Exiled by love

August 22, 2021 12:00 am | Updated 03:50 am IST

What is most striking about Vishram Bedekar’s novel,first published in 1939, isits contemporaneity

A ship leaves Genoa harbour. Suave men woo women over drinks and cigarettes at the bar, others play bridge, and there is entertainment interspersed with sightseeing at ports along the way. This could be a scene from a Hollywood classic or even a luxury cruise liner. Except, it is the beginning of the thought-provoking journey that is Vishram Bedekar’s novel, Battlefield , translated from the Marathi original Ranaangan by Jerry Pinto.

A love story set against the backdrop of the Nazis’ rise to power and impending war, Battlefield has the romance of Casablanca and, in parts, the flavour of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard’s novels, but what strikes one the most is its contemporaneity. Published in 1939, the novel is startlingly progressive for its time and prophetic about the concerns it raises — which were as relevant then as they are now.

When Mumbai resident Chakradhar Widhwans meets Herta, a German Jew, aboard the ship that will take him home after a long stay in England, he is still hurting from a failed relationship. Like the other Jews aboard, Herta and her mother are seeking asylum in an alien country. The couple’s lives intersect briefly amid the good life on the ship — a “floating capsule of time and space” — that offers them temporary respite in a bubble away from the world of colonialism and anti-Semitism.

Homes erased

For Herta, love is an escape from the grief of loss and the grim reality of the present. With the gradual expulsion of Jews from sight, at first, then the erasure of their homes and homeland, love gives her the feeling that she is still alive in an era that has made her invisible (“Perhaps the worst thing for a human being is not to be recognized as one”).

But the book is not merely about a love that transpires aboard a ship. It entwines romantic love with the love of nation — both doomed. With its mix of different nationalities and their unlikely collision at an important juncture of history, the ship is a microcosm of the world.

“How does a country become one’s country? How many years or generations does it take before a land becomes a motherland?” wonders Chakradhar. For the Jews identified themselves as Germans, fought in the First World War as such, giving their lives to a country that soon after began to purge them as the enemy. Chakradhar draws an analogy with his own homeland: “Would this be repeated in the history of other countries? Muslims had once conquered and then made India their home...”

War of emotions

For Herta, in love with an Indian subject of the British empire, which is an Allied power, the headlines screaming that Britain is at war with Germany spell “the obituary of [their] dreams”. In the last hours of their ill-fated love affair, she seeks consummation of their relationship, defying the morality of the time by saying, “I have no people, so whose morality do I follow?” Interestingly, Bedekar introduces a love triangle with an Indian Muslim, Mannan. “If I had married him,” Herta writes in her final letter to Chakradhar, after the ship has left Mumbai port, “ I would have had to teach my children to hate your children.”

Bedekar’s novel is a battlefield of emotions and ideas as much as it is of the war that looms in the background. Debating a variety of issues including nation, religion, language, race, gender, the role of commerce in war, even Palestine, it leaves no stone unturned. In a ship full of travellers, Bedekar illustrates what it means to be an alien and a refugee through Herta and Chakradhar. “We are both exiles,” Herta says, “and yet we are enemies.”

Significantly, there is also the questioning of war as a gendered discourse: “A culture of war is a culture that hates women... This [power through war and destruction] is not what women understand as glory.”

Battlefield is a reminder that the more history repeats itself, the more lessons remain unlearnt. It speaks to us in this era of hypernationalism when it says: “Perhaps the boundaries of narrow patriotism need to be broken all over the world.”

Jerry Pinto’s excellent translation is nuanced, as always, making it easy to forget that one is not reading the original.

The reviewer is the author of several Mumbai-themed books including the novel,Wanderers, All.


  • Vishram Bedekar,

    trs Jerry Pinto

  • Speaking Tiger

    Rs. 350

    With its mix of different nationalities and their unlikely collision at an important juncture of history, the ship is a microcosm of the world

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