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To Emilie, with love

From the second week of June 1934, [Subhas Chandra] Bose settled down in Vienna, since he had a contract from the publishing company Wishart to write a book on the Indian struggle since 1920. In the course of looking for clerical help with preparing the manuscript Subhas met a woman who would bring about a dramatic change in his personal life…

It was June 24, 1934. A petite and pretty young woman named Emilie Schenkl arrived to be interviewed for the clerical job. Born on December 26, 1910, to an Austrian Catholic family, she knew English, could take dictation in shorthand and had competent typing skills. Jobs were scarce during the Depression. Her father, a veterinarian, was initially somewhat reluctant to let his daughter work for a strange Indian man, but in time her whole family — father, mother and sister — developed a warm relationship with Subhas. Emilie had a gentle, cheerful, straightforward and unselfish nature, which Su-bhas found appealing. He came to respect her strength of will and affectionately called her “Baghini” meaning “Tigress” in Bengali. “He started it,” Emilie states categorically about the romantic turn in their relationship. Their intimacy grew as they spent time together in Austria and Czechoslovakia from mid-1934 to March 1936…

Subhas Chandra Bose, according to his close friend and political associate A.C.N. Nambiar, was a “one-idea man: singly for the independence of India.” “I think the only departure,” he adds, “if one might use the word ‘departure’, was his love for Miss Schenkl; otherwise he was completely absorbed. He was deeply in love with her, you see. In fact, it was an enormous, intense love.” …

As Bose prepared to return to India in March 1936, he was given a stern warning by the British foreign secretary, communicated through His Majesty’s consul in Vienna: “The Government of India desire to make it clear to you that should you do so you cannot expect to remain at liberty.” A new constitution embodied in the Government of India Act of 1935, granting provincial autonomy, had just been inaugurated with great fanfare. New elections to the provincial legislatures were scheduled for 1937. On receiving the warning, Bose could not help wondering if this was “a foretaste of the expanded liberty which the new constitution will usher in.” He was inclined to defy the warning and go home, but wrote to Nehru seeking his advice: “My only excuse for troubling you on such a matter is that I can think of no one else in whom I could have greater confidence.”…

Unbeknownst to the world, the greatest difficulty for Bose in leaving Europe was not the certainty of imprisonment in India, but the pain of separation from the woman he loved. As he prepared to go home, he wrote Emilie a letter that was a forthright confession of his feelings. “Even an iceberg sometimes melts,” he began, “and so it is with me now.” He had “already sold” himself to his “first love” — his country — to whom he had to return. As usual, it was an adventure into the unknown: “I do not know what the future has in store for me. May be, I shall spend my life in prison, may be, I shall be shot or hanged. But whatever happens, I shall think of you and convey my gratitude to you in silence for your love for me. May be I shall never see you again — may be I shall not be able to write to you again when I am back — but believe me, you will always live in my heart, in my thoughts and in my dreams. If fate should thus separate us in this life — I shall long for you in my next life.”

He had “never thought before that a woman’s love could ensnare” him. And he mused:

Is this love of any earthly use? We who belong to two different lands — have we anything in common? My country, my people, my traditions, my habits and customs, my climate — in fact everything is so different from yours… For the moment, I have forgotten all these differences that separate our countries. I have loved the woman in you — the soul in you.

Subhas spent March 17 to March 26, 1936 — the last few days before his departure for India — with Emilie in Badgastein. “Can you please come here for a week?” Subhas had implored on March 15. “Please ask your parents if they will allow you to be away from home for one week or so.” The hills and valleys of Badgastein had enchanted Franz Schubert in 1825, inspiring him to compose his Piano Sonata in D and a missing symphony, perhaps his great Symphony in C Major. Those magic mountains had cast a spell on Subhas as well …

As soon as his ship docked in Bombay on April 8, 1936, Bose was greeted by the police and taken away to the city’s Arthur Road Prison… After another ten days, the government decided to “intern” Subhas in a bungalow belonging to Sarat [Bose] in a place called Kurseong, in northern Bengal... “It is delightfully cool here,” he informed Emilie on May 22, “and the villa commands a nice view of the plains.” He was left there to lead a mostly solitary existence until December…

All of Bose’s letters had to pass through police censors and bear the stamp of approval of the superintendent of police in Darjeeling. Subhas and Emilie used formal modes of address — “Fraulein Schenkl” and “Mr. Bose” — when writing to each other, but still managed to exchange fairly detailed news. Each of Emilie’s long letters could cause a welcome break in his “monstrous life” and could take his “thoughts away to Vienna for a while.” The letters they exchanged between April and December 1936 touched on a variety of topics — Austrian politics, books, music, the charms of Budapest and Prague, jokes in Viennese cafes, spirituality, and concern for each other’s fragile health. In the closest thing to a love letter, he asked Emilie to find the German original of an English translation he sent her of Goethe’s poem inspired by Kalidasa’s drama Shakuntala:

Wouldst thou the young year’s blossoms and the fruits of its decline,

And all whereby the soul is enraptured, feasted fed:

Wouldst thou the heaven and earth in one sole name combine,

I name thee, oh Shakuntala! And all at once is said.

***

On December 26, 1937, Subhas Chandra Bose secretly married Emilie Schenkl. Despite the obvious anguish, they chose to keep their relationship and marriage a closely guarded secret. Emilie’s explanation was simple. “Country came first” for Subhas, and any public announcement at that stage would have caused unnecessary “upheaval”. Badgastein was more important in Bose’s life than simply the place where he wrote his autobiography. It was the place where he forged a relationship of rare beauty, high purpose and, in the end, deep tragedy. In the Austrian mountains outside Salzburg, he was making a private commitment to the woman he loved, a commitment he could only redeem in public once he had done his duty to his country, his “first love”. Emilie brought to the relationship her qualities of enormous courage, utmost dignity, and spirit of high sacrifice….

“You are the first woman I have loved,” Subhas had written to her. “God grant that you may also be the last. Adieu, my dearest.” His prayer was granted.

***

In late August 1945, Emilie was sitting in the kitchen at her Vienna home with her mother and sister. While rolling some wool into balls, she was as usual listening to the evening news on the radio. Suddenly the newsreader announced that the Indian “quisling” Subhas Chandra Bose had been killed in an air crash at Taihoku (Taipei). Her mother and sister stared at her in stunned silence. She slowly got up and walked to the bedroom where her little daughter Anita was fast asleep. She knelt beside the bed, she recalled many years later, “And I wept.”

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