DUE to a diversity of narratives resulting from ideological, religious and cultural differences, our understanding of history is filled with dialectics. From within this soup of confusing narratives, Farthest Field: an Indian Story of the Second World War by Raghu Karnad emerges to reconcile one aspect of this history: the role played by India in WWII.
Farthest Field is a narrative written from the perspective of Karnad’s grandfather and uncles who fought for the British Empire against the Axis powers during WWII. The story largely revolves around exploits of three young men who go to war; Godrej Khodad Mugaseth (nicknamed Bobby), Manek Dadabhoy and Kodandera Ganapathy (nickamed Ganny). Educated and from affluent families, Bobby joined the army as a lieutenant, Manek became a pilot in the Royal Air Force, and Ganny was recruited as a military doctor.
This is not a work of fiction, neither is it an autobiography, and nor is it non-fiction. In a broader sense, it is a combination of all these genres; it is based on army records, personal letters, primary and secondary interviews, and the writer’s imagination. What I found most profound was the author’s modesty when he explains that due to the limitation of sound resources, “[T]his story is imperfect, live flesh drawn over skeletons rebuilt from scattered bones. But it is one in which the lives of a few might stand in for many others.” Such humility hooks you in.
Prior to the beginning of WWII, the officer class of the Colonial British Indian army was restricted only to British citizens. Karnad notes that as the war spread to Europe, North Africa and Abyssinia, there was an urgent need to bolster the ranks of the Empire’s army. During the war, India contributed the highest number of troops to the Empire’s cause — two million soldiers.
Manek’s 2nd Squadron was deployed in the North West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to fight against the Waziri tribe and the ‘Mad Mullah, Fakir of Ipi’, Mirza Ali Khan who was funded by the Italian and German agents to fight the British. The quixotic Nazi plan was to break the Soviet army at Stalingrad, ram through the British line at the Nile, and surge through the Middle East and Central Asia towards India. Here Khan, code-named by the Germans as Feuerfresser (Fire Eater), would assist in the Axis assault on India. For the Nazis, things didn’t go as they had planned, but here, as Karnad rightly points out, the great irony is that even after 70 years, the bombing campaign in Waziristan still continues. Ganny and Manek did not meet heroic ends: Ganny died of an asthmatic bronchitis attack in Thal on Dec 10, 1942 and Manek perished when his plane crashed in Burma on May 25, 1943.
Bobby, on the other hand, saw far more action. His first deployment under the 5th Division took hi m to British Sudan and Italian Abyssinia. This was followed by the disastrous campaign in North Africa, where the legendary desert-warfare general Erwin Rommel’s strategies and the tenacity of the Nazi’s Afrika Korps crushed the Empire’s 5th Division. The battered regiments were forced to retreat inside a 40-mile perimeter from the Nile. Note that a handful of captured Indian soldiers joined the Nazi Free India Legion, and fought against the Allied forces.
The 5th Division was relieved and replaced by the 4th Division. Bobby’s next duty was to man the outposts in Iraq and Iran. While in Persia, Bobby’s unit spent a night in the ruins of the Parthian and Sassanid capital, Ctesiphon. These ancient empires were Zoroastrian, and so was Bobby. I wondered what Bobby must have felt as he strolled in the empty ruins. Did he yearn to see the ancient times when the Zoroastrian faith was dominant in the region? How did he imagine his past and identity?
In 1941, Japan raided Pearl Harbour and entered the war. This was followed by a swift, unhindered capture of Allied colonies in the Philippines, Malaysia, Dutch East India and Burma. The British Empire’s entire regiments and battalion surrendered; nearly 80,000 capitulated at the Fall of Singapore in 1942. As Japan started to knock on the eastern gates of India, the British Empire found itself in a predicament. Karnad highlights this: “Rarely had any army been entrusted with so much, while being distrusted so much. Old hands continued to believe that native battalions should remain with their relic equipment, ‘dumb’ troops with basic weapons, no armour and no field guns. Chief among them was Churchill, who warned India’s commander that they were ‘creating a Frankenstein by putting modern weapons in the hands of sepoys.’”
Against this blatant criticism, many in the military’s higher echelons were arguing that India was the hub which was contributing not just two million soldiers, but its factories were also churning out resources needed at the war front. So much so that Alan Brooke, the chief of the imperial general staff, said, “I believe that we can still hold India without the Middle East, but we cannot for long hold the Middle East without India.”
A new and modernised 5th Division was pitched against the Japanese forces invading India through Burma and Assam. At the same time, the British were following a scorched earth policy — destroying all crops, animals and water resources in Bengal to halt the Japanese advance. Karnad writes, “At a meeting of his war cabinet, Churchill declared his view that only those Indians directly contributing to the war effort needed to be fed.” This resulted in the infamous Bengal Famine in which three million people perished.
To counter the Japanese army’s zealotry, the British army had their propaganda. Karnad writes, “‘The [Japanese man] is a fanatic,’ who, one pamphlet explained, should be regarded as ‘a menace until he is dead’ …. Two years into the war, the total number of Japanese soldiers taken into Allied capacity alive was still in two digits.”
It is strange to note that the captured Indian troops during the Japanese exploits in East Asia were re-engineered under the guidance of renowned Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose. This unit of 40,000 Indian troops who fought for Japan were called the Indian National Army. And here lies another paradox: Indians fought alongside the Japanese for the liberation of India, and Indians who fought for the British hoped that India would be given independence after the war.
The ensuing Indian campaign was gory: the Japanese were forced to divert their strength from the Pacific Ocean theatre (against the US) towards the India-Burma theatre, resulting in simultaneous and crushing defeats on both ends. History remembered the Battle of Berlin, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of El-Alamein, but in the annals, the contributions of the 5th Division were not celebrated nor remembered with vigour; the 5th Division became the ‘Forgotten Army’. Karnad writes, “India’s part in the World War is absent from its own history ... The lives and deaths of those who fought in it are stories mislaid, and which now, seven decades later, are about to be lost forever.” This applies to Pakistan as well.
Kanrad carves words sodden with misery; “When the slaughter of whites by whites was over, who among them would remember the black men they sent running and shooting in the jungle? … Those who had fallen like Manek and Ganny had fallen in the middle, and Bobby felt himself wanting to fall too.” And at the end of the war Bobby died an unheroic death in the Burmese jungle — drunk, he accidently blew his own head off.
This book is easy to read and also stands unique, a remnant of history that has been reincarnated. I must also say some words of praise about the book’s jacket: it has an orange base, and two-thirds of the cover is dedicated to the title and news bulletins in Urdu from WWII, while the remaining space has three photographs of Bobby, Manek and Ganny. Their faces are effervescent with youth, hopes and dreams.
As you read the book and learn of the stygian fate that awaits the three boys, you look into their eyes with despair and sadness. Each time you close the book, the faces frustrate you, and to a degree, frighten you. They remind me of a morbid scene from the Ridley Scott movie Kingdom of Heaven. Orlando Bloom, depicting Balian of Ibelin, looks at a frieze where skeletons stand holding hands. Next to the skeletons there is a Latin phrase painted on the wall: “Quod sumus hoc eritis” — “Such as we are, you will be”.
Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War
By Raghu Karnad
W.W. Norton & Company, US