The handsome men staring out of the silver frames had always intrigued author Raghu Karnad as a child growing up in Chennai. His family history seemed interesting, after all his grandmother was a Parsi lady who had lived in Chennai a large part of her life. She in the author’s own words did keep a large house of staff guests and dogs a house from which no one was ever asked to leave. And thus though his grandmother had died long back the author embarks on a journey to find the story behind the men in the silver frames.
Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War by Raghu Karnad is a story not of valour or extreme courage. It is a story of war but not of war alone. This story also carries war with its idiosyncrasies, its futileness and most of all how history has conveniently forgotten those who perhaps deserved a better place. It is a story that takes over two continents and involves three men, all of them related, all of them serving the British imperial army and all of them embracing death in the end.
The story starts with the history of the Parsis of Calicut, how they were almost Anglo-Saxonic in their approach, how they differed from the rest of the natives be it in terms of food habits or in the texture of their skin. And to one such family of the Mugaseths was born three daughters (Subur, Nurgesh and Khorshed) and one son Bobby.
Through different circumstances and fate, Bobby and his two brothers-in-law Manek (Manek Dadabhoy who married Khorshed) and Ganny (Kodendera Ganapathy who married Nurgesh) found themselves in the British imperial army.
The occasion was World War 2 and the theatre spread across Singapore, Eritrea, Libya, El Alamein, Basra, Arakan, Imphal. Ganny, a doctor, is recruited by the Medical Corps during the war and is sent to the Military Hospital in Thal.
Within five months he dies due to bronchitis, he did not live to see his daughter born. Unlike Ganny, Manek sees real action in the war when he flies with the Royal Air Force and deputed to wreck havoc in the eastern front against the advancing Japanese. He dies inside Indian lines in May 1943 while his plane was returning to base in thick monsoon cloud.
Bobby, an engineer, joins the Bengal Sappers and is attached to the 161st Indian Infantry brigade. Bobby sees the war devouring his two brothers his friends and patiently waits for his own share of battle. And finally Bobby’s wish is granted. His regiment is ordered to fight in the Arakans, and then eventually airlifted to fight the final battle in Imphal.
And like a perfect novel it is towards the end that this book takes off a different pace. The pace describing the battle in Imphal is fantastic.
The book almost moves like a fast-paced thriller as the author takes us through the unknown terrain of the Naga and the Manipur hills. The heroic action of men who served under the British Imperial Army in the war on the eastern front was not about colonial masters but also about saving their own motherland from another foreign invasion.
The Allied victory in World War II is often seen in the context of the stand at Normandy. The author questions it because of the fact that Normandy was fought by white men. The war in Imphal and Dimapur was no less great when a few brown men and the Kent division held out attacks after attacks from Japanese soldiers coupled with the Indian National Army led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
These men showed extreme courage and should have been a part of the folkore of this great country. And it was in these battles and those final moments that Bobby took part in. He was not a knight in the shining armour but he was definitely a hero. The author in the end describes that death in the field from which no one returns. The second death is the farthest field of all. And it was from this field that Bobby seemed to be calling out. And it was from here that the author heard the uncle of his mother reaching out to him.
It was this war that changed the course of Indian history. The British Empire could never be the same again. The Indian Army was not an impoverished lot anymore but a modern military unit which went on to eventually become one of the greatest armies in the world today.
It produced new heroes — General Thimmaya (Thimmy) who was once considered unworthy by the British CO, air force officers Aspy Engineer and Arjan Singh who ruled the IAF between them in the 1960s. It is that part of history that still needs to be dusted off for in that we will find more heroes waiting to be unravlled. Farthest Field is a must read for it warrants a new look into history.
(The author works with the Indian
Revenue Service as an assistant commissioner
of Income Tax)
Book: Farthest Field: An Indian
Story of the Second World War; Author:
Raghu Karnad; Publisher: Fourth Estate; Pages: 320; Price: Rs 358