Author Meira Chand champions women's perspectives

Sacred Waters tells of the women of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, who have been largely ignored by history, says author Meira Chand

Singaporean author Meira Chand (above) interviewed four women members of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment for her ninth book, Sacred Waters.
Singaporean author Meira Chand (above) interviewed four women members of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment for her ninth book, Sacred Waters. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

"Give me your blood and I will give you freedom."

With these words, nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose galvanised Indian women in South-east Asia to form one of the few female fighting forces in World War II.

The obscure stories of the women of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, who were part of the Indian National Army (INA), are getting the fictional treatment by Singaporean author Meira Chand in her first novel since the acclaimed A Different Sky in 2010. She spent more than seven years researching Sacred Waters, her ninth book, in which Sita, an elderly Singaporean woman, traces her past as a Rani of Jhansi soldier to a university colleague of her daughter Amita.

"These women are not widely known to have existed as a regiment," says Chand, who is in her 70s. "So much has been written about the male force of the INA, but the women have been largely ignored by history."

The Rani of Jhansi Regiment was formed in 1943 by Bose, who aimed to overthrow British rule of colonial India. It had its first training camp in Singapore and grew to number more than 1,000 women.

The regiment was named after the rebel queen Lakshmibai of Jhansi in northern India, who fought against the British in the 1850s and was said to have ridden into battle with her young son strapped to her back.

Chand tracked down and interviewed four former Rani of Jhansi in Singapore, Malaysia and India, now in their late 80s or 90s.

All of them, she says, regarded their years in the regiment as the best of their lives because of the sense of liberation and empowerment it brought them. "Even at that late age, they were so emotionally touched that they began crying when they spoke of that time."

Most of the regiment's volunteers were illiterate young women from Malayan rubber estates, where sexual exploitation was rife. After the INA fell apart and Bose died, many had to return to that life.

Sita comes from an India where female babies are drowned at birth, girls barely in their teens are married off and widows are shunned by society as poison.

Her tale may be set in the 1930s and 1940s, but Chand says these things still happen today in parts of India. "Female infanticide is an everyday occurrence in rural India and the male-female ratio is completely skewed as a result. There are still plenty of child widows today.

"We hear so much about how India is progressing as a new power, but socially, there are a lot of backward, traditional pockets that will take time to change."

The INA's legacy is one coloured by its involvement with the Japanese, who supported its formation ostensibly to fight colonialism in Asia.

Chand acknowledges the resentment that many in Singapore still hold against the Japanese and their allies in the war. "It does not detract from the fact that these women left their families to lay down their lives for the freedom of India. It was an incredibly brave thing to do."

Chand, who is of Swiss-Indian parentage, has known the proximity of war. She was born in Britain during WWII and her earliest memories are of rushing into air raid shelters as bombs fell on London.

After some 30 years in Japan, she moved to Singapore in 1997 with her businessman husband, with whom she has two adult children and four grandchildren.

Her novels are known for their epic historical sweep - A Different Sky tracks three Singapore families from the 1920s to the 1950s, while A Choice Of Evils (1996) looks at the Rape of Nanking - and have been lauded by the Republic's late president S R Nathan.

While her previous novels were brought out by British publishers such as Harvill Secker and Weidenfeld & Nicolson, she has opted this time to go with local publisher Marshall Cavendish. "It's a very impersonal thing to live 12,000 miles from where you publish," she says. "I wanted the warm feeling of publishing within my community."

She is lending her voice to the upcoming Asian Women Writers Festival, which enters its second edition on Friday and at which she will give the keynote address.

The two-day festival - started by Singapore-based magazine India Se Media in 2016 - showcases the work of women writers across Asia.

Besides panels and a writing masterclass, it will present a $5,000 award for Asian Woman Writer Of The Year, the shortlist of which pits literary titans such as India's Arundhati Roy against newcomers such as Singapore's Nuraliah Norasid, as well as a $1,000 prize for Best Upcoming Writer and a Most Deserving Teacher Of Literature award for educators in Singapore.

Chand says such events are a "valuable platform" for Asian women, who are progressing at an "incredible rate compared with two to three decades ago - from bound feet to boardroom in two generations".

She is referring to her character Mei Lan from A Different Sky, whose grandmother had bound feet and who becomes a lawyer championing women's rights. "A woman's perspective is so important."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2018, with the headline Author Meira Chand champions women's perspectives. Subscribe