Patriots of the Will by Dipika Mukherjee

Malaya, August 1945


The Mishti-Lady:

What I remember most about the Japanese occupation of Malaya was the hunger of it. There was a gut empty scavenging for food, and there was never enough.


Because of this hunger, all the bombs and the sirens floated past me, like the sunsets and sunrises lighting up my world and darkening it, all without my notice.


Until He came.


Then the drought changed into a flowing sea of milk and sugar and plump pistachios and it swallowed us whole.  Especially me, the most famous maker of sweets in Seremban.


Before Him, I might as well have been a widow for men had me at their will, especially the estate kirani, Veerapan, whom I fucked so that my husband would be paid to tap the rubber from one day to the next. Veerapan, who could summon any woman on the estate to the dispensary at any time of the day or night, and there, behind closed doors, strip them naked to be beaten for the pleasure of the Japanese. 


I did not question the nature of men’s pleasures; it was enough to be fed because of such needs. But when He came to Negri Sembilan, even I, a mere sweet-seller from Seremban married to a lowly rubber-tapper, had heard about his heroic welcome in Singapore. Through tales whispered breathlessly by the light of the moon, I learnt of this hero, an Indian man, a Bengali man, who strode onto Singapore soil and stood equal to the Occupiers. Oh, he swooped down on a plane like an angel, he was a farishta alright! Tall and fair and courageous, he led the Indian National Army, he could stand up to the Japanese! We worshipped him before we ever set eyes on him. 


Toothless Tall-Uncle warned us again and again but no one listened. ‘I have eaten more salt than you have rice. You morons will barter your lives to his sweet words and consider it an honour.’


Yes, it was an honour. When He came into my life, it was like a miracle was sown into my body and honey flowed from my breasts. I know it was honey because He told me so.



The Mishti-Lady’s Husband

My grandfather rubber tapper, dey, also my father, so of course lah, I become one too. Tap tree, collect rubber, then collect money, finish lah! But always, ah, always, I want something more, more boo-ti-fool, like magic, you know? My teacher wallop me for eating air only all day, watching cows cross the road, but I always a dreamer, dey, what to do? Never finish school also.


But as soon as I see my Mishti-lady, the best maker of sweets in Seremban, I know already I must marry! Different lah, from the rest, and not like Wah! so boo-ti-fool, but ok, she sweeten my life. At night I can’t sleep also, just watching her only ... she soft like the rosogollas she makes, but she never even want to touch me, so tired always.


Yes, I love my wife. I still love her, but also I tell you anh, a bit bitter already, like the neem rasam she makes, first all pepper and spice in the mouth and then left with bitter only. Still, I swallow and eat it, all of her.


I could tahan also, before the war, pushing this small cart of sweets in the evening. I have my cart, we eat well. They all like to buy my wife’s sandesh, see here, this mould, like shells on the beach, eh? All from those times anh, cannot get such fancy work now and this one already 23 years old. Belonged to her mother. Now dead lah dey, she from Calcutta, long time ago.


When I born the white sahib like kings in Malaya, then the Japanese army come, and then that Indian man. Very different when that Indian, that Bangla man, Bose, came. They first call me to the rest house to bring Bengali sweets – everyone know I married to Mishti-lady, the most famous maker of sweets in Seremban.


Ask, lah, go, you ask anyone. Any one will tell you how that Bangla man fucked us all.



Veerapan, Plantation Overseer:

What for you kachau me about the mongrel that Mishti-slut is carrying? Wait lah, another few months only and you can pull that bastard out by the tail and if it has chinky eyes you ask the Japanese or any of the Chinese still alive here, ask, ask lah, so many men she spread her legs for, since her own man is a cock-sucker. All these bitches here are on heat for twelve months, raising backsides, legs, whatever also can, simply itchy-itchy all the time.


I have no time to talk cock ah, don’t simply kachau me!



The Lady-Doctor:
Yes I am a doctor. But, first, I am a Captain, fighting with the Indian National Army. When He asked me to fight for India, to take leadership of the Rani Jhansi regiment two years ago, I left my clinic in Singapore and came to serve my Motherland.


Did you see the trained fighting force of women outside? We are ready to fight at any front, side-by-side with the men. Just like the Rani of Jhansi, wearing a nine-yard-sari into the dusty Indian battlefield and slaying the British.


He said, Give Me Blood and I’ll Give You Freedom and we are ready, all ready to die for him. He is not like that Gandhi, preaching non-violence and inaction and expecting Independence for India on a plate. Our leader is fighting the British, going to jail for His country, and even now He is in exile. He has friends among the Japanese, the Italians, and together, we will beat the British in this war.


When India is independent, only then we can all go home.


The Mishti-lady? Yes, I was in my office when that Mishti-woman came to me a week ago. We were still reeling from the news of our Great Leader being in a plane crash over Taiwan, on His way to Tokyo. Sometimes He flew a decoy, so that His many enemies would not find Him, and we hoped for this when His body could not be found. The Japanese military hospital in Taipei presented a charred body, but so what, it could have been anyone, a dead Japanese soldier even.


Yes, yes, the Mishti-lady. When she came, I didn’t want to see anyone, I was still in shock, but she insisted, most rudely you know, just completely as crass as these lower-classes can be. She pushed my assistant out of her way and stormed into my office, shouting that it was urgent and personal.


I should have just thrown her out then, instead of taking pity on her. My mother was the President of the All India Women's Conference and a tireless campaigner for women's rights, so when this thin desperate woman walked in, I thought maybe she was in real trouble and I couldn’t turn her away.


Then she told me she was carrying the child of the Leader. I wanted to slap her face, but I started to laugh instead. He and this dirty ... vagabond?


She was shameless, this woman. She reminded me of all the times we had been in Seremban, all the times she had visited Him alone, and she had the dates and months right, reeling them off her fingertips. The thumb on the right hand had a pink scar. I remember looking at her fingers and wondering if these were the hands of a dangerous spy set out to discredit our movement by flinging the dirt she brought on the leader, but then, suddenly, she was crying, asking me for any news of him, saying she had just heard about his disappearance. She fell at my feet and clasped my ankles in her grimy hands.


I had to shake her off like a dog.


I have a diploma in gynaecology and obstetrics, so I asked to examine her. She took off her clothes easily, so loose, like a woman much used. When I found the signs of life inside her, I had the urge to tear out that foetus, to put an end to His shame, but my hands were shaking and I could only confirm that there was a child, about two months now, in her belly.


Later, I went into the toilet and I vomited.


What the Mishti-lady said was a lie. He was married to our Cause, He even left his wife and child to fight by our side. What need then, to speak of such filthy lies in public? Go back and tell that Mishti-lady that if she wants to lose the child, I will help her.



The Mishti-Lady’s Neighbour:
Oh, that one’s a real slut. She’ll sell her baby’s cunt if it turns out a girl and anyone wants to buy that piece of meat.


She treats her husband like a slave, Aum Shivam, Shivam, that woman will have a terrible rebirth. The only sweetness is in her mishtis, let me tell you, she is all poison inside.


Ok, I’ll tell you one story, you judge for yourself.


One afternoon, in the shed behind the kitchen, there was mewing and god-knows-what noises like thwack, thwack, thwack. I went out to the shed and saw her, that Mishti-lady. She was beating a sack, which was oozing blood. Thwack, like this, went the stick we used to beat the dirt out of our clothes, landing on a twitch. She saw me but her mouth was set, and she said nothing. Then she slowly opened the bag and shook out the remains of two kittens.


I recognised them as the stray cats the Japanese officers sometimes fed, pouring the milk into frothing bowls and spilling it in front of our hungry eyes.


She cooked the animals of course. Tcha, animals were nothing when men were executed and their heads displayed in the cricket pitch in front of the club where the white men used to drink whiskey in the evenings. I left her to skin the animals, wanting no part of it. She marinated the meat with turmeric and salt and a dash of dried red chillies and it was an evening feast, we all ate it. I said nothing to anyone.


The Leader, He is a god. No British jail can hold him, and He escaped, like an invisible man, travelling through Afghanistan and Russia to Germany, until He came to save us. When the Japanese come to search my house and see the Leader’s photo on the wall, they just salute it and go. Just like that.


What the Mishti-lady is saying is so evil that she will curse all seven generations of her ancestors. I tell you, that is the kind of demon-woman she is. She will say anything, sleep with anyone, sell her children ... ask anyone, we all know her very well.



The Lady Jhansi Recruit:
We did not expect this to happen. That he, who fought to ensure that Indian valour would shine like the sun, would melt into the sky forever: Suraj bankar jag par chamke, Bharat naam subhaga.


I was there with my husband to greet the Leader at the Kallang civilian aerodrome in Singapore. I saw Bose, he was dressed in a flowing silk suit and a gray felt hat, and the welcome felt like a sea of approval. Two days later, in a grand affair at the Cathay Building, Bose became the president of Indian Independence League.


What an impressive man! He had studied at Cambridge, been the Mayor of Calcutta, fought Gandhi to be the Indian National Congress President and led the Indian National Army. We all swooned.


Then, when the Rani Jhansi regiment was formed for women volunteers, my husband made me go. ’We need some Royal Bengal Tigresses,’ he told me. ‘This will give you a chance to slice off enemy heads instead of chomping on mine’.


Patriots of the Will. That is what my father said we were, as we struggled to survive. A British subject till the very end, my father wanted nothing to do with the Japanese. Even when the Japanese announced that they would look upon those who did not join the Indian Independence League as traitors, and the Ceylonese, Malayalees, Muslims everybody had to join the movement, my father remained stubborn.


My husband tried hard to recruit my father into the movement. ‘Can’t you see what this could mean for the Indian community, Baba? The Japanese backing the League means that all Indians will unite for a common good!’


’Patriots of the Will are ultimately traitors to all causes,’  said my father.


Finally we began to resist the Japanese. As the occupation wore us down, and the situation began to deteriorate, the League officials, denied the labourers rice at any hint of rebellion. Then Bose, the most beloved of our heroes, turned ugly. ‘I stand here representing the Provisional Government of Azad Hind,’  he thundered, ‘which has absolute rights over your lives and properties. By compulsion if necessary.’


My father couldn’t resist sneering. ‘The INA,’ he sniffed, ‘was always a farce.’


And then, one day, this Mishti-lady showed up at the Captain’s office, offering us an heir.


It is so obscene. I feel personally violated, as if our selfless struggle was in vain, to prop up a clay idol who is also an adulterer.

Or is this Mishti-lady a liar, paid by the British to confuse and divide us? That is what the Captain believes.


I don’t know. Maybe I don’t want to know. All I remember from that day was that after the Captain threw the Mishti-lady out and the assistant and I waited for the Jeep to arrive so that we could take her back home far away from here, the Mishti-lady was sniffing away her tears and humming a tune, Jodi tor dak shune keu na ashe tobe ekla cholo re...


It’s a Bengali song. Bose’s favorite.

The final stanza goes like this:

O unlucky one, if no one holds up the path light,

If doors are slammed on this stormy, thunderous night,

Then seize the lightning, and with it, your heart ignite,

The flames will burn to ashes but don’t give up the fight,

If no one answers your call, then keep walking alone.

Walk alone, walk alone, walk alone, keep walking alone.



The Lady-Doctor’s Assistant:
Ya lah, I was there when that Mishti-lady came to see the doctor. That one I remember, like an animal lah, almost push me down on the floor because I block the door.


I also born on the rubber plantation, my father a rubber tapper all his life, but I join the Indian National Army already, because I want to fight for Mother India. My family, they all call me chilli padi because I so small but very hot-tempered, hah! – so they tease, eh, chilli padi, what for you want to fight the British, too tiny lah you!  But I join anyway, even as a teenager, to fight for my motherland. Of course I am ready to die for India.


Just between you and me anh, I was listening that day. I was at the door what, how not to hear? She was shouting-shouting only, ‘Tell me, tell me what happened to Him, you must know!’ and crying also, for what I don’t know. Maybe she want money. She a Big Fat Liar, that I know lah.


No matter what the Mishti-lady tell you, we work with Him everyday and know what kind of man He was. You think He got time to fool around like a monkey, is it? All that talk about Him being Bangali, liking Bangali food etc etc, all rubbish only. One time, one of the girls anh, a new recruit, answer in Bangali when He ask a question in English. Wah, you should see His face, man, so angry and all red! He said, ‘You think I am special or you are special because we are Bangalis? We are Indians first – never forget that. I am Indian First, Indian Second, Indian Third and an Indian every time. All of us are Indians. Not Bangalis and Tamils and Poonjabis!’


You think He play-play with this Mishti-lady because both Bangali ah? I don’t think so. She a Big Fat DIRTY Liar.


Don’t believe enemy prop-uh-gand-ah, lah. I volunteered for the Jan Baz, the ‘suicide unit’, got up every morning to march with my rifle, walk the whole of the Burmese jungle already. Also refuse to salute the Japanese flag because the Japanese don’t want salute India’s. But our turn to fight never came lah, and we all sent back by train last year. We try so hard to stay and fight, some sign petition in blood also, begging to be sent to war. One time, our camp got bomb, two girls killed.


You think we do all this for a motherland we never see anh? NO! We did it for HIM, because we believe in Him. You think we believe in a liar and a cheater ah? I don’t think so.


We will win, lah, just wait and see. Jai Hind!



Toothless Tall-Uncle:
No, I don’t believe that the Mishti-lady met that man alone, ever,... really, is that what she is saying? No one was safe at that time, no one left their homes at night like that. The children could not go to school, the girls hidden. Arul made all the boys line up against the wall and lectured them, ‘When you see a Japanese, you must bow down. If you don’t, you kena slap. You cannot cry or he’ll hammer you even more eh?’  We all lived together, slept in a long room, how could a woman visit a man in the night so secretly? We would all know. The Japanese kept us all so afraid, we locked everybody up.


All our revenge was only talk, like my Malay friend who would say, ‘When the Malays decide to fight back, we will stop shouting this bloody fool “banzai” and kick them out!’ But he also did nothing. Only the Indian leader, that Bose fellow, he did something; he changed the way we thought of ourselves as useless, powerless. First, of course, it was the small Japanese fellows defeating the powerful Sahibs so that anything seemed possible, and then Netaji came.


We all had heard of his miraculous escape from the British jail, how he had travelled over Asia, and Europe to find followers to fight for Indian Independence.

During his speeches, when Netaji would appeal for funds, I too had joined, jostling everyone out of my path. The men threw their gold rings, the women took off their jewellery, even their mangalsutras, to create a glistening pile of offerings at his feet. Their faces were radiant, shining like goddesses lit up by the flames of flickering oil-lamps.


We knew Bose had a memsahib wife but when it came to food, he was Bengali. The women would cook and the food would magically appear; the milk for rosogullas, fish for shorshe macher jhol, and vegetables for chorchoris. It was as if a powerful magician from our childhood tales had come to Malaya to work his sorcery on every one of us. We only smelled the feast, but that seemed to be enough.


I didn’t stand a chance when I tried to warn them. The women were all hypnotised by him. Then the Lady-Doctor arrived, that rude Captain woman, and that was the last straw.


I only lived for the time when I could go home and fill up my glass. I didn’t notice very much in those days, but still ... maybe you should ask someone else?



The Mishti-Lady:
Enough now, leave me alone! What do you want me to say? A mother says, He is the father, and that is how you know, isn’t it? That is the proof.


Yes, He and I were from different worlds. Yes, there was no reason for my burnt-face fate to have smiled so widely ... but it did. My Tamil father insisted on meals with coconut flavoured curries but my Bengali mother gave me the boon which led me to Him.


When He came, I had not seen sugar for more than a year, but my reputation reached his ears. He was a Bengali man ... in all of Negri Sembilan only I had this magic in my palms.


My husband did not like it, not at all. If he could earn enough he would put me in purdah, locked up behind a veil like the uneducated Muslims. My husband was afraid; when I started making sweets for Him, my husband stopped eating.


‘Akka, your husband not eating nowadays, ah? Better take care before he fall really sick,’ my neighbours would say, the syrup in their voice like ghee into my raging fire.


‘More food for the children then!’ I would snap, tugging my sari closer around my shoulders to cover my contempt whenever I passed the men. The hunger, the stomach twisting emptiness, had become as unremarkable as breathing, yet the men did nothing. We women boiled and seasoned tapioca gruel to make it stretch for the many hungry mouths to feed and sometimes, when lucky, I could bring some salted fish to throw into the karai.


There was no reason to hate me so much. None at all. During the war years, the many ways I was used and used other people in return was not so different. Anyone who had the opportunity did the same.


He wanted me, with my sweet palms and breasts dripping of honey.


When I told the Lady-doctor all this, I thought she would slap me. Instead, she laughed, like I was worth nothing, that no one would want to touch me for any reason, not even in anger.


I survived the worst years. Bas, what more could anyone want? This baby is a bonus; He already has a wife and a daughter, He told me.


Go back and tell that Lady-Doctor I will never give up His child.


This one will be His only son.



Dipika Mukherjee made her debut as a novelist with the publication of Thunder Demons by Gyaana Books in July 2011. This novel, based on the history of a Malaysian-Indian family, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009. Her second novel, Finding Piya, is being marketed by Greene & Heaton for a UK release. She has edited two anthologies of short stories, Silverfish New Writing 6 (Silverfish, 2006) and The Merlion and Hibiscus (Penguin, 2002) and her first poetry collection, The Palimpsest of Exile, was published by Rubicon Press in 2009. Her short stories and poems have appeared in publications around the world, including the Asia Literary Review, The South Asia Review, Freefall, Del Sol Review, Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, New Writing Dundee, Asiatic, and Platform among others.

She is currently Professor of Linguistics at Shanghai International Studies University and divides her time between America, India, Malaysia and China, calling all four places home.

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