Writing home

May 04, 2014 12:00 am | Updated 02:03 am IST

VAYU NAIDU looks at the Indian experience of the Great War as seen through soldiers’ letters and folk songs.

Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone begins with an archaeological dig; a quest for a circlet in stone, at the sangam of empires — Persian Greek, and Indian — in Peshawar. The dig reveals a palimpsest of sculptural styles across those cultures. The principal character Qayyum is a letter writer’s son who writes letters; a Lance Naik of the 40th Pathans who has his right eye blown off in Ypres in 1914 and is subsequently discharged. Perhaps fortunately, for many young men were patched up and returned to the western front. He writes letters for his non-literate comrades from the Allied Front to their families and, on returning to Peshawar, writes on behalf of families to the sepoys still serving. As a scribe, he learns of the death of a sepoy who had saved his life.

Qayyum begins to question the concept of loyalty when he is urged to join the Turks that could culminate in the garrisoning of forces against the oppression of British Empire. Qayyum chooses to join Abdul Gaffar’s army while his younger brother continues to dig, unearthing Peshawar’s paradise of beneficent artefacts from times that were equally tormented — a Buddhist and Persian past; a mythic reflection of the zeitgeist. While Shamsie’s work is fiction, she captures the psychological matrix of subalternity as codes of honour and loyalty of the serving Indian troops dissipate with racially discriminatory treatment.

It is always difficult to understand the real facts and intentions behind Indians entering World War 1. The truth was that India (the subcontinent) was paying through human resources while it was wholeheartedly funded by the Nizam of Hyderabad (six million rupees for two cavalry units in France) and the support of political moderates — including Dr. Subramania Iyer and Sarojini Naidu in 1914 — for both British Empire and the Allied forces.

The total number of Indians recruited during the war up to December 31, 1919, was 1,440,437, including combatants and non-combatants. Dr. Santanu Das in his well-documented essay Indians At Home, Mesopotamia and France: 1914-1918 presents an ‘intimate history’ through censored letters, literary oral interviews with surviving relatives, the merging of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu graves with no possibility of relatives taking the journey to Neuve Chapelle to grieve their loss, as well as the only existing memoir of an Indian captive from Mesopotamia.

Das takes us on a fact-filled journey of the Indian experience of war illustrated through the war diary of Thakur Amar Singh. The “‘structures of feeling’ [that] are created not so much by war trauma as by the complex conjunction of class, racial and colonial politics in wartime”.

This resonates with an anti-war fervour and hopeless realisation in Captain Kalyan Mukherji’s letter to his mother on July 26, 1915, from Naririyah: ‘ I had been working constantly, with hardly any time to breathe, from 6 o’clock in the morning till 1 p.m... rivers of blood, red everywhere — I was myself covered in blood...Why is there so much bloodshed?

Then again on October 20, 1915, from Azizza, two weeks after the defeat of the British and Indian garrison at Kut-al-amara: ‘ Patriotism is responsible for this bloodshed … Therefore patriotism builds empires, kingdoms… As long as this narrowness does not end, bloodshed in the name of patriotism will not cease. Whether a man throws a bomb from the roof-top or whether fifty men start firing from a cannon-gun - the cause of this bloodshed, this madness is the same.

The feelings of the colonial subject are ignited as he sees the propagandist machinations of imperialism in the name of patriotism. At the Madras Provincial Conference in 1918 Sarojini Naidu speaks of: India’s citizen army composed of cultured young men, of young men of traditions and ideals, men who burnt with the shame of slavery in their hearts, will prove a true redeemer of Indian people.

Imperial war service was a way of salvaging national prestige. Naidu was actively involved in the war efforts through the Lyceum Club, London. In The Gift of India , she says: Gathered like pearls in their alien graves/Silent they sleep by the Persian waves. Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands/They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands./They are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance/On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France…/As you honour the deeds of the deathless ones/Remember the blood of thy martyred sons.

At ground level, miles away from the poems of the middle classes and their colonial education — also battling with the sword of knowledge against a great sense of impotence — were the folk songs. Extracts recovered by Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan: My husband, and his two brothers/All have gone to laam. [l'arme]/Hearing the news of the war/Without you I feel lonely here./Come and take me away to Basra./I shed tears, come and speak to me/All birds, all smiles have vanished/and the boats sunk/Graves devour our flesh and blood .

The martyrdom and idealism of izzat that possibly charged several sepoys when they went out is not found here. Many Punjabi women were also aware their husbands were mercenaries and not in the jihadi tradition. The loss of men across villages weighed heavily, more so if they were not part of any discourse on nationhood despite the pensions earned.

In November 2013, I met 102-year-old marathon runner Fauja Singh who recently ran for women’s safety rights. Speaking of his childhood in Beas Pind, near Jalandhar during World War I, he said that he was taught two things. The first was “don’t run after money”, and the other was “be a Khalsa and with determination, achieve the goal that has been set”.

For some, writing home was a level of pragmatism while dreaming of the dead.

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