“FARTHEST FIELD” by RAGHU KARNAD
“People have two deaths: the first at the end of their lives, when they go away and the second at the end of the memory of their lives; when all who remember them are gone. Then the person quits the world completely” – Farthest Field: An Indian story of the Second World War (2015)
There is a certain scene in the movie 1917 (directed by Sam Mendes) where one sees an Indian soldier in the Western Front of World War I, this was a fascinating moment for me. The reason for it is quite simple, it gave referential representation to a part of Indian military history that has more often than not remained in the shadows. The man with the pagdi, in the movie showed me a part of my Indian history I did not know or care to know. When Shashi Tharoor eloquently mentioned in his speech at Oxford about the representation of Indians in the World Wars, I was left quite appalled at the sheer amount of lives that laid spent but never talked or even seen in popular culture. We have seen movies upon movies go by, we have seen the Americans, British and the Allied Forces restore democracy around the world but never once did we see the largest volunteer army-the Royal Indian Army represented in any of them. This sparked my interest in the Indian story within these World Wars. This interest led me to Raghu Karnad and his wonderful rendition of the Indian story in World War II.
The personal nature that the book takes in describing lives of a family starting from a photograph into an epic narration of the theatres of World War II and the Indian military history makes for quite an emotional read. Karnad meanders between the touches of the deeply close-knit Parsi family in Calicut and the trepidations of a family’s rituals that distance them in the process. The story of not men, but boys who become men by the end of the book; humanises the war in our minds. The plethora of documentaries made on World War has the bare minimum mention or even footage of the Indian regiment during these wars despite the fact that Indian soldiers were shipped to almost all theatres of these World Wars. The delicate relationship of not just the regiments but also the families that come together within the war, the playfulness in the times of despair and its juxtaposition of pure manic horrors of the battlefront provides an account that is akin to some of the best books I have read on World War history. Through the characters, Karnad takes you through the mornings in Calicut to the humidity of Madras; from Roorkee to the Allied fronts in Baghdad, Libya El-Alamein and onwards to Calcutta and the rain-soaked hills of Imphal and Kohima. Places where battles upon bloody battles occurred. These hallowed grounds where Indian soldiers fought, killed and got killed and slowly but surely vanished from the annals of history.
The “forgotten Army” they called them. Men and women, flesh and blood like the rest of us who at a young age thought it best to set upon an adventure like the character of Bobby who idolised the heroes of the First World War than to spend days cloistered in a humid classroom in Madras. The glorification of the “largest volunteer Army” is often left on the corners of Indian history but there are ornaments of their sacrifice engraved on every regiment in the modern Army that were erstwhile part of the British Raj. The book does not just state the statistics of war, it also paints a picture of young men and women in the midst of their darkest days in corners of the world never knowing when the shelling would take their lives. It says the story of brave fighter pilots in the characters who saw and lived a life, though short, yet adventurous. The war that was hard fought cost the lives of more than 36000 Indian soldier who were either killed or missing in action and left more than 64000 wounded. The story speaks of the violence, the love, the turmoil and the deaths to an almost realistic notion that often softens the toughest of hearts.
It is eery and almost unimaginable to see brown men salute in pride to the Union Jack while at the same time an entire nation rose against the oppressive Raj. It becomes a hard pill to swallow for me to relate to the characters in the story for it is a reality a generation never knew. The argument of loyalists and rebels are legitimate and accurately so, but the story that Karnad unfolds within these pages are not symbols of the Raj but a story of brothers-in-law turned brothers-in-arms. The story of the pictures of three young men in dusty photo frames that adorned a corner of his grandmother’s house. A history that is seldom told and now more than ever needs a retelling for it is a part of the Indian fabric just as much as the Freedom movement. Not many who have seen these wars survived and those who do reserve little to no memory of the days, it is the responsibility of the citizens to keep these men and women alive. In the words of the author himself, “History is written by the victors, but not all of them.”
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