DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR, the Indian Army was considered to be the world’s largest mercenary organization, fighting to protect the imperial stronghold of its centuries-long oppressor. As India’s freedom movement started to drive seismic impact through this period, the idea of its army fighting to uphold the freedoms of its colonizer, the British, seemed irreconcilable.

Raghu Karnad writes of the mood in the country during World War II:

Indians, who had spent two decades entering the river of nationalist sentiment, now found its flow violently reversed or eddying in confusion. The freedom struggle was a diversion from the fight against fascism, or vice versa. The word “freedom” pulled one way and then the other. It meant freedom for the men of Europe. It meant freedom from the men of Europe.

Farthest Field is, in some way, a memoriam for the Indian soldiers who died in this war, an attempt to salvage the untold stories before the last vestiges of their existence evanesce. In doing so, Karnad elevates their sacrifices from the footnotes of the annals of war.

The author brings into focus crucial episodes of the conflict, which are relegated to interstitial passages in the popular narrative — dominoes in the plot that, had they fallen, could have been the undoing of the Empire. After the victories of Japan in Burma and Singapore, India was set up as the next battleground for the war. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru believed India would be the crux of the conflict, in tandem with the “Russian theatre.” George Orwell also opined about India’s fate as the “centre of the war.” This story throbs with the impending threat — it examines the intense campaign to guard her (the Empire’s) borders, and conditions that mimicked the ravages of war without it having befallen the country.

The leaders of the Indian National Congress and Gandhi demanded political freedom if India’s soldiers were to fight in Britain’s war. The rationale was tenable: the move would boost the morale of the soldiers to protect a country truly their own. But to Winston Churchill, “the war was a call to redeem the imperial bond, not to dissolve it.”

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Karnad’s nonfiction is equal parts genealogy, political history, and literary storytelling. Sourcing letters, documents, and scant anecdotal recollections, he fleshes out the personal narrative with imagination and reliance on filial instinct. Karnad turns to his ancestors for subjects. His heredity guides him as he scripts their soliloquy in the most desolate hours of war.

In the 10th century, the Zoroastrian community of Parsis fled to India to escape persecution at the hands of Arab invaders in Iran. India offered refuge to the Parsis, and in return they avowed to a degree of politesse, maintaining the comportment of a guest. This complicated their idea of nationalism. Karnad’s great-grandfather Khodadad — who was Parsi — is portrayed as something of a war profiteer. Khodadad’s son Bobby defied his wish to join the business and chose to serve instead. Bobby was also inspired by his brothers-in-law, Manek and Ganny, who had already enlisted to serve.

As Karnad investigates the motivations of this generation of men in his family, he casts Bobby in the mold of Beau Geste. Sold on the subterfuge of heroic combat with the enemy, inchoate men like Bobby and Manek were unprepared for the severity and drudgery of endless days in war conditions — quickly disillusioned from their somewhat quixotic sentiments of bravado, honor, and daredevilry.

Entranced by the thrill of flying, Manek joined the Indian Air Force, but his skills ranked novice. Manek’s training seemed rash, expedited to service the urgencies of the Empire’s war. Tasked with taking down the radical Pashtuns — to which the roots of the Taliban could be tenuously traced back — and led by the Faqir of Ipi (“the Mad Mullah”), Manek’s first posting at Miranshah at North Waziristan (part of Pakistan post-independence) best illustrates the moral quandary of Indian nationals. The Waziri Pashtuns were guerrilla elements that threatened British rule in India and could reinforce the attack on the Empire with the Axis closing in. Ipi’s renegade clan was, in some way, the savage counterpart of the Congress-led freedom movement in India. This perplexed Manek: “His fight had begun at last. Against whom, he wasn’t certain.”

Bobby started training to be a Bengal sapper, many of whom were farm boys. The scenes reveal a military culture that, at its kindest, evinced the patronizing solace of Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din, which writhes with dark compassion for the lowliest ranks of Indians serving on the battlefield. The gullible Bobby views films like Cary Grant’s Gunga Din and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, screened for the men at the training camp, with credulity — imagining that similar adventures await him.

Given the emergent climate and the dangers of the formation of a fifth column, the British could not hazard mistreating the Indian infantry as they had done in the First World War. But despite the assurance of respect accorded by rank and not race, the rot of discrimination tacitly prevailed in the forces. Both Bobby and Ganny were observers and victims of such indignity. When practiced on a larger scale, such disregard was of a genocidal nature.

As Singapore was lost to Japan, 70,000 Indian troops were handed over as prisoners. When the invasion of Rangoon, Burma, began, the Empire (the Raj) was “not only unable to defend [the Indian refugees], it had no plan to help them escape.” The vilest stories came from the journey of the army’s retreat and what was, at the time, the largest human migration in history: 80,000 people died en route.

Few survivors carried anything, except for anguished tales of their abandonment by the Raj. Lying in their cholera beds, they told of Anglo-Indian families whose darker-skinned daughters were turned away from camps for Europeans; of columns of Indian refugees held back until Europeans had passed, so the roads would be less begrimed …

The depredations of this war were most glaringly manifest in the Bengal famine of 1943. The famine claimed around three million lives, of mostly poor Indians. In that state of crisis, Churchill was of the view that only those Indians directly contributing to the war effort needed to be fed. (“The newly generous Indian Army rations only made the situation look worse. The mercenaries feasted among the starving slaves.”)

Bobby was a Bengal sapper in the Fourteenth Army, which defended India’s northeastern borders — contiguous to Burma — in Kohima and “dealt the Japanese land army the greatest defeat in its history.” But the heroism of soldiers like Bobby went unsung as the paeans were reserved for the military victors in Normandy. This compounded the disillusionment of this “Forgotten Army.”

There are moments of profound sentimentality in the book, which address the family’s — the wives, sisters, and parents who were left behind — struggle, and there is poetry in the prose. But Karnad is mindful of the temptation to wax elegiac; he is appreciative of how the memory of these men’s sacrifices gradually expires, even for their own family members. The remembrance becomes a prosaic feature on a mantelpiece, pressed in the recesses of photo frames — portraits which capture Bobby, Manek, and Ganny’s prewar individualities.

The author dignifies the lives of soldiers in a war that would not honor their sacrifices and a freedom movement that cast them as outliers. This Indian soldier was, as Karnad aptly calls him, “no land’s man” — putting an intelligent spin on geopolitical phrasing. Karnad’s endeavor with this book brings a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five to mind:

There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.

With Farthest Field, Karnad reclaims the identities of these listless playthings. He humanizes these mercenaries in this Indian story of the Second World War.

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Neha Sharma is a writer and culture critic based in Delhi, India.