“Who knows? You lot are refugees. You could sneak off anywhere. You’ll take shelter where you find it. What if you enter Palestine?” This admonition and hostility against refugees appears topical, doesn’t it? But these lines are actually from Battlefield, Jerry Pinto’s English translation of Ranaangan, a 1939 novel by the Marathi writer, playwright, and filmmaker Vishram Bedekar.

Bedekar’s first and only novel reads like contemporary fiction not only because of its relevance but because of its aptness in responding to every major crisis – the refugee crisis, totalitarianism, fake news – facing the world today. The book lives up to the expectations of art that Olivia Laing lays down in the introduction to her defining essays in response to the pandemic and 1980s AIDS crisis Funny Weather: Art in the Age of Emergency: “It [art] shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us to the interior lives of others. It is a training ground for possibility. It makes plain inequalities, and it offers other ways of living.”


Laying bare the story of a world caught in a war frenzy, where racism is rampant and jingoism is at an all-time high, Battlefield primarily follows a sea voyage in which the principal character Chakradhar Vidhwans, after having his heart broken by the love of his life Uma, and intrigued by the German Jew Herta, not only realises his own inability to love but also learns to adequately respond to personal losses.

In Pinto’s sensitive translation, the book progresses as if it’s a conversation with the reader, ebbing and flowing alongside the journeys that the ship takes from Genoa to Port Said, halting briefly at Bombay port before reaching its destination, Shanghai, where German Jews are trying to flee from the Nazi dispensation.

In more ways than one, the characters in this novel occupy tormented bodies scarred by experiences and spaces as dismal as the sea. This setting is akin to that of a Hollywood classic. But in the event of impending war, the novel seems to be asking the question facing artists today: Will writing about this help in any way?

This is something that concerns contemporary writers like the USA-based writer Amitava Kumar, who in his novel on fake news A Time Outside This Time writes: “What can one write to save a life? And what are you to write after that life that you were trying to save is gone?”

Is it really the function of art to save lives? Can art respond to a crisis? For teenage boys overcome with the desire to “save their nation” who eventually end up losing their lives on the battlefield, or for prostituted woman serving their bodies to men in service of their country, what purpose does a string of sentences serve? It begs to recall the answer that Megha Majumdar offered in her debut novel A Burning: “Not very much.”

More than the role of the artists, the novel takes a meditative stance on the nation-building process. Via perfectly chiselled dialogues, it asks if any “nation can give evidence of ownership,” reminding us of the nationwide protests against CAA and NRC in 2019.


The lives of German Jews Herta and Keitel, who appear to have “seen a good deal of the world” and are embarking on a new journey, to a new country, learning a new language because their own country has disowned them, mirror the tragedy of, among others, Rohingya Muslims and queer people in Israel.

In Germany, when a new ruler successfully captured the imagination of its people by claiming Jews were the root cause of problems, “righting wrongs that might be real or imagined,” its people immediately bought into his story. Because people everywhere love to know that the cause of their failure lies outside, beyond their control. And when someone presents their ability to control such variables, that person becomes a leader by default because those who get to tell the story get to control the narrative, and consequently: You!

As Union Home Minister Amit Shah once said at an election rally in 2018, the BJP can deliver “any message we want to the public, whether sweet or sour, true or fakeIndia is at the sort of crossroads today that Germany once experienced. It will be an active choice from here on for the people. But a strategy of historical revenge never qualifies as nationalism. As Bedekar writes, “If this becomes rooted in our history as a way of thinking, what becomes of man’s evolution?”

Battlefield, Vishram Bedekar, translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger.