Shankar Rao: The Unsung Hero

April 18, 2009

Pics: PS Prakruthi

This is the story of a very inspirational 98 year old Indian World War II and army veteran whom I met in Bengaluru. He led an amazingly difficult life but was still a very cheerful and happy person. His story is truly uplifting and touched everyone he met.

by PS Prakruthi

In the month of May 2008, I made another cherished trip to India. Unlike other trips where I would mostly spend time in my grandmother’s home, talk and laugh with my relatives and friends, explore the local areas and tour the famous sites of the South, during this trip my family and I went to see the awe-inspiring Himalayas. Having lived and grown up in the U.S., to touch the soil of the Rishis and visit Vyasa’s cave, see the origin of the Saraswati River, and visit the very last village at the Indian border was overwhelming that cannot be articulated. I felt at peace and rejuvenated. Later, I went back for a few days to Bengaluru, to Vyalikaval extension, 4th main road. What more could this visit have in store?

Down the road, adjacent to my grandparents’ home is an old nondescript house. Among all the bustle and clatter of busy the 2nd main road, living alone, not in the nondescript house, but in its 10ft x 10ft shed, was a quiet and elderly gentleman. This man sat serenely in a small chair with a japa mala in one hand quietly doing japa. The shed was extremely austere, but the gentleman, looking younger than his 98 years, always wore a tranquil smile. He carried a worn pocket-sized copy of the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit with him always. If you happened to notice him, and took time to ask, he would tell you his compelling and unbelievable life story.

Born on May 5, 1910, in what was known as British Malaya, he had a peaceful existence until he was 12 years old. Without warning, his parents were tragically killed in their home by a bomb. A war was going on then and bombings had become commonplace. The young child had been to school and came home to find his parents killed and his home destroyed. This horrific incident sent him into shock and he had to be taken care of by a neighbour. His mind had erased the memory of who he was and he could not recall his name or that of his family and life. While he was thus recuperating, the British came in and without a hint took him away to serve in the British army. At the age of 12 he lost his parents, his home and his freedom.

“The Britishers asked me my name and when I told them that I did not remember, they gave me one,” he said on the day I met him in 2008, sitting behind a desk beside a picture of Shirdi Sai Baba. “So, they said ‘OK, from now on you will be called Shankar Rao,’”. Ripped from the only family and home he ever knew, Shankar Rao at the age of 12 was put to work in the British military. He had to live and move with the British army soldiers, wherever they were encamped and engage whomever they battled with. Rao said that he and other Indian children were used as workers to help in the battlefields, helping to load ammunition and to be at the service of the British soldiers during battles.

When he turned 14, Rao was then forced to fight in the British army. He fought in battles of wars that he knew little of much less why he was fighting. He fought in Burma; he describes how, as a child soldier, he walked with other children soldiers from Singapore to Thailand and from Burma to Manipur to Assam. In Burma and Thailand he fought under the command of Lord Wavell, the Field Marshall for his unit. When they had reached Assam by foot, the British took the Indian soldiers to Kabul and then Kandahar. Then the British decided that he would fight for them in Europe during World War II.

Having survived the battles in Asia he was sent to fight in the Middle East, then onward to Tunisia, Africa, and finally, to the Italian warfront. Rao recalled how the British, Americans, and Russians had pushed the German forces back. He vividly remembered the Indian freedom fighters who were being held in the Andaman Islands being released. Among them was Subhash Chandra Bose, who was the leader of the Indian freedom forces. Rao animatedly described that he witnessed many of the unspeakable horrors that were prevalent in World War II. He sadly stated that there was so much blood and destruction that he had witnessed unceasingly since his childhood and now in the worldwide conflict that he became seriously ill. He was weak and in need of serious recuperation, his mind once again had come under the constant onslaught of violence. In 1944, with the war coming to a frenzied end, he was finally sent back to India with barely any strength, his body and mind exhausted and broken. He spent the next three months recuperating in the General Hospital in Delhi. Mercifully perhaps, some of the atrocities he had once again witnessed in the long war were erased from his memory.

I asked Rao how he was treated by the British who needed him and others like him to fight their wars. Rao said that the Indian soldiers were mistreated and discriminated against; there was a lot of racism, and in battle, that made things even more perilous. Rao recalled that the world and Indian history of that time lucidly, a unique historian that one would be hard pressed to find nowadays. He remembered pivotal moments not only in WW II but also in the quest for India’s people gaining their much fought for independence. He described how at that time he was in the hospital in Delhi, Subhash Chandra Bose was captured and his personal assistant SA Iyer was released. After his brief rest at the hospital, the British weren’t finished with him; he was sent to Jabalpur to work in the armoury making guns and weapons for the British. But by this time, India’s people had risen. Once again Rao would be called upon to fight and risk his well-being and life. But this time was different. Now he would finally be fighting for his own people and for his country. During the violence that marked the days of the Indian partition, Rao fought to defend India against Pakistan’s attacks. India was finally free of the British despot and so was he. He went on to defend India against China in 1964 when the Chinese attacked Indian Territory.

Rao served and sacrificed for his country again and again and was unsung, unheard of, and unknown. There are few Indians of my generation who know of or can comprehend it. I imagined him as a young boy, losing his family, forced to work and fight for the foreigners that were ruling his land and finally being able to fight for his own people. My journey to the Himalayas, to the borders of India, everything that I was able to see and revel in is only possible because of the tremendous sacrifice of heroes like Rao who fought to make freedom possible. Most of them are totally unheard of and their life stories cannot even be retold to the younger generation because so few are alive now who can tell it. So much has gone unrecorded. The history books banally repeat the same tired and prosaic litany of ‘events’.

Moreover, I was astonished to note that Rao told his story without any bitterness or contempt for those who had taken everything away from him and brought so much turmoil to his life. His eyes have compassion and understanding in them as he detailed his past tribulations and those of others he knew. In fact, if one had seen him one would not even guess that his life had been touched by anything untoward. One might wonder how this is possible – for a 98 year old man without any living family who has to live alone on his military pension and whose living arrangements are literally ascetic. He called his small room with a cot, a bookcase and a desk his home. There was no running water in the room, only one cold water faucet behind the shed where he took his bath. Yet, he never complained and looked happy and peaceful.

How, I wondered, can a person who had sacrificed and suffered so much, went totally unnoticed and unappreciated, who was elderly and alone, got that kind of contentment and insight? Rao himself provided the answer. He said his immense strength and implacable serenity came to him directly from a Higher source. He was a very devout man and he believed there was only good in this world. “Of course everything is fundamentally good,” he said, as though it should be obvious to everyone. “If you think everything is good, you yourself are God. Paramathma lives in you. “ I asked him if he had any family that he knows of, I was startled by his reply: “Everyone I meet is my family, whoever talks to me, I see them as a member of my family.” He said with a smile on his face. Rao firmly believed in the power of good thoughts and was constantly doing japa. “Instead of thinking nonsense, or gossiping, I do japa. Even when I have a few minutes with nothing to do or if I’m waiting for someone or something, I do japa.” He stated. Throughout his life, his unshakeable faith in God and his deep-rooted Hindu values kept him grounded and saved him from anguish and despair. “Certainly, that faith in Him is what has kept me so long and so well”.

I thanked Rao profusely for taking the time and effort to share his remarkable story with me; to this he replied “I am so happy to see a young person such as you, who wants to know and learn about our past. It is so important that everyone understand their history and past and not forget. For the present generation life is different; they want money and enjoyment, they care not for other things. But if everybody is willing to learn the world will be a beautiful place. God Bless you”.

And I do feel truly blessed that my remarkable journey which took me to the peaks of the Himalayas and down South to Bengaluru ended with my finding out about this extraordinary 98 year old veteran gentleman who personified sacrifice, kindness and everything our Hindu and Vedic knowledge embodies. My husband says Rao reminded him of a Kannada poem by D.V. Gundappa which means: “Let me be like a flower in the dense jungle that blooms and is fragrant even when no one is there to appreciate its beauty; let me bloom for the sake of the Lord.”

Shankar Rao passed away peacefully in his sleep on Vishu/ Tamil New Year day (April 14, 2009) at the age of 98. He donated his eyes and his body to hospitals for the benefit of others.


30 Responses to “Shankar Rao: The Unsung Hero”

  1. Srividya Srinivasan Says:

    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful experience.We are blessed too.

  2. Poonam Says:

    Thank you for sharing this! They are right happiness is an attitude.

    May God bless Shankar Rao’s soul! May he rest in peace.

  3. Ram Says:

    This is simply touching. May Shree Shankar Rai’s soul rest in eternal peace.

  4. Vajraangi Says:

    Thanks for sharing this article. It was truly inspiring and brought tears to my eyes.

    “Slings and arrows of an outrageous fortune” indeed. Shri Rao had to answer to a name that was not his, to fight wars that were not his for a country that was not his. To have the outlook that he had inspite of all this is awe inspiring. He certainly practiced the Gita in his life. I wish I had met him

    Thanks Again.

  5. Indu Says:

    Thanks for publishing this wonderful article.
    We should all be greatful to such selfless heros!!

  6. Indu Says:

    Thanks for publishing this wonderful article.
    We should all be greatful to such selfless heros!! May Sri Shankar Rao rest in peace.

  7. Bhagya Says:

    As I read this I though to myself that this person is really amazing. He is a part of Indian history and he is such an inspiring soul.

  8. Srinivasan Says:

    Very moving, and inspiring! What a life Shri Shankar Rao’s was! And in his death, he is hauntingly thought provoking. You were lucky to meet him just a few months before his passing away, and so we are to hear his incredible story from you. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Vidya Says:

    A very touching tale. Reminds one of the memoirs of the American Indian kids who have been taken away from their homes (to be educated by the earliest ‘civilizers’ to arrive in the US. It is such ‘people history’ that has largely gone unrecorded in India but offers a great insight into the times prevailing then!

  10. praneshachar Says:

    may the departed soul rest in peace. what a touching true life incident. really touched my heart, before coming to the end of the post, I was thinking we can go and meet him and talk with some MB friends. But we are not that fortunate as the writer.

    three cheers for the post and also for the great soul shankar rao. this in india and our own country. I don’t think anywhere else in the world this person would have got a different kind of treatment.

    I salute the great soldier who is no more

    I salute PS Prakruthi for such a wonderful post

    I salute Bellur of RWB for posting it here.


  11. Vasuvaj Says:

    An inspiring essay indeed.
    There are numerous noble people like Shankar Rao and at the same time there are petty people who hanker for some cheap medals, titles and recognition like Padma Shri, Padma Vibhushan etc.
    People like Shankar Rao inspire a whole generation and live forever, whereas “Padma Shris” are soon forgotten.

  12. nandhitha Says:

    dear sirs/madam
    jai hind
    thanks for the article.i pray the almighty to rst that noble soul in His lotus feet. i once again thank u for the article. the upcoming generation should identify such great souls and respect them
    thank u very much
    with regards

  13. Sanjay M Says:

    Hmm I was rivetted to this article and was disappointed to know he was no more, I was hoping to visit him sometime. It would be better we remembered such people while they are amongst us but of course better late than never 🙂

    This account somewhat reminds me of that of Morihei Ueshiba who was the founder of the non-violent forms of martial arts Aikido.

  14. srinivasans Says:

    it is really very inspiring actual life story and just not madeup history which we read and believe that is true.
    thanks for sharing

  15. Anita Says:

    Thanks for sharing this trully inspiring and touching article. It certainly brought tears to my eyes and I was reminded of my father who always had this unshakeable faith in HIM and never complained in life. It is very nice to see a young person living in the US and is still interested in our history and Hindu values. Admire you and your parents, whom I believe are responsible for this.

  16. Phalgun Says:

    We can consider ourselves fortunate to be able to share in Shankar Rao’s life story, that we may be inspired by the humility and simple morality he embodied, especially exemplified by the fate of his mortal body upon his passing. A worthy, sincere, and well written article.

  17. Rajesh Says:

    This is very inspiring, thank you for sharing this with us. I want to remember this everyday so that I don’t complain about petty things in life.

  18. Jaya Says:

    Very well written article about Shankar Rao. You have done a very good job in writing about a man who was forgotten by people, whom he served. It is a monumental work to give respect to this kind of national heroes. It was very timely to give homage to a great soul. Thanks for sharing the life history of Sri Shankar Rao. Who knows how many such heroes are among us.

  19. Arjun Says:

    Very interesting and inspiring

  20. Mandyan Srinivasan Says:

    Thanks very much for sharing such a wonderful story. I pray for
    revered Shankar Rao’ soul rest in peace. What a Great Man with simplicity and very High moral values.

    I thought I will meet him definitely at VailiKaval which is just less than half mile where I grew up at Malleshwaram (when I first read your paragraph). But at the end of the article I realized… It is too late.
    Any way thanks again for publishing such a Noble person’s life history.

    I am going to forward this article to my kids & grand kids so that can also learn the way to lead life without complaining and accept life as it is

  21. Jayanthi Says:

    This is truly an inspiring life story. I am sure that there are and were many like Shankar Rao who were used for other’s gains but never recognized for their heroism in India. What is remarkable is his simple living and unassuming personality. I am truly touched to read about his life and his sacrifices. Thanks for sharing this remarkable encounter with us.

  22. padmini krishnan Says:

    hello prakruthi,
    this unbelievable thought provoking true story is worth reading by everyone.was this ‘unsung hero’ waiting for you to be known to the outside world before he left? some other reader of this article, soon after i started reading,i earnestly decided to meet mr.rao when i visited b’lore next..but it was not to be so!..well, the story brought tears into my eyes..we shd all learn lessons from his life..thank you prakruthi..god bless you..

  23. Aravinda,K. Says:

    My dear child,
    I am glad that you have used your flair for writing to introduce a great human being to us. The last lines show that, he lived as a great soul and was great in death too.

  24. Leelavathi Says:

    I feel so lucky and proud to have known Sri Rao within a very close range. He was a pious and noble man who was always at peace with the world. He was a staunch believer in God come what may; and was continuously doing japa and fasted on Thursdays even during sickness. He advised everybody to have the trust in God. He firmly believed that no human being is bad and every action of a man depended on his circumstances. He had a pure heart without any blemishes, my heartfelt salutations to him. We should follow his example. This article written by my neice is a mirror to his his life. I am glad that everyone is able to read about this noble man.

  25. Kumar Says:

    A true story of an unsung hero, told very well indeed, with a backdrop on how a simple Indian was able to relate to the age old way of life and God, even after going through compelling circumstances throughout his life! My only wish – had this story been published before he closed his eyes for ever, I am sure that he would have read his story with a twinkle in his eye and a satisfying smile on his face that at last somebody sang a little about him and a lot of others read this song, understood and empathised with his life saga. Nevertheless, better late than ever – I wish all the best to the author who was able to bring his story to light, even though she is miles and miles away engrossed in a busy life – I am sure wherever he is, he would know about this and bless the author for at least remembering him!

    • rajasekhar Says:

      It is an interesting story but filled with too many holes. It is amazing Britishers giving purely south Indian name to him.
      How did he end up in Bangalore I wonder, non the less a interesting and moving account.

  26. Chrıs Says:

    t is a monumental work to give respect to this kind of national heroes. It was very timely to give homage to a great soul. Thanks for sharing the life history of Sri Shankar Rao.

  27. J Says:

    Thank you for writing this. An inspiring man

  28. Sheela Says:

    This is a sensitive account of a an amazing person. Thanks for taking the time to share. We all should learn about such heroes like Sri Shankar Rao. Youth especially.

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