An excerpt from ‘Mahanayak Subhas Chandra Bose: A Novel, Vishwas Patil, translated from the Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra.

“Let there be no blemish on my moon,” said Emilie, punning on his name, Subhas Chandra.

“What did you say?”

“You are going to meet Hitler, after all, that’s why,” replied Emilie.

Subhas laughed. He was touched by her concern that his flawless image should remain so. But right now, Netaji was a little perplexed. International diplomatic protocol required that when meeting a head of state, a suitable gift must be offered. But Hitler was such a complex, multifaceted personality – what would be a suitable gift for him, he wondered. Finally, he consulted Emilie.

“Take a rare book or a nice oil painting. They say Hitler was a painter earlier.”

“Those colours have long since fled. Let me see. I’ll think of something.”

Ribbentrop had gone to a great deal of trouble to arrange the meeting with Hitler. After changing the dates twice, 29 May 1942 was fixed. It was to be a meeting of people with conflicting views and at cross purposes. The Führer was camping at his military base, Kalfas Chez Nez, in Rastenburg in distant Prussia. On 28 May, Netaji flew to Prussia from Berlin by a special aircraft. Keppler and Adam Trott went with him. Since Netaji was absolutely certain of his mission, he was not in the least apprehensive on his way to the lion’s lair.

Ribbentrop waited on a remote airstrip to receive Netaji. He was accompanied by several officers from Hitler’s inner circle, all of them eager to meet this leader from India. Netaji was first introduced to Professor Weist by the foreign minister himself. Martin Borman, Hitler’s special envoy, was also present.

“Mr Bose, do you happen to have the latest edition of Tilak’s Gita Rahasya?”

Netaji stopped short and stared at him. “Mr Bose, even today I work as an academic adviser at the University of Munich,” he said, smiling at Netaji’s surprised expression. “Great men from your country like Kalidas and Bhavabhuti have occupied prized positions in my home. Lokmanya Tilak is one of my favourites.”

“How is it you are here?”

“Himmler is a dear friend. Because of him, I got an opportunity to spend some time with the Führer.”

“I am honoured that such an eminent scholar is so close to the Führer!” Netaji exclaimed.

Hitler’s close aides, Himmler and Goering, had been invited to the meeting. Ribbentrop had arranged a banquet that night. It was obvious that Hitler had instructed his officials to extend utmost courtesy to the visiting dignitary.

The momentous meeting took place in Hitler’s study at four the following evening.

The study was exquisitely furnished, but could seat only a few. Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, Ambassador Havell and Hitler’s personal interpreter, Schmidt, were already seated in their respective places. On the wall in front were two large maps – one of Europe and Asia and the other, a similar one that marked out Germany’s war fronts. As Netaji stepped into the room with Adam Trott, Hitler welcomed him with a flourish, “The leader of the Azad Hind!” and shook hands with him. They took their designated seats.

Netaji rose and held out a gift-wrapped box to Hitler. Hitler beamed and excitedly opened it. Inside was a copper-coloured statue. Hitler stared at the bare-bodied figurine. Trott was surprised and amused. There was a Buddha seated in padmasana, the lotus pose, in Hitler’s hands. It was an unexpected choice of gift. Hitler kept looking at the statue for several minutes, unable to identify it. Then, flaring his nostrils, he demanded, “Who is this wrestler?”

“Lord Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist faith. He taught peace, ahimsa, that is, non-violence and compassion.”

“Peace? Ahimsa? Then is this gentleman senior or junior to Mr Gandhi?” Hitler asked, still examining the figure in his hands.

“Your Excellency, he is more senior than us all,’ Netaji replied.

In such august company, laughter was unthinkable. Otherwise, Netaji would have held his sides in mirth. Trott could barely conceal the guffaw that threatened to break out of him. Somehow, he managed to keep a straight face. He was rather sorry for the Führer and his ignorance.

At first no one spoke. An expectant hush fell over the room. Who would break the silence? Eyes blinked rapidly. Then Hitler started to speak in German. Trott played the role of interpreter. Schmidt scribbled furiously, taking notes. Hitler’s face seemed to be glowing with a strange joy, his sharp eyes gave his personality an incredible magnetism.

With a smile, he asked, “How was your stay in Berlin? And the work of the Free India Centre, the Indian Legion, is it progressing satisfactorily?”

Subhas had at the very outset expressed his gratitude for the assistance rendered by Germany. Now he explained his role. “Your Excellency, my desperate desire for a free India dragged me here. That we Indians will have to fight bitterly for our freedom was clear from the start. We are prepared to shed our blood, but we also need the support of friends like the three powers, Germany, Italy and Japan. Only then can we teach the British a lesson.”

Hitler laughed. “You appear to have won over Italy and Japan already! Of course, that pleases me.”

Like two wrestlers sizing each other up before a bout by throwing a fistful of earth at each other, or a couple of veteran thespians exchanging witty quips onstage, these two men engaged each other in repartee and retort. While even god withdraws in the face of overweening flattery, it was only natural that a mere mortal, a vainglorious dictator would succumb to its charms. Netaji used words like “old revolutionary” to praise him. And Hitler, fully aware that it was only hollow praise, still felt a thrill rush through him. “This meeting marks a most momentous event in my life,” Netaji told him. His sugar-coated words brought a glow to Hitler’s fair face, smoothing every wrinkle, and his dark eyes glittered bright.

Again, an ominous silence fell over the study. Then, clenching his fists, Hitler spoke in a somewhat harsh tone. “I get the feeling that the Indian spirit is emasculated.”

“Your Excellency,” Subhas interjected sharply.

“What else?” Hitler spat. “A huge country of thirty-eight crore people and you allow a couple of thousand outsiders from England to invade your country, bind you, muzzle you for two hundred years? If I had your enormous wealth of human resources, I would have become a world conqueror like Alexander the Great.”

Netaji was infuriated. Everybody watched him in apprehension. But Netaji stayed calm. “Your Excellency, soon the darkness of slavery will be dispelled. I am completely confident that India will be free soon.”

Hitler’s face betrayed no emotion. Subhas reiterated his statement, “The British have converted my country into an iron-barred prison. Breaking through those bars, a young upstart leader from the same slave nation soars away. With no resources at his command, except an innate faith in his cause, he stands before one of the greatest commanders in the world, shakes his hand and prepares the ground for negotiations. Sir, with this live example before you, how can you accuse India of having lost its manhood?”

Hitler laughed. Then in a provocative tone, he said, “Be that as it may, I am convinced that I am right. India will not throw off the yoke of slavery for another two hundred and fifty years!”

“That is not true, sir! British Imperialism is going to collapse under the onslaught of this war. We haven’t mortgaged our spirit and put bangles on our wrists yet.”

Hitler was somewhat impressed. For a brief moment, he wondered whether a mere Asian youth leader had got the better of him. Picking up the slender cane lying on the table, he rose to his feet, pointed to the map on the wall, and traced the outline of India.

“You see that? How far your country is from Germany? We will not be able to send our armoured troops on a campaign all that way. It will be most impractical. We can only cover that distance by air. However, conditions on the western front are not conducive to such a move.”

“But I think…”

“Just wait till Moscow is demolished,” Hitler butted in. “Once Russia lies under my feet, it will be easy for me to embark on a rescue mission to India.”

“What does the Führer feel about Japan’s entry into the war?” Netaji asked.

“I am not quite clear about their intentions yet. Once Japan is victorious in East Asia, it will not be long before the British Empire starts crumbling. And then the pressure on us is bound to ease.”

‘When will Germany directly assist India?”

“Even if we decide to advance towards India’s borders, it will take us at least two years to get there. Instead of waiting, we must exploit the situation that has arisen in East Asia due to Japan’s offensive. Your Gandhi and Nehru cry themselves hoarse against Fascism and Nazism, but I don’t think anything can be gained by pursuing some eccentric path of non-cooperation or fasting.”

The cane in Hitler’s hand flitted around before coming to a halt on the Eastern sector of India, alongside Burma and Imphal. He said, “We must choose one critical location close to your border from where we can put military pressure on the British.”

Then Netaji debated with himself whether to mention something that had been on his mind for years. In his autobiography, Hitler had made a derogatory reference to India and Subhas had wanted it to be expunged. Mentioning it could have an adverse effect on the negotiations. But not doing so would mean that the slur on the country’s image remained. And Netaji’s proud spirit could not endure that. The words slipped out of his mouth unwittingly, “Sir, if in your Mein Kampf you could erase that one reference…otherwise the British will use it to whip up anti-German sentiments among the Indians.”

Hitler considered this remark impertinent. Although he maintained a veneer of politeness, his fury could not be concealed. “I have deliberately emphasised that statement in my book as a lesson to my people, so that the slavish mentality of your country does not ever take root in Germany.”

Then swiftly he changed his tone and proceeded to elaborate on Germany’s role. “We have no intentions of reaching your frontiers in the near future. One should show one’s strength only over the area covered by the tip of one’s sword. If you are headed eastwards, we are prepared to assist you. I accept the request made by Il Duce in this regard.”

A load was off Netaji’s mind. Trott threw a stealthy glance of relief in his direction. However, Hitler continued, “Don’t take Italy’s counsel as final.”

“How do you mean?”

“Italian pilots may be very brave, but don’t attempt to fly to Japan. Your life is too precious,” Hitler advised.

“But hasn’t the risk reduced somewhat now?”

“On the contrary, it has increased. If you fly over territories under British domination, they can force you to land. And then anything can happen.”

Picking up a letter lying on the table, Hitler said, “The Japanese Ambassador Oshima has requested a meeting with me. I will mention this matter to him. It would be more sensible to go to the East by either a Japanese or a German submarine.”

As he was talking, Hitler again swivelled around in the chair and once more faced the map on the wall. With the cane, he traced the likely route the submarine would take, via the Cape of Good Hope, Natal and other ports on the way, explaining that the voyage would take between seven to eight weeks. “Along the coast of West Africa, the British have erected barricades, laid mines. Bear in mind these dangers too,” he warned. Netaji suspected that the Führer would not be able to offer any military assistance in view of Russia’s manoeuvres.

Hitler pressed Netaji’s hand and wished him a safe journey.

Once he reached Berlin, Netaji threw a banquet for the Japanese Ambassador Oshima, Gen Yamamoto and Trott. When Trott told Oshima that the Führer had mentioned him, the ambassador laughed out loudly. “I wanted to meet him only to discuss the matter of an escort for your friend here, but the poor man doesn’t know it!”

Glasses were raised in toast after toast, cigarette-ends glowed. Trott addressed Netaji, “Subhas, your retorts to Hitler’s provocative statements were very clever. I felt proud of you.”

Excerpted from Mahanayak Subhas Chandra Bose: A Novel, Vishwas Patil, translated from the Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra, HarperCollins India.

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