Less than a decade ago, I was still in school; sitting in History class and trying to imagine the world as it would have been centuries earlier. I couldn’t, and still can’t, fathom that the people who lived hundreds of years ago looked just like those who walk on the Earth today. For me the Indian freedom struggle was just as far past in the history of the world as were the ancient civilisations. Perhaps, rapid development and globalisation that drastically changed the face of the world made the India of 70 years ago seem rather distant.
I will never forget the exhilaration and sense of anticipation that I experienced being a part of the PARI team that accompanied P. Sainath to Sangli. We were to interview freedom fighters that had been a part of the parallel government or the prati sarkar that was operating in the larger erstwhile district of Satara and was working towards ousting the British Raj.
We met all of nine such freedom fighters. Each of these men had their own individual story to tell. It was a treat to hear nonagenarians narrate the tales of their adventures as young men of twenty. I almost ‘saw’ the looting of trains, large rallies, jailbreaks, teary-eyed mothers and proud fathers, little children with their songs and grandmothers with their lathis. We heard the stories of prisons that were like colleges, of losing comrades to bullets, of being the youngest freedom fighter and of being the lone survivor.
Right to left– Freedom Fighters Madhavrao Mane, Jairam Kushte, Chandrakant Pohre and Raghunath Kedge at a gathering at Mane’s house
We heard the most diverse experiences from this group of Freedom fighters. Each had made an (indispensable) contribution to the larger fight for Swaraj. The sainiks began their narrations slightly self-conscious in front of the camera. But as they revisited the days of their youth, the same strength with which they had once shouted anti-British slogans returned to their voices. They became poets, campaigners and spies. They remembered little details and almost enacted entire events.
Toofan Sainik Ganapati Zharekar at the community hall in Kundal
We are working towards getting these stories ready to be published. The film and story on Ramchandra Sripati Lad aka Captain Bhau of the Toofan Sena is already up on the PARI website. In due course, all other stories will make their way to the readers. But by virtue of being present while the makers of history were recounting their experiences, I have gained immensely. To me, more than the rallies and sloganeering or the looting of trains and the torching of offices, their personal reminiscences stood our more —
It was in the very real and grounded fear of his father scolding him that Madhav Rao Mane didn’t tell his parents he was involved in anti-British activities; or his utmost astonishment that his father supported him when he was arrested and told him never to apologise to the British for his actions. When Shivaji Pawar was first arrested at the age of eight and then eventually released because he was a child, he would still go to the policemen and hurl choicest of abuses at them. When Jairam Kushte narrated the story of the historic Sangli jailbreak and how one by one his comrades fell to British bullets, he did not forget to mention that the water in the river was 41 to 49 feet deep that year. Ganapati Zharekar fondly remembered that his employers at the mill he worked at would excuse his absences for the sake of the nation.
They spoke about jail time and the conditions they had to endure. Some were luckier than others. Bhau Lad thought he was treated like a royal guest in the Aundh prison and Mane found that the Dharwad jail was just as nice any college campus. But most people, like Kushte, had to brave the ‘pannas tolanchi ek bhakri’ (incredibly thick, inedible bhakris) and watery lentils or spend days in dark, bug-infested cells.
As the Toofan Sainiks generously allowed us into their lives, I realised the gravity in saying that freedom was not easy to attain. Earlier, I could count the names of great freedom fighters on my fingertips. It is only now that I realise it was an exercise in futility.
Photos and posterisation by Shreya Katayini, Archana Phadke and Mayur Palekar.