Raghu Karnad on winning Windham-Campbell Prize, his book on India's role in WWII, and forgotten histories

Raghu Karnad was standing in his balcony basking in the bright Delhi-morning sun with some hungry cats around his feet when he got a phone call. On answering, he was told that he had been awarded the prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize for non-fiction for his book about three Indian men who fought in World War II. He recalls having said one of two things: “I haven’t even had a cup of coffee yet” or “Are you sure you have got the right person?”

Yale University’s literature award, a handsome $165,000 purse, is an anonymous selection. Writers are blissfully unaware that their work is under consideration and winners alone get an email and a phone call – completely out of the blue, for them.

“I think I made them tell me the name of the book they were awarding,” The Wire’s Chief of Bureau and editor-at-large remembers asking them, to ascertain that they had not made a mistake.

The win for Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War, a simultaneously emotional, political and dramatic story has maneuvered the author towards returning to what he knows he loves to do best. The Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar awardee has taken a sabbatical from writing until the end of the 2019 national elections but this award has now lit up a path for him for what comes next.

Raghu Karnad on winning Windham-Campbell Prize, his book on Indias role in WWII, and forgotten histories

Cover of Raghu Karnad's creative non-fiction, Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War

Of the generous reward he said, "For any creative person, this kind of support is a huge gift" and "I am going to give a lot of thought to how I can use it to support writers in India other than myself."

While writing this story, Karnad was travelling non-stop around the country and to different parts of the world for the better part of two to three years. The journalist who frequently hops between Delhi and Bangalore also spent a lot of time in the north-east (presumably to research the conflict in Kohima) and in over a dozen towns and cities in India, without a book deal and an advance, spending money out of his own pocket. This kind of support is very valuable then and would enable resourcing for an upcoming project, he pointed out.

The journalist’s debut novel, Farthest Field is a creative non-fiction that tells the story of three men, Bobby, Ganny and Manek who go off to fight for the Allies in the Second World War. But the story of this 2015 work really begins in the house of the author’s maternal grandmother.

Growing up, Karnad had just assumed that she was not particularly interesting but when he started writing the story of Bobby, her younger brother, her husband Ganny and Manek, her brother-in-law and the part she played in the narrative, it led him to think that her endurance and physical courage was of a kind that almost no one in his immediate world was required to show today.

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The stories of Indian soldiers enlisted in the army of the British Raj, their loyalty to the empire and a sense of nationalism simmering in the Indian conscience are all a part of his book but the underlying subject, in fact, is memory and forgetting, “how it’s possible to forget the most dramatic things that happen in our personal or in our national lives.”

For Karnad, one of the real rewards of researching this project was going and meeting the elderly veterans who were in the British army during the World War II and served out their career in the army of independent India.

Approaching history by talking to the elderly is like a horizon. "A horizon of history that is always about 75 years ago.”

“And when I was writing the book," he said, "that horizon was exactly moving over that generation, I was running and catching people who were left; most of them are gone now.”

Sometimes, he said, it was fascinating how he would get a particular story from a veteran’s wife because “at that point in their life, she had heard the story many times that she had retained it better than he had.”

As a journalist you reflect on this, he explained. That you can hear a story from the mouth of your source and they can be speaking to you in good faith, but memory and the recollection of it is transformed by so many forces and factors, like time. Many things have now come to bear on their memory of the Second World War – why they signed up, where it led them, what they felt when they were in it.

‘Memory is transforming, slowly changing shape and getting polished.’

The author would ask the nonagenarians to recall an incident from nearly seventy years ago, when they were in the prime of their lives, on the threshold of great adventures, were travelling the world and meeting the man or the woman who would be their partners, their husbands and wives. Piecing together their youth and the youth of his grandmother led him to think, “her life was way more interesting than mine is every likely to be.”

How does the author feel having the story of his family out there for all to read? While Farthest Field is a deeply personal account of people related to him, the story has always been a paradox. Strangely enough, he had hardly known much about them, some of them were also complete strangers to him and their life stories were mysteries. He had always been interested in the Second World War but discovering its history within his family, having until that point been completely oblivious to its existence, was wildly exciting, like “turning around and looking up at a mountain that had sprung up from the ground.”

“So, although I was piecing together some very intimate narratives in these personal stories – one of them directly relates to the conception and the birth of my mother – I was also filling in a completely mysterious picture.”

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Karnad's book speaks of every significant event of the war including Pearl Harbour and the Balkan War but through a journey across several nations, it drives home to capture the narrative of a chapter completely erased from our country’s history: India’s participation in World War II.

“There are a couple of things we have completely wrong about India’s army because we don’t learn about India’s role in the Second World War.”

Journalist and author Raghu Karnad

Journalist and author Raghu Karnad was awarded the Windham-Campbell prize for his work Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War. Image courtesy: Yashas Chandra

The author was always interested in the war, as a journalist he took modern Indian history very seriously but somehow he had never thought about how the two overlapped. However for India, “World War II was the largest military engagement that Indians and the Indian states ever participated in. In Indian history, Indians had never fought a war larger than this.”

The Indian army is touted to be one of the leading defence forces in the world today but not many recognise that it was essentially consolidated in its current form during World War II while Indian soldiers served as an army under the British Raj.

According to Karnad, “The reason that people don’t want to remember this is that people don’t want to remember that the heroes of India’s wars against Pakistan (1947, 1965, 1971) and all the top brass of the Indian forces were men who didn’t actually sign up to be the army of independent India, they signed up to be the army of British India and that complicates our treatment of the army as a nationalist institution.”

“People who don’t know the army very well make a lot of noise about how nationalism is the most essential principle of the Indian army. But I think that the most valuable and admirable principle of the Indian army is its professionalism."

"It is something that we have inherited and World War II is central to it.”

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Updated Date: Mar 20, 2019 09:24:46 IST

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