A few days ago, I was in Merville, a small town in the north of France, to present my film Farewell My Indian Soldier (2016) on the occasion of the World War I Armistice Day (November 11). As part of the weekend-long commemoration devoted exclusively to WWI Indian soldiers, mayor Joël Duyck and Ramesh Vohra, president of the Interfaith Shaheedi Commemoration Association, also installed, with full official honours, a bronze stele at a prominent site in Merville. Listening to the French and Indian national anthems being played by a French band in a slumberous, rain-soaked town of 10,000 inhabitants, I must say my first thought was that the memory of the subcontinental WWI soldiers had travelled a long way. Just a handful of years ago, when I started the spadework for this film, virtually no one in France had heard of around 1.4 million Indian soldiers who had fought in WWI, of which 1,40,000 alone had battled in the north of France and Belgium, with 7,000 killed. And if, in some select quarters — history lovers, Indian officials, etc. — there was some knowledge of the fact, there was certainly no mainstream awareness about our soldiers’ story.
Oddly, India was equally a part of this knowledge famine. When I visited India in 2011 to seek an Indian partner for this film, no one betrayed any awareness of this subject, and if some senior military officers did know of what had transpired 100 years ago, it was at best basic hearsay knowledge. In one Indian ministry, I was even asked: “Were they really Indian soldiers? They worked for the British.” When I answered by saying that they looked like you and me and they were the poor peasants of this land in uniform, he still looked unconvinced. The WWI centennial commemorations have helped change the scenario and, thanks to films, books and media coverage, we are now more aware of the horrors the subcontinental soldiers faced on the Western Front in WWI.
What still remains hidden in the crevices of local history are some beautiful stories of human love, affection, search and yearning the Indian soldiers left behind in France. When the soldiers were billeted at barns on furlough to nurse their fatigue, the only people who could look after them were French women, for their men had all gone to the war. In this context, where the hostess and the hosted were both victims of the same solitude, relationships developed between the two, and Indo-French children were born.
Monique Soupart, a charming lady in her late seventies living in the north of France, is a descendant of one such relationship, and how she discovered her Indo-French heritage in an ethos of a strict social taboo, itself makes for a moving story.
Soupart was down with a complicated pregnancy in 1966. Her doctor decided to give her blood transfusion. One day, she was daydreaming about her future baby, when a nurse swept into her room, a blood report in her hand, and asked her: “What nationality are you, Madame?” Soupart answered: “French”. The nurse looked down at the sheet of paper, pondered and asked again: “You’re sure?” Slightly offended, Soupart retorted: “Of course, yes”. The nurse muttered: “That’s odd! Your blood group doesn’t look French at all. It’s from another world!” The nurse left, leaving the pregnant lady distraught.
When Soupart’s grandmother visited her in the clinic that day, she shared the incident with her. The old lady listened with rapt attention, in a sphinx-like silence. Gradually, she would betray signs of guilt. Her grandmother left, but Soupart found herself mired in a whirlpool of doubt. Right then, a childhood memory flashed past. Soupart’s grandmother had once accidentally blurted to her: “Your father’s father was an Indian soldier!” But the word Indian, before or after that day, was never uttered again at home.
“This silence was killing me”, Soupart said to me. “So, I started to solve the puzzle myself. I recalled that André, my father, had never spoken of his father — never. Then, I recalled he was always ignored by his step-parents, as my grandmother had remarried. And André was never invited to his parents’ house for dinner. Never, never,” said Soupart, whose search ended the day her mother confessed that her father was indeed the son of an unknown Indian soldier.
As tears glistened in Soupart’s eyes, she confided: “People didn’t speak of such children conceived with strangers at that time. They felt ashamed. I couldn’t understand why, for here was a man who had come to France in our hour of need, to offer his life in a war that was not even his! How could social prejudice wipe out the existence of such a ‘hero’ and turn him forever into a nameless, pictureless, faceless apparition.”
As destiny has its own ways of setting right the wrongs of history, this story has a happy ending, too. Fifty years later, as a consequence of a strange set of circumstances, Soupart was approached by a film unit and her story became the inspiration behind a widely televised film on Indian WWI soldiers. That film was Farewell My Indian Soldier.
But despite the prejudice, French women’s hospitality towards the injured, frostbitten and gangrened Indian soldiers was extraordinary. In the letters soldiers sent home, they were full of praises. A soldier wrote about his French hostess: “The old woman here works all the time. For months, she has been washing my clothes, making my bed and polishing my shoes. Every day, she washes my room with hot water. She wept when we left the village. She had not wept for her dead son but she wept for me. And gave me 5 francs for my journey expenses.”
Close contact with French women unwittingly imparted the values of liberty, equality and fraternity to Indian soldiers, a consciousness the demobilised soldiers would later bring home and inject into the national movement. A soldier wrote: “Over here, marriage is never under 18 and by consent of both the parties. No man can beat his wife. This injustice happens only in India! Man and woman live together in harmony.” Another one seemed to raise the slogan of Beti Bachao one hundred years ago: “Give up bad customs and value your girls as much as your boys.” Yet another: “The advancement of India lies in the hands of women; until they act, India can never awake from her hare’s dream.”
When the Indian cavalrymen were transferred out of a village, noted a soldier’s letter, French girls were sad and wept. They came out on the street with a placard which read: “Indian soldiers are departing. Mademoiselle France pleure! Miss France is in tears!”
(Vijay Singh is a writer and filmmaker living in Paris. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘A Farewell to Arms’)