“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”Raghu Karnad, Farthest Fields
Photographs of three young men, framed in dull silver frames, stood on tabletops in a house in Madras. The photographs were to remind people of three brothers-in-law, Godrej Mugaseth(Bobby), Kodandera Ganapthy (Ganny) and Manek Dadabhoy. The three joined the largest volunteer army, the Indian Army, to fight in World WarII. Bobby joined Bengal Sappers as an army engineer. Ganny, a doctor, joined the Indian Medical Services and was stationed at Thal. Manek became an officer in the Indian Air Force and was dispatched to North-East Frontier. All three perished in World War II. Ganny from acute bronchitis, Manek’s plane crashed inside the Indian lines on the North-East frontier and Bobby was lost in the jungles of North-East. The three were minor cogs in the war machine and the impact of their death was only felt in their immediate family. Over the years the stories, hidden behind the veil of stoicism, became blurred. Until finally the author’s curiosity was piqued by the photographs in his grandmother’s home and this book was born.
The book starts idyllically with Godrej Mugaseth aka Bobby, enjoying his pampered life as the son of a rich Parsi businessman of Calicut. Blessed with charm and good looks, Bobby moves to Madras to study engineering. Madras becomes the new home of the younger Mugaseths. His elder sister was excommunicated for marrying Gopalaswami Parthsarthi, who joins The Hindu. His other sister, Nugs, the grandmother of the author Raghu Karnad, falls in love and eventually marries a Kodava, Kodandera Ganapthy aka Ganny. His youngest sister, Kosh married Manek Dadabhoy, the dashing young Parsi who took to flying like a duck to water. The threads of war, the struggle for Indian independence and the struggles of the Mugaseths, are all entangled with one another in the book.
Many books have been written about World War II, but the narrative has always overlooked the importance of the soldiers and officers from the Indian sub-continent. The book is a great read to know more about the contribution of the Indian Army to World War II. Many forgotten facts of World WarII come to light, for instance, the fact that even Madras at one point, was at risk from Japanese invasion. The war action shifts from NWFP to Egypt, to Basra and finally culminates in the siege of Kohima. The war scenes are described in great details, with the siege of Kohima getting its due. The so-called “Forgotten Army”, the one which fought on the North-Eastern Frontier of India, is brought into prominence in this book. It brings to the reader the importance and the significance of the Indian Army in helping Great Britain get the upper hand in World War II.
It is an astonishing fact that even though more than two million men and women served the Indian Army, their services during World War are forgotten, even in India. The book lays bare the prejudices against the Indian officers in the Indian Army before the start of World War II, and the Indian officers getting their due after the introduction of the Emergency Commission which gave them equal pay and rank on par with the White Officers. Verghese Kurien and Laksmi Sahgal also make a fleeting appearance in the book.
Non-fiction books based on dry war facts are not what I would pick for myself, but this book is different. Farthest Field has been classified as a non-fiction book, but it is not a scholarly tome, it has a human heart. What makes this book exceptional is that it touches you on a personal level. The human element of the Mugaseth family makes you invested in the story, eager to know more. Bobby Mugaseth gets resurrected as your friend, as he goes gallivanting through his life.
“Death is a field from which no one returns. The second death is the farthest field of all. That was where I found Bobby, trying to cross.”Raghu Karnad, Farthest Fields