Book Title: The War Diary of Asha-san: From Tokyo to Netaji’s Indian National Army
Author: Lt Bharati ‘Asha’ Sahay Choudhry
‘The War Diary of Asha-san’ is a remarkable book which proceeds at three different levels. At one level, the diary tells the story of a 17-year-old girl, Asha-san (‘san’ is a respectful suffix in Japanese language), born and brought up in Japan. India was the dreamland she had never seen but wanted desperately to serve. She got an opportunity to live out her patriotism when Subhas Chandra Bose came to Japan in 1943 to build the Azad Hind Fauj. Asha-san joined the Rani Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army as a Lieutenant.
Bharati ‘Asha’ Sahay Choudhry was born in 1927 to a Bihari father and Bengali mother. Her father, Anand Mohan Sahay, had migrated to Japan and was active in promoting Indian nationalism. Once Subhas Bose arrived in Japan in 1943, Sahay became his political adviser.
Asha-san travelled from Japan to Thailand to receive her army training. The training was to have a short duration of only one month and consisted of disciplining the body, learning to use a rifle and elementary nursing. In early 1945, Asha-san was all set to join the war front in Imphal to liberate her motherland from British control. That was, however, not to be. Japanese forces saw heavy reverses. Subhas Bose, her hero, died in a plane crash; Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed and Japanese forces surrendered. Asha came to India with her parents in 1946 to live the rest of her life here. Now 95, she is based in Patna, full of memories of her days of courage, struggle and sacrifice.
‘The War Diary’ tells the story of how this remarkable woman lived her eventful life during the heady period of 1943-46. She wrote her diary in Japanese, her first language, and a few years later, translated it into Hindi once she learnt the language well enough after shifting to India. Then, many years later, Tanvi Srivastava, her granddaughter-in-law, looked at the Hindi version of the diary and decided to share it with the English-reading audiences. The result is this remarkable book.
The diary is in three parts. The first part, covering the period from June 1943 till March 1945, is the story of growing up of the teenager Asha-san and her world of dreams, hopes and aspirations, great admiration for Subhas Bose, and boundless Indian nationalism. The second part, from March till August 1945, tells the story of the Second World War, of victors and losers, of violence and brutality, and a cruel crashing of all dreams and hopes. Part three of the diary (March 1946-August 1947) is the story of her union with her beloved motherland and building of a new world of hopes and fulfilment. The entire diary proceeds like a ride on a giant wheel with hope and despair, highs and lows, jubilation and sorrow following each other.
At another level, however, it is also the story of the INA, a saga of great courage and monumental failure. The INA experiment failed thrice over. The INA soldiers originally had fought on the British side against the Japanese and lost, becoming prisoners of war. They then fought on the Japanese side against the British and lost again. The third failure occurred after Independence when their contribution to Indian nationalism went largely unrecorded and unrewarded. The diary goes into some length on the trials, tribulations and frustrations of the INA.
The diary also gives a glimpse of what the war meant to ordinary people. Misery, deprivation and starvation were all over. Asha-san experienced it all. She also noticed that there were no young men left anywhere in Japan; they were either fighting on the battlefront or had attained martyrdom.
It is in many ways a partisan account with a clear demarcation between heroes and villains. The Japanese are the heroes, Americans the villains. The diary begins in 1943 when the note of triumph is quite clear. Most of South-East Asia — Singapore, Malaya, Thailand, Burma — is under Japanese control and therefore ‘liberated zones’. It, however, ends on a note of despair when these zones pass into American control. Even so, the partisan diary offers glimpses of a pan-human universalism, so rare, particularly during times of war. Singapore, when under Japanese control, was renamed as Shonan and a war memorial was created for honouring the Japanese soldiers who had lost their lives there. When it was recaptured by the Americans, they ordered Japanese prisoners of war to raze the memorial and construct in its place an American memorial pillar. Asha-san saw some Japanese prisoners planting flowers around the pillar and placing bouquets. Intrigued, she asked them why they were honouring the lives of American soldiers, their enemies. The reply from one Japanese prisoner of war may be treated as one of the great universalistic statements ever made by a participant in the war: “Death makes everybody one... Wherever the souls of our brave Japanese martyrs go, the souls of American martyrs go too. Friends and enemies exist here — not in the other realm. They have fulfilled the duty for their country — as have we. It is natural to pay tribute to all patriots.”
Wars may have winners and losers. But at the end of the day, they only leave behind victims. The diary of Asha-san conveys this eternal message, if at all it needed to be conveyed.