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The Bose Whom Japan Still Remembers, The Telegraph

I was recently in Japan, and asked my hosts what memories remained in that country of Subhas Chandra Bose, the great Indian patriot who fought alongside the Japanese against the British and whose ashes are believed to be housed in a temple in Tokyo. They answered that Subhas Bose was familiar only to specialists in Indian history; on the other hand, another Bose, Rash Behari, was well known in Japan, and among the citizens of Tokyo in particular. This was because he had patented an ‘Indian curry’ that was still served in one of the city’s most popular restaurants.

The name of Rash Behari Bose was not unfamiliar to me. I knew that he was a revolutionary of the pre-Subhas Bose, indeed even pre-Mahatma Gandhi, generation, and that he had taken refuge outside India. But the knowledge that, in the year 2015, he was better known in Japan than in his homeland intrigued me.

On my return to Bangalore, I located a biography of Rash Behari Bose, written by Takeshi Nakajima of Hokkaido University, and translated into English by Prem Motwani, Professor of Japanese at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. From this I learnt that Rash Behari Bose first arrived in Japan in June 1915, exactly a hundred years ago as I write. He was on the run from the British Raj, having played a key role in a plot to assassinate the Viceroy three years previously.

Born in 1886 in a village in rural Bengal, Rash Behari was brought up in the town of Chandan Nagar, then a French possession. He was said to be ‘a quick-tempered and stubborn child’. After finishing high school he applied for a job in the army, but was rejected as the British viewed Bengalis as effete and unmasculine, and had classified them as a ‘non-martial race’.

Bose finally got employment as a clerk in Kasauli, near Simla, shortly afterwards shifting to the Forest Research Institute (FRI) in Dehradun. Although working for the British Government, Bose was fired with anti-colonial ideas, these acquired during the agitation against the (first) Partition of Bengal. He made contacts with revolutionaries in Bengal and in the Punjab, at the time perhaps the two most rebellious provinces in British India.

Working at the FRI, Rash Behari Bose learnt how to handle chemical materials and convert them into crude bombs. When, in December 1912, the new imperial capital of New Delhi was inaugurated, Bose was at hand to attend and seek to disrupt the celebrations. His companion was another young Bengali radical, Basant Kumar Biswas, who threw a bomb handed over to him by Rash Behari at the caparisoned elephant carrying the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge. There was a terrific blast, and some assumed that Hardinge was dead. In fact, he had only sustained minor injuries.

In the confusion that followed the explosion, Bose and Biswas fled the scene. Rash Behari took the evening train back to Dehradun, where he resumed his duties at the Forest Research Institute. His double life was so artfully concealed that, when Lord Hardinge came visiting Dehradun a few months later, Rash Behari helped organize a reception in honour of the visiting dignitary which, among other things, praised the Almighty for offering the Viceroy a providential escape from a brutal terror attack.

However, in time the needle of suspicion began pointing towards Rash Behari. After some revolutionaries he had worked with were arrested, Bose, sensing he might be next, fled to Chandan Nagar. He lived underground for the next year and a bit, flitting between his home town and Banaras. Finally, in April 1915, he sailed for Japan under an assumed name.

Reaching the port city of Kobe on 5th June 1915, Rash Behari made his way to Tokyo by train. Among the first people he met was Sun Yat-sen, the great Chinese nationalist then also in exile in Japan, where he went under the name of Sun Zhongshan. Bose also established contact with Japanese journalists and Pan-Asianists sympathetic to the Indian cause.

The British finally traced Rash Behari to Tokyo, and asked the Japanese Government to extradite him (the two countries were then allies). His friends now took him to the home of the owner of the Nakamuraya bakery, where he hid for months, the staff of the bakery co-operating with the owner in the concealment. While in hiding Rash Behari introduced the maids of the household to the delights of Indian cooking.

Meanwhile, in the world outside, a British ship fired at a Japanese merchant carrier. Relations between the countries became strained, with Rash Behari being a incidental beneficiary, for the deportation order targeting him was withdrawn.

While Rash Behari was in hiding, Nakamuraya’s proprietor had developed a fondness for him. Now that the Indian was free to move around, he asked him to marry his daughter, Toshiko. The marriage took place in July 1918, further rooting Rash Behari to the soil of Japan. The couple had two children in quick succession, before Toshiko died from pneunomia in 1925. (It is said that Rash Behari chanted Sanskrit shlokas on her death-bed).

Rash Behari sublimated his grief in politics. He became active in Pan-Asian circles, founded an ‘Indian Club’ of Tokyo, and lectured on the evils of Western imperialism. By now he spoke and wrote Japanese fluently. Politics, however, was tempered or flavoured by the culinary arts. In 1927, Nakamuraya formally introduced ‘Indian curry’ on their menu. The ingredients and methods of preparation had been supplied by the proprietor’s Indian son-in-law. The curry quickly became a hit, even surpassing in popularity the custard buns that had hitherto been Nakamuraya’s most advertised product.

All through, Rash Behari was keenly following the nationalist struggle in his homeland. He subscribed to Gandhi’s Young India, among other publications; based on what he was reading, he concluded that the Mahatma’s greatest asset was not his ideas or his oratory, but ‘his spirit of sacrifice’. It was Gandhi’s personal sincerity and ascetic lifestyle that had taken the message of the independence movement to ‘the poorest of the poor living in the remotest of areas’.

Rash Behari was also impressed from afar by a younger Congress leader, his namesake, Subhas Chandra Bose. In 1934 he called him a ‘prominent leader’ of the freedom struggle who was ‘highly respected by the Indian youth’. Six years later, he wrote: ‘Gandhi is a person whom I respect but he is an Indian saint and “a person of yesterday” whereas Subhas Chandra Bose is the “person of today”.’

Meanwhile, the Second World War had broken out. In February 1942 the British-controlled garrison at Singapore was routed by the Japanese. Many of the captured Indian soldiers, led by one Mohan Singh, formed an ‘Indian National Army’ (INA) and pledged to fight with the Japanese to liberate their motherland.

Excited by these developments, Rash Behari left Tokyo for Southeast Asia. At a conference in Bangkok (then also under Japanese occupation) it was decided to place the INA under an ‘Indian Independence League’ whose Chairman would be Rash Behari Bose himself.

The Japanese, seeking to augment the leadership of the INA, now made contact with Subhas Chandra Bose, at the time in Berlin. In May 1943 Subhas Bose reached Japan by submarine—twenty-years after his older namesake had arrived on those shores. The two met a month later, when, speaking naturally in Bengali, Rash Behari transferred the control and leadership of the ‘Indian Independence League’ to Subhas.

The events of the subsequent months and years have been extensively documented by historians, as a result of the mythic status that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose has posthumously acquired. So let me instead note here the exit of the other Bose from the stage of Indian and Japanese history. In February 1944, Rash Behari suffered a collapse of his lungs. His health steadily deteriorated, and he died on the 21st of January 1945, aged fifty-eight.

It is said that in his last weeks, when he was in hospital, Rash Behari was asked by his doctor about his appetite. How can I have an appetite, he answered, when the nurses don’t allow me to have the food I most desire? What is that, enquired the doctor. The answer, of course, was Nakamuraya’s Indian curry.

Postscript: I read about Rash Behari Bose’s fascinating life with more than ordinary fascination, for I was myself born in the campus of the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun, where my father, grandfather, and uncle all worked. Alas—perhaps because they were Tamil Brahmins, and not Bengalis Kayasths, or because they were senior officers, not junior clerks—none of them had a single rebellious bone or radical gene.

by Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 13th June 2015)