Farthest Field: A Story of India in the Second World War by Raghu Karnad

06/06/15, Financial Times

Although you won’t get an idea of it from reading the British press or following the commemorations of the two World Wars in this country, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a large part of the manpower of British Empire’s army came from its colonies. Cicero referred to money as nervos belli, the sinews of war; in a more literal sense, Indian soldiers formed the sinews of the British Empire’s global conflicts, from the Opium Wars in the mid-nineteenth century to, say, the securing of Basra in 1914 (and again in 1941). In WWII alone, over two million men were Indians, the largest volunteer army in world history. Yet they were treated as worse than second-class humans and Churchill was adamant about not giving India her independence, which the Indian National Congress had demanded as a requisite for India providing men Britain so desperately needed to fight. President Roosevelt, however, was keenly aware of the systemic double standards involved: Europe was facing the biggest threat to the very freedom it wouldn’t consider for other races. Churchill’s grandiose speeches on the war for freedom didn’t hoodwink Orwell, who commented, ‘The unspoken clause is always: Not counting niggers.’

The unwritten, expunged and marginalised lesser people, written out of white histories, are now making a comeback – from Madhusree Mukerjee’s book on Churchill’s shameful role in causing the Bengal famine of 1943 in which three million Indians lost their lives, through Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Ibis Trilogy’, to Yasmin Khan’s forthcoming book, The Raj at War, which looks at a ‘people’s history’ of India’s involvement in WWII, a growing literature is now filling out what has so far been a woefully skewed picture.

Into this context steps Indian journalist Raghu Karnad’s debut, Farthest Field, which concentrates not on vast swathes of populations caught up in WWII – although there is that, too – but adopts instead a micro-view by focusing on the trajectories of three related Indian men’s lives in the war. Karnad will open up the story to take in the great theatres of the war – Singapore, Eritrea, Libya, El Alamein, Basra, Arakan, Imphal – but this infolding of the public will always be within the fabric of the private because we will discover that his maternal grandfather, Kodandera Ganapathy (‘Ganny’), is one of these three protagonists. Ganny married Nurgesh Mugaseth (‘Nugs’), Karnad’s grandmother, one of four siblings, three daughters (Subur, Nugs and Khorshed) and one son (Godrej, aka Bobby), of a prosperous industrial Parsi family, the Mugaseths, based in Calicut in south India. Khorshed (Kosh) marries a dashing daredevil, Manek Dadabhoy. Karnad’s book is the story of these three friends, Ganny, Bobby and Manek, brothers-in-law and brothers-in-arms.

Ganny, a doctor, is recruited by the Indian Medical Service and sent to the Combined Military Hospital in Thal in July 1942. Within five months, he is dead, of asthma bronchitis, at the age of twenty-six; he did not live to see the birth of his daughter. Unlike Ganny, Manek, an officer in the Indian Air Force, sees real action in the war: he is despatched in April 1943 to the North-East Frontier to fly over Burmese jungles and locate the ‘Chindit’ survivors, the guerrilla infiltrators from the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade who had been sent deep into northern Burma to ambush Japanese patrols and blow up railway lines. He dies in May 1943 after his plane flies into a hill inside Indian lines due to low visibility.

Bobby, an engineer, joins the Bengal Sappers under the 161st Indian Infantry Brigade. More than a year after his commission, Bobby, who ‘regard[s] his life as an anti-suspense novel: How will our hero escape his monotonous safety, and find his way to danger?’, is sent to the dreaded North-East Frontier as the Army plans a full offensive against the Japanese to prevent their entry into India. In a bravura feat of literary-historical imagination, an act of astonishing empathy one normally thinks of as the novelist’s domain, Karnad recreates the Imphal-Kohima front, filling out the lacunae and unknowns in the way Bobby meets his end in November 1944.

Like a superior commander himself, Karnad marshalls and orders a huge range of materials, locations and actions with effortless skill, making everything cohere not only through a galloping and affecting narrative but, crucially, through a passionate moral core that repeatedly exposes the numerous ways in which Indians were treated as fodder by the Empire. It is fair to say that Karnad has been inspired to investigate the history of his family’s recent past by this moral impulse to balance the history books; that inextricability of the public and private again. Over and above this, his writing of military action is brilliant and sets the heart racing: the chapters, towards the end, on the Imphal offensive of 1944, should be mandatory reading for writers of action thrillers. His partiality for poetic and extended poetical metaphors can often tighten into startling lyrical precision: at 2,500 feet above the ‘mineral sea of Waziristan’ in his Hawker Audax, Manek sees the Tochi river as ‘a twist of green silk scarf’. The writing of history intersects gloriously with several other genres, such as family history, and creative non-fiction, in this moving, eloquent, intelligent work.