- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (August 16, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393352897
- ISBN-13: 978-0393352894
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 27 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #983,527 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War 1st Edition
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“Like a superior commander himself, Karnad marshals and orders a huge range of materials, locations, and actions with apparently effortless skill, making everything cohere not only through a galloping and affecting narrative but, crucially, through a passionate moral core that repeatedly exposes the numerous ways in which Indians were treated as fodder by the Empire. . . . The writing of history intersects gloriously with several other genres in this moving, eloquent, intelligent work.”
- Neel Mukherjee, Financial Times
“From the very first page it is the brilliance of the writing that stands out. . . . It has the stamp of imaginative truth about it, and we can ask nothing more of any kind of writing.”
- David Crane, Spectator
“[S]pectacular. . . . In prose that verges at times on poetry, he writes with the imaginative gift of a first-rate novelist in order to deliver the truth. Romance and the attendant grief of loss permeate the book alongside passages that are unexpectedly moving. . . . Unforgettable.”
- Juliet Nicolson, Daily Telegraph
“[Karnad’s] fascinating [book] is both a poignant memorial to his lost family and a gripping account of how India contributed to the allied victory and sowed the seeds of its independence.”
- Ian Critchley, Sunday Times
“This book tells us that we all have two deaths: when we die and when we are forgotten. But there is a possibility of two births, the second being re-created in an extraordinary book. This is one of those rare books that bring people alive again. It has been written with imagination and is engrossing to read.”
- Michael Holroyd
About the Author
Raghu Karnad is a journalist based in Delhi and Bangalore. He has worked as a reporter on the Indian magazines Outlook and Tehelka and is a former editor of Time Out Delhi.
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Karnad's grandmother came from a rich and influential Parsi family based in Calicut. She fell in love with and eventually married a man from the Kodava tribe of the mountains of western India, something that was taboo to Parsis. In WW2, her husband, Ganapathy, entered the Indian Medical Service and served on the India-Afghanistan border of the Northwest Frontier. Her sister married a Parsi, Manek, who went into the Indian Air Force and flew missions on both the Northwest Frontier and the Northeast Frontier, as well as far into Burma. Finally, there is her brother Bobby, who served as an officer in King George V's Own Bengal Sappers in Iraq, Northeast India, and Burma.
The three brothers-in-law rendered heroic service on behalf of India and Great Britain against the Fascists and Japan. Three of hundreds of thousands of Indians. Yet the tides of history are such that the three brothers-in-law and the hundreds of thousands of their Indian brothers in arms are virtually forgotten today. WW2 accelerated the cause of independence, and Gandhi and the Indian National Congress went to jail for the "Quit India" movement while other Indians (most notably, Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army) actually switched sides and fought for the Japanese against the centuries-old Imperialists: they are the nationalistic heroes, rather than those who fought, and died, on behalf of the Allied cause. "In the autobiography of a new nation state, there was no place for an army that fought for the Empire in the very hour that its countrymen fought to be rid of it."
The book is overflowing with anecdotes of prejudice against Indians, both in and out of the military. It truly is shameful, as bad as America's treatment of blacks and Native Americans. Before reading this and, simultaneously, Paul Scott's novel "The Jewel in the Crown", I was not aware just how pervasive, blatant, and callous the British treatment of the natives of its crown jewel colony had been. Just one example from the book: In 1942, British military forces in Burma collapsed in the face of the Japanese invasion. More than half of the population of Rangoon was Indian, and those civilians frantically tried to flee back to India, with almost no help from the British military, which was involved in its own retreat ("the Dunkirk of the East"). Six hundred thousand civilians attempted a gruesome march to India (as of that time, "the largest human migration in history"); eighty thousand died along the way. "Few survivors carried anything, except for anguished tales of their abandonment by the Raj. Lying in their cholera beds, they told of Anglo-Indian families whose darker-skinned daughters were turned away from camps for Europeans; of columns of Indian refugees held back until Europeans had passed * * *; of elephants struggling up the slopes, hind legs quivering, as they carried mahogany desks out over the bodies of children." That deserves capitalization: MAHOGANY DESKS GOT PRIORITY OVER PEOPLE.
We Americans tend to think of World War II in terms of the European Theater of Operations and the Pacific. Knowledgeable folks recognize that the Eastern Front was equally, perhaps more, significant, and that Stalingrad was the true turning point of the War. Most of us are ignorant of Eritrea, Sudan, Libya, and Egypt, and even fewer of us know about Burma and the Japanese siege of the Indian cities of Imphal, Dimapur, and Kohima, where some of the most lethal and barbaric fighting of the entire War took place. FARTHEST FIELD is a valuable corrective for that regrettable ignorance.
Nonetheless, I cannot give FARTHEST FIELD an enthusiastic recommendation because of Karnad's writing style. It is too informal, too colorful, too flamboyant. At times, his writing is that of a lurid potboiler. I see that one critic praises it for "prose that verges at times on poetry". I, however, don't think that history is presented effectively via poetry. Karnad's accounts of military engagements are especially opaque. More minor nits: W.W. Norton for some inexplicable reason has not bothered to right-hand justify the endnotes, and there is an egregious error in the first of the endnotes where the wrong chapter of text is referenced.
Farthest Field reminds us of the lives, hopes, and loves of the actors in the war. In an incredibly well–crafted and brief scene that unfolds on a hot April summer night in the 1940s, for instance, Karnad’s plot advances with only the slightest hint that something significant has happened. It’s a testament to the restraint of his prose that a set of brief words can leave a reader scrambling to understand what has just happened—something rustles in the lines that leaves us with a mix of suspicion, doubt, and wonder even while the author moves on.
This is a moving and deeply forceful book and despite its overall emphasis on the story of Karnad’s uncle Bobby and his life's endeavors, readers will have their own favorites. Mine was the beautiful and heartbreaking story of Nugs and Ganny, and the few laugh out loud encounters provided by the wry and resigned character of John Wright who comes to life beautifully, nuancing and balancing the narrative. Karnad’s felicity with words, phrases and metaphors brings alive the many theaters of war through the extraordinary stories of those who lived it.
The Epilogue Is a revelation, in writing and in content, an essay that could stand on its own. I've read a fair amount about the horrors of Partition, but to learn of the role of these military men brought a new dimension to that tragedy.
Kudos for bringing back to life these men, this war, this time, through the story of three intimate strangers.
Read it - and you will weep.
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