Subhash Chandra Bose or Netaji–as he was fondly known–was an institution in himself. He was a prominent figure in India’s freedom movement and even in era when communication channels were not very prompt, he was able to develop a wide network that spanned continents. Bose was born in Cuttack, Orissa and at some point, they began living on Elgin Road in Calcutta. This house is well preserved and is now called the Netaji Bhawan.
The Boses were a wealthy family and could therefore afford multiple homes. And they possibly had a soft corner for the hills in North Bengal. Netaji is reported to have said, “The happiest day in my life will be when I shall become independent and a still happier one when I shall go to Darjeeling.”
His brother, and fellow luminary, Sarat Chandra Bose, purchased a house in Giddapahar, Kurseong in 1922. Its former owner was an Englishman called Mr. Rowley Lascelles Ward. And for the next 74 years or so, the house remained in the ownership of the Bose family.
While the occupants of the home itself were illustrious figures, it also witnessed visits from other towering figures such as Deshbandhu Chittranjan Das and his wife Basanti Devi. They reportedly spent a day with Sarat Chandra Bose in the house in 1925.
The Giddhapahar home became more than a retreat
The primary purpose of the house was to perhaps serve as a getaway from Calcutta’s sultry weather. But with the freedom movement gaining momentum, the role of the house changed. More than a getaway, it became an internment centre for both Sarat and Subhash Bose for various periods. Sarat Bose was interned in the house from 1933 to 1935 while his brother interned there in 1936. This was possibly a less severe diktat from the ruling British administration of the time. Not too long after, Netaji was locked away in a remote fortress in the Dooars called the Buxa Fort. Even today, this fort is only accessible on foot and is actually amid the Buxa Tiger Reserve.
It was during his stay at the house that Netaji wrote the speech he delivered as president of the Haripura Congress in 1938.
Sarat Chandra and his family used to stay in this house frequently after his release from the prison in 1945. Even in the 1950s Bibhabati Devi, wife of Sarat Chandra, spent their holidays in Giddapahar along with her family members, the last occasion being in 1954. Thereafter, for more than three decades the house remained unused, neglected and unattended.
Netaji himself was interned in Giddhapahar for seven months in October 1936. One key figure who assisted him during this period was their house-help called Kalu Singh Lepcha. It was Lepcha who would smuggle messages to Calcutta. He again spent a few days in this house in October 1937. One interesting part of this stay at Giddhapahar was the communications he had with Emilie Schenkl. A few of the letters are now on display at this museum. In addition, several pieces of furniture have been kept well preserved as also a set of Bose’s uniform.
Bose’s legacy lives on beyond India
Schenkl was never able to visit India. However, their daughter, Anita Bose Pfaff, has visited India; the last visit being during former President Pranab Mukherjee’s term. She presented the former president with the first copy of her book called Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Germany. Pfaff has maintained her father’s political legacy. She is currently a member of the German parliament.
Kalu Lepcha’s daughter, Moti Maya Lepcha, continued to work at the house, as a gardener, until she took ill. She passed on at the age of 88 in 2016. Over interviews with several publications, she recounted her many conversations with Netaji and spoke of how she always held him in high regard. Now, I am not sure if it is a coincidence, or possibly a tribute to the Lepcha family, but one of Anita Bose Pfaff’s children is called ed Maya Carina.
Meanwhile, the house in Giddhapahar was beautifully restored by the West Bengal government. There is also an educational institute in the premises called the Netaji Institute for Asian Studies. It is a commendable effort by the authorities to preserve these important pieces of Indian history. I would have been absolutely thrilled if I could have visited this museum during my years studying history in school. It would have been a most welcome change from mere textbook lessons.