Let his village remember

A review of Farthest Field by Raghu Karnad.

Raghu Karnad

Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field (Harper Collins India) is a “forensic non-fiction” about three men who lived in his house as sepia coloured photographs in silver frames, until he decided to find out more about them starting with their real names. What starts as an effort to paint a deeper picture of their lives and their connection to him, ends with Karnad, splashing an entire canvas that extends from Gazala in Libya, to Imphal on the North East Frontiers, complete with a forgotten war fought by a ‘mercenary’ army. The book is a resurrection of the three men his family lost, about their lives interrupted by war and, about an army that found itself on the wrong side of history.

The book straggles within a gray area of fact and fictionalisation that enables Karnad to reconstruct his family history, and the lives of men during the war. While the method invites controversy, it is this imagination, and Karnad’s measured use of langauge that pushes the book outside of its comfort zone.

Most books about India’s role in the Second World War talk about the convictions of leaders, the strength of the nation and the moral courage of men and women who tried defying the empire. There are few that delve into battles that the largest volunteer force to fight in World War II fought, or the men who died fighting. Karnad agrees, “I was accustomed to thinking of the war as Western Front, Eastern Front and Pacific. When I looked through the eyes of Indian soldiers, however, the globe turned, revealing new continents.”

The story of Godrej (Bobby) Khodadad Mugaseth, the only son of a Parsi family settled in Calicut forms the core of the book. Far from Persia, and farther still from their traditional metropoles of Bombay and Karachi, the Mugaseth Parsis live their devoutly civilized, consummately lawful and slightly native, lives on the coasts of Malabar. Rebellion against establishment, and freedom from their closeted lives come in different ways for Bobby and his sisters. One sister marries an Iyengar, Bobby moves to Madras, his second sister gets pregnant outside of marriage and another marries Bobby’s best friend. Set amongst his people in Madras, is the story of Bobby, his younger brother-in-law Manek Dadabhoy and his second sister’s husband Kodandera Ganapathy (Ganny) and their journey as soldiers.

Karnad’s writing weaves the stories of these men, their lives centered around the college of engineering, Guindy, Madras, and their recruitment as soldiers fighting for the British empire. The war that came home divided people. The communists, and the congress loyalists decried the horror of the war, and refused to play a role in it. The Parsis, the Princes and the Parties of the right were only “happy to trade global support for domestic credit”. The men who joined the war however did it for reasons far more mundane. As Karnad points out “The factor that most aided recruitment was hunger… Upon enlisting, every sepoy was entitled to a full service ration beginning with the bada khana (grand dinner) they received on arrival.

Karnad’s narrative pushes the boundaries of traditional war memoirs by portraying the underbelly of a mercenary army serving at his Majesty’s pleasure and Churchill’s displeasure. The Second World War went a long way in ironing out the caste and community differences between the soldiers themselves, but they were still subject to a second-class treatment – even at the highest levels by the British towards the Indian. Karnad also subjects the reader to the irony of having soldiers take a rest and recreation break in Bengal at the height of the Bengal famine. The Indian Army marched through villages filled with the starving, and voiceless millions, forced into the situation. “The newly generous army rations made the situation worse. The mercenaries feasted among the starving slaves”

Bobby’s war takes him across continents, from the sun scorched deserts of Libya and Iraq in the west, to the overgrown forests of Imphal, and Kohima in the east. His story moves from being that of a hero in an anti-suspense novel in which he has to “escape his monotonous safety and find his way to danger”, to a starring role in one of the biggest battle fought on the eastern front. These were against the Japanese, against the vilified INA or the “Japanese Fifth Column”, and against a battlefield that the men were ill prepared for.

Karnad’s best writing comes through in the chaos of the Kohima and Arakan operations against the Japanese. The fight against man, animal, diseases, the land, and the self all took a toll. “Tomorrow came, again and again and so did the attacks”. One of the most reflective moments, imagined by Karnad comes at the height of attack at the Jotsoma hill, “Bobby sat down hard, and for a minute, or how long he didn’t know, he only sat. He watched the battle, and then he could see himself watching the battle and then for a moment he saw someone else, far away and in the future, watching him watch himself, at this moment.” Every last detail of these fights, every man, machine and scenario has been painstakingly reconstructed and painted in the vivid colours of the war.

There are times, when the war gets overwhelming and the characters feel rushed and uncontrollable. The Second World War is a personal event here and the intensity with which it is unfolds, makes for a gripping, but poignant read. Karnad is careful about not letting his grandfather’s war become his own, and completely cognizant about the weight of telling their stories and through them a country’s history. Their voice is what you hear, even in the imagined conversations, and their conflicts are what come through, even at the height of the war.

There were the forgotten men, there was a forgotten army and then there was a forgotten war. Karnad is careful to balance his own ignorance and indignation about the war, and its invisible victors with a curiosity and a measured unveiling of India’s role in the Second World War. In the words of T S Eliot the story sometimes feels like it is “Of foreign men, who fought in foreign places, Foreign to each other.” Karnad has done an extraordinary job in resurrecting these lives and a history that is well worth revisiting.

*The title is a line from T.S Eliot’s poem To the Indians Who Died in Africa