Farthest Field by Raghu Karnad: A book review and unknown history of Indian Soldiers in world wars

I have a special affinity for war-based books of both fiction and nonfiction genres. When we talk about world wars, there is a hefty amount of literature that breaks down events hours by hours. But most of these books are written from the point of view of the western world, mainly historians of the UK and the US. It is rare that we come across books that shed light on the lives of Indian soldiers who participated in these wars. They fought alongside the ‘white superior soldiers’ to defend both foreign lands of France, Singapore, and their own frontiers and seas. Yet their contributions and stories are almost hidden from the eyes of the majority of Indians due to lack of documentation. The pieces of information, although present, are scattered in pieces, noted under the heading of official data or mentioned collaterally along with the national movements. This book fills that very gap of history, sharing the stories of a handful of men and their families who played their roles in defending the country. These stories are one of the countless ones lost in time.

The stories of Bobby, Ganny and others are examples of how ordinary men change with situations. Once known for their carefree and soft nature, they turn into brave officers. The fact that these people often get lost in obscurity due to lack of interest and ignorance can be felt in the prologue. As we delve deeper into the book we find how the author explored the caste and race played important roles in the lives of people be it a civilian or a high-ranking official. In one event it mentioned how native soldiers weren’t allowed to enjoy the benefit of electricity even if they hold the ability to pay it. The reason? Of course, the sense of racial superiority in the mind of light-skinned British officers! As the armed forces were getting more Indianized due to various logistical and administrative reasons the tensions between the two groups became much more evident and pronounced. While in another chapter he shared how even after serving for 17years how one didn’t get a promotion because of the very caste-based system of armed forces. The caste-based regiments still exist with all their pride and glory in the Indian army as Mahar regiment, Jat regiment, and so on.

“The constitution of the army of India was all precise ethnic formulae, designed to hold its groups and identities in balance. By design, the men of its ranks only served in regiments with others of their own faith and province, which allowed ‘that Sikh might fire into Hindu, Gurkha into either, without any scruple in case of need.”

Oftentimes while reading the book it felt a bit dry but that’s how life often is. To expect that there will be high-pitched drama and to search that in an otherwise part memoir, part nonfiction war essay-book is wrong. The writing is in a retrospective manner rather than noting down a contemporary event and the subtle writing style made the read easier and more impactful. The purpose of military history books is not only to talk about guns blazing but more on how the events unfolded and talk about the process. When we read about the world wars, it is mostly about how British forces destroyed axis powers in the wars, but who are these men that fight for the crown? That unheard stories of unsung heroes finally find their mention in Raghu Karnad’s book. The participation of Indians in a foreign war is in itself due to the culmination of various events ranging from poverty, proving loyalty, and gaining stability in life from a job that promised it. The narrative style moves back and forth just like the human mind oscillating constantly between present times and reminiscing past memories makes it a wholesome reading experience.


We as a society should talk about these lives. Not as an obscure part of our history but of bravery, where they dodged bullets and racial attacks too. Commoners saw them with respect but the soldiers knew the internal struggles of the forces. They worked on foreign land and were promised nothing, not even survival. These stories deserve to be heard. History should fill its gaps with these stories and not propaganda.


ABOUT THE BOOK

In riveting prose, Raghu Karnad retrieves the story of a single family - a story of love, rebellion, loyalty, and uncertainty - and with it, the greater revelation that is India's Second World War. Farthest Field narrates the lost epic of India's war, in which the largest volunteer army in history fought for the British Empire, even as its countrymen fought to be free of it. It carries us from Madras to Peshawar, Egypt to Burma - unfolding the saga of a young family amazed by their swiftly changing world, and swept up in its violence.


Farthest field by Raghu Karnad and published by 4th state. To get your copy buy here.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Raghu Karnad is an Indian journalist and writer, and a recipient of the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize for Non-Fiction. He is the author of Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War which was shortlisted for the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for 2016, and was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for a writer in English the same year. His articles and essays have won international awards including the Lorenzo Natali Journalism Prize in 2008, the Press Institute of India National Award for Reporting on the Victims of Armed Conflict in 2008, and a prize from the inaugural Financial Times-Bodley Head Essay Competition in 2012.










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