Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War by Raghu Karnad; The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War by Yasmin Khan - review by John Keay

John Keay

Reluctant Allies

Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War


William Collins 300pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War


The Bodley Head 416pp £25 order from our bookshop

Seventy years after the guns fell silent, India’s part in the Second World War is finally receiving the attention it deserves. The two million Indian combatants (according to Raghu Karnad) – or the two and a half million (according to Yasmin Khan) – comprised the largest volunteer army in the world. They pushed the Italians from the rocky heights of Eritrea, trudged back and forth through the minefields of North Africa, quelled an insurgency in Iraq, and in the ‘Forgotten War’ for Burma suffered heavier casualties than all the other Allies combined. Nor were civilians spared. Cities such as Calcutta and Vishakhapatnam were bombed, ships were sunk and dockyards were shelled. In 1942 some 80,000 Indians perished in the chaotic exodus from Burma and in 1943 several millions starved to death in the war-induced famine in Bengal. Acts of bravery were applauded, medals were won and loved ones were lost. There is much to record. But if the wartime sacrifice has seldom been recognised, it is because so many Indians were ambivalent about the cause they were serving. After all, it was not their war: they hadn’t been consulted about it and they objected to dying for an empire they were trying to get shot of.

As Karnad puts it, Nehru, like most of his colleagues in the mainstream Congress party, ‘could not accept that Indian soldiers would die for the freedom of a nation which denied that very freedom to India’. Congress’s heroes were not the two million ‘mercenaries’ of Britain’s Indian army but the 43,000 patriotic men and women of the Japanese-sponsored Indian National Army, led by the strutting Subhas Chandra Bose. In the postwar British show trial of these so-called ‘defectors’, Nehru himself led for the defence. Theirs are the names that independent India now reveres, while the many who died for a king and country they could hardly call their own would be remembered by their comrades and grieved by their families, but signally forgotten by their nation. They deserve better, and both Karnad’s Farthest Field and Khan’s The Raj at War do much to set the record straight.

It’s not unusual on finishing a particularly striking book to turn to the beginning and start again. In the case of Farthest Field, resisting the narrative pull, I turned back at page 65. It was not because the dazzle of Karnad’s imagery had obscured some vital piece of information or compounded his jumble of nicknames and proper names, though this is not the sort of book you want interrupted by uncertainties. It was simply because I wanted to savour his prose. That this is Karnad’s first book just goes to show that well-crafted writing needs no authorial pedigree. By paying respectful homage to an undistinguished few, Karnad illuminates brilliantly the ‘so much owed by so many’.

Karnad tells the story of his great-uncle, a Parsi called Bobby Mugaseth, and of the young men, one of them Karnad’s grandfather, whom two of Bobby’s sisters married. Karnad knew them only as framed photographs. All of them died during the war; no surviving relative remembered them. Could they be brought back to life through the archival techniques of ‘forensic non-fiction’? Could ‘live flesh [be] drawn over skeletons rebuilt from scattered bones’?

People have two deaths: the first at the end of their lives, when they go away, and the second at the end of the memory of their lives, when all who remember them are gone … Usually the war dead are remembered best of all, killed more easily than they are forgotten. But sometimes even countries try to forget their wars, and the second death, of the idea of you, closes in.

Death is a field from which no one returns. The second death is the farthest field of all. That was where I found Bobby, trying to cross.

Neither Bobby nor his brothers-in-law were destined for fame. Karnad’s grandfather joined the Indian Medical Service and died of bronchitis in a comfortless mud fort on the North West Frontier in the winter of 1942, at a time when disease and displacement were claiming as many lives as gunfire. Manek, Bobby’s other brother-in-law, joined the Indian Air Force as a fighter pilot and flew into a mountainside in Manipur in May 1943. The telegram mentioned low cloud and poor visibility and thanked the family for its sacrifice. ‘That was it. It was no enemy’s doing, and no one’s responsibility. Manek had just slipped from God’s palm, and gone.’

Meanwhile Bobby himself, one of the first Indians to receive a commission in the Bengal Sappers, marked time at a training camp in Roorkee, then in a supply depot at Latifiya in Iraq. There he made friends with a British officer and was regaled with stories of Indian heroics in Eritrea and North Africa. Endearingly diffident yet somewhat impulsive, he wondered if his experience of the war would ever be other than vicarious. Then came the order to join the defence of India against the Japanese on the Burmese frontier. A year of jungle hell in
Arakan, at Kohima and on the dreaded Tiddim Road followed. Bobby built bridges and blasted roads while withering from malaria and losing touch with reality. Every day he diced with death. When death came, it was from his own revolver. Some said that it was an accident, some that it was the folly of Russian roulette. Karnad supposes suicide. Bobby had glimpsed ‘the farthest field, and he determined to cross’.

‘He lived as he died, everybody’s friend’, reads his epitaph in the Imphal cemetery. The phrasing may be boilerplate stuff, but at least Bobby has an epitaph. ‘When it comes to remembering the Indians who served in the Second World War, nobody could do less than India itself,’ notes Karnad.

Much the same point is made by Khan in her masterly The Raj at War. Khan’s study provides a stern context for Karnad’s affectionate quest. Her net is wider, embracing as much social and economic history as military history, and its mesh is finer, snaring the wartime activities of everyone from profiteers and expatriates to peasants and mill-hands. India’s ‘volunteer army’, like its handsome contribution to the war fund, turns out not to have been entirely voluntary. Fundraising and recruitment were incentivised, and inducements to enlist were matched by the need for those thrown out of work by the war to find employment. On the other hand, it was thanks to the empire loyalty of men like Bobby and his brothers-in-arms that India emerged from the war in comparatively good shape. The so-called ‘sterling balance’ – the funds accrued by India in London during the course of the war – would substantially bankroll the costs of Partition and independence for both India and Pakistan.

Khan, the author of an excellent work on Partition, rightly emphasises how the war made independence inevitable by changing the whole political relationship between Britain and its imperial subjects. The decision in 1942 to evacuate non-Indian residents from Burma and leave the vast Indian community there to find its own way to safety displayed blatant discrimination and would never be forgiven. In what Khan calls ‘the largest migration in history’, over half a million defenceless men, women and children were abandoned to the jungle and the Japanese. The emaciated survivors then clogged the roads and filled the hospitals of India itself. Britain’s betrayal became common knowledge. It unnerved Allied observers, inspired support for the ferocious Quit India Movement that followed, and obliged the British themselves to rethink their ideas of wartime partnership.

In terms of human suffering, the Bengal Famine was even worse. Neither Karnad nor Khan explores its causes in detail. Both, however, stress the disastrous effect of burning grain stocks and requisitioning river transport in order to deny them to the Japanese invader. Had there been an invasion, the end might have justified the means. But Kohima held out, the threat receded and perhaps three million Bengalis died of starvation at a time when the troops defending them enjoyed copious rations. Wartime priorities took precedence. Reports of the famine were few and the scale of the disaster went unappreciated until it was too late. Unlike India’s role in the war, the famine still awaits a single classic of ‘forensic non-fiction’, let alone two.

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