The Hindu Prize 2019 for Non-Fiction Books

‘It is important to embrace the messiness of the past’: Santanu Das

For his book on the Indian sepoys of the Great War, Santanu Das recovered the histories of people who did not know how to read or write

Over a million Indian soldiers served in World War 1. But there was no Wilfred Owen among their ranks to record the horror and pity of war in heart-rending verse. This means that most of their stories were assumed to be lost to time till researchers started combing the archives. Santanu Das’s India, Empire, and First World War Culture collects “raw histories” — objects, images, rumours, pamphlets, letters, diaries, sound-recordings, folk songs, poetry, essays and fiction — all relating to the forgotten sepoys, to create a lifelike portrait of the WWI soldier in his time. It adds layers of perspective to existing narratives to show how the Great War affected the Indian soldier fighting a battle in which he had no personal stake. Excerpts from an email interview:

When and why did you become interested in the Indian soldiers of World War I?

While doing my first book, Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (2006), I was repeatedly struck by the complete erasure of the role of over one million Indian troops in standard (Western) books on World War I; neither was I taught about them at school in India. Something needed to be done. But what I sought to capture in my book was not just India’s war ‘contribution’ or how these men fought and fared but the teeming underworld of their feelings and experiences from below — in battlefields, hospitals and POW camps as they encountered new lands and people, lived and loved, or faced the horrors of trench combat. I wanted to recover the historical past not sealed up in medals and memorials but palpable, intimate and plural.

I also tried to locate the war in Indian socio-cultural history more broadly, from Gandhi’s recruitment speeches to photographs, testimonies and voice-recordings of the soldiers, from Punjabi women’s folk songs to the writings of Tagore, Iqbal, Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu to what the war meant for Indian nationalism.

How did you handle the research? What challenges did you face?

The book has taken me more than 10 years and around the world, from villages in Punjab to archives, battlefields and cemeteries across Europe and East Africa to museums in Australia and New Zealand. My primary challenge was how to recover the histories of people who did not know how to read or write, and this led me to go beyond conventional textual sources and re-conceptualise the ‘archive’: I looked at trench objects, photographs, paintings, letters, memoirs, posters, postcards, rumour, gossip, sound-recordings, songs, pamphlets, poetry, fiction. It is important to de-Europeanise our research methodology as well as our sources, think carefully what questions we should ask of the material and embrace the messiness and materiality of the past.

Is there any artefact you have uncovered that strikes you as being particularly telling or poignant?

I soon realised that the problem was not scarcity but an excess of quite remarkable material. Thus, in the Dupleix Museum in Chandernagore, I found the bloodstained glasses of ‘Jon Sen’ who, I later found, was the only non-white member of the Leeds Pals Battalion. He was killed on May 22-23, 1916. In the National Archives in Delhi, I came across the trench notebook of Mir Mast, an Afridi Pathan who had deserted to the German side and went on a jihadi mission to Istanbul and Kabul. In the Pitt Rivers Museum, I found a Naga ‘dance hat’, comprising a German helmet brought back from the Western Front and adorned with horns and hair. In Ypres, I visited the barn which was used as the casualty station for Indian troops.

But for me, the most haunting testimony was the tremulous voice of Jasbahadur Rai, a young Gurkha sepoy, recorded in the POW camp of Wunsdorf by his German captors on June 6, 1916 at 4 pm: “My body has become thin as a string, how much can I cry?” He died a few months later.

Do you think there should be a WWI museum in India? What should such a museum look like?

I understand that DAG and the ASI are already collaborating on such a museum.. It is essential that it be a war museum, not a military museum: war is far wider than combat; it’s about people, not just soldiers. It should reflect the army’s religious, ethnic and cultural diversity. It should be a space for commemoration and reflection rather than nationalist triumphalism. It is important not to lose sight of the horrors of war while recognising human courage and resilience.

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 7:44:01 PM |

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