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A tale of three men

Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War - Raghu Karnad

When most people think of the Second World War, the images that come to mind are those of airplanes dueling in the skies over Britain and Germany, soldiers fighting in the snow of Russia or the deserts of North Africa, or landing craft splashing ashore on the beaches of Normandy or the Pacific islands. Each of these images captures a portion of the war, but none by themselves can convey the totality of the conflict that was waged in many different regions, some often overshadowed by the fighting elsewhere.


Then there are other images, those of the men and women who served in the war. It was those images which are the genesis of Raghu Karnad's book. From the starting point of the small photographs of them his family kept on display in their house he reconstructs the lives and wartime careers of three men he never knew: his grandfather Kodandera "Ganny" Ganapathy and his grand-uncles Bobby Mugaseth and Manek Dadabhoy. Each of them volunteered to serve in the Second World War; none of them survived it. Using family records and the histories of the conflict, he describes their lives and their wartime experiences, highlighting some of those often overshadowed aspects of the war. For his grandfather, his war consisted of service as a doctor in a hospital on the Northwest Frontier, where he died not in combat but from bronchitis. By contrast his uncles had more direct experiences of war, serving in combat against the Japanese in Burma and northeastern India. Their experiences may have been heroic, but their fates no less tragic for Karnad's family.


Reading Karnad's book brought to mind for me another account of war, Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. While her book was a personal account of her experiences of the First World War, it too was structured around the stories of three men close to her who died over the course of it. Such a focus makes the retelling of the war come alive, as does Karnad's almost novelistic style. So vividly does he reconstruct scenes that they almost seem more like fiction than fact, yet it is probably more accurate to claim that Karnad employed all of his skills as a journalist to take the accounts in the letters and memoirs and bring them to life. The result is a work that underscores the dual tragedy of the deaths of three dynamic young men whose promise was cut short and their sacrifice in the service an empire about to be ended by the efforts of their countrymen, and it is no small measure of Karnad's achievement that he restores to them the nobility of their choice.