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.