The first thing you realise as you deep dive into The War Diary of Asha-san is how little we know about the role of women in the freedom movement of India. And how they fought with undaunted courage in the face of torture, exploitation, and hardships.
The diary is originally written in Japanese, from 1943 to 1947, when Asha was born and lived in Japan with her freedom fighter parents.
It encapsulates her journey as a young girl in Japan with a burning desire to free her motherland, India, to joining the Rani of Jhansi regiment of the Indian National Army of Subash Chandra Bose. Her father was a close confidante of Bose and was mostly at undisclosed missions and locations. Once, back home he would tell his children about the freedom struggle, the ideas of Bose, and how they were sure to achieve India’s freedom.
Born in the year 1928, in Kobe, Japan, to Anand Mohan Sahay and Sati Sen, admiring the newborn child, they were filled with hope ‘Asha’, for India, ‘Bharat’, hence they lovingly named her Asha-Bharathi. She was the eldest of their three children.
Growing up listening to the speeches of Bose and his idea of a free India, Asha joined the Indian National Army at the age of 17. She translated this diary into Hindi, in 1972, from the snippets on the scraps of paper that remained with her. Later, her great granddaughter-in-law, Tanvi Srivastava, translated it into English, and finally, the book was published by HarperCollins.
Even though it’s a translation from the original work, Tanvi beautifully retains the essence of this diary, a personal account of Lieutenant ‘Bharati’ Asha Sahay Choudhry, a dedicated and ferocious soldier of Netaji’s Indian National Army. Once recruited in the Rani of Jhansi regiment, Asha, along with other soldiers, underwent arduous training and then was ordered to move to India via Taiwan and Thailand.
Born to hardcore freedom fighter parents in Japan, Asha imbibed the best of the values of both the nations like politeness, attention, care, helpfulness, cooperation, and respectfulness, which helped her overcome the hardest of situations. Her parents had established Kobe Lodge in Kobe to provide shelter for young Indian students, merchants, and nationalists. They then moved to Tokyo so that her father could stay in touch with the prominent political leaders and extend his nationalistic activities.
Sati, Asha’s mother, on the other hand, was a silent warrior, lending help and hands to anyone in distress. Their mission was the same, to free India.
When a Japanese woman asked Sati about women of India, she replied:
“There is a lot to say, but at the moment, we have to deal with our present circumstances, too, so I will tell you briefly. We have been enduring British atrocities for hundreds of years. The most important thing is that the Indian woman has always held her head high. Many brave women have fought and sacrificed their lives. They have jumped into fires to forever protect themselves. Yes, it’s true that in society there are false egos, superstitions, and useless customs. But women are striding ahead by serving the nation, serving society. Women sit at home and spin cotton from wheels to become self-sufficient, they teach those of backward classes, and they are taking part in efforts to make the country free by hiding patriots and revolutionaries in their homes. They are secretly helping the freedom struggle.”
These words of Asha’s mother remained etched in her mind forever. Along with that, Bose’s immutable patriotism and nationalism served as a reminder for her and the country that ‘unity is not just necessary but obligatory,’ to attain freedom.
“Hearing the inspiring tenor of his voice, we feel the urge to return to the battlefield,” Asha wrote in July 1945. A few weeks later, Japan was bombarded and everything was burnt and destroyed. She was stunned and deeply concerned about her mother and siblings. But after a while, she got the news that they were safe. And her mother, along with her kids, was helping the homeless and the needy there.
The book is a gripping journey of a young woman soldier who defies all the norms, and puts her life at risk, to save other soldiers or Ranis as they were called.
Lieutenant Asha, finally, reached India on June 26, 1946, with her father. In her own words, she has now transformed from a clumsy teenager to a soldier willing to be beheaded for the country. The tragic death of Bose and the atrocities of the British on Indians had a major role in shaping up her mindset. Her mother, and two other siblings, Tulu and Baby, joined them in August 1947; a few days later Indian Independence Act was passed by the British parliament. India will finally free.
The translated version of Lieutenant Asha’s diary beautifully encapsulates rare moments of India’s pre-independence history, with some rare photographs of her life, a note from her father Anand Mohan Sahay, and her message, in which she says,
“I have been writing in my diary since my early childhood. Bombs may fall, typhoons may swirl – yet I cannot sleep without writing in my diary. I originally wrote this diary in Japanese on fragments of paper and notebooks of inferior quality, the only materials available during the war. For the people of my nation, I have compiled and translated my diary into Hindi. These words are my small contribution to India. While reflecting on the years gone by, another thought strikes me – nothing I have done would have been successful without the blessings of my parents. Our parents are truly another form of the almighty. If the generations can understand this truth, I will consider my labours fruitful.”
In the translator’s note, Tanvi shares her journey in writing this book; what motivated her to write was the fact that not many people have a mother or grandmother or a great-grandmother like Asha-san who fought for India’s freedom, traversing the vast canvas of East and Southeast Asia in the footsteps of Netaji. I am lucky to share it with my children and I hope you can share it with your children, too.
As I read this book, I am left in awe of Lieutenant Asha, the strength that Indian women have, and how much they can achieve through their hard work and resilience. In the end, I salute Lieutenant Bharati ‘Asha’ Sahay Choudhry and all the unsung female freedom fighters of India.
Lieutenant Asha is 94 years old and currently lives in Patna with her son, Sanjay, and her daughter-in-law, Ratna.
Ambreen Zaidi is an independent columnist and author.