Books

New Friends in Their Nineties, a Window to a Missing War

For Raghu Karnad, recipient of this year’s Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for English, a passing generation held the key to a lost chapter in Indian history.

Subedar Naranjan Singh, who served in the 3rd Indian Signals Division in World War II, was one of the veterans interviewed by the author. Credit: Raghu Karnad

Subedar Naranjan Singh, who served in the 3rd Indian Signals Division in World War II, was one of the veterans interviewed by the author. Credit: Raghu Karnad

In recent years, most of the new friends I’ve made have been nonagenarians. Tell me you know someone born before 1925, and you’ve got me on a chain. I was writing a book about a young Indian family – my family – in the second world war. Had they still been around, they would have been crossing 95. But they all took their leave many years before I began writing.

So I looked elsewhere for nonagenarians, especially that rare article, the Indian veteran of the war. The meetings were many things, but never what I had feared – they were never macabre. Too many Indian stories were waiting to be uncorked after decades in storage. Of drinking beer with American troops going AWOL in wartime occupied Iran. Of glimpsing Mussolini’s corpse strung up in Milan. Or tasting ground-to-air fire in the skies above Mandalay and feeling a wet splatter as bullets riddled the cockpit (then realising it wasn’t blood, just a vial of iodine).

I have to go back again to see Wing Commander Hoshang Patel, a superbly handsome, pensive gent living in Bombay, who made me feel his papier mâché hands for the bones badly set after he crashed his bomber over Waziristan in 1942. He knew I’d come a long way for some particular memories of his. He pressed his fingers over his eyes and looked pained and incredulous at having lost them. After an hour of other stories, he brought out scotch and ice. He sighed about his beloved wife being bedridden and his own strange death impending. He drank me under the table and left me half in love.

The Army ID of Kodandera Ganapathy, or "Ganny", the author's grandfather and one of his central characters in his book Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War. Credit: Raghu Karnad

The Army ID of Kodandera Ganapathy, or “Ganny”, the author’s grandfather and one of his central characters in his book Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War. Credit: Raghu Karnad

The one veteran who found me (though he wasn’t Indian) was Gordon Graham. He had been a captain of the queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders when they fought in Kohima in 1944. Later he became a writer too and I had already read his clear, compassionate memoir, The Trees are all Young on Gordon Hill, to make sense of the savage battles at the eastern edge of India, and the furthest western extent of Japan’s brief empire. “It is wonderful,” he wrote to me, “to read the thoughts of a new generation about these events so long ago.” I was moved to write back – on paper! – and ask for his blessings for the book I was starting to write. He gave them.

As Graham said, those events seem so long ago – but they are still in living memory, for as long as the nonagenarians are around. I wrote my final chapters in 2014, the centenary year of the first world war, when the participant nations turned diligently to remembrance. But I never grasped why anyone should observe a centenary. Because of the decimal system, I suppose – even though everyone who participated in the event would be dead.

I was glad to see my book, Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World war, published on a seventieth anniversary – in this case, of the end of the second world war. The 70th has a more human significance, reminding us to commune with a generation and its stories before they disappear together. I’m told that Graham saw my proofs, before he died on April 24 last year. His spirit survives in the Kohima Educational Trust, which he founded, and in which the gratitude of war veterans to the Naga tribespeople finds lasting expression.

Raghu Karnad is the author of Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War, and the recipient of the 2016 Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for writing in English.