I’m having a hard time finding the right words to describe how good Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World is. Karnad is a journalist by profession and Farthest Field is his reconstruction of the wartime experiences of his grandfather and great-uncles, three men who served in the Indian Army and fought for an empire that was ambivalent at best and hostile at worst towards their rights and dignity. The book is so poignant because Karnad chooses to write from within the heads of his subjects, focusing as much on their thoughts, feelings, and emotions as on the events they experienced. Clearly that means taking some historical liberties, or at least imaginative leaps, though he does begin the book by with the claim that he has limited the “incidents, anecdotes, speech, and details of movements, operations, environments and milieu to what I learned from interviews or records, or could generally establish as fact.” Still, to me at least none of what’s in the book rings false.
It would be hard to find a trio of stories better suited to slicing across India’s military history here. One of Karnad’s great-uncles, Kodandera Ganapathy, was an army surgeon who died of bronchitis while serving on the North-West Frontier. The other, Manek Dadabhoy, flew Hurricanes in the Indian Air Force and died in a crash. Karnad’s grandfather, Bobby Mugaseth, was a junior officer in the Indian Army sappers who served in the Middle East and died during the Burma campaign.
In Burma, the division Musageth served with often relied on mule transport to carry its supplies and elephants to help build bridges. So too did the Japanese, and both wild and domesticated elephants found themselves caught in the crossfire. Advancing after the battle of Kohima, Musageth found himself called on to clear a dead elephant from the division’s road. The encounter is an example of how Karnad makes the mundane moments in warfare into a moving, even tactile, experience:
He approached the elephant with a detachment equal to the task of disposing of it. It was very large and very still and it hadn’t yet begun to bloat or to stink. Within two days it would soften into a giant, diseased mushroom dribbling its stench down the cliff road. This was really a situation that required a bulldozer, but the machines were few and constantly occupied with the avalanche of clay and rock This smaller avalanche of flesh would have to be dealt with using explosives.
Bobby stepped in closer and placed a hand on the elephant’s firm hide. He had never blown up an elephant. He edged around the carcass, examining how it lay, taking in its matted tuft of tail, its violent expulsion of dung, the sagging belly stained black from exit wounds and the head streaked black with tears. He put his hand on the bristled brow, and for a moment he felt like he had travelled in the company of this creature for a long time, from Calicut where it was chained and fed holy offerings, through the dumb toil and idleness of Roorkee, turning with it west to east until Burma, and the labours and terrors on the Tiddim Road.
He moved around the elephant again and his hands worked on their own, tucking charges under the folds of the belly skin and the loose flap of lip. Bobby’s mind was on the single, long-lashed eye, half-drowned in its pool of black wrinkles. Sorrow welled up in him at the thought of what had raced through that eye in the elephant’s last days and hours: turning and turning again, not knowing its master, bewildered and blundering on the Tiddim Road, until shot down at last by who-knows-which side, and blown out of the way by a man as bewildered as itself.
His hand fired the fuse and he stepped away. The ammonal detonated with its deep whoomp, but the carcass did not lift or land clear of the road as it was meant to. The elephant exploded. It rose for an instant and then burst, separating into a million strands of wayward gut and muscle, which snagged in the high branches by the roadside and rushed as a pink mist into Bobby’s glazed eyes.
The way that passage gives life to Bobby and his experiences encapsulates why Farthest Field is so compelling. The paradoxes involved in fighting for an empire that often despised them, simultaneously helping save it and break its fundamental assumptions just make the book even more worth reading.