Review: Raghu Karnad's tale of love and war

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Last Updated: Mon, Aug 10th, 2015, 21:03:17hrs
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Review: Raghu Karnad's tale of love and war
Title: Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War

Author: Raghu Karnad

Publisher: Harper Collins

Price: Rs 550

In a world where titles are classified by genres and sub-genres, and their makers fastidiously divided into writers of fiction and non-fiction, plays and poetry, fantasy and pulp, there is some joy in reading a book that reminds us there are only two kinds of writing – that which lingers like petrichor, and that which fades from the mind once the covers are shut.

The most beautiful books make one mull over things that they don’t explicitly address. What is branded as a family memoir, and a story of India’s role in the Second World War, is really contemplation on heroism and circumspection, ambition and content, purpose and futility, dogma and desire, and – as the author says in another context – “high life and piteous death”.

In his prologue, Raghu Karnad describes his book as “forensic non-fiction”. Something about the term reminded me of palaeontology. The phrase sounds clinical, and belies the dedication, personal investment of time and energy, and the against-all-odds belief in an elusive end-product that one needs to muster, in order to pursue the stories of those who are extinct. It requires one to dig carefully and patiently through archives in libraries and museums, anxious about missing the wrong detail as much as recovering an ill-fitting one; to piece the fragments just so, each in the right place, with only vague clues and patterns for guidance; to follow each lead to its natural end in the valiant yet vain hope of being able to determine the shapes, sizes, features, voices, manners, charisma, and proclivities of those who are no longer with us. Specifically, for this book, it must have involved hours of sifting through the hazy, and perhaps sentimental, memories of the contemporaries of its subjects, politely waiting for a spark.

Perhaps this is why the story lends itself to a genre that is not exclusively fiction or non-fiction, a genre that was mastered by Bruce Chatwin. The safer option is to fictionalise the events. But, as anyone who has read The Songlines will testify, there is something to be said for inhabiting a space between fact and fantasy, for imagining a day in the life of an Ancestor in Dreamtime even as we are looking at dot paintings. Because, isn’t that exactly what we do in real life, look at things and extrapolate them to our lives and the lives of others?

In its scope, and occasionally in its style, Farthest Field is somewhat reminiscent of another favourite of mine – ceramicist Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, a whimsical yet precise meditation on objects of beauty, ownership, inheritance, and secrets. That narrative was united by memorabilia, a netsuke collection that was passed down generations of a family that was constantly displaced.

In Karnad’s book, though, it is the loss of concrete souvenirs that holds the narrative. Both memoirs are characterised by a longing to forget rather than remember, to escape across state borders and national boundaries, to forge new families in new homes because it is impossible to go back to the old ones, until one descendant decided to stop, turn, and trace a journey back. However, Edmund De Waal was a celebrated artist when he wrote the book, and he was prone to almost careless, eye-rolling interludes where he would lightly remind us that this was a solipsistic recasting; Karnad, sensibly, offers perhaps a more gracious – if reverent – account, where he is not the centre of his world, but an enabler, allowing his ancestors to grow into characters, keeping himself in the background even when he is reconstructing imaginary scenarios. It is our awareness of the author’s personal connection to the men whose memories he seeks to immortalise, without having to suffer reminders every so often, that adds a layer of poignancy to the book.

It takes immense skill and some natural flair, a love of language and stories, the ability to transcend the rigid rules of journalism while respecting those of veracity, to fill in the lives of people who are so removed from one that they need to be completed by imagination and research. Karnad is equal to the task of doing right by this genre.

Another seeming incompatibility arises with the heavy horror of what is unfolding juxtaposed with the lyricism of the language in which it is recounted. The humour is often macabre, but how else can one deal with the irony of a second act of cruelty relieving the effects of a first? Take, for instance, this sentence: “Gasson sent in a platoon of Malabar Special Police to shoot dead the lions, tigers and panthers, as well as a single polar bear, which may alone have been grateful for it.” Elsewhere, Karnad speaks of mules being dropped with parachutes into warzones, to their detriment – but also to their salvation, for these were mules whose vocal chords had been surgically removed to keep them from baying and revealing the army’s positions to the enemy.

One of the greatest successes of Farthest Field is the way in which it re-orients figurative language, which has so often been robbed of vividness by tired idioms, strained exotica, and deliberately incongruent imagery, in which hugely successful authors dabble. In Karnad’s clever prose, the images unfurl so deliciously and intuitively that one has several moments akin to that where, in reading T S Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, one realises that despite the imagery of the yellow fog, there was no actual cat. To quote examples would ruin the surprise of the metamorphoses, where the sound of billiard balls clicking against each other, or the sight of raindrops slithering down taut cables, transform into scenes one would not normally associate with them. It is these layered images, fresh metaphors, and sparkles of poetry that make the book so much more than narrative non-fiction.

One could easily get impatient with prose that borders too much on poetry, but Karnad tempers his writing with mischievous wordplay – specifically, in a section about the use of mepacrine – that makes one smile at the departure from the high-flown literary metaphor that dominates the narrative.

Descriptions of battle formations are broken by time-outs of sorts, where the author speaks of how, in the middle of an urgent and brutal skirmish, there was a bureaucratic holdup, thanks to indecision over an army division’s sign – a boar’s head was overruled, as officers were concerned that Muslim soldiers would refuse to fight under the banner.

Sometimes, the author pulls us back from the theatres of war to the homes of the soldiers’ relatives, so fraught and distracted that the one journalist in the group “used the dinner table to rehearse his editorials without interruption.”

This technique gives us breathing space, where we ponder the vanity in man’s desire to conquer the world – a world made up of land whose topography is so unchangeable and unforgiving that the areas of conflict-then remain the areas of conflict-now, providing means for different locals and troublemakers to hide and escape from different aggressors and self-righteous invaders, three generations down. The actors have changed, and their masters have changed, but the stage remains the same.

Loneliness is a motif that runs through the book. In some ways, it reminded me of the exquisite Debatable Land by Candia McWilliam, which tells the story of people who volunteer to wait for disaster – some to escape their circumstances, and some driven by their circumstances. Isn’t volunteering for war stripped of heroism when it is a mercenary act, a paid service in which a soldier risks his life without the inspiriting rush of defending his homeland? What must it be like to never have a chance at atonement? What must it feel like to suffer the humiliation of receiving glory and gratitude when one has made no real sacrifice?

The book makes us think about two kinds of death – the preventable, ignominious exit wrought by disease and cruel conditions; and the hero’s martyrdom, at the hands of the enemy, which is almost vindication for the pecuniary concerns that spurred it.

It also makes us think about two kinds of war veterans – the ones who, in their nineties, glance back at their youth, exaggerating its exploits and daring, evoking the ostentatious charm of the early twentieth century with antiquated words; and the ones who will never grow old, frozen in photo frames and enlivened in the memories of those who outlive them, from which they can only emerge in passive sputters, for they will never be as real to the tellers of their stories as they were to themselves.

Ironically, the young man to whom most of these musings are attributed eventually has to choose both the kind of death he wants and the kind of veteran he wants to be. There is something incredibly sad about people who will forever retain the jauntiness and abandon and optimism of their youth, deprived of the chance to become surly and crabby seniors, raging at the depravity of the generations that followed them. Just as it is amusing to look through the black-and-white photographs taken in the youth of today’s nonagenarians, it is haunting to imagine the old men that those who died in the war may have loved to have become.

Particularly heartbreaking is a letter written by a young soldier to his sister. It makes one wonder at the turns our lives take, at how generosity can be one’s undoing. One is struck by the immense understanding two lovers reserve for their families, whom many people would dismiss as callous, and guilty of the subsequent disruptions in their lives. Their story strikes one as the saddest of all, because a little more sympathy on their families’ part and a little less on their own could have given it a very different trajectory.

Karnad captures the human propensity for self-involvement, so that the most irrelevant external events can be transformed into messages the universe is sending us – a slogan at a student protest outside the window, for instance, could seem prophetic when one is in a trough, wondering whether one has made a mistake in choosing a particular path.

But a book that tells part of the story of a war must necessarily extend beyond the personal and into the political. When imperialism is involved, and especially when one is on the wronged side of history, one has to make a judgment call in writing – is it all right to indulge in the immersive reporting made fashionable by John Pilger, to take a step back every now and then and comment on, even seethe at, the exhibits of colonial cruelty; or must one keep up a pretence of neutrality? Karnad shows insight into the mistakes made on both sides. Case in point: “This was what the Congress could never stomach, that their right to govern India must follow from their ability to do so.”What is admirable about the book is not just what has gone into it, but what has been left out. When one has done a colossal amount of research, and it is evident from the notes and Bibliography that Karnad has, it can be tempting to crowd the book with information, or to prove to the world that one has indeed done one’s homework. It is a mark of the author’s confidence and literary sensibility that, even in his first book, he has been judicious with using his research, to inform his writing rather than display his diligence. What he believes may be interesting to the reader is tucked away in notes and appendices.

My only quibble, and it is a minor one, is that I would have loved annotations for some of the more outlandish bits of information. How, for instance, did the author know that soldiers volunteered to lean against barricades to keep their mules from getting unruly on an airlift? I’m inclined to think, though, that an author is entitled to use his discretion in determining how fastidious the annotations should be.

And one can forgive much in that rare book which is so delightful one is loath to finish it, because it is near impossible for one’s next read to match the last. Farthest Field definitely qualifies for that description. A brilliant first book can often set the bar too high for the author’s own good. However, in Karnad’s case, one only looks forward to the rest of what promises to be a luminous career.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. She sells herself and the book on

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