Lakshmi Sehgal (“Captain Lakshmi”), doctor and fighter for Indian independence, died on July 23rd, aged 97.
AS SHE moved, pert and bird-like, round her tiny rented clinic in industrial Kanpur in northern India, Lakshmi Sehgal made her patients feel completely safe in her hands. Lightly but firmly, her fingers moved across the swollen bellies of pregnant women, or felt for a pulse, or probed a wound. Her sister said she had always had the technique to reassure. Those same hands, in West Bengal in 1971, had massaged the scrawny limbs of Bangladeshi refugees, and in December 1984 had soothed the burning eyes of victims of the explosion at a chemical factory in Bhopal.
They also knew how to fire a revolver and prime a grenade, change the magazine on a Tommy gun and wield a sword. They were as skilled and ruthless as any man’s, for Dr Lakshmi had been trained beside the men to become a killing machine. From 1943 to 1945, in the jungles of Singapore and what was then Burma, she commanded a brand-new unit of the Indian National Army in the hope of overthrowing the British Raj. The Rani of Jhansi regiment, set up by the independence leader Subhas Chandra Bose (left of her, above), was for women only, the first in Asia. It was named after a heroine of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny against the British, a widowed child bride who cut her saris into trousers to ride into battle. For Dr Lakshmi, another rich tomboy who had married too young, a rider of horses and driver of cars who had eagerly thrown her foreign-made dresses on a nationalist bonfire, the rani made an irresistible model.