Book: Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War
Author: Raghu Karnad
Publisher: WW Norton & Company
Price: Rs 550
Indian non-fiction writing on World War II is limited to either academic works or accounts of military campaigns. There are some memoirs of Indian soldiers who fought the war. No one has attempted a non-fiction narrative on World War II from an Indian perspective, at least not in the last 25 years. That is where Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War stands out. It is different in many ways, the most significant being the manner in which it features the stories of those on the margins.
Farthest Field, which features Karnad’s grand-uncle from his earlier essay Everybody’s Friend, is about a marginalised community in Indian military discourse — the Parsis. Moreover, these are Parsis from Calicut, a city not prominent in the popular imagination. It features young, educated women who are neither enamoured by India’s freedom movement nor by a sense of loyalty to the British. They fall in love, get married outside their community and in one case — Karnad’s grandmother — get pregnant before marriage. If it was a fictional tale set in late 1930s and early 1940s Madras, we would have dismissed it as improbable. This, however, is the true story of Karnad’s own family.
The book is also about the lesser-known battles of World War II. General William Slim’s “Forgotten Army” in Burma. The unending British military campaign in Waziristan. The air threat over Madras when the British administrators ran away, leaving it to the mercy of the Japanese. The Indian army’s occupation of Iraq. These are not glamorous battles of the war — not the North African campaign, not Barbarossa, neither Market Garden nor Normandy. The men in the book, those who participate in the war — in which 2.3 million Indians fought and 89,000 died — are also from the margins of the military. The three brothers-in-law are a doctor, an engineer and a pilot who flies old British aircraft for the Indian Air Force.
How does one attempt a non-fiction where limited written records exist and those who lived then have passed away? How does one recreate forgotten — or more accurately — unknown men? Karnad takes “a sort of forensic licence, using fragmented evidence and testimony to build an account of their thoughts and beliefs”. This is both an opportunity and a challenge. In the hands of a lazy writer, this could have become a polished tale of a few personas. Karnad, instead, uses it to put lives and events in their larger historical context. A Churchill, with his hatred for all things India and Indian, a Subhash Bose, a Claude Auchinleck, an Orde Wingate, or an Arjan Singh — now the Marshal of the Air Force — can thus easily flit in and out of the book. He brings alive a war that shaped an army independent India called its own.
Karnad doesn’t hesitate to mention the British discrimination against Indian officers, such that even KS Thimmaya was not given residential quarters in a white officers’ colony. The discrimination against Indian soldiers was even more blatant, and Karnad provides an example of an Indian barrack in Waziristan, which had been wired by mistake. When the Indian soldiers pooled in money to fix some bulbs, the local garrison engineer got the wiring removed as only British soldiers were authorised electric connections in their barracks. He also lets you know that for Indian army officers, Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj was “Indian Traitor Army” and in official British orders, they were referred to as JIFs — Japanese-Inspired Fifth Columnists.
Karnad’s research is top-class and he gets the nuances right. He understands different kinds of terrain and how they impact military operations. As a former sapper officer, I can vouch for the authenticity of the descriptions of the tasks accomplished by the sappers; the relationship between officers and men, between the infantry and sappers. What it is to come under enemy fire for the first time, what it is to see men die.
The description of air force flights against the tribes in Waziristan is equally engrossing. The scenes of famine from Calcutta juxtaposed against the soldiers from the Allied militaries arriving there for ‘R & R’ (rest and recreation) are heartrending. Karnad does not let you forget that three million died in the Bengal famine, “ten times the cost of the whole war in British lives, military and civilian”.
With a real-life story that has no climax to build up to, Karnad does well to retain a certain pace. His style can often make you forget that Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War is a work of non-fiction — it reads like a novel till you remind yourself that these were real people. Karnad’s grand-uncles died as brothers in arms and they could not have asked for a better writer to keep their memory alive.