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.