Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War

I was reminded of Yeats’s poem, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, while I was reading Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War. The author, Raghu Karnad, tells the story of his maternal grandfather and two great-uncles who died young, serving the British in the Second World War, long before he was born.

The Irish airman in Yeats’s poem says:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love…

Indians also had no reason to love the British.

Raghu Karnad recalls how the British discriminated against Indians. In the First World War, he writes, “the army sententiously debated whether it was alright for black Indians to kill white Germans, or even to have their wounds treated by white nurses”.

The Royal Air Force opened fire on Indians during the Quit India movement in 1942. Karnad recalls: “RAF planes fired into crowds in Bhagalpur and Monghyr, In Nadia and Tamluk in Bengal, and in Talcher in Orissa. One plane crashed and a mob burned the British pilot alive.”

The government let people starve to death during the Bengal famine of 1943. The famine was caused by a poor harvest and the government’s scorched-earth policy. After Burma was overrun by the Japanese in 1942, the Indian authorities in the border districts emptied the rice granaries and set them on fire to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Japanese. Three million people died in the famine, according to Wikipedia. But the British prime minister Winston Churchill was unmoved by their suffering. Karnad recalls: “At a meeting of his War Cabinet, Churchill declared his view that only those Indians directly contributing to the war effort needed to be fed.”

World’s biggest ever volunteer army

Indians, however, joined the army in their thousands when the British called for volunteers. The two-million-strong Indian army in the Second World War was the largest volunteer force the world had ever known, says Karnad.

Many Indians joined as commissioned officers, who used to be almost exclusively white before.

Karnad’s maternal grandfather, Ganny, and two great-uncles joined as officers. Ganny entered the Army Medical Corps for the money. He was in love with Karnad’s grandmother, Nugs, who was also a doctor like him, and he wanted to save some money to marry her.

Nugs’s sister Kosh’s husband, Manek – Karnad’s great-uncle by marriage – joined the air force as a pilot because he wanted to fly.  Nugs and Kosh’s brother, Bobby, Karnad’s great-uncle, joined the army.

They were young, fun-loving, Westernized. All except Ganny were Parsis.

Farthest Field takes us from Madras and nearby areas – they were all from the south – to the various places where they served. In the process, it becomes a history of the Indian army during the Second World War. The narrative takes us from the borders of Afghanistan to Southeast Asia, from the Middle East to North Africa.

We see Manek flying a Westland Wapiti biplane in the Northwest Frontier Province before being transferred to Imphal, where he flies the more modern Hawker Hurricane to fight against the Japanese in Burma.

Bobby is sent to Iraq before finding himself fighting against the Japanese in Kohima.  Along the way they hear about Indians fighting elsewhere in the war. Thus we hear about Indians fighting against Rommel in North Africa — and Indian prisoners of war in Japanese-occupied Singapore joining the Indian National Army to fight for Indian independence.


Only Ganny sees no action. His lungs damaged by the winter winds, he dies of bronchitis in a military hospital on the Frontier with his wife, Nugs, by his side. Soon after she gives birth to their daughter, who grows up to be a doctor like them. Their daughter, in her turn, has a son, who grows up to be the writer, Raghu Karnad.

Nugs’s sister, Kosh, is widowed too by the war. Her husband, Manek, dies in an air crash near Imphal. Karnak recalls what the authorities told the family in a telegram:

Manek had been returning to base through extreme low visibility due to monsoon cloud and had flown into a hill inside Indian lines. He’d been carrying Kosh’s photograph in his pocket, where they found it, folded into his maps. The telegram thanked them for their sacrifice.

Bobby dies in mysterious circumstances after action in Kohima. Some would say the gun went off in error, others, he was playing Russian roulette. The truth would never be known.

Karnad says he saw the three men’s pictures in his maternal grandmother’s house in Madras but didn’t ask about them until she and her sisters and most of their generation were gone.

Even his mother knew little, he adds, “though one of the men was her father, and the others her two uncles”.

He was surprised when he learned they had been in the Second World War,

“Indians never figured in my idea of the war,” he says, “even though the Indian Army in the Second World War was the largest volunteer army the world had ever known… I was accustomed to thinking of the war as Western Front, Eastern Front and Pacific.”

Indians remember the freedom movement, whose leaders opposed the war. The Indian army’s Second World War campaigns are largely forgotten because the army then fought for the British and not for a free India.

Those who died in the war are now dying a second time, according to Karnad, for

People have two deaths: the first at the end of their lives, when they go away, and the second at the end of the memory of their lives, when all who remember them are gone. Then a person quits the world completely…

Death is a field from which no one returns. The second death is the farthest field of all.

The Second World War dead like his maternal grandfather Ganny and great-uncles Bobby and Manek have now reached the farthest field because even those who remembered them like his grandmother are dead.

“Writing the personal story of these three men was my attempt to draw back the dead,” says Raghu Karnad. He has succeeded in bringing them back to life in Farthest Field.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
By William Butler Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

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