Ketoki was excited as her older brother was coming home from Burma after 2 long years. Baba had gone to fetch him from the railway station. Her dearest friend Anita was also with her. The young sixteen-year-old giirl kept running to the door and back to be the first to see her brother.
“Dada is home!” She shouted as she ran down the steps.
Then, a subdued ” Where’s dada?”
Baba sat on the steps, seemingly exhausted, “the police were there at the station. They took him along.”
Ketoki was crestfallen. She never would understand the ways of men, she thought. Her brother was all of 18 when he had enlisted in the INA led by Subhash Chandra Bose.
They’ve gone off to Burma. Why?
Why were they fighting the British in Japan and SE Asia?
She was going to find out, soon!
“Baba….”, She started but could not find any more words. With a choked throat, she felt shocked, disgusted and torn. Ketoki could not hold her emotions and ran to her room with tearful eyes. She had been anticipating her brother’s return this Raksha Bandhan and had several plans to spend the day with him. She had made many colourful rakhies for her brother, waiting for him. The wait prolonged. The kitchen which was filled with hustle bustle and aroma of delicacies wafting since morning suddenly came to a standstill.
Though it was not hard for her to understand what would have caused her brother to have been caught by the Province police, yet she was unable to give in to the fact that in the eyes of the law he was a rebel.
Anita had insisted a saddened Ketoki to come to her house for some change. While they were passing the marketplace on their way back, somebody stopped her in her tracks.
Before she knew it, the boy who had hailed her handed over a ‘ladoo’. Closing it into her fist he said, “eat at home”.
“…bbbut who are you?” she blurted.
“A deshbhakt,” he said and disappeared into the crowd. She tied the ‘ladoo’ into her dupatta. Although ‘ladoo’ was her favorite sweet but at that time she was in no mood to even look at it.
Hopeful that it would contain some information about her Dada, she and Anita rushed home quickly. The first thing they did on reaching the home was to rush to her room and close the door behind. She careful broke the laddoo into pieces only to discover a small piece of paper in it which had something scribbled on it.
With trembling hands, she was staring at it. They were some bunch of words which did not make sense to the girls. Helpless Ketoki and Anita sat beaside each other, trying to decipher the coded message.
“What do you think it means?” Anita asked noticing the clueless expressions on Ketoki’s face.
“Maybe, it is some message from dada, but I can’t decipher it,” replied Ketoki staring at the piece of paper.
“Do you think it would be a good idea to go back to the bazaar and look for the person who handed you this?” Anita could only think of this solution, as of now.
Ketoki looked at Anita. Was this the only solution, she thought to herself. Briefly, they kept staring at each other, contemplating their next move.
“Do you think I should take this to baba?” Ketoki finally said.
“Are you insane? Baba will straight away tear it into pieces and ask you to stay put. With dada in custody, he is already running from pillar to post begging for his release.” Anita tried to put some sense into Ketoki’s mind. However, both were clueless as to what should be their next move.
At that instant, Anita came up with an idea. She thought of Ram kaka, the owner of the old stationery store in the market. He was a learned man and also trustworthy at the same time. In fact, he had secretly distributed the first few flyers when INA had just launched. He mobilized the young boys to become a part of it.
“That’s a good idea. I am sure he would help us in decoding this”, exclaimed hopeful Ketoki.
With optimism in their feet, both went to Ram’s store. Finding the right time, they showed him the paper, looking at which he immediately asked them to come inside. He made sure that nobody could listen to their conversation. He asked the girls where did they find that paper. To which they told him how a young lad had handed them that ladoo.
“A lot is going on these days. The police are on the lookout for anyone who is associated with the Azad Hind Fauj and that’s probably why your brother was arrested from the station itself. This piece of paper has a coded message.”
It reads like this- “Jallianwala Bagh Go Back Pandavas to Harappan civilization and Mughal Rulers.”
The girls look puzzled as they couldn’t make any sense of that message. Ram, who was an expert on this, broke their curiosity.
“It means Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, Pandavas meaning five. This indicates the time 14:19. Harappan civilization means ancient or old and the Mughal rulers refer to the fort.
The message indicates that somebody will meet you at 14:19 at the old fort in the city. Do you want me to accompany you?”
“We would be fine, kaka,” replied the girls thanking him.
Ketoki and Anita’s eyes widened in anticipation. What could be the purpose of this meeting? Is someone trying to convey a message to her dada in jail? Will it be the same person at the fort, who handed them the “laddoo”? Puzzled and surprised at the same time, they departed from the store.
It was almost 1.30pm. The girls hardly had time. They reached home, gulped down the lunch that Dida had served them. Properly dressed, they now needed an alibi to step out of the house. The fort was a twenty-minute walk and it would be evening by the time they returned home. What would they tell the folks at home?
“Baba is about to leave for the kacheri in a bit. I heard him talking to someone in the diwan. Once he leaves, we can sneak out,” Ketoki said returning from the lobby. Anita gulped, “what if we are caught, Ketoki? What if this is some sort of a trick?”
“Dhatt! why would someone trick us? I am sure this has something to do with dada. Someone is trying to help us, my instinct tells me that,” Ketoki slighted her doubts to display her bravery.
Both the girls prepared for their little adventure.
They were eagerly waiting for baba’s departure. The moment, he headed out of the house, they moved out too. They walked at a brisk pace, covering their faces with the odhni. The road to the fort was a deserted one, but they had a sparkle in their eyes to lead them the way. They took the road behind the forest so that their route wouldn’t clash with baba’s.
The twenty minute walked seemed like eternity. Though it was the month of ashwin, the clear skies heralding the arrival of Goddess Durga, the humidity was yet to go. Tiny beads of sweat lined their forehead. They were anxious to know more. They were not scared but the uncertainty and the suspense was a lot for them to handle.
They had reached the fort ten minutes earlier than the time indicated on the chit.
Located on the outskirts of the city, the ruins had their own story. They had always been warned to stay away from the fort. “It is not safe,” someone had said. “It can be haunted”, maasi had warned Ketoki.
But they stood there despite the warnings.
The girls had found a rock which overlooked the entrance to the fort. From their vantage point, they could see whoever came in. Suddenly they heard the rustle of leaves behind them. Turning around, they saw two masked men making their way towards them.
The two girls were asked to follow them inside. While they were walking, Anita asked Ketoki with a tensed look, “Who could they be? Aren’t you nervous?” Ketoki replied, “When I have a strong and supportive friend like you by my side, what’s there to worry. You have always stood by my side like a rock.” Donning a smile of confidence, they went inside. The two men now removed their mask. One of them was the same boy who had handed them the ladoo. He said, “We are your brother’s friends. We were there with him in the INA. We have important lead on why your brother is arrested. Before he left for the mission in Burma, Subhash Chandra Bose had handed him some strategic documents. In a short period of time, he had won over his trust. The police must have been tipped off by somebody about that and that’s why your brother was picked up. Now they would come looking for those papers. You need to find them and hand them over to us. If the police don’t find anything against your brother, he would be released soon.”
“But how do we believe you?”, the girls questioned.
Several questions crossed their minds.
“You say, you know my brother then you must know my father as well. He is doing everything he can to get my brother out of this. Why you didn’t tell him this? Why did you choose us? Moreover, where are we to find these important papers?” Ketoki bombarded them with questions.
“Well, if we were to tell this to your father, he might not believe us”, said one of those boys.
“Or he might find those papers and hand them over to the police to seek your bother’s release. Then our mission goes kaput,” quipped the other.
“So, we trust you. In fact, we have heard a lot about you from your brother. He keeps saying that he sees a potential activist in you,” said the other boy looking at Ketoki.
“Also we cannot approach your father right now as he is under constant police radar. Your brother had mentioned to us during the training that if something ever comes up of this sort or he is in some danger then you are the most trusted one after his father. The papers were kept by him two years back with a plan B when plan A fails. The strategic documents were divided among the top five cadets of the INA and your brother is one of them.”
Ketoki was proud of her brother. She never knew that he trusted her so much. As a teenager, he would always talk about revolution for freedom and encourage his sister. Ketoki was now determined to find those papers and help his brother and the group in whatever way she can. Her brother had fulfilled his promise of Rakhi by vowing to protect her and many other people. It was her turn to play her role to ensure her brother’s safety.
Ketoki and Anita were hanging on to each word that the boys said. They felt assured that they could trust the boy, who was called Sujoy.
But still the big question of the important papers was in front of them. Determined to help in every possible way and find the papers Ketoki and Anita left Sujoy and Das only to meet again in 3 days with any possible news.
There was no luck in finding the papers for the next two days. Just a day before the promised date, Ketoki found a letter which her brother had written to her a few months back. It stated “Amidst these clouds of uncertainty, trust only yourself. The carved wooden box you gifted me on my last birthday will always be close to my soul.”
She felt that this was some kind of an indication from her brother not to share any documents with anybody. And what about the box? Why did he mention that? She ransacked the whole room to find that box. It was an old but solid wooden box which had small little compartments. She found it an appropriate gift for her brother to keep his things in there. After sometime, she found the box. As she opened it, she didn’t find anything unusual in it. She was about to put it away when Anita asked her to take a closer look.
On the inside, its top portion seemed to have some hidden pocket. She tried to access it and there were indeed some papers in it. Were those boys talking about these papers? Why did her brother ask her not to trust anyone but herself?
Anita could read her expressions and heard her while she was murmuring that nobody should be trusted. Anita felt that she should leave from there. “Anita, where are you going?”
“Ketoki, your brother has asked you not to trust anybody.” Ketoki could sense Anita’s unease and said, “We have been friends since we were two. I trust you blindly. Don’t be silly. I need you the most at this time.”
Anita was her shadow, her support, so the question of mistrust did not arise. But if her brother does not want her to place her trust in anyone other than her, does it mean Sujoy and Das could not be trusted as well. Both the girls were in a great dilemma. Also, they were unsure as to what should be their next step after finding the papers. Both sat down in deep thought.
Ketoki knew in her heart that Anita had a liking for her brother. In fact, she had also sensed a soft corner in her dada for her too. She knew that come what may Anita will never do anything which will harm her brother.
“Anita, I trust you more than anyone. There is an envelope hidden inside that box, but as dada mentioned, we can’t trust anyone. It’s our secret.”
“Yes Ketoki, keep that box hidden. Let it not surface. Let no one know about it.” Anita said with concern in her voice.
They were more concerned about the envelope at the moment rather than anything else. They knew that the fate of the nation and of Ketoki’s brother lay inside, sealed in it. They had to safely hand it over to the boys they met in the fort. The papers had some maps drawn on it and some coded messages.
Three days were already over. The next day they were supposed to meet the boys. The venue was the same. But stepping out proved to be another hurdle. Baba was home that morning, working on papers for dada’s bail. The law was stringent and he had to be abreast with all the latest action, laws passed and the possible injunctions that could be placed.
As he sat engrossed in his papers, the girls found a kind soul in their mashi, the woman who had been taking care of Ketoki since birth. She probably sensed some urgency and scooted the girls out. She had also made up in her mind the reason for Ketoki’s absence in case Boro babu asked for her.
On the way, Anita suggested Ketoki not to give the papers. Although she was only a distant admirer of her brother but she knew he could never go wrong with his intuition and that they should not hand over the papers just to anyone. Ketoki went as per her friend’s suggestion and turned back.
The very next day the police came with a warrant to check the house. They could not find any documents which could go against her brother and soon after he was released.
The girls narrated the whole incident to him and how Anita stood by a rock in her tough times. He applauded Anita for her decision and mentioned that in these times of confusion, they were surrounded by traitors as well. Ketoki realized something could have gone dangerously wrong had she not heard to Anita. It was safe to say, the two friends saved the day.
Ketoki’s brother was not one to leave his destiny hanging in the middle. He liaised with a few locals over the next few weeks and gathered a substantial number of people to be recruited in the fauj. This was going to be the battalion that would return to Burma for the remainder mission and set sail through a secret route as per the secret maps that were hidden in the pocket of the tiny box gifted by Ketoki to him.
Ketoki and Anita did their best to gather the necessary support that he needed. “Are you sure you don’t want us to join you?” Ketaki asked.
“Don’t worry about me, anymore, dear sister. I understand that you want to be a participant in this. But let this war get over and you will see that we shall be free soon. Then you have a bigger task of creating this nation with your own two hands,” he said. “Save your energy and passion for that.” Saying this he bid the family goodbye, never to return.
By the end of 1943, the war was dying and people had started returning home. While a few acquaintances who had joined the fauj returned, Ketoki knew that her brother would never.
It rained the night she slept crying on her pillow, reminiscing her brother’s last words to her. She had to stay strong to be able to keep her passion for the country alive. On rakhi the next day, she woke up with a touch of melancholy. Looking at the framed picture of her brother on the wall, she passed on a smile towards him. A dash of vermillion on the picture and a shower of a few grains of rice brought about the tradition alive. Then she marked her forehead with vermilion as well and picked up the rakhi to tie it around her wrist.
“This, my brother, is my promise to you. I shall never let my passion for the country die.”
Contributed by: Aruna Menon, Shristee Singh, Kajal Kapur, Shweta Agarwal, Sonali Prasad, Amruta Wadekar, Rashim Rohit Brutta, Sreemati Sen Karmakar
Connect with Penmancy: