved him from an early age but he had joined the North Vietnamese army four years earlier. The truth about their break-up remains shrouded in mystery. Thuy’s diary is actually the second volume, the first having been lost in the war zone during a miraculous escape on 31st December 1969. Did she write about her heartbreak in the first volume? We may never know.

The pocket sized diary was often scribbled in dark, humid, underground shelters or narrow caves in the mountainside. US President Richard Nixon is a “mad dog.” American soldiers are “devils” or “bandits”. Thuy speaks of revenge but never kills a fly. She only saves lives. Thuy speaks of young men dying in her arms, of performing amputations without anaesthesia, of a great many medical challenges. In mid 1969, she wrote, “I will not be there when they sing the victory song.”

Of her broken relationship she says little, but her words are powerful. “The trust stemming from ten years of waiting and longing does not erode easily, but when it cracks it’s hard to repair.” And, “I know the roots of my love still lie deep within my heart, dormant but not dead. It can sprout, it can grow if spring returns. A part of me is still that young girl you know, the one who loves to feel cool raindrops on her face.”

Her writing is embellished with simile and metaphor, and the play of emotions mingles with practical descriptions of life’s harshest realities. There is poetry in every sentence. One marvels at the ebullient romanticism of the young woman in an environment shrouded by the horrors of war. Bravery and optimism, pathos and idealism – a plethora of intense feelings gives the diary a powerful voice that reaches out to even the most disinterested reader. Some excerpts:

  • My soul is as full, as tumultuous, as a river after days of torrential rain.
  • My youth has been soaked with the sweat, tears, blood, and bones of the living and the dead.
  • The hand-basket is heavy, but my worries are much heavier.
  • Hatred is bruising my liver, blackening my gut.
  • This war has robbed me of all my dreams of love.
  • Oh! Cruel American bandits, your crimes are piling up like a mountain. As long as I live I vow to fight until my last drop of blood in this thousand-year vendetta.

The diary begins on 8th April 1968, when Thuy had already spent two years among the fighters. The words she used to pay tribute to a fallen comrade are entirely appropriate and applicable in her own case: “Your heart has stopped so that the heart of the nation can beat forever.”

Overall Assessment: Must read.

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram
AUTHOR: Dang Thuy Tram (translated from the Vietnamese by Andrew X Pham)
Date of Publication: 2007

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment” by Vera Hildebrand


This is a book about extraordinary women caught up in events most extraordinary. Set in the early 1940s when World War II was raging across the globe, it traces the founding of the INA (Indian National Army) in Singapore, the remarkable role played by Subhas Chandra Bose, and the origin, activities and eventual disbanding of the all-woman Rani of Jhansi Regiment.

The best thing about this book is that it tells us of women we have never heard of before – women of Indian origin born elsewhere, who were nevertheless willing to lay down their lives for the freedom of an unseen motherland. In India, many of us have heard of Captain Lakshmi (Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan Sehgal, daughter of Ammu Swaminathan and sister of danseuse Mrinalini Sarabhai) but the other names are new to us. Danish researcher and author, Vera Hildebrand, tracked down 22 surviving Ranis in India, Singapore, Malaysia and the United States and recorded their statements. She also interviewed male soldiers of the INA and Japanese co-fighters. She pored over piles of documents and her conclusions are presented in this book. (Interestingly, the Netaji Research Bureau housed in the Bose family home in Kolkata denied access to the voluminous records in their custody, including catalogues.)

On 22nd April 1945, Bose had ordered all INA documents destroyed. British Intelligence had interrogated all INA prisoners and defectors but the original reports seem to have disappeared. Copies made by Colonel Hugh C Toye and shipped to England are surviving. The author managed to view them at the British Library, UK. Five of the Ranis had unpublished memoirs or voluminous diaries – Janaki Thevar Athinahappan, Asha Bharati Sahay Choudhry, Aruna Ganguli Chattopadhya, Eva Jenny Murty Jothi and Dhanam Lakshmi Suppiah Ratnam.

The author critically examines Netaji’s contribution to Indian nationalism and the advancement of women’s equality. The book also mentions several women revolutionaries in India’s freedom struggle, whose names have largely been excluded from history books – Pritilata Waddedar, Kalpana Dutta, Bina Das, Suniti Chowdhury and Shanti Ghosh. Mrs. Lilavati Chaganlal Mehta and her two daughters, Neelam and Rama, were among the first to join the Ranis in Burma. The INA had about 50 Burma-born Ranis. From Malaya, there were many Tamil-speaking estate workers.

On the night of 4th April 1945, a group of 51 Ranis were retreating from their camp in Myanmar to relative safety in Thailand, escorted by Lieutenant Khushal Singh Rawat and led by Ponammah Navarednam and Janaki Bai. Two of these women fell to sniper bullets while on a freight train from Rangoon to Bangkok, and were buried on Burmese territory, somewhere along the railway line. Stella Thomas and Josephine died unhonoured, with no tributes, no memorials, and no customary encomiums. They were probably South Indians recruited from Malaya. While serving in Burma, Janaki Bai lost her father and Labanya Ganguli Chatterji was widowed barely six months after her wedding.

When the war ended, Labanya studied medicine as did Gian Kaur and Gauri Bhattacharya. All of them settled in India. Japan-born Asha Sahay settled in India along with her father, Anand Sahay. Dacca-born Anjuli Bhowmik had been only twelve years old when she joined the regiment along with her fourteen year old sister Shanthi. Manwati Pandey came from a family of Indian nationalists. Post independence she married Dr. K C Arya and settled in Kanpur. She is known as Lt. Manwati Arya and has authored several books including a few on the INA. While travelling from Rangoon to Maymyo in 1944 she had cut her long tresses short as most of the other Ranis did. In 2008 when the author asked her if the girls had regretted giving up their hair, Manwati replied with a hearty laugh, “We were ready to give our heads, so who cared about the hair!”

Overall Assessment: Very interesting.

Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment
AUTHOR: Vera Hildebrand
PUBLISHER: HarperCollins India

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.