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Encounter/T P Sreenivasan
January 23, 2006
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose (whose birth anniversary we celebrate today, January 23) was an invisible presence at the first and the last posting of my Foreign Service career.
A M Nair in Tokyo, who went as a student to Tokyo and became a follower of Netaji, and Walter Norden in Vienna, who was so dazzled by Netaji that he became his personal valet, brought back memories of the great hero in the two capitals.
To get to know two close associates of Netaji was a privilege indeed. A span of thirty years intervened between my encounters with Nair and Norden.
In the late nineteen sixties and early nineteen seventies, no Indian visitor could have missed the small Indian restaurant in Higashi Ginza in Tokyo, right across the Kabuki theatre.
Land there must have been worth its weight in gold and owning a restaurant there was sufficient testimony to the success of Nairsan, as he had come to be known with the Japanese honorific, 'san', the equivalent of the Hindi 'ji'.
Every Indian visitor to the restaurant got the first meal free, but subsequent visits were purely on business terms. The Nair Restaurant also had a branch in a city department store, but even more famous than the restaurants was Indira Curry Powder, which had become quite popular among the Japanese. The only other Indian restaurants in the city were Ajanta, run by another Netaji associate and Ashoka, a Gujarati establishment.
Lekha, my wife, and I walked into the Nair Restaurant within days of our arrival in Tokyo in 1969, when we were still in a hotel on the Ginza street, a few yards from the Kabuki theatre.
The traditional first free meal was most welcome, but the meal was hardly Indian. We were quite prepared for surprises on our maiden voyage abroad as honeymooners.
We had just discovered in Hong Kong a few days earlier that the fare that we were enjoying in India as Chinese food was designed for the Indian palate. The curry at the Nair Restaurant was flavoured to the liking of the Japanese. But meeting Nairsan was a sheer delight and listening to his stories was quite a treat.
Nairsan told us the story of his life, not at one sitting, but over the next two years, when we got to know him and his wife, who became our neighbours as we moved into a residential area near Tokyo University. I could sense that his initial reservation about someone from the embassy gave way to a paternal feeling for a young couple from his own hometown, Trivandrum, now Thiruvananthapuram.
We became even closer when my mother-in-law arrived. Nairsan commissioned her to find a suitable bride for his son, Gopalan.
Gopalan, Nairsan's second son, surprised us when he introduced himself to us, as he looked totally Japanese, with no sign of his Indian genes. But Nairsan was absolutely insistent that Gopalan should marry from Kerala, failing which he had to forego his entire inheritance.
It was not an empty threat as Nairsan had already disinherited his elder son, Vasudevan, who had married a Japanese girl. Unlike Gopalan, Vasudevan looked more Indian than Japanese. We asked him as to how he could insist on such things, particularly since he had not married a Keralite himself.
Nairsan had no logical answer since his wish itself was without logic. My mother-in-law's labours were in vain as Gopalan did not like any of the proposals she had organized for him. Gopalan preferred to marry a girl of his choice rather than wait to inherit the curry powder empire.
Nairsan told us he had made it a rule not to have anything to do with the embassy of India in Japan on account of the shabby treatment meted out to him by the Government of India after Netaji's disappearance in mysterious circumstances.
Nairsan expected to be appointed the first Indian ambassador to Japan, but the highest post he was offered was that of the consul general in Kobe. Nairsan turned down the offer and decided to become an entrepreneur.
His patriotism remained intact when he set up an Indian restaurant and named his curry powder, 'Indira'. He had differences with Pandit Nehru, but he still loved his daughter, Indira. Similarly, he made it a point to visit the embassy on August 15 and January 26 to salute the nation.
Nairsan came to Japan as a medical student. After he had learnt the Japanese language well and married a Japanese girl, whom he renamed Janaki Amma in true Kerala style, he fell under the spell of Netaji and decided to give up his studies to join Netaji as his interpreter. He traveled with Netaji all over Japan and stayed back to take care of his interests in Japan.
The news of Netaji's death came as a rude shock to him and he wanted to return to India to be of service to the motherland. But his meeting with Prime Minister Nehru was a disaster as he was not the only Netaji loyalist who was looking for a suitable position.
Since he felt that India did not seem to need him, he returned to Japan and set up his business. The restaurant on the Ginza appeared to be his public relations window, where he could propagate Indian cuisine among the Japanese and meet Indian visitors. Nostalgia, rather than profit, seemed to be his motive.
Nairsan served an 'Indian curry', using his Indira curry powder, which fascinated the Japanese, who expected that a more authentic version would be available in India.
But those who went to India discovered that there was no such thing as 'Indian curry' in India. They had to choose between any number of curries, each of which had a different name. One of them came back and wrote an article in the Asahi Shimbun that 'Indian curry' was not available in India!
Every time Nairsan did me a favour as good neighbours did to each other, he made it a point to say that he was not doing it for an embassy official, but for a friend and neighbour. He went to the extent of hosting a farewell dinner at his own home, a rare gesture, as we left Tokyo and invited my boss Ambassador Vincent Coelho to it. He made it clear several time that evening that we were there in our personal capacity.
With all his idiosyncrasies, Nairsan was a delightful person, a patriot to the core. What hurt him was the injustice done to Netaji's legacy, of which he was an integral part. I tried to persuade him to appear before the Justice Khosla Commission, which was enquiring into Netaji's last days, but he had no time for it.
He was convinced that Netaji died in the Taipei air crash. If he had survived, he would have contacted Nairsan. What other evidence did the world need to believe that Netaji was not alive?
Nairsan lived to tell his story in an autobiography, which he authored with the help of a senior Indian diplomat, M S Nair, but he died soon after, presumably unhappy that his vision of India was not fulfilled.
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