Author : Raghu Karnad
Publishers : Harper Collins, Noida, U.P.
Year of Publication:2015; Pages:320; Price:Rs.550
Reviewed by : K. S. Nair
Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field – An Indian Story of the Second World War was published in mid-2015. So this review is a little late, but the book and its content remain eminently worthwhile subjects for discussion. It is, in some important ways, different from many other books on the subject.
Farthest Field, essentially, follows the lives of Karnad’s grand-father, and two of his grand-father’s brothers-in-law, all three of whom served during the Second World War. One each joined the Indian Army, the Indian Air Force, and the Indian Medical Service (the organization delivering medical services to the armed forces of India which, till the late 1930s, was a separate military organization). Almost hilariously mirroring today’s Indian middle-class obsessions for children’s careers, Karnad’s three protagonists are a doctor, an engineer and a pilot. The book covers their individual stories, ranges widely over the historic background, wonderfully captures the feel of the times, and delivers a masterful summary of the Indian contribution to the Second World War.
The book has been receiving such uniformly high praise (including a recent nomination for the Hessel-Tiltman prize), that it is difficult to write another review without sounding ungracious by comparison. So let us state unequivocally at the outset that Farthest Field measures up entirely. It is so beautifully-written, in fact, that many reviews (like this one on Sify) seem compelled to take a commensurately elevated literary tone.
The praise is entirely deserved – the book is suspenseful, educative, and as easy-reading as any novel. Yet in many ways both the book and its author come at the subject from unusual angles.
Karnad is not a professional historian nor a professional novelist (we make a point of his not being a novelist, because Farthest Field’s writing style, and many of its reviews, are sometimes indistinguishable from those of a good novel. Unlike many other writers on military subjects, Karnad is not a former soldier, nor the son of one. He is, of course, the grandson and great-nephew of his three non-fictional protagonists; but that awareness, as he is the first to admit, came late to him; and he is not steeped in military life and trivia, as some other writers on military subjects are.
All the more credit to him, of course. But there is also the unlikelihood of his topic. The Second World War figures so large in the memories of other participating countries, that seventy years after the event, best-selling books are still written and blockbuster movies are still made around it. Yet India, even while contributing the oft-quoted figure of 2.5 million Indian participants (at a time when the entire country’s population was about 300 million – so the social impact should compare to the participation of nearly 10 million Indians today) has effectively blanked the Second World War out of its history.
The reasons have been touched on, not explicitly in the book, but at the launches, events and other occasions at which Farthest Field has been discussed. The fine writers, the erudite historians, the consummate insiders, and even the occasional upright former military men, who have peopled these events, have all agreed that the key reason was that Independence followed the end of World War Two so quickly. Independent India’s new government had, they agreed, “to steward India through a nation-building phase, and (hence) built a narrative of India having been united in struggling for freedom” – rather than as a participant in the War.
But then why was India’s contribution largely overlooked (till recently) by its former colonial master, which has produced much of the dominant narrative on the War? The key reason here seems to be that Britain too had its own myth to construct, of the “brave little island that resisted fascism”, standing alone. The 450 million subjects of Empire, and the considerable share of the world’s resources represented by Empire, did not fit this narrative. Karnad suggests an implicit compact: “India preferred to forget the war, Britain preferred to forget the imperial part”.
The book also addresses some of the dilemmas many thinking people have, about Indian participation in war for the British Empire. Indian soldiers may not have made ringing speeches about doing their bit to defeat the Nazis, but it is clear that many Indian public figures, from whom most of the new middle class took their views, loathed fascism, even when the British were still somewhat ambivalent.
And as helicopter-jock-turned-military-historian Squadron Leader Rana Chhina said, at one event, “It was argued by no less a person than … Mahatma Gandhi”, admittedly at the time of the First World War, that if India wanted greater political autonomy, she must be prepared to support Britain – including militarily. British promises of greater autonomy at the time were not kept, which influenced Congress antipathy to the Second World War. Yet, 25 lakh Indians served.
Some certainly experienced doubts, and sought counsel, even from the level of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel. The direction from such leaders was always encouragement to serve; the subtext that India would definitely be free soon, and would then need capable and professional military personnel.
And India is lucky that they did. Importantly, these professional soldiers internalized the principle that soldiers take their orders from the civil government. And if not for these soldiers, in October 1947 when raiders came within a few miles of Srinagar, we would have lost Kashmir.
Beyond these historic clarifications, two distinctive points emerge from the book.
One is the agency that – despite the superficial lack of it in military lives – Karnad’s protagonists show. Many serious writings on Indians in the two World Wars have tended to represent Indian participation as without agency; almost involuntary; driven by Indians’ subaltern (in every sense of that word) status in the machinery and organisation of Empire. Numerous otherwise excellent works present almost unmitigated stories of simple peasant soldiers and the simple peasant families they left behind, seemingly bewildered by the great political and military events of the time, content to do their duty and remain true to their salt, trusting in their officers to get tactics right and the greater sarkar to deliver allowances and pensions to families. The truth, as always with Indians, and particularly when something approaching 50 lakhs of them have participated directly and indirectly in two great wars – the truth, as always when dealing with such numbers, is more complex and nuanced.
Karnad’s three protagonists show much more agency than Indian participants are usually given historical credit for – and that is a sign of the progress that Indians were making, in those last years of the Raj. These men and their families were already part of the then still-tiny Indian professional middle class – then as now, becoming a doctor, an engineer and a pilot were almost guarantees of breaking into classes to which there were significant barriers to entry; at the time further constrained by the Indian-British divide. When their war started, these three young men elected to participate, and moved relatively smoothly into roles as commissioned officers. These young men chose their war, and when their opportunities came, actively seized them. Their ladies took up work outside the home, sometimes opposed their families, and married outside their communities. These men are not the suffering masses of the trenches of Flanders, and their ladies not the helpless purdah-bound zenana dwellers that others have written of.
The other key point that emerges is how liberal a view Karnad’s protagonists, and I dare say, many of their contemporaries, demonstrate. This is, despite the unpromising environment, a story of three immensely open-minded, liberal young men.
Such liberalism actually goes with serious soldiering, as many of those who have served know. Soldiering, like team sports, turns up countless examples of selflessness, solidarity, and of conquering common hurdles. And nearly everyone who has served has some story or other of being rescued from a sticky situation, or incurring debt in a currency that only soldiers understand, across community and even racial lines. Liberalism shows up matter-of-factly in the wonderful diversity of the Indian armed forces, and poignantly in the litany of names from wide-ranging communities of those brought in as casualties or listed on gravestones and memorials. It shows up in the stories of cross-community and inter-religious marriages (and even affairs) that the book, and many soldiers’ lives, tells of. In practice, if you talk to real soldiers in India when no one else is listening, many of them are instinctive Liberals. Disciplined, sure – they respect authority, but with a healthy skepticism that authorities are Always Right.
Karnad has shown that it is possible to write sympathetically about soldiers, in a manner that does justice to their agency. And in that he may have started a long-overdue movement, the reclamation of military writing by liberals. More power to his pen, and others who write similarly about soldiering for India.
The author has recently been conferred with the 2016 Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puruskar under the English language category for Farthest Field, his debut non-fiction novel.
K. S. Nair, son and son-in-law of IAF officers; life-long student of the IAF’s history and author of several articles on the IAF. His book “Ganesha’s Flyboys” tells the story of the IAF in the Congo in the 1960s. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org