Farthest Field : An Indian Story of the Second World War

2015 FarthestFieldFarthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War
by Raghu Karnad
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (August 24, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0393248097
ISBN-13: 978-0393248098 


OK, let’s be honest.  We wish we could claim that our interest in war stories stems from our deep personal engagement in the historic, social and economic issues that war usually influences and sometimes resolves.  But honesty compels us to admit that it probably started with less elevated schoolboy fascination with blood and thunder, developed (err … perhaps “developed” isn’t quite the right word?) by Commando Comics and Biggles-type Boys’ Own stories.

Beyond our small constituency, some may admit to interest in the subject, partly because soldiering continues, despite everything, to evoke a dim, incompletely understood, but largely sincere respect.  And also, because it remains a human pursuit in which Indians’ somewhat unlikely track record (like those in cricket and IT) is such that even seventy years’ neglect cannot obliterate it completely.

Into our reading lists bursts Farthest Field (HarperCollins, 320 pages), unmistakably a war story, but told in a way that draws crowds of new readers.  This is important, we understand; these are completely new acolytes, of a kind who would have turned collective noses up at Commando Comics.  But here they are listening, positively rapt, to stories from Keren in 1941 and Kohima in 1944 … And we are left with the slightly resentful feelings of dedicated small-group fans who used to follow an obscure band through one-night gigs in smoky dives, before they suddenly and meteorically shot to Grammy-level fame …

So, to get basics straight, Farthest Field follows the lives of Karnad’s grandfather, and two of his grandfather’s brothers-in-law, all three of whom served during the Second World War; one each in the Indian Army, the Indian Air Force, and the Indian Medical Service (the organization delivering medical services to the armed forces of India, which till the late 1930s was a separate military organization).  It ranges widely over the historic background, wonderfully captures the feel of the times, and delivers a masterful summary of the Indian contribution to WW2.

The book was heavily previewed, in the UK as much as India.  A related essay by Karnad won accolades from Simon Schama (author of Citizens, a fine book on the French Revolution) some three years ago; and there were advance reviews in prestigious publications before launch.  Praise has been almost universal, even from reviewers such as David Crane (author of Men of War, another thoughtful reflection on the place of warriors in civilised society) of the normally notoriously-niggardly-with-praise Spectator.  Sample these:

The Spectator:  “… cricket was a game invented by the English and played by Indians, and every so often a book comes along that makes you think that something similar could be said of the English language”;  

Sify.com:   “… the images unfurl so deliciously and intuitively that one has several moments akin to … reading T S Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”;

And even the determinedly irreverent GQ is moved to say:  “…This is the kind of history book that people who option movie rights will tear into … — it’s going to happen, you wait”.

Much of the praise revolves around the way Karnad wields the English language.  But we have to say, Farthest Field measures up.  It is so beautifully-written, in fact, that many reviews (like the Sify one above) seem almost compelled to take a commensurately literary tone.  Our own reviews normally attempt the understated tones of a Staff College essay, but in this case we admit to not being wholly immune to the acclaim.

We are frankly delighted that a book on India’s participation in the Second World War is receiving such attention.  Forgive the rant, but last week even The Hindu’s Literary Review supplement felt compelled to devote three times the column-inches to a Bollywood wife’s trills that it managed for Yasmin Khan’s The Raj at War.  So it is unequivocally good to see so many more people reading about Keren and Kohima, 161 Brigade and 2 Squadron.  We share the admiration for Karnad’s language, and his ability to evoke the atmosphere and period.  This is not conventional military history, but in some ways it is the book many of us have been waiting for, addressing head-on some of the questions and the dilemmas many thinking people have, about Indian participation in war for the British Empire.

The limitations we might pick on are, we recognise, important only to a small constituency (the Bharat-Rakshak crowd prominent among them, of course).  We thirst for even more operational detail than Karnad has managed.  We personally would have loved more minutia on weapons and tactics; we would ask which mark of Hurricane Manek was flying, its serial number and armament fit (“Was 2 Squadron using the Mark IIB, with twelve machine-guns, or had they converted by then to the Mark IIC with its four cannon?”), and for details of call signs and R/T procedures (“Brutus, this is Grass Seed, switch to channel C-Charlie” … How the authenticity of such phrases thrilled us, in Le Grand Cirque!)

With the acknowledged support of Sqn Ldr Rana Chhina, the most active military historian in India today, of our own Jagan, and of B-R contributor Mukund Murty – and of course, his own clearly extensive reading and gifted imagination – Karnad comes closer to capturing that level of detail than any previous Indian book on the period has.  There is medium-heavy footnoting through the book; though some of the footnotes are, inescapably, to secondary sources.

He does, despite this help, miss a few tiny details (showing, in our view, how important the schoolboy obsession with that detail is, in preserving historic minutia).  What he misses does not detract from the overall story, nor from the appeal of the book to most readers.  Only a small constituency will register the misses.  The rest, in a barrack-room phrase, couldn’t give a rat’s ass.

And for the most irredeemable military fanboys among us, a statutory warning: some of Karnad’s other writing can be perceived by them as not hewing sufficiently to an India uber alles party-line.  But to be clear, he says nothing that many soldiers would not say.

After all that, there remain the best reasons of all, to go out and buy, and to read, Farthest Field.   It tells an exciting story and it tells it well, of a number of interesting (and attractive) young people, who found themselves participating in arguably the biggest adventure in the world’s history.  It is a great tribute to those in India who served that huge enterprise, with unremembered honour.

In the end, some of the best writings in any language are in fact war stories.  From the Mahabharata, the Iliad and Thucydides; through Leo Tolstoy, Erich Maria Remarque, and William Faulkner; some of the best writings from any culture, in any period, have included war stories.  In the acclaim with which Farthest Field has been met, Karnad has made our old schoolboy interest, in a specifically Indian context, respectable.  And for that, our constituency, as much as the wider world, owe him thanks.

Book Review by K S Nair