A Profoundly Feeling Book

In his prologue, Raghu Karnad describes his book Farthest Field, as "live flesh drawn over skeletons rebuilt from scattered bones." It came to him as such a thing might come to any of us, looking at family photographs and wondering who the flesh-and-blood people behind the two-dimensional images were. But whereas most of us would stop at merely wondering, Karnad persisted in knowing, asking, reading, researching and "reaching into the darkness" to retrieve the little he could find. Then he allowed his rich imagination to play on the scraps and reconstruct the lives and deaths of the three men of his family, framed in silver, who had died fighting a war. The death of young lives in wars must always be counted as tragic. But if the war is for the nation, the tragic is elevated to the heroic. Such elevation was denied to Karnad's grandfather Ganny, and uncles Bobby and Manek, because they had fought a colonial war.

People die two deaths says Karnad. The first is when they die. The second is when they are forgotten. Farthest Field  restores to memory not only the three forgotten men of his family, but with them, six years of a forgotten war. "Indians never figured in my idea of the war, or the war in my idea of India," Karnad writes. And yet the Indian Army in the Second World War was "the largest volunteer force the world had ever known." When the war ended, however, the over two million men and women who had served the alien masters with their bodies and indomitable spirits "found that they had spent the past six years on the wrong side of history. Ever since, having fought for free India would be the price of admission into national memory."

Karnad's prologue is our first taste of the supple muscularity of his prose. Later in the book we are caught and held by the sharpness of his political analysis, by his ability to encompass the disordered complexity of the Burma campaign where the Indian Army was called upon to fight not only the Japanese but also Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, and by the leaps of imagination that conjure up for us in vivid detail everything from sorties in the air and on the ground to army messes, film shows in tents, individual stories and deaths. This war did not bring death only to the men who fought in it but also to thousands of innocent people in Bengal who died of starvation, the result of a cruel combination of war tactics and natural calamity. "Men returning from the countryside described ghost villages, infants trying to feed at the breasts of dead mothers, children with limbs mangled by packs of dogs which no longer waited for people to die."  

What evokes these people, places and events so vividly for us, is Karnad's springy prose that admits of nothing even remotely approaching the smooth and the well-worn. With consummate skill he creates startling graphic images that fix in our minds all that he sees, interprets and discovers. Malabar to which the Parsi half of his family belonged, "lay in the narrow lap of the western coast, with its head leaned up against the high range of the Western Ghats." Bobby was "ready to run away into the street and ripen his Malayalam in the sun." The view from the cockpit of Manek's Hawker Audax from 2,500 feet up was of slopes "graded from the rule of brown to disobedient shades of purple, ferrous orange and powder blue." When a transport plane arrived, its "steel jaw fell open, banged hard on the tarmac, and the mouth of the plane lay agape, waiting for men to enter. It looked to Bobby like a great sacrifice, the feeding of the whole 5th Division to the bird gods, the Dakota and Commando transports."

And this is how Karnad describes Bobby's death. "In the moment that remained after the revolver's roar, he felt warm liquid coming down his cheek and ears, like the bath of milk his sisters gave him on his birthdays. He looked down at his arms and saw the rose petals landing, one after another, until they covered everything."

Is that how Bobby felt his death? How would anybody know? But Karnad gives himself the right to create an imaginative truth. He feels Bobby's death for us. That's the strength of Farthest Field. It is not only a thinking book. It is also a profoundly feeling book.

Published On : 22-07-2015