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'Our deterioration is so fast and total that I cannot think of Indians living a normal life in my life time'

Partition must have been a traumatic experience for all those who lived during that period. How was it for you?

Poornam Viswanathan It was a very painful experience for all of us. We saw people coming in thousands from Pakistan, walking all the way with whatever belongings they had. Exodus from India was on a smaller scale. We saw riots, murder, looting, etc. But I have also seen many Hindu and Sikh families give shelter to suffering Muslim families. It is true that till the previous day they were friends but under the new situation, a Hindu was not expected to protect a Muslim or be the friend of a Muslim.

You spoke about the kind of devotion people of your generation had for the country in those days. Do you feel unhappy about the way things are moving now?

I am very, very unhappy about the present situation. This is not the India Nehruji or Gandhiji dreamt of. In fact, Netaji wanted India under a benevolent dictatorship for sometime after Independence and then open the doors to democracy. He believed that only then people would develop a strong national character. How true he was! Unfortunately the devotion for the country was gradually eroded because nobody had any clear vision about an ideal India.

Do you think the later politicians have been irresponsible?

Of course, the politicians are showing us the wrong way. But our deterioration is so fast and total that I cannot think of Indians living a normal life in my life time.

Are you so dissatisfied?

I am very, very dissatisfied. The dreams of all our freedom fighters are shattered.

What are your dreams?

Would you believe it, I thought India would be the most prosperous country in the world? Nehru and Gandhiji expected all of us to work for the country with greater devotion. Unfortunately that did not happen at all.

What went wrong?

Something went wrong with the thinking of the politicians and the common man. Maybe because of illiteracy, people did not understand the value of freedom. They thought that the government would cook food and bring it home for them every day. They didn't realise that in freedom lay an enormous wealth. Now there is corruption at all levels. I blame people to a large extent for the amount of corruption in our society. Why do they bribe to get things done quickly? Again and again, I am reminded of Netaji's advice.

Were you very much influenced by Netaji?

Not exactly. Netaji sounded a different call. He had a different dream about free India. He wanted a very powerful character for India. That did not happen at all. I admire the way he led the INA.

I must tell you something. My elder brother Somasundaram was in the Indian army then. His unit went to Singapore to fight in the Second World War. In Singapore, he was caught as a prisoner by the Japanese. But he and four others escaped from the prison and my brother had to disguise himself by growing a beard. He lived in Penang. It was difficult for him to find a job. One day, he accidentally met an old friend and the meeting changed his life altogether.

At his place he heard over the radio that the Azad Hindu Radio run by the INA needed people for broadcasters. He had a good voice, so he applied for the job and got it. See the irony, when he was broadcasting for the INA through Azad Hindu Radio from Bangkok, I was broadcasting from Delhi, indirectly for the British through the All India Radio. But he knew my voice and name, and recognised me when he was in Bangkok itself. Finally we got united.

I will tell you one more thing. I have nothing but hatred for the British. When I think of the way the British behaved, I cannot but hate them.

Were you in Delhi when Gandhiji was assassinated?

Yes, I was in Delhi. I did not have a radio then. But my house owner's radio was always on and I could hear it properly from my room. That day also, their radio was on and I could hear the Tamil programme for East Asian listens.

It was my sister who worked for the external services of the AIR who made the announcement in the middle of the music programme. I heard her voice saying that Gandhiji had been shot by an Indian. Immediately, I took my bicycle and rushed to the Birla House. I saw Nehru standing near the gate and there were hundreds and hundreds of people outside trying to rush inside.

Nehru was appealing to the people to remain calm. He said it was a Hindu who shot Gandhiji so that there wouldn't be any anti-Muslim feeling among people.

You recently said that in those days you saluted a Gandhi cap whenever you saw one. What do you feel when you see a Gandhi cap now?

Kesri with Congressmen We had such respect and admiration for a freedom fighter then! Every freedom fighter, however small or big had good intentions. He was idealistic and unselfish. I don't have any respect for today's politicians. I feel those politicians (with Gandhi caps) must be kept out of Indian politics completely. See, I have lived in those days, I have seen the freedom fighters but now I feel disillusioned and pained.

As a person who has witnessed the freedom struggle, as a person who is pained to see today's India, do you have any message for the youngsters?

We attained freedom through non-violence. In those days, the minds of the Indians were receptive to good messages. It should come again; at least in the minds of the generation that is growing up. The youngsters must think about the welfare of the country at heart. Even if they lead a normal life and have clear thinking, the result will be fantastic.

Are you optimistic about that?

That's a very delicate question. I am not very optimistic now. But we do not know what will happen tomorrow, and the day after. I know that one has to be optimistic even in the worst of times, so I would say that I am hopeful. I would like to see a totally selfless leader leading the country once again towards an ideal state. Let us wait for the day!

Poornam Viswanathan's photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

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