Published: 26th August 2020
Meet the 94-year-old who went from fighting with Netaji to working as India's oldest, coolest tour guide!
When she retired at 92, Rama Khandwala was touted as the oldest tour guide in India. We trace her journey from a young girl in Rangoon to a nonagenarian in Mumbai
Never did she think that falling into a ditch would eventually land her face-to-face with the person she admired her entire life. But when she eventually woke up in the hospital a few hours later, she was surprised to find Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose beside her. He had come to her camp and when he heard about the accident, he visited her. And that is how Rama Khandwala met Netaji for the first time. No, this isn't a crazy dream. This is the story of the now 94-year-old who was part of the Indian National Army's (INA) Rani of Jhansi regiment, under the leadership of Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, and who fought alongside Netaji during the Second World War.
Rama Khandwala joined the INA in Rangoon (present day Yangon) in Burma (present day Myanmar) in 1943. "My mother was part of the Indian Independence League and was a recruiting officer and was also collecting donations for the Azad Hind Fauj. She enroled my sister and I into the INA," recalls Rama, who joined the armed forces at age 17. "We underwent military training and were also trained as nurses." However, military life was a sharp departure from her usual lifestyle — Rama was brought up in great luxury and belonged to an affluent family in Rangoon. "The training was tough and there were times when my sister and I would cry but eventually, we overcame that, made friends with other women in the regiment and learnt how to enjoy training," she says.
Rama with her mother, Lilavati Chhaganlal Mehta, before the war
Life in the INA
As part of her regular duties, Rama had to keep watch at night on a rotational basis. It was during one of those sentry duties that she fell into a ditch, a moment that would eventually culminate in her meeting Netaji. However, it was her time as a nurse on the frontline that she describes as the experience of her lifetime. “The war was raging on and every day, we would receive so many wounded soldiers in the hospital. There were also those affected by diseases like malaria. I remember a soldier once told me, 'Ma’am, please send a message to my house’. He was so severely wounded that he didn't think he’d make it — it was really sad and morbid,” says Rama. Much later, when she was given the choice to either participate in the active war front or work as a nurse; Rama chose the former and rose to the position where she could command her own platoon.
Rama learnt Japanese in Burma (Burma was under Imperial Japan's rule from 1942 to 1945 and Japanese schools had been set up all over the country) before she joined the INA. This provided her an edge over others during her interactions with Japanese soldiers. When the war was over and Japan fell, the INA was also disbanded. “At that time, Netaji sent us back home. I was under house arrest for six months in Rangoon,” she says. “However, this is a very different house arrest,” she says jovially about the lockdown, “But it is quite sad that people have to lose their lives due to no fault of theirs.”
Rama during her rifle training in the INA
Rama recalls an incident of a public meeting she had participated in alongside Netaji. “Women from everywhere would come with their jewellery and donate it to the cause, stating, ‘Yeh humare desh ki azadi ke liye hai’ (This is for the freedom of our country). It was heartening to see the patriotism and desire for independence in everyone,” she says. Most of those in the regiment were never identified. "In 1946, I moved to Bombay (present day Mumbai) with my family. I could see India's independence from my homeland but it was unfortunate that Netaji wasn't there to witness the historic moment," rues Rama. She has been living in Mumbai since then.
As a tour guide
Netaji’s message of ‘Aage badho’ (Move ahead) has remained with Rama for all these years. Shortly after returning to Mumbai, her skills in typing and shorthand landed her a job as a secretary. But after noticing a government advertisement calling for tour guides, Rama applied for that job. “They needed someone who knew a foreign language. And I was glad that I was fluent in Japanese,” says Rama. After three months of comprehensive training, this time in iconography, architecture, cuisine, among others, she finally became a tour guide. After getting married in 1949, Rama continued her job and only took a break ten years later, when her daughter was born.
Rama with her husband, Satyendra Mangaldas Khandwala
As a tour guide, Rama was a stickler for the rules and was always on time. “We couldn’t spoil our country’s reputation. It was a huge responsibility. I have been late only once in my life and that was because I couldn’t find transport amidst heavy rainfall in Mumbai,” she says. Rama has been a tour guide in the Western region of the country for over 50 years. “I had to also accompany tours to other parts of the country as an interpreter as there weren’t many tour guides fluent in Japanese,” she recalls. Other than Japanese, Rama could once speak in five languages — English, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and Burmese. “Unfortunately, years of not speaking have rendered me incapable of conversing fluently in Burmeseb today,” says the ex-tour guide who retired just a couple of years ago. She considers her time as a tour guide as a huge learning experience. “Not only do you teach others about your own culture, you get to learn a lot about other people and their culture too,” Rama says.
Her fluency is Japanese has also enabled her to teach the language to others. “Students visit my house to learn Japanese all year round,” she says. At 94, Rama has unparalleled strength and resilience. Fiercely independent, Rama says that she likes to keep busy all day and doesn’t take afternoon siestas as is typical of someone from her generation. “I love to read, watch travel shows on TV and speak to my people,” adds Rama, who has been navigating WhatsApp and confesses to be part of several groups. “I was in touch with some of my colleagues from the INA for a long time, who were spread across different parts of Asia. There’s also a WhatsApp group with other tour guides in Mumbai whom I’ve worked with over the years,” says Rama, for whom 24 hours seems too less.