Demolishing a demigod

Vikramdeep Johal

I could see it coming from a mile. ‘Who is Veer Savarkar?’ my nine-year-old daughter asked, moments after we landed at the international airport named after him at Port Blair. The present tense wasn’t really wrong as the controversial figure lives on even over five decades after his death. ‘Well, he was a… freedom fighter,’ I replied, rather unconvincingly. ‘Tell me more about him,’ she insisted, her eyes fixed on his bust, while I waited impatiently for our luggage to pop up on the carousel.

‘You will get to know a lot about him when we visit the Cellular Jail later this week,’ I said. My assurance not only fuelled her curiosity, but also made her wonder why we were travelling first to Havelock and Neill Islands instead of the infamous prison.

Three days later, a taxi dropped us outside the jail. A few yards away, we spotted a life-sized statue of Savarkar in a park bearing his name. The index finger of his right hand was pointing towards the sky, as if he was a cricket umpire ruthlessly adjudging a batsman out. There was also a statue of Baba Bhan Singh, a revolutionary from our own Punjab who was beaten to death by prison warders, but my daughter had eyes only for you-know-who. On entering the once-dreaded gaol, I told her that Savarkar had spent a decade here. The fact impressed her, even as I hastened to add that he had originally been sentenced to 50-year imprisonment. She promptly asked me to take her to his cell. An arrow sign apparently guided us to the spot, where she posed for pictures — behind bars.

Later, during the light-and-sound show in the evening, it struck us that we had been to the wrong cell; the right one was at the other end of a long row. My child was livid at me for the gaffe. There was no chance of coming here again as we had a flight to catch early next morning. In a bid to pacify her, I said that we had not missed much, while telling her a bit about the series of mercy petitions submitted by Savarkar to the British rulers. Then I dropped the bombshell: ‘It is widely believed that he plotted Gandhiji’s murder.’ This disclosure left the Bapu admirer shell-shocked. Eventually, she said, ‘Is that so? It was very, very bad of him,’ casting a nasty glance at the elusive cell. In one fell swoop, I had demolished her new-found demigod.

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