Writers and journalists may not often be subjected to a situation that mirrors their everyday life: essaying the role of an interviewee, but they often end up being the most interesting subjects — the ease of everyday presence in the public domain, and the ability to analyse one’s own thoughts and motives with clarity and distance making them lucid catalysts of a thought provoking conversation. Raghu Karnad, speaking to us in the wake of his debut book, The Farthest Field, being published, was an apt representation of his ilk, as he held (and brought) our attention to the role of the Indian army in shaping India’s modern history with ease, both in his writing and in a conversation that revolved around it later.
“It all started with a conversation I had with my mother, where she told me that there were three men whom I wasn’t really aware of in our family, who had joined the army and never really came back after the Second World War. I was not planning to write a book when it all began. I was working as the editor of Time Out Delhi, when this story reared its head; I ignored it for another six months before getting down to it. I have always been interested in the Second World War and how it affected Delhi but I had no idea that I had a direct family connection to it. I’m such a civilian that I had never imagined I would be writing about Indian
The Farthest Field has a poignant, now much quoted foreword that outlines one of Karnad’s primary motives behind writing the book, “People have two deaths: the first when they go away, and the second at the end of the memory of their lives, when all who remember them are gone. Then a person quits a world completely.” The book is set in India at the time of the Second World War, and follows the story of six unusual young men and women whose lives were turned upside down by political undercurrents of that time. Karnad points out that while the Indian army’s contribution in the Second World War is by no means insignificant, “more than just cannon fodder as some people are prone to saying,” its historical significance has cleaved through the niches of the nation’s collective memory into oblivion, an inconvenient truth
“The history we have learnt is one that the Congress wrote for nation building, and the Congress is at the centre of this history of modern India. It requires us to believe that all of India was completely committed to the freedom struggle right up to 1947. Maybe there was a point (in the years after Independence) when it was important to cling to that, but for our generation it is fine to recognise that this history is complicated and contradictory and not to cling to it. I don’t think anyone went out with an agenda to bury the Second World War from India’s collective memory. I think that while it makes perfect sense why a young nation has spent so long celebrating the national movement (for it legitimates what India is now, probably in a good way), there is a lot that explains how India became independent, and the war and the army are one of those aspects of it.” Karnad confesses to his persistent interest in the Second World War and how it affected Delhi — which predates his incidental discovery of his personal connection to it.
Karnad’s family history has provided protagonists and the semblance of a novelised story to his book that otherwise examines the Indian army in those significant years that defined nationalism vis-a-vis nation building in public rhetoric for India, though Karnad disagrees with the term biography while describing the book. He chooses to call it forensic non-fiction — non-fiction in terms of how faithful the book is in establishing the social and political fabric of those times, but “forensic” or contemplative when it describes the inner motives, thoughts and desires of its protagonists caught in the middle of the crossfire. “At the start of my quest, I was looking at three dead boys; I didn’t who they were, how they had died and how they got there. I felt that I had to investigate and, like the result of that kind of investigation, you end up with an argument. This book is me making my case about who they were and what happened with their lives.”
I ask him whether he feels the protagonists of his book, who led unusual lives, are a true representation of the average Indian in the 20th century — part rebels as they are, partly compelled to lead tumultuous lives, and he says, “There was something about those times, with the deep uncertainty about their future, that made the people take risks. An unspoken social revolution was going on, which settled down and slipped back into the norm once India achieved independence.” War romances based on real life stories in unsettling times inspired a whole gamut of modern American literature and India is no different.
As we walk out, Karnad buys a copy of a leading monthly magazine and flips it open to peruse his book’s review in it. “The UK reviews have been out of control; this is my first negative review, it seems the writer wasn’t very into my style,” Karnad shrugs away the author’s differences of opinion with him. Balance defines his written and verbal opinions — not a man to bring down a self-important tirade on the ethics of nationalist propaganda, he has instead drawn a compelling argument against the futility of it using facts and a compelling argument around them: “The army is the centre of how we think of nationalism in this country. It is okay to criticise and question anything but the army’s patriotism. I have the utmost respect for the army of this country, not because they are a nationalistic army, but a professional institution. It is the one thing that explains its continuity — when they were pressurised to not be professional, to join the INA, to join the Quit India Movement. Faced with nationalism as opposed to soldiers’ discipline, the army remained loyal by and large to the government of the day, and when the government changed, it took orders from the Indian government, and this is a fact that is much less glossy than patriots would have you believe. Why India were fighting for the British was not subordination but opportunity, youthful enthusiasm and excitement for people in the ranks, a family tradition for loyalty to a regiment, which turned to loyalty to the person fighting next to them, their vilayati officer, loyalty to the institution that very rarely gets recognised. In terms of the larger political loyalties that they had or didn’t have, that is where the complexity comes in.”