Namaste! Here is the third story in the series of ‘Azaadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ – Celebrating seventy-five years of Independence.
This bit of history which I came across very recently, left me with a great feeling of sadness – sadness, as the brave-heart in question had been very much alive till four years ago, but lived in ignominy and destitution for most part of her life, as many other heroes and heroines of the Indian Independence movement have. This is something we can never forgive ourselves for.
The lady of the story is the first and youngest woman spy of India – Saraswathi Rajamani.
Born in 1927 at Rangoon, Rajamani, as she was named at birth, was the daughter of a very rich businessman who belonged to Tiruchirappalli. Her father Ramanathan, had like many others migrated to Rangoon in Burma. At the time when India was struggling for independence, Burma, the present- day Myanmar was hustling and bustling with lot of business opportunities. This prompted many Indians to go to Rangoon (now Yangon) and operate from there.
Rajamani’s father was one such businessman who migrated and settled in Rangoon. He was in the mining business and owned gold and tungsten mines and so one can imagine what a rich family Rajamani’s was.
Burma used to be a part of “Akhand Bharat” in ancient days till it became a British Colony in 1824. Therefore, the Burmese had a lot of goodwill for Indians and that was also one of the reasons for Indians settling there. Rajamani’s family, though at Rangoon, held Bharat Mata dear to their hearts and Rajamani’s father often used to donate large sums of money for the cause of the freedom movement.
The whole family were devoted to Gandhiji’s ideals.
When Rajamani was ten years old, Gandhiji visited Rangoon and visited Rajamani’s family (since her father used to contribute large sums for the cause of Independence). The whole family were welcoming Gandhiji in the porch of their house but little Rajamani was missing.
Gandhiji also joined them to search for her and as he walked into the huge garden at the back of their mansion, he saw the little girl hold a toy gun in her hand, practising to aim at a target. When he asked why she was practising shooting, she said, without battling an eyelid “To shoot the British of course!”
A shocked Gandhiji stopped the child and advised her against being violent. He told her that violence was not the way to gain independence.
Though Rajamani temporarily put the gun behind her, she asked herself, “How does one deal with a robber if one’s house is looted? British are looting my country and so I will treat them just as one treats the robbers in one’s house”. And as Gandhiji went back into the house, she resumed her shooting practice. For her, clearly, non-violence was not the way to independence.
When Rajamani was a year or two older, she started keeping track of the Independence movement by reading the newspapers regularly and listening to the news on the radio. Not many owned a radio or could afford newspapers, and these were the perks she enjoyed being born in a rich, liberal family. And slowly, Rajamani came to know about Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. His ideology of fighting back, with arms and giving the British a taste of their own medicine resonated very much with her ideas. His fiery speeches aroused the patriotic fervor in her.
She started collecting all photos of Netaji which appeared in the newspapers along with articles on him. She made notes whenever she heard his speeches on the radio. She yearned to be a part of Netaji’s movement.
Soon Netaji made a visit to Rangoon in January 1944 appealing to the Indian community living there for the cause of Indian National Army (INA) for which he needed volunteers and money. There was a camp set up where people could go and donate money. Many people including Rajamani’s father gave huge donations.
However, the person collecting the funds had the greatest shock of his life when a young Rajamani gave him a velvet bag containing gold, diamond and jade bangles and necklaces and earrings which could easily be worth lakhs in those days. The fund collector took down her name and address.
Rajamani attended school that day and, in the evening, when she went home, she had a pleasant shock. Her father was conversing with none other than Netaji over a cup of tea. Netaji, who had been apprised of Rajamani’s donation of jewels, had come to return it to her father as he thought she had given it away naively, without his permission.
The moment her father mentioned this to Rajamani, she became furious and pushed the bag towards Netaji and said, “These are my jewels and I do not need to ask my father’s permission to give these and I will not accept what has been given away once”. Rajamani’s father was also smiling as if to acknowledge what she was saying.
Netaji tried his level best to convince her, especially since her father had also given lot of money in donation and finally Rajamani put forth one condition. “If you should let me join the INA, I will take these back”
Netaji smiled. “Yes, I will let you,” said he. “Lakshmi (meaning wealth) comes and goes but when Saraswathi (wisdom) comes to a person she stays put with them. That Saraswathi is with you and has bestowed you with so much wisdom. So, I will call you Saraswathi Rajamani”. And from then, the name Saraswathi stuck to her.
Saraswathi initially joined the INA as a nurse. The second world war was raging and the British (part of Allies) had taken a stance against Japanese (part of Axis powers) and were destroying Japanese properties and men everywhere. Saraswathi was given training and was fully into nursing wounded soldiers. But she was not satisfied. She wanted to be on the field and enjoy the thrill of risking her life every single moment.
One day, as she was staring out of the window, she saw something unusual. Some civilians were going over secretly to a British soldier and information was being exchanged for money.
Saraswathi felt weird about these clandestine exchanges. It occurred to her that something was not right surely. She went straight to Netaji who was at the base camp five kilometers away in Rangoon and reported what she saw. Netaji got the matter investigated and found that it was indeed true, and the British were being informed of the Japanese movements enabling them to attack the Japanese.
Now Netaji, realising her shrewdness and acumen, wanted Saraswathi and four of her friends to become spies for the INA. The girls who were barely sixteen were excited, though their parents were not, since this was an extremely dangerous job.
The girls were inducted into the Rani Jhansi Regiment headed by Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan (Sehgal) and were given rigorous military training including, running, climbing and other physical exercises. They were also trained in using different kinds of guns. They were sent to Maymyo, about 700 kms from Rangoon.
Their hair was trimmed to a boy-cut. Dressed up like boys and in disguise, they posed as helpers or errand boys and were sent to the houses of the British officers and the military camps. Rajamani named herself ‘Mani’ on this mission.
They went about doing jobs of cleaning their houses and the gardens, polishing shoes, removing garbage, laundry and such odd jobs. However, their eyes and ears were always alert as to what was being spoken or discussed by the officers. Whenever they intercepted valuable information, they passed it on through the informants to Netaji. They had to be extremely careful in their mission to not get caught. They had also been coached that in the event of being caught, the individual who was caught should shoot and the others should escape in the confusion.
We can well imagine the minds of the anxious parents of the girls who would not have been even aware where the girls were!!
One day however, unfortunately, Saraswathi’s friend Durga got caught by the British. She was thrown into the jail. Saraswathi came to know of it but contrary to the instruction to escape, she was determined to set her friend free. She went into the prison in a Burmese attire with the straw cap and all, along with a Burmese servant pretending to clean the prison. As the jailor went to chat with another jailor carelessly leaving the key behind, Saraswathi mixed a bit of opium in his drinking water and opened the door of the prison and both of them escaped. They started running and this was discovered after some lag (due to the opium water). The jailors gave them a hot chase.
The girls ran and ran as fast as they could, panting for breath and at one point one jailor shot at them. Saraswathi fell down with the bullet in her right leg. But they could not afford to be caught. With great difficulty Saraswathi pulled herself up and ran. Fortunately, there was a densely wooded area nearby and Durga climbed a tree and lugged Saraswathi up on a safe branch. The military training, they had undergone, helped them a lot.
The gun-shot wound was bleeding, and the girls were thirsty and hungry, but the men were soon below the trees looking for them. They searched for a long time and then left. They came for the girls on the following two days also and all this while both the girls were huddled up on the tree braving hunger, thirst and cold. Saraswathi’s leg was totally numb, and she felt that her leg was gone forever.
The third day, the jailors gave up and both the girls climbed down carefully and an injured and drained-out Saraswathi, with the help of Durga, made their way to the main road and caught a van to Rangoon. After an eight to ten-hour arduous journey, they reached the INA camp and met Netaji. Saraswathi was given immediate treatment but the delay in treatment left a limp in her right leg for her entire life which she treated as a symbol of honour.
Netaji was very extremely pleased and delighted with her bravery and awarded Saraswathi the rank of Lieutenant in the Rani Jhansi regiment. He also gave her an appreciation letter where he addressed her as the ‘first Indian woman spy’. The Japanese emperor also presented Saraswathi a medal and a cash award in recognition of her bravery.
The World War II came to an end in 1945 after the disastrous nuclear bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Netaji disbanded the INA and the volunteers went back to their families.
Netaji himself is said to have been killed in an air crash some days later.
Saraswathi and her family donated all of their property and came back to India in 1957. But Saraswathi did not get her freedom-fighter pension. She moved to Chennai and after persistent efforts started getting pension from 1971 almost twenty-five years after independence. From being one of the richest Indians at one time, the family had become paupers and life was tough. No recognition, penury, no family and not even a house to call her own. Such was Saraswathi’s condition.
In 2005, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Ms. J. Jayalalithaa, came to know of her through a news article. She immediately granted a small apartment in Royapettah along with an aid of Rupees five lakhs which Saraswathi accepted albeit with reluctance as she was only used to giving things and never had sought anything. Her financial condition was so pathetic that she had to accept the help.
It is said that she used to collect scraps of cloth from nearby tailors and stitch them into garments and donate to orphanages. Also during the Tsunami of 2004, she donated her pension, to the Chief Minister’s relief fund. She also donated her INA memorabilia to Netaji’s museum in Kolkata in 2008.
Saraswathi lived in the apartment surrounded only by the photos of Netaji on every wall. Though battered by age and ill-health, people who have interviewed Saraswathi say that the mention of Netaji’s name fired her up and she spoke voraciously in spite of having had three heart attacks. Saraswathi died in January 2018 of a massive heart attack.
Her story has been made into a short film in the series ‘Adrishya – True stories of Indian spies’
And I am indeed proud to narrate her story on this platform.