The Jhansi of Madras

A suffocating marriage had Lakshmi fleeing from the city she had grown up in.

She boarded a ship setting sail from Madras to Singapore in June 1940. (following a fellow doctor she would only later identify as K whom she thought she was in love with). A divorced 26 year old gynecologist, Lakshmi hoped to set up a practice in Singapore.

Disillusioned with marital responsibilities, she had proceeded to complete her discontinued diploma in Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
Her father Swaminathan was a leading lawyer in Madras, her mother a social butterfly once.  Her family had been amongst the leading citizenry and had moved with the highest levels of the English society and were treated on par.

unnamed (1)But now they led a life poles apart, all because a native prince decided to have an affair with his headmaster’s wife. A young scion of the Kadambur Zamindari studying in Newington House – a princes’ school in Madras, was accused of shooting his English headmaster (apparently in a scandalous wrangle over the latter’s wife). Swaminathan fought a spirited legal battle to get the boy acquitted.

And it was then that their lives altered. Right from her father’s British friends to her mother’s club-mates, right down to the teachers in Lakshmi’s school looked at them with a jaundiced eye. To them all it was now clear where Swaminathan family allegiances lay.

The family retaliated in their own way.  Lakshmi and sister Mrinalini (later Sarabhai) were pulled out of their school and admitted to a government run institution.  At home they started conversing in Tamil and Malayalam instead of English. Lakshmi’s mother took away her children’s pretty dresses to burn in a bonfire of foreign goods.

More than just her wardrobe changing, little Lakshmi’s interest in politics was kindled. Her family was drawn into the on-going freedom struggle. They even sheltered a proclaimed criminal in their house (A sister of Sarojini Naidu) with whom Lakshmi spent many nights discussing communism.

But in Singapore all this was relegated to the back of the mind as Lakshmi’s clinic was sought by the sick and suffering in great numbers.

But the lives of a few seldom move forward without alteration. The Japanese stormed Singapore and Indians flocked to the INA which gave them some privileges. INA moved around just as a spokesman for the Indian community with the invader, till Subhash Chandra Bose landed. Then they dreamt of liberating their motherland with the help of the Japanese.unnamed

“I want a unit of brave Indian women to wield the sword of Rani of Jhansi …” spoke Subhash in Padang in 1943. Lakshmi, who had thus far been on the fringes of the INA, was inspired and requested a meeting with Bose. She emerged from a five-hour interview with a mandate to set up a women’s unit – the Rani of Jhansi regiment. Honestly there was only a lukewarm response from Indian women of Singapore to join the all-women brigade as their parents tried frantically to dissuade their daughters from this dreadful infatuation of going to battle.

The regiment was at most symbolic and given roles of sentries, nurses and fund raisers. The initial nucleus was less than 200 and the unit never had more than twice that. Anyway Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan became Captain Lakshmi, an identity that would stay with her for life. Symbolically Lakshmi also cut her knee long plait and kept it short for the rest of her life.

Finally Bose convinced them and himself that it was time they could pit their wits against the British and actually capture all the land up to Delhi. The “Delhi Chalo” march through Burma began in December 1944 but months later facing an overwhelming defeat, the decision to retreat was taken by the INA leadership.
lakshmi-sahgal2Captain Lakshmi was arrested by the British army in May 1945 and remained under house arrest in the jungles of Burma until March 1946, when she was sent to India.

Lakshmi remained politically active for the rest of her life and even led protestors against the bikini clad Miss World contestants in Bangalore 1996.

But Captain Lakshmi was a doctor first. While she (at 88 years) was contesting against Abdul Kalam as a communist candidate for Presidency of Indian union, she still treated long queues of patients forming outside her clinic.

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