Farthest Field: Story of forgotten Indians in World War II

Growing up in his grandmother's home in Chennai, the faded silver framed photographs of three unknown men hanging on the wall never really piqued journalist Raghu Karnad's interest.


New Delhi: Growing up in his grandmother's home in Chennai, the faded silver framed photographs of three unknown men hanging on the wall never really piqued journalist Raghu Karnad's interest.

Previously confined to a distant memory, his interest was aroused on the discovery that the men, one of them his grandmother's brother and the others his great-uncles, had enlisted to fight at the height of the Second World War for the British empire, at a time when the national mood was decidedly against the Raj.

Attempting to trace the history of these men, their aspirations, motivations and their lives, Karnad embarked upon a private quest which, "began from a pier in the Calicut seafront to somewhere on a battlefield in the hills of Kohima," a journey which culminated in the book "Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War."

"I was exposed to this hidden landscape of which I had never been aware, of Indians in the second world war and to events of such scale in the country and events of such magnitude that were only equaled by the magnitude of the crevasse that all of this history then disappeared and vanished from our national consciousness," says Karnad.

The author by tracing out the personal stories of his three protagonists, attempts to weave a larger story of the lives of the millions of faceless Indian soldiers who stood against the might of the Axis forces in the great theatres of the war- from the eastern front of Imphal to the distant shores of Eritria and Africa.

"I was happy because the story of this family managed to capture quite well the larger reflection of India in the second World War," he says.

These soldiers left behind a legacy that has gone unnoticed and forgotten by a nation, which is now quick to label them as mere mercenaries, fighting as agents of the British Raj.

"When it comes to the Second World War I believe it is a question of national legacy that we have denied ourselves, it is a question of retrieving a perspective that alters how we see the war, alters how we see the formation of the Indian army and profoundly alters how we understand the formation of this country," he says.

Karnad in his first book also attempts to delve into the motivations of these men and the reasons they had for taking part in the war.

"The reasons are complicated and varied. For some it was a question of opportunity. For others, it was a chance to be a military officer, a position which commanded its own respect.

"But these men were not fighting out of a loyalty to the British empire: many of them did it out of loyalty to the ruler of their respective princely state who had sent them to battle," he says.

It is important, Karnad says, to remember that these men remained a disciplined, professional fighting force through the war and after.

"We must understand that the army we have today, the army which repelled the raiders from Pakistan who attacked the Kashmir valley just after independence, is the one which was born out of the army of World War II," he says.

The 31-year-old author Karnad, who studied political science at Swarthmore College, PA, and at Oxford also speaks on the "human" significance of releasing the book on the 70th anniversary of the great war.

"Last year was the centenary of the First World War. I realised that when you are commemorating a centenary of an event, it means that everyone associated with it, everyone who had grown up through it and was sentient at that time, is now dead."

So, a 70th anniversary has a much more human significance...And it is a chance to commune with people associated with the war and their stories before they disappear from memory," he says.

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