War diary: This book chronicles the life of 17-year-old Asha-san’s life in Netaji’s Indian National Army
At 17, Bharati ‘Asha’ Sahay joined the Rani Jhansi Regiment of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. The War Diary of Asha-San, translated from Hindi to English by her granddaughter-in-law, Tanvi Srivastava, provides glimpses into her life during those tumultuous times.
More than 75 years ago, Bharati ‘Asha’ Sahay Choudhry wrote down her everyday experiences in a diary. She was no ordinary 17-year-old, but a young girl living in extra-ordinary times.
Her parents Anand Mohan and Sati Sen Sahay were freedom fighters and closely affiliated to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army (INA).
Born in Kobe, Japan, in 1928, Asha-san (as Bharati was known in Japan), had begun writing her experiences from her early childhood, vividly recreating scenes–of falling bombs, being holed up in trenches, a father and uncle away at war, the effervescent personality of Netaji, and of joining the Rani Jhansi Regiment at 17 years.
After completing her primary and secondary education in Kobe, Asha-san attended Tokyo’s reputed Showa Koja College (now Showa Women’s University) for higher studies.
Life during a war
Hers was a life of uncertainty. World War II had commenced.
In 1943, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose reached Tokyo from Germany, and established the Azad Hind Government and the Indian National Army across East Asia.
Following in the footsteps of her father and her uncle Satya Sahay, Asha-san also enlisted in the Indian National Army, rising to the rank of Lieutenant in the Rani Jhansi Regiment.
“As freedom fighters living in Japan, they rallied all Indians and the Japanese people for the cause. I grew up in such an atmosphere where we grew up learning how to sing, and fight for freedom. My parents were very keen to make all their children real patriots,” 94-year-old Asha-san tells HerStory in a series of voice notes from Patna, where she currently resides with her son.
After she returned to India in 1946, Asha-san translated the Japanese version of the diary into Hindi with the help of her parents and a Hindi professor, and it was published as a series in the Hindi magazine, Dharmayug. It was also compiled into a book, Asha-san Ki Subhas Diary, but unfortunately typographical errors creeped into the translation, causing some amusement.
Now, Tanvi Srivastava, her grand daughter-in-law, has translated her diaries into an English book, The War Diary of Asha-San (HarperCollins) to reach a wider audience. The book highlights the courage of a young girl prepared to give up her life for India’s freedom.
From Japanese to Hindi to English
During the pandemic, cooped up at home with two young children, and her safari company having no business, Tanvi chanced upon the Hindi version of the diary on the bookshelf. She hadn’t read it until then.
“I had been writing fiction in English for the past 10 years, and published a few short stories. When I started reading the diary, I thought it would be a good exercise to try my hand at translating it,” she says.
Around the same time, she had applied for a writing mentorship programme, Write Beyond Borders by the British Council that had on board writers across South Asia, and South Asians from the UK.
During the course of the programme, she read an article by author Jhumpa Lahiri that pointed out that ‘if you are looking to write fiction, try translation, it’s a great way of learning the craft, getting inside a language, treat it like a literary apprenticeship’.
Tanvi obviously knew about dadi’s life and her diaries, and once she began reading the Hindi version, she loved it, and locked herself in a room, worked late into the night and began translating. She would talk about it during her mentorship sessions. They urged her to finish it and her Bangladeshi mentor Saad Z Hossain sent it to a literary agent in India and it was accepted.
“I didn’t realise the story itself would be so engrossing. The coming of age portion and hearing the voice of a young girl resonated with me,” Tanvi says. Asha-san gave her full permission to edit the Hindi version of the diaries, and Tanvi often cross-checked with her regarding dates, events, chronology, and other information.
Tanvi describes “events coming alive” as she worked on the translation.
“Dadi’s voice was so strong, it sort of crosses time. That’s what made it so appealing. It was not just a historical document, but it was the diary of a girl. The smallest of incidents, for example, Tsutomu, her best friend, gives a red rose at the railway station. She is saying goodbye to her family and friends, and going off to fight for an India she does not know and has not visited ever. It’s hard to put yourself into her shoes. But you do understand the emotions,” she says.
‘We had to do what we had to’
Asha-san is very pragmatic about the life-changing decision.
“We were instilled with the fighting spirit. We were not scare by the enemy. When English and American planes were shot down by the Japanese, we danced with joy. So, I had to do what I had to,” she says.
“When Netaji asked me if I was afraid to fight, I remember I was angry. But he called all of us brave,” she adds.
Steadfastness to the cause and an undying adulation for Netaji runs through the diary.
“At that time to have such a cause was liberating–fighting for something that’s above everything, fighting for India, that’s what enables the family to find the strength to do things that are unimaginable in today’s world. Netaji is a huge part of it. His message was all-encompassing, it was about India, nothing else, ” she says.
It was about India, above everything else. Secondly, he was always so plural, it was never about one religion. It was never about one state.
After Asha-san married LP Choudhry, she lived quite a reclusive life in Bokaro, and for the next 20 years, nothing was spoken about her life during the War. In 1973, she translated her diary from Japanese to Hindi and published in Dharmayug. She had a tough life with her son passing away, and her husband succumbing to cancer soon after.
In the 80s, Asha-san worked in a Japanese monastery in Bodh Gaya. And, only in the late 90s and 2000s, did she start getting recognition for being part of the Rani Jhansi regiment.
But Asha-san still believes she “did what had to be done” and nothing more.
“I wrote my diary before I went to sleep to chronicle the events of the day–good or bad. I did not think it would be an inspiration for others.”
When asked whether India would have been different if Netaji had been alive for another three decades, she says, while Nehru and he had been great friends, their ideologies were different, he wouldn’t have joined the politics of “today”.
Edited by Megha Reddy