Sunday, July 24, 2016

Book: Farthest Field by Raghu Karnad

Recently I completed reading Jawaharlal Nehru's autobiography called Towards Freedom. The autobiography, which inevitably is also an account of the events in the nation's struggle for independence, ends at the year 1935. There is also a section at the end of the book, subsequently added, that briefly mentions the events of the next five years.  Nehru mentions about the start of the second world war and the demand of Indian National Congress for self-determination in exchange for cooperation in the war. He also records the fact that the British did not agree to this. Here is what happened to the demand, in his own words-

"...imperialism thinks otherwise and imagines that it can continue to function and to coerce people to do its will. Even when danger threatens, it is not prepared to get this very substantial help, if this involves a giving up of political and economic control over India. It does not care even for the tremendous moral prestige which could come to it, if it did the right thing in India and the rest of the Empire."

That is how the autobiography ends. The question of what happens in the intervening period, before India finally got Independence in 1947 is of great interest. By some happy coincidence, soon after reading the auto-biography I came across this amazing "forensic non-fiction" work called Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War.

Written by the promising young Indian writer Raghu Karnad, this book is a result of the author's pursuit to trace the story of his grandfather and a couple of other relatives who had fought in the second world war with the Indian army.

Reconstructing the events of the past with painstaking research, what he has gifted us is a rare account of the important years 1939-45 in Indian history.

In the prologue, the author points out how personal and institutional memories go through revising and reshaping. The interviews he conducted with the Indian veterans illustrated this, he says. Well, that must be true to some extent of any history. People remembering differently. Remembering some facts and forgetting others to suit a narrative. The author puts it nicely- "In general , their memories, like all memories, were smoothed and polished by time, as pebbles in a stream."

Perfect or not, memory of the nation's history is definitely important. What are we without a memory of our history? As Nietzsche said, it is only the beast that lives unhistorically.

The second world war must be one of the most recounted events in modern history. While ably providing the missing Indian context in the war, Farthest Field also helped me recall some great novels and movies made on the subject of the Second World War. All these works on the war usually have focused on just one aspect of or one location in the war.

Farthest Field holds your attention from page one. Divided into three parts, the action on the Indian mainland as well as on the western and the eastern parts of India are covered.

In the first chapter there is a description of  the Parsi household from where the protagonist Bobby hails. At once ribbing and respectful, the definition runs like this: " The Parsis: pale as scalps, mad as coots, noses like commas on the page. They were devoutly civilised, consummately lawful...".
The author certainly has a little license on the community, as his own grandmother, an important character in the book, Nurgesh (Nugs) hails from it. While reading this chapter I remembered Rohinton Mistry's fine novel, the Booker nominated Such a Long Journey, which is entirely the story of a Parsi family. There is difference in the writing styles and there is no war in Such a Long Journey.

After setting down the backgrounds of the main protagonists Bobby and his brothers-in-law, Ganny and Manek in Part One, the action firmly shifts in Part Two to the war front on India's West. 

Reading about the North African campaign and about the action in El Alamein brought to mind another Booker nominated novel The English Patient. A lyrical, evocative novel by Michael Ondatje. Although that novel has the North African campaign of the Second World War as its backdrop, the major part of the story is set in an Italian villa. There is also an Indian character in The English Patient, named as Kip, a Sikh soldier, also a sapper like Bobby in Farthest Field.

Farthest Field impresses in terms of descriptions of actions in the war fronts. The actors being Indian soldiers also makes it even more interesting considering that there aren't many great war books involving Indians.

History only informs what happened. It takes fiction, or "forensic non-fiction" to really make it nuanced and relatable. The long list in the Bibliography indicates the attention paid by the author to get accurate details and accounts of fighting. Even so, as the story is built around collected facts, that too after so many years, there may be some imperfections. But, as the author notes in the prologue, this story is one "in which the lives of a few might stand in for many others."

Hemingway wrote two wonderful novels based on wars, weaving in poignant drama involving people caught in the wars. In the novel A Farewell to Arms, the author used his own experience of working as an American ambulance driver in the Italian campaign of the World War One. And the other novel For Whom the Bell Tolls was again based on the experiences of the author in the Spanish Civil War. It certainly helps to understand the human angles of the wars too in addition to the much heralded political angles.

Farthest Field too skillfully combines personal lives that get dramatically altered on account of war. Ganny and Nugs being one such couple that gets caught up in the whirlwind of war.

In part three, the action shifts to the war front on India's East. Reading about the Japanese advance through Burma and the surrender and retreat of the British, brought to mind images from the fascinating David Lean movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.  In that movie set in Burma in 1943, a Japanese colonel puts a group of British war prisoners to work to build a bridge over the Kwai river. Reading about Bobby and his Bengal Sappers moving into coastal Burma, the imagery to me was strengthened by the recollection of the great movie.

The other sections that impress in this part of the book are the stark description of the great Bengal famine of 1943 and the gripping battle for Kohima that the Indian army fights with the Japanese.

In the afterword, the author provides a lucid summary of the events and the role of various agencies in India during the crucial period of 1939-45. One also gets a greater clarity on the background and role of the Indian National Army formed by Subhas Chandra Bose. Neither Nehru's Congress nor Bose's INA are depicted as game changers. The former comes across as largely ineffective, while the latter as almost insignificant. And the third set of people, neither left nor right leaning, were not so much concerned about either sides of the war - the fascists or the imperialists. The ones that joined the British Indian army mostly came from this group. Even if it was merely self-interest or a sense of adventure that drove them to join the military, they too deserve a place in the nation's memory. Farthest Field succeeds in reviving that memory. Whatever be their motivations or political views, these Indians fought so valiantly that they changed forever the perception about the Indian military force. 

Hope this excellent book rekindles interest in our modern history. Somehow, the textbooks don't do an adequate job of drawing young minds deeper into the study of history. Vested political interests conniving to present a selective or an incomplete version of history through the school curriculum also doesn't help improve the situation.

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