Forgotten heroes

Forgotten heroes
The world has a dark fascination about war and particularly the Second World War. The last of the war action may have ended in 1945, but our imagination never seems to stop wondering about the large scale hostilities and the repercussions that wars have come to represent.

Every new book or movie about the Second World War opens us to some aspect of that war not known to people.

Raghu Karnad’s book, Farthest Field – An Indian Story of the Second World War, is what the title suggests and much more. It not only takes us through a journey of three men lost to war, but talks about India’s role in the Second World War and throws in snatches from the country’s nationalist movement that ran concurrently with the war.

Death, we have often believed, has an element of finality. But Karnad says people have two deaths. The first death occurs when they die, and the second when all those who remember them also die. Beautifully put.

The second death is the farthest field from which no one returns, says Karnad, and so the name of his book.

But war, says Karnad, brings the two deaths close, because it “chooses young people most deliberately to die”. A life barely lived, most of these young people lost in wars often end up as photographs.

And it was photographs of three young men that stood on table tops in his grandmother’s house that prompted him to prise open a history unknown not only to him, but to a whole generation of Indians.

These youngsters who stood in the photographs — Bobby Mugaseth, Manek Dadabhoy and Ganny or Kodandera Ganapathy — had their lives intertwined with each other through marriage and through their involvement in World War II. Bobby’s sisters had married Ganny and Manek. Ganny was Karnad’s maternal grandfather, while Manek and Bobby his grand-uncles (his mother’s uncles). Bobby’s sister Nugs (the author’s grandmother) was married to Ganny.

The book opens in Calicut, at the residence of Mugaseths, and follows the personal stories of these three men, a story recreated by the author with the help of research, conversations, chronicles and his own creative mind’s eye.

In the process of recreating the story that started unfolding 80 years ago, Karnad also had to understand the role of Indian Army in the Second World War and the country’s own nationalist movement that was playing out at the same time.

India’s broader role in the Second World War is that it had the largest volunteer army fighting the war for the British Empire. As per Karnad’s estimates, more than two million men and women served in it.

“As a part of the British Empire, India had won its war. Then, ceasing to be a part of the Empire, it won its independence,” says Karnad in his book. To a large extent, one was born of the other and yet India’s part in the world war is absent from its own history, he says.

Bobby’s journey took him to Roorkee training camp and then to Iraq and later to the Burmese frontier to defend India against Japanese forces. Bobby’s life was hell during the last few months with death staring at him daily, but he died of a shot from his own revolver. The gun went off in error was the explanation given. The truth was that nobody would know what caused that death. That was 1944.

By the time Bobby was gone, his brothers-in-law Manek and Ganny were already lost to war. Manek joined the Indian Air Force as a fighter pilot and died in 1943 when he crashed into a mountainside in Manipur. Ganny became an army doctor in North-West Frontier and died in 1942 of bronchitis, at the frontier. “The farthest field is not just a conceit about Bobby’s death but one that applies to all those Indians who were lost to the Second World War,” says Karnad in his afterword to the book.

Undoubtedly, Farthest Field opens up India’s forgotten role in the Second World War and at the same time helps the reader to refurbish memories about the war itself and the events unfolding at home in the country that led to its independence from Britain. The author’s brilliance is evident in the fact that the reader is not only transported to that era, but helps to stay connected with the book until the end.

Delving into the effortless storytelling ability of the book, one can fathom the kind of work the author has put in to bring out this book, probably prompting readers to say that Karnad is a writer to watch out for in the years to come.

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