Farthest Field: A piece of Indian history that is hardly known

  • Smitha TK, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jul 16, 2015 18:29 IST
Raghu Karnad's book is an insight into what Indian Army stood for during the nationalist stuggle, a period when the national mood was against the British Empire. (Twitter/ @rkarnad)

I knew him only as a face on a silver frame photo. . .

When he spent all his childhood looking at those photo frames in his house, little did Raghu Karnad know that there was such a huge story hidden, buried.

The novel Farthest Field by Raghu Karnad is an attempt to tell the story of India during a period which is less known. He describes the book not as something of historical significance but as something that will inform Indians of a saga that they need to be proud of, that which will profoundly alter every person's perception of the Indian Army.'

Many would argue that nowadays a lot is being written, rather unravelled about the unwritten, the marginalised, the lesser known or the facts that defy the most popular notions that have been masked or altered in the due course of our long association with the West.

You can say Indian history is making a comeback.

Karnad said during his book launch at the British Council that this book would show how discipline, and not patriotism, is the most remarkable aspect about the Indian army.

Growing up in his grandmother's home in Chennai, the faded silver framed photographs of three unknown men hanging on the wall never really piqued journalist Raghu Karnad's interest.

His interest in their lives was aroused when he discovered that the men, one of them his grandmother's brother and the others his great-uncles, had enlisted to fight at the height of the Second World War for the British Empire, at a time when the national mood was against the British.

In an attempt to trace the history of these men, their motivations, their reasons and their lives, Karnad embarked upon a private quest which went through the river Couum in Chennai, a pier somewhere in the Calicut seafront to the hills of Kohima.

The novel is the story of Karnad's maternal grandfather, Kodandera Ganapathy (Ganny) who marries Nurgesh Mugaseth (Nugs), one of four siblings - three daughters (Subur, Nugs and Khorshed) and one son (Godrej, aka Bobby) - from a prosperous industrial Parsi family based in Calicut, Kerala. Khorshed ("Kosh") marries a handsome daredevil, Manek Dadabhoy. Karnad's book is the story of these three friends, Ganny, Bobby and Manek.

Ganny, a doctor, is recruited by the Indian Medical Service and sent to the Combined Military Hospital in Thal in July 1942. Within five months, he is dead, from asthmatic bronchitis, not alive to even see the birth of his daughter. Unlike Manek, Bobby is dispatched in April 1943 to the North-East Frontier to fly over Burma and locate the guerrilla infiltrators who had been sent to ambush Japanese patrols and blow up railway lines. He dies inside Indian lines in May 1943, when his plane came down while returning to base through thick monsoon cloud.

Bobby, an engineer, joins the Bengal Sappers under the 161st Indian Infantry Brigade. More than a year after his commission, Bobby, is sent to the dreaded North-East Frontier as the army plans a full offensive against the Japanese to prevent their entry into India.

Karnad's recreation of the era is new and imaginative. However, there are areas in the book which are overloaded with facts, that it becomes difficult to enjoy his style of writing because now the reader is busy figuring out the meaning of that sentence.

Karnad very precisely describes the life of a 'martyr' - every person has two deaths: first when he dies, then again when everyone who remembers him is gone. In the case of the WWII Indian soldier, history wrote him out in the first instance itself.

The author traces out the personal lives of his three protagonists in an attempt to reveal the bigger story of millions of faceless Indian soldiers who fought for the Raj, all as part of winning our country back.

Retired Squadron leader and Secretary and Editor of the Centre of Armed Forces Historical Research Rana T S China, who chaired the book launch was all praise for Karnad's attempt in showing what the army really stood for during the nationalist struggle, 'The soldiers fought for naam, namak and nishaan. Nation and patriotism are just abstract terms. And highly politicised. The Indian army should not be that in any way.'

These soldiers left behind a legacy that has gone unnoticed and forgotten by a nation, which is now quick to label them as mere mercenaries, agents of the British Raj.

Karthika V K, Editor in chief of Harper Collins Publisher India who was also appreciative of Karnad's writing said, ''Why haven't I ever thought of it like that? Why haven't I ever wanted to know the Indian story? I never knew about the Madras which was digging trenches and writing for the Japs.''

Farthest Field brings out the motivations of thousands of soldiers who took part in the war; for some it was a question of loyalty to their princely states, for others, it was a chance to be in a postion of authority and respect.

Karnad jokes about how though he wrote about Iyengars fighting in the war, he found it quite amusing to imagine them getting all violent on the war field.

Karnad's effort to coherently weave such a complex network of marshals, orders, locations and characters through a fast-paced narrative shows immense imagination.

Karnad's presentation of the military is heart-racing and would be a sure lover among ardent action thriller readers. His poetical metaphors like the "mineral sea of Waziristan" or the description of a river as "a twist of green silk scarf" is a pleasure to read.

Many argue that when an author writes a good book, he inevitably gets involved with the story on a personal level. Sometimes the novel shows Karnad's involvement with the characters on an intimate level which becomes a little bit of interference.

You could say Farthest Field is an eloquent and intelligent presentation of a piece of Indian history that is so less known.

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