Book Review: Farthest Field by Raghu Karnad

By Atharva Pandit


The story of India’s involvement in the Second World War is a story untold, so that its history — and in one sense India’s collective history — has “remained unopened and unknown, until it rotted”. Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, the Iranian novelist, meant those words for Iran, but they are universal, and Raghu Karnad has recognized them to be so, pulling this vital bit of history out of its rot. In Farthest Field, Karnad has dusted this history up for us, and presented it to us in a better form than perhaps anybody else would have, in part because this is also his personal history.

We don’t know of the exact moment the war came to India, or rather the exact moment when the Indians realized that the Panzers and the Heinkels might land up at their doorsteps, but Karnad tells us, in the very first sentence, that the news of the war reached Calicut “along with the morning eggs”. And then:

“Perhaps that isn’t true at all. Perhaps it’s only true that the price of the eggs was the first the Calicut Parsis saw of the costs of war; the first of many. Maybe they remembered what happened to the price of the eggs, even years and years later, because they wanted to forget what happened to the boys.”

And what happened to the boys? That is precisely the story, along with the story of India’s involvement in WW2, that Farthest Field wants to tell, and it’s a vast story with little documentation, which is one of the reasons why readers instantly believe in the capacity of this book to inform.

And inform it does, but Karnad never lets his gaze waver from the fact that this is a monumental and vast history he is informing us about, and while that is not necessarily a bad thing, he then tries to wed that vastness to the epic, and in that he fails. The epic is instilled within the words Karnad uses to describe the various emotions and events in his characters’ lives, so that an air patrol over the Frontier becomes patrolling over slopes which “graded from the rule of brown to disobedient shades of purple, ferrous orange and powder blue” while the outcrops cast “flat black sails of shadow pointing east, east and east in the afternoon light”. There is a feeling that Karnad might have wanted to write a novel and it would have been one fine novel — but he ended up writing a book of non-fiction strangely resembling a prose poem, at least in parts.

There is no doubt about the fact that it feels lucid to read, and nobody is demanding of Farthest Field a scholarly study, but it could very well have been a book in the tradition of Philip Gourevitch or Amin Maalouf, which is to say a book that informs without entangling itself too much into the beauty of language. But then, that Karnad does not write in the tradition of these writers should be a good thing, as it in fact is, because the tradition in which he writes — “forensic non-fiction” — is entirely of his own making, where he writes of a character putting the right foot forward first for luck without having any way of knowing whether she actually did. It provides the unique feeling of being in two places at the same time — read it like a novel or a factual account, the choice is yours.

The language Karnad applies is dense, and it oscillates between military jargon and prose, thus evoking the frenzy of the war, the war entering into the heartland of the Empire, and “not from the direction anybody had anticipated” — that is, from Japan, and in southern India, from where this story takes off in the first place. It is India’s story as much as it is of Karnad’s ancestor’s — The Parsi bourgeois community, “pale as scalps, mad as coots, noses like commas on the page.” It is from the Parsis, and their familial ties, their romances and marriages and their dreams and youthful escapades that the three protagonists of the story emerge: Bobby is the youngest, and a typical menace, although his brashness speaks for his courage; Manek seems irresponsible but talented and ambitious all the same, which is evident when he gets himself admitted into the Indian Air Force and then is posted at the Frontier; Ganny, meanwhile, removed from the community by birth but tied to it by love — he marries Nurgesh, or Nugs, Bobby’s sister — is an army doctor who knows and accepts his business, albeit forcefully.

The stories of the three brothers-in-laws turned brothers-in-arms would take them to theaters across the world, where war raged like it never had, and where history was being carved as much by European guns as by the Indians who held them. And there were many, the Indians, and so were the stories of their sacrifices and contributions, and not always necessarily by the barrel of the gun. There was courage, of course, and determination, coupled with some luck — as in the story of Asanandan Singh, who, not without some amount of daring, forced “scores of men, Abyssinians and Italian officers” to surrender at the tip of a walking stick that, in fading light, assumed the form of a sub-machine gun:

“Without any noise, he slipped down to the level of the culvert, squeezed his eyes shut for a second, and swung himself around to stand before it.

His eyes opened and he could see down the tunnel. Two rows of men stared back from within. His figure blocked their exit, visible only as a dark silhouette with the light behind it, holding what looked like a sub-machine gun at the level of his chest. He was screaming in a language they did not know, Drop your weapons! Drop your weapons! His voice flooded the tunnel, so none could make out their superior’s orders. They dropped their rifles.”

The humor of the episode is not lost, but neither is the seriousness of the courage Singh showed as he pointed a walking stick at an enemy carrying a sophisticated gun, the opening up of which would have peppered the sapper’s body with countless bullet holes.

A quick Google search on Asanandan, however, would suggest other names to you, implying that you didn’t mean that name whose story is lodged into the confines of a seven-decade-old history. The little information about Singh on Forces War Records could be accessed only by paying, which only laminates the importance of a book like Farthest Field. It is an account of the “largest volunteer army in history” as much it is of the individuals forming that army, individuals whose stories have been lost to the nation which bore them, let alone then to the world.

It is not as if the Indian involvement has been completely hidden from the present, though. Amitav Ghosh, the novelist, posted pages from A Doctor in the Army, a memoir by Satyen Basu, on his blog in 2012. The memoir, Ghosh informs us, was published privately in 1960 in Calcutta, and is an account of Basu’s experiences in the Middle East and North Africa, where he served as a doctor with the Indian Medical Service (IMS). Basu’s profession is Ganny’s, but his location is Bobby’s. Similar is the story of Kalyan Mukherji, who however is separated from the stories of Doctor Basu, Ganny and Bobby by over three decades and one world war — also a part of the IMS, Mukherji served in Mesopotamia from 1915 to 1917, where he died of a fever in a Turkish POW camp. His story was chronicled by his maternal grandmother, Mokkhoda Debi in her book Kalyan Pradeep, passages from which were, again, used by Ghosh in his essay on the book.

Ghosh has turned his attention to the war before, on its Eastern front in his novel The Glass Palace, but it did not concern itself explicitly with the involvement of Indian soldiers, which of course was not the purpose of the book in any case. However, another writer, Manoj Kumar Panda, did write about a soldier in his short story “A Letter from Mesopotamia”, collected in the recently translated One Thousand Days in a Refrigerator. The story, like much of the collection, is sad, but so far as our subject is concerned, it provides a fascinating account of the bewilderment of the families of soldiers launched far away into the world to fight a war neither of their making, nor theirs to fight.

And hence Farthest Field. The book is documentation as much as it is literature. Divided into three parts, it jumps from Home – Calicut, Madras, Roorkee to West – Baghdad, Libya, El Alamein and on to East – Imphal, Calcutta, Kohima. Farthest Field, therefore, is a fitting tribute to Bobby especially, for Bobby, we are told, is lured more by the first word of world war than the second, and the book chronicling his story globe-trots a world torn by such violence never to be seen again. It is not an easy read, especially initially when the nicknames of the characters are hard to remember, but the fact that it is difficult for us to remember the nicknames more than their journeys into various battlefields could itself serve as a testament to Karnad’s talent at turning a massive historical labyrinth into a page-turner.

Farthest Field could be a novel or it could be innovative non-fiction, but eventually it doesn’t matter, because more than anything else it is a compelling, exhaustive and brilliant account of a history Karnad is not willing to let rot.

The reviewer is a student, currently pursuing his Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics at Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai.