The Veiled Hero of British India

Knock..Knock.. Please open the door!

It was a wintery night of 1942. A 13 year old had just been married to the prestigious ‘Sen’ family of Ambika Kalna. It was the family of zamindaars (landlords) and everyone in Kalna village (now a city) revered the family due to their immense contribution towards society in setting up temples and gardens in the neighborhood. A 5 feet 2 inch girl clad in a long white saree with red border with veiled face and alta (a red liquid used to make designs on the feet) decorated feet was the last to finish her dinner that night. Due to her petite frame, the saree seemed to be heavy for her. So a part of her Pallu (end of her saree) was dusting the ground. She had just finished washed her plate, had fed the pets and was about to lock the kitchen door.

For a second, she shivered in fear. It was almost 8 o’ clock at night. The men of the family had gone to attend a wedding feast with her mother-in-law in the nearby village. The other two elder daughters-in-law of the family had also retired for the night. Their children were asleep. She was all alone contemplating whether to open the door.

“Please Sirs and Madam. Please let me in! They will kill me.”

The knocking grew louder and so did her heartbeat. By this time, the two sisters-in-law had woken up and rushed downstairs.

“Don’t Jyostna, it’s an unknown male voice. Let’s ignore it”, shouted the eldest daughter-in-law, who was 6 years senior to Jyostna.

“Madam, I have escaped from jail. Three British Officers are behind me. Please allow me shelter for the night. I will leave before daylight”, said the weak feeble voice outside the gate.

Without thinking for another second, Jyotsna unlatched the door, pulled the stranger in and locked the door.

“Sir, who are you? Why are you running?”, asked Jyotsna in a hushed tone.

Seeing the audacity of the new bride, the elder sisters-in-law fumed in anger.

“Jyotsna, we have no part in the shameful act you have just committed. First you bring in a man at this hour of the night and then have the courage to question him after lifting your veil. You might not know the norms of this house. We are quite respected in the neighbourhood. Our women do not engage in conversations with men from the street, let alone a prisoner”, the other daughter-in-law commented and rushed back inside.

The elder one though stayed back.

“Madam, please lower your voices. I am a freedom fighter. We were illegally detailed in Presidency correctional home. I along with 3 of my inmates have escaped two nights ago. My friends have been shot down during the chase. I escaped and on the run. I have not eaten anything, did not catch a wink of sleep and kept running from one place to another”, said the prisoner almost breaking down.

Jyostna brought her gold-wired hurricane lamp near the face of the stranger and was shocked to see the battered face with acid burned cheeks, with lathi marks in the hands and legs. She immediately removed her shawl and placed it on the prisoner and said, “Brother, it is an honor for this house to have the opportunity to host a freedom fighter. We are lucky to be able to aid in our country’s freedom at least in an indirect way”, Jyostna exclaimed, her face beaming with pride.

She rushed to the kitchen to bring a glass of warm milk. The elder daughter-in-law followed. “Jyotsna, you are crossing the limits. Housing a wanted criminal will make you a traitor!”, hushed Gita. “Didi, whom am I betraying, my country or the white Parasites?” asked Jyotsna innocently.

Gita’s anger boiled to the extreme. She raised her hand to slap the 13 year old audacious girl. Her hand was stopped mid-air by Jyotsna. “Didi, you want to punish me, you can, after the guest leaves. Right now, do not stop me from discharging my duties”. Saying this, Jyotsna rushed to the courtyard and handed him the glass of milk.

After the guest relished the drink. She guided him to the guest room upstairs. She gave him a set of her husband’s clothes to change and asked him to freshen up. She told him that she will serve dinner in the next one hour. Jyostna then sat down to start the chulha (old form of gas stove) again.

“Knock..knock.. anyone inside. Please open the door.” Came the thumping sounds followed by a large British voice.

Gita’s hand trembled. She signaled the prisoner to escape from the backdoor. Jyotsna signaled him to wait. She told him to go and sleep in his room and pull over a blanket. She signaled Gita to go inside. She pulled her veil to cover her face and opened the door.

“Yes Sir, how can we help you?” said Jyotsna in fluent English.

“Madam, there is a prisoner on loose. Very dangerous. People say he entered your house.” Asked the British official surreptitiously casting glances throughout the house.

“Sir, the men of the house are away. Why on earth, will we allow a stranger at home?” asked Jyotsna confidently.

“Allow us to search the house please. He might have sneaked in without your knowledge”, demanded the British officer caressing his hand on the bolt handle of his Pattern 13 Enfield Rifle.

“Sir, as I said. The men are away. If you forcefully enter the house at this hour, I will be forced to scream. The neighbours will accumulate and it won’t be a good scene. You can come in the morning to finish your searching. We are not running away”, commanded Jyostna blocking the gate.

The officers were taken aback with the sudden onslaught of threats. After a few heated exchanges, the neighbouring houses have woken up due to the commotion. People flocked around the house and the British officers had to retreat. “I will come back in the morning and if I find you harbouring a prisoner. You will be hanged for treason”, he shouted while mounting on his horseback.

“See, I did not allow a British foot to enter this house”, exclaimed Jyotsna victoriously.

The freedom fighter had stayed back that night and left before daylight. While leaving, he left a thankyou note for Jyostna, which read

“I don’t know who you are Devi. But you are the living incarnation of Mother India. It is for people like you, we feel like fighting and laying down our lives. You have made our country proud. I do not know what will the men of the family do after they hear about the incident the next morning. I do not know what will the villagers do after they know that you let a stranger inside in the absence of your husband? But I know I will always respect a woman like you and if given a chance would have washed your feet and drank the water. Good bye daughter! I do not know how many days I have left to live but I will bless you that you will always stay immortal for the years to come and your descendants will always respect you for your courage. True to your name, you are Jyotsna, the ray of light in the darkness. Jai Hind!”

The next morning, my grandfather found this letter at the courtyard under the Tulsi plant. He called my grandmother, Jyostnamayee Sen and gave her an earful. There were hushed whispers throughout the house for the next couple of months. Thankfully to protect the dignity of the family, words did not leave the four walls of the house. But the story passed on to my dad and now to me and I can say proudly, “That’s my hero. A woman who fought all odds just to serve her country. Customs did not allow her step outside and participate in a freedom struggle openly but throughout her life, she kept on doing her part, contributing despite constraints in every way possible.