| Hemantabala Chatterjee: A deep sense of dignity
In 1943, she was in Rangoon, waiting to meet Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose for a place in the Azad Hind Fauj. Today, she lies in a dingy, 50-sq-ft room in Thakurpukur’s Hidayatpara, bent with age and ailment, keeping a wary eye on the crumbling roof from where a chunk had fallen a few days ago, sending her to hospital.
Hemantabala Chatterjee, “the sole surviving female Indian National Army (INA) member in Calcutta”, has nothing to look forward to any more. She has to depend on a measly government grant, her neighbours’ charity and dole from a local club for two square meals a day. But a deep sense of dignity shines through: “I want no help from anyone.”
The only thing that keeps her going is a trip down memory lane. She recounts how, as a 17-year-old, she rushed from Rangoon, her hometown, all the way to Jhansi to meet Lakshmi Sehgal and convey her desire to join the INA. Though “amused” by the teenager’s intrepidity, Sehgal refused.
Hemantabala bided her time, till Netaji himself paid a visit to Rangoon. She finally managed to convince Netaji to let her join the force. “I became a member of the backroom brigade, taking care of everything, from a new recruit’s INA badge to a soldier’s wounds, while watching out for informers and government servants,” she smiles. “I clearly remember the day Netaji was weighed with gold to raise funds for the INA and I was among the first to give away my jewellery.”
The war ended, India became independent, her family shifted to Calcutta. That was in 1969. Then, everything started going horribly wrong for Hemantabala.
Her husband, Amal Chatterjee, got a stool and typewriter and set up shop in front of Lalbazar. Racked by ill-health, he could not go to work regularly, making it difficult for the family. Things limped along like that till 1994, when her husband died.
For the past few years, life for the septuagenarian, plagued by chronic asthma and bronchitis, has been a painful struggle to stay alive. There was a time when she could speak Burmese, Japanese, Urdu and English, besides Bengali, fluently. Now, she finds no words to portray her plight.
Shunned by the government — except for the monthly pension of Rs 750 — and most of her family, the only helpline for Hemantabala and daughter Rita extends to her neighbours.
“No one from the government ever came to meet me… Without my neighbours, I don’t know what I would have done.” Rita has taken to teaching students at home but she, too, admits that without the neighbours, they would have found it impossible to pull through.
Till 2000, the Chatterjees did not have any electricity. Members of the Barisha Natun Sangha arranged for a power connection. Another association farther off, the Bhowanipore Durgotsab Samiti, is now giving Hemntabala a monthly “assistance” of Rs 300.
But surely, there’s more than can be done for Hemantabala. As general secretary of the Bhowanipore Durgotsab Samiti and Congress leader Utpal Ray says: “So many relatives of MLAs and MPs get government flats but no one remembers this old lady… Now, we will appeal to chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.”