Even five years ago at the age of 86, tour guide Rama Khandwala could climb the 120 steps leading to the Buddhist caves in Elephanta. Her daunting stamina—she often clambered up thrice in a single day— probably stemmed from her early training as a recruit in Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA). A Second Lieutenant belonging to the Rani Jhansi regiment in Rangoon, Burma, Khandwala spent her days marching, hoisting flags, learning how to wield a rifle, a bayonet and the Bren machine gun. Photographs from that time show a slim 17-year-old, her hair in school-girl braids, aiming a rifle during target practice.
On Wednesday, Khandwala received a National Tourism Award in the ‘Best Tourist Guide’ category to honour her almost 50-year stint as a Mumbai tour guide. The ministry of tourism award was presented to the 91-year-old by President Ram Nath Kovind in Delhi. “Guides are unofficial ambassadors of our country,” says Khandwala explaining that they must be equipped to answer questions on a range of subjects from arranged marriage to poverty.
She is currently distraught because the MTDC has introduced a 12-day training programme for city guides, which she considers inadequate compared to the three-month in-depth study of Indian archaeology, iconography, religions, transportation systems and cuisines that older guides underwent.
Khandwala’s fluency in Japanese – a result of the Japanese occupation of Burma from 1942-1945 – helped her bond with tourists from Japan. She’s visited the country six times and has stayed with former guests including a Japanese doctor and his wife, who love her cooking and constantly pester “Ramasan” to start her own Indian restaurant in their country. Her language skills and interest in Buddhism even led her to meet the Dalai Lama and the King of Bhutan. She met the former while working as an interpreter for a Japanese documentary and she accompanied the latter to Elephanta’s Buddhist caves as a guide.
Khandwala’s journey from Rangoon to Bombay (now Yangon and Mumbai) began with her grandfather, a lawyer, doctor and benefactor of Mahatma Gandhi, who moved there to set up his jewellery business. The fifth of seven siblings, Khandwala was born in 1926 when Burma (now Myanmar) was still part of British India. Her family was part of a community of Indian settlers and Khandwala attended a private school where she often heard the refrain: “Britain shall always rule the waves.”
During the Second World War, the British government was overthrown by the Japanese. Khandwala welcomed the regime change convinced that the new rulers – being Asian – belonged to a similar culture. During the war, Rangoon was constantly being raided and Khandwala spent every moonlit night – when enemy planes bombed the city – in the trenches. “We used to curse the moonlight,” writes Khandwala in her book ‘Jai Hind’.
“I would go to the bombing site and… we would see dead bodies lying all over… some with no arms or legs.”
Khandwala’s mother, Lilavati Mehta, was the recruiting officer for the Rani Jhansi regiment, which is how both her daughters became the first two recruits in Rangoon, joining as ‘sepoys’ before rising through the ranks. As a Rani, Khandwala worked in an INA hospital nursing wounded soldiers and almost died in an air raid when bomber planes targeted their shelter. “We came out… to find that our portion of the building had vanished leaving nothing but a crater,” writes Khandwala.
Even today, Rama Khandwala wears her loyalty to ‘Netaji’ on her sleeve or to be more precise her ‘pallu’. The bespectacled Bose gazes solemnly from a badge pinned to her blouse. She has nothing but praise for the fiery leader, who often charged up the girls with patriotic slogans like “tum mujhe khoon do main tumhe azaadi dunga (give me your blood and I’ll give you freedom)”.
On May 3, 1945, the INA and the Japanese surrendered to the British. After six months of house arrest, Khandwala left with her family for Bombay where she got married and worked as a secretary before finding her calling as a tour guide.
The award would have marked the culmination of an illustrious career except that she has no intention of retiring. Khandwala still conducts car tours 2-3 times a week and is the most sought-after guide for Japanese tourists.