Farthest Field, by Raghu Karnad

The title of Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War doesn’t refer to the battles he recounts on India’s North-West and North-East frontiers, far from the European countries most people (including the author before he researched the book) think of as central to World War II. And it doesn’t refer to the deaths that await the three young men of his family who inspired the book. It refers, as he explains, to a “second death” people have

at the end of the memory of their lives, when all who remember them are gone. Then a person quits the world completely.

Farthest Field, then, is an act of reclamation, and one Karnad knows he is undertaking almost too late, at the limits of living memory. His book reclaims the memories of his grandmother’s brother, husband, and brother-in-law, and of those like them who fought on “the wrong side of history,” serving in the British Indian Army just before independence, protecting the Empire even as they protected India:

We search for our present selves in the mirror we call history. Looking back to the height of the freedom movement, India wants to see itself united in a single struggle. In the autobiography of a new nation state, there was no place for an army that fought for the Empire in the very hour that its countrymen fought to be rid of it. . . . In the end, the annals of the West would prefer to forget the colonial factors, and the annals of the post-colonial world would forget the war effort: each found their narrative too unsettled by the other.

This is a short book, and Karnad doesn’t aim to cover all of India’s contributions to the war (it’s An Indian story, not The Indian story, in the subtitle). Instead, he focuses on the experiences of his relatives Bobby, Ganny and Manek, or those they could have heard about from the men they served with.

Not only did all of these men die during the war (though none in battle), but Karnad’s grandmother and other family members who knew them had died before he grew curious about their stories. So the book is an act of imaginative recreation–he interviews old friends or reads their memoirs, he digs up regimental diaries and histories. He tells us what people were thinking and feeling at various moments, but of course he can’t know. Karnad points out that while he is basing these reconstructions on fact,

Even what I have categorised as facts are often themselves a kind of fiction, reshaped and revised during their long storage as personal and institutional memories. . . . In general, their memories [those of elderly Indian veterans], like all memories, were smoothed and polished by time, as pebbles in a stream. Many of the claims of Army histories and memoirs may be just as unreliable: shaped by agenda, nostalgia and pride.

For the most part, I thought Karnad’s technique worked; his imaginings were plausible and I would forget that they describe things he can’t know for certain. At times (as when he has a group of jemadars recount a battle to Bobby as they sit around a fire smoking) the fictionality was too exposed–or was it? Those moments where I thought “Hang on a minute . . . ” were an important reminder that the book, thoroughly researched as it is, is also, like any history, an act of imagination. There’s never just one true version of events, or if there is, it’s unknowable.

Farthest Field is by turns intimate and sweeping; it covers the love stories of its characters, complex and chaotic troop movements, and days of intense battle. It’s often intimate in its battle scenes, too: you’re sweaty and terrified and down in the trenches or exposed to enemy fire on a mountain road with Bobby and his sappers.

This was another book that made me think about audience. The questions Karnad raises about what and who “we” would rather forget are questions for both Indian and Western readers, although we may, as he demonstrates, be forgetting the same things for different reasons. I appreciated his complex and sympathetic view of the forgetting, even as he insists we remember. Farthest Field might appeal to war buffs and fill in some gaps in their knowledge, but it has plenty to offer the rest of us too, wherever we’re reading from.

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7 Responses to Farthest Field, by Raghu Karnad

  1. Janine Ballard says:

    This book sounds really interesting. There are frontiers of World War II (and for that matter, World War I) that aren’t much written about in the US. But the part of your review that spoke to me the most was this one:

    “Not only did all of these men die during the war (though none in battle), but Karnad’s grandmother and other family members who knew them had died before he grew curious about their stories. So the book is an act of imaginative recreation–he interviews old friends or reads their memoirs, he digs up regimental diaries and histories. He tells us what people were thinking and feeling at various moments, but of course he can’t know.”

    I find that so sad, and yet inspiring, too — sad that the men and those who knew them are gone forever, and inspiring that he would try to recreate them in his mind, to glean all that he can about them and imagine them on the page, so that they might live again, at least for him and perhaps also for his readers.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Everything I quoted in my review was from the introduction or epilogue, places where he talks about why and how he wrote the story, so obviously that intrigued me too. I don’t mean to diminish the book by saying this, but to some extent the actual story is familiar–we have read about war before, although of course all stories about war also have elements peculiar to these people in this situation, and Karnad’s does too. But his point about how certain kinds of stories get forgotten really made me think.

      He also talks about the idea that history is written by the victors, and asks “which victors”? Indians who fought for the British army “won” the war, but they also “lost.” They were not, at least at that point, the ones on the side of independence. After the war, the brigade Karnad writes about was sent off to Malaysia to put down “rebels”–in other words, to help recolonize fellow brown people–because the terms of the peace were that all the European powers would keep their former colonies, no matter what the colonies might think about that. (Of course it didn’t work out that way, in part because the Japanese had helped inspire rebellion with their anti-Ally propaganda and had left behind a lot of equipment that made anti-colonial forces more equal to European ones).

      The book also made me think about the “forgotten” war stories in my own family. My grandfather did some kind of intelligence work but he never talked about it, and only went to a reunion of his unit for the first time very late in his life. His brother was supposedly killed in a friendly fire accident, and only much later, when I was an adult, did my grandparents tell the true story, that he committed suicide.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        I thought about my family members who died in the war. Like Karnad, I never got curious about them until those who knew them were gone. I wonder if this is commonplace? I also thought about Daniel Mendelsohn’s nonfiction book The Lost, which I have not read but would like to (though I fear it could be triggering). Mendelsohn also did not get curious about the late uncle he apparently resembled until all his family members who knew the uncle had passed away.

  2. KeiraSoleore says:

    The plight of people from the colonies fighting on the side of the British as lowly soldiers, and dying in large numbers, is a story that’s rarely told in British accounts of WWII stories and history books. I follow one very well respected historian on Twitter, who has made it his mission to tweet about these forgotten brave men. He tweets pictures and brief snippets of history, and I have deep respect for his giving voice to the voiceless, the forgotten.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That sounds like a great project! I think what struck me the most here is how India wants to forget these soldiers too (although I see why). That Britain would overlook them is more expected, although wrong, of course.

  3. Sunita says:

    Thanks so much for this review. I’ve been curious about it ever since Ramachandra Guha (I think he was the one) tweeted out a link. I don’t always love these “reimaginings” that straddle the line between historical nonfiction, memoir, and fiction (and yes I know the lines get blurry), but this sounds like one that will work for me.

    My aunts, uncles, and grandparents were firmly on the independence side and participated in the Quit India campaign in various capacities (my father was too young), but I’ve spent a lot of time reading the Government of India’s correspondence with the India Office during this period, and I’ve come to have quite a bit of sympathy for the British who were governing India while all of Europe and so much of Asia was under threat. They knew it was important to keep governing but they chafed at being away from the theaters of action. So there is a somewhat odd symmetry in ambivalence; from very different roots, obviously, but still it’s there.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think the reason this (mostly) worked for me is that he was so clear at the beginning about what he was imagining and why–and also that he reminded us that at this distance, and in these circumstances, memories and “facts” can be almost equally acts of the imagination.

      I think he does have an agenda, in wanting to reclaim attention and some respect for those like his relatives who didn’t initially choose the side of independence. But the book doesn’t feel really polemical; he captures the complexities of the time and he’s certainly not condemning anyone who made different choices. If you do read it, I look forward to hearing what you think.

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