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The lost leader
Last Saturday, at the ancient university city of Augsburg in the prosperous German belt of Bavaria, around 50 people trooped in to an Italian restaurant to celebrate a birthday. It was lunch time;the ground outside was blanketed by snow. Those assembled - academics, political activists and relatives - were, predictably, mostly in western woollies.
The person being felicitated, though, was wrapped in a traditional Indian cream-coloured silk sari with a gold and red border. She looked European, yet she had the unmistakable facial features of her father. She was Anita Pfaff, the only child of Subhas Bose, twice president of the Indian National Congress and leader the Indian National Army, which valiantly but in vain attempted to liberate India in the mid-1940s.
Pfaff was born and brought up in Vienna. Her mother Emilie Schenkl was Austrian. Bose and Schenkl fell in love in the 1930s when the former had been forced into exile in Europe by the British. Pfaff was only a few weeks old when Bose embarked on a submarine voyage from Germany to Singapore, never to return, dying in a plane crash in Taiwan in August 1945.
In an era unimaginable today, there was no direct communication between Bose, when he was in Europe and then Southeast Asia, and his elder brother and mentor Sarat, the last leader of the Congress parliamentary party in the Central Assembly before independence and a Cabinet minister in Jawaharlal Nehru's interim cabinet during World War II. The Bose family in India were, in fact, completely unaware of Subhas's partnership with Schenkl until the end of the war.
Indeed, the relationship was only officially made public in 1948 when Sarat, a legendary barrister of his generation, visited Vienna to ascertain the truth. Schenkl had been instructed by Subhas never to part with a handwritten letter in Bengali left behind by him for Sarat confirming the "marriage" and the existence of a daughter, other than personally. Receiving her brother-in-law on a dark, bitterly cold November night at the Austrian capital's airport, she promptly plucked out the vital piece of paper from her handbag to deliver it.
Eighty-three-year-old Roma Ray, Sarat's daughter and an eyewitness to this encounter, recalls her father "was moved to tears" by Anita's resemblance to Subhas when he actually saw the six-year-old the next day.
Twelve years later, Anita, then 18, undertook a sojourn of India. Indian dailies showered this fresh graduate with front page coverage wherever she went. In Delhi, she was a guest of Prime Minister Nehru at his Teen Murti residence.
The question inevitably arose: would she return to India to assume her father's mantle? Anita was clearly endowed with charisma, and had demonstrated exemplary balance by not being swept off her feet by the adulation bestowed on her in India in 1960-61 when she was merely a teenager.
But there was an amazing coincidence during that journey. In Bangalore, she met a fellow Viennese Martin Pfaff, who was then a volunteer at a blind school. They kept in touch, reunited in Vienna, got engaged and finally tied the knot. Both proceeded to obtain their respective PhDs in economics, studied and taught in the United States, before settling down to teach at Augsburg University, where Anita became the first woman professor.
Instead of dabbling in Indian politics, the Pfaffs joined the Social Democrats in Germany. In due course, Martin was elected to the Bundestag and became the chair of its select committee on health.
While no less enthusiastic about public life, Anita - with three children to look after, a university job and the Pfaffs' institute on economic affairs to administer - deliberately took a backseat. Until recently, when she became deputy mayor of Augsburg.
An extended celebration of Pfaff's 70th birthday began with her welcoming guests who had arrived from various parts of Europe. Later, Martin provided a PowerPoint presentation on her life, touchingly describing her as "the love of my life".
Pertinently, Anita declined the opportunity to immerse herself in Indian affairs. "I think it was the right decision, " Martin remarked. Perhaps he is correct. Which party would she have joined? Would she have created her own formation? She may have pleased some, but would have displeased others.
Among the disenchanted, the query will persist: Is Anita Pfaff India's lost heroine?
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