The story behind Brar Square cemetery in New Delhi finds an echo in T.S. Eliot's poem

Not many perhaps know that there is a little patch of North Africa and West- Asia at Brar Square in New Delhi. This is the War Cemetery, commemorating those who died during World War II and are buried here. It is to them that T.S. Eliot dedicated his little-known poem ‘To the Indians who died in Africa'.

Of course, those commemorated at Brar Square are mostly British soldiers (including those who died in the North-East), as many of the Indians were cremated and the Muslim ones buried in separate cemeteries. Eliot's poem caught the attention of Reginald Massey, an NRI poet and writer settled in Wales, who had a long association with Delhi, where he spent some memorable years.

The link with the Capital is not broken completely because he continues to cement his ties with annual visits. But first the poem:

A man's destination is his own village/His own fire, and his wife's cooking;/ To sit in front of his own door at sunset/ And see his grandson, and his neighbour's grandson/ Playing in the dust together.

Scarred but secure, he has many memories/ Which return at the hour of conversation,/ (The warm or the cool hour, according to the climate) of foreign men who fought in foreign places,/ Foreign to each other.

A man's destination is not his destiny,/Every country is home to one man/ And exile to another. Where a man dies bravely/ At one with his destiny that soil is his/ Let his village remember.

This was not your land, or ours: but a village in the Midlands,/ And one in the Five Rivers, may have the same graveyard./ Let those who go home tell the same story of you:/ Of action with a common purpose, action/None the less fruitful if neither you nor we/ Know, until the judgment after death / What is the fruit of action.

“A moving poem soaked in sensitivity and deep insights. So much did Bonamy Dobree like the poem that he advised Eliot to ‘preserve' it. The poet took the critic's advice and gratefully dedicated the poem to him,” says Massey.

Professor A.N. Dwivedi of Allahabad University, in his “T.S. Eliot: A Critical Study” (Atlantic Publishers, New Delhi, 2002) devotes an entire chapter to the poem. His thesis is that the theme of both the Gita and this poem is the same.

It was, after all, on a battlefield that Krishna enunciated his message contained in the Gita. Eliot endorses the concept of karma, the chain of cause and effect in the world of reality, and the doctrine that men's actions must be pursued relentlessly with detachment and dispassion.

Another view

Professor K. Narayana Chandran of Hyderabad, on the other hand, charges Eliot with ‘imperialist biases' in the “Journal of Modern Literature” (Indian University Press) and propounds that even though Eliot was drawn to Indian sources, especially the Gita, he had little use for the philosophy he quoted back to the distressed Indians.

“It is undeniable that the Indian soldiers (Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs) in the hard-fighting 4{+t}{+h} Indian Division in North Africa were members of a subject race serving an alien Christian emperor. Yet their loyalty was admirable. Field Marshal Montgomery specified the 4{+t}{+h} Indian Division as one of the best. It look 150,000 Italian and German prisoners, among them General von Arnim who, succeeded Rommel as commander of the Africa Corps. Was all this their karma?” asks Massey.

The poem, Massey (who authored “T.S. Eliot and India”) observes, was written at the request of Cornelia Sorabji, a committed Christian from a Parsi background, who was the first woman to take a Law degree from Oxford. Later Sorabji devoted her life to the cause of India's women.

The poem was initially published in Queen Mary's Book for India (Harrap, 1943). Mary, then the Queen Mother, had in 1911 accompanied her husband George V to the Imperial Durbar in Delhi, where they were proclaimed Emperor and Empress of India. She had lived through two World Wars and the book carried her message of sympathy to the mothers of Indian soldiers who had died in the service of the Empire.

So when you visit the Brar Square cemetery next time, remember the fallen brave-hearts and the poetic sentiments attached to them.