Matthew Price, writer and book critic
India’s Second World War
By Matthew Price. The National, July 9, 2015

Almost 70 years to the day after the end of the Second World War, you wouldn’t think there is much left to be said about a conflict whose bibliography expands exponentially by the year. Every publishing season brings new books about familiar stories: D-Day, Dunkirk, Pearl Harbor, Occupied France, the war in the Pacific and other familiar theatres of the fighting. But many important histories remain to be assimilated to the full story of the Second World War.

These two excellent books highlight the story of India’s role in the conflict, a curiously neglected topic that in recent years has been getting a much-needed look from historians. Yasmin Khan’s The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War, offers a big picture account, flecked with minute sociological detail, of both Indians on the home front and Indian soldiers on the battlefield, showing how the war transformed nearly every part of Indian society. Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field: A Story of India’s Second World War is a more personal, literary take on the subject, and chronicles the wartime journeys of his grandfather, an officer in the Bengal Sappers, and his extended family.

The trajectories of nationalism in South Asia have left little room for memories for a war that actually hastened India and Pakistan’s emergence as nation-states. Both authors want to restore the war to a more central place in South Asian history, and address its awkward fit in the post-colonial narratives of contemporary South Asia.

The bloody turmoil of partition and its fractious legacies have overshadowed the years between 1939 and 1945; yet the passage to freedom is inextricably linked to this period. What some historians call the Great Asian War, an epic confrontation that pitted the British Empire against the Japanese in a battle zone that extended from India’s eastern flanks in Assam, across Burma, and down into the Malaysian peninsula to Singapore, dramatically accelerated the end of Britain’s rule in India. The British defeated the Japanese, but at a cost - both literally, in terms of capital, and symbolically, in terms of prestige - fatal to its legitimacy.

Khan provides a sweeping if dry account of how war came to India’s doorstep. She favours cautious qualifications to bold statements and covers such a multitude of topics - the experiences of Indian merchant sailors; the building of roads and aerodromes; the plight of Indian POWs; the experiences of American troops based in India - that her book reads more like a series of monographs stitched together than a propulsive narrative. But her attention to ordinary men and women, labourers, sepoys, coolies, factotums in the giant machinery of war, give her book a powerful depth and resonance.

The war would come slowly to India. For many, it was a distant and remote European conflict. But by 1940, about 200,000 soldiers were enlisting a month. The Indian Army would provide the backbone of Britain’s East Asian forces and fought in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe: by the end of the war, the force would number two million men, the largest volunteer army in history.

The traditional recruiting ground of the Punjab would provide the highest percentage of troops, though volunteers would come from nearly every province. Khan is good on how army life afforded sepoys more economic freedom - soldiering put money in their pocket - and on the expansion of Indian officer class. Industry also geared up, as workers flocked to the factories of Bombay and Calcutta, turning out the materiel of war.

The year 1942 would mark the catastrophic turning point of the conflict in British Asia, and brought the fighting to India’s doorstep: “The war was no longer in far distant Europe. It had come right to the borders, forests, and beaches of the state.” The Japanese thrust into Malaysia, the fall of Singapore, and then Burma, were shattering setbacks for the Raj. The vast commercial Indian diaspora in Burma - Chettiar traders, coolies, Tamil rice paddy workers, Muslim merchants - suffered immensely as they fled across muddy mountain passes into Assam; thousands died from cholera, dysentery, malaria and worse. Emaciated survivors arrived covered in insect bites and ragged clothing.

Rumours circulated of whites-only lines; those with connections took steamers from Rangoon as poor labourers were forced to walk. An enraged Gandhi denounced the chaos: “India is being ground down to dust and humiliated,” he fumed. The loss to British prestige was immense. The Raj promised stability and security to those it ruled over, and could not deliver either. The fiasco was a precipitating factor in the Quit India movement, which erupted later that year, and prompted the arrest of Gandhi, Nehru and other nationalist leaders.

Worse was to come. Bengal suffered the effects of a scorched earth policy prompted by fears of Japanese invasion. Thus began the chain of events - government mismanagement was a chief culprit - that would lead to widespread famine in 1943.

About three million people would die; starving families roamed the streets of Calcutta, dying in silence as nightclubs throbbed.

Soldiers on various fronts received alarming letters from home. “What is the use of coming on leave to starve,” one lamented. A wife wrote to her husband: “People have no food to live on and no cloth to cover themselves with. It is beyond imagination and unique in the history of mankind.” Khan’s restrained account lets the horrid clarity of the facts speak for themselves. The death toll, she argues, should be included in the tally of all Second World War deaths, “much as the casualties of Stalingrad and Hiroshima have become part of global war histories”.

Yet the centre managed to hold; the Indian army surged in enrolment and was retooled to fight the Japanese in Burma. Karnad’s Farthest Field offers a beautiful, intimate counterpoint to Khan’s comprehensive treatment. In charged, highly poetic language, Karnad traces the wartime journeys of his grandfather, Godrej Khodad Mugaseth aka “Bobby.” The only son of a prosperous Parsi family from the Malabar Coast, Bobby joins the army as a road-building engineer in the Bengal Sappers; his sister married a pilot in the Indian Air Force.

The British Tommy and the American GI have been commemorated, if not fetishised; not so the Indian soldier who fought for the British Empire. Karnad wants to save Bobby and his fellow soldiers from historical oblivion. “People have two deaths: the first at the end of their lives, when they go away, and the second when all who remember them are gone. Then a person quits the world completely.”

Karnad is battling the passage of time, and the passing of generations, but his work is a stunning work of recovery and commemoration. As we follow Bobby and his company of Bengal Sappers, part of the Fifth Indian Division, the war comes into a brutal focus. Bobby does not see much action until he is deployed to the Burmese-Assam front, site of the epic battles of Imphal and Kohima in 1944. Here, Indian fought Indian, as the units of the Japanese-allied Indian National Army fought soldiers of the Raj. The muddy, rain-soaked bug-infested malarial mountains were hellish, yet “the sappers pressed on, splitting through hardwood and hillside, using explosives, earth-movers and teams of pick-and-shovel”. Karnad’s writing reaches a highly moving pitch in these sections that evoke a nightmare world of combat.

Though Farthest Field is non-fiction, Karnad says he wanted to write a novel, and it shows. When Bobby takes sick, he looks out of a window from a hospital ward, watching “taut cables turn slack and bowed by the rain. Every length glistened with water, and dripped in perfect order and time, like men on the march. Each drop, advancing down its narrow black road, grew from an intrepid bulge to a shining half-pearl. Then it reached the bottom of its arc, and cut, and fell - a hundred a minute, from a hundred cables, in identical discipline.” It’s a beautiful metaphor for individuals, like Bobby, massing into companies, regiments, divisions.

Reflecting, at the end of his book, on the “forgotten armies” of India and South East Asia during the Second World War, Karnad laments there isn’t more widespread consideration in India for “the brown men inexplicably saluting the Union Jack”. Both authors have brought undeservedly obscure histories into a powerful and startling light.


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