“Time to get moving.” These words close the first chapter of Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field. They also begin the next chapter, and can ultimately be seen as a sort of punchline as well a poignant motif for this book. The restlessness they describe is that of a young man named Bobby, who is the thread winding through this account of Indian participation in World War II, and who always feels like he is late to the war, running to catch up with his close friends. Never mind that he has been priming himself by waging smaller battles beforehand: an early scene amusingly uses the line “this is where it got dangerous” in the context of Bobby’s attempt to get away with eating for free at a Parsi restaurant!

That should give you an idea of this book’s oblique approach to a Big Subject. Browse the contents pages of most WWII non-fiction – such as Anthony Beevor’s massive The Second World War – and you see expected chapter titles: “The Fall of France”, “Hitler’s Balkan War”, “Pearl Harbor”; everything the casual reader knows, or thinks he knows, about the signposts of that conflict. Farthest Field, on the other hand, begins in Calicut and Madras in the 1930s as a personal story about the lives of young Parsis, and later tarries for a while in Calcutta and Imphal, even while expanding outward to view the theatre of WWII through the activities of Indian troops in Afghanistan and Egypt, Burma and Iraq.

Appealingly, Karnad himself begins from a self-confessed position of ignorance: “Indians never figured in my idea of the war, or the war in my idea of India […] I hadn’t thought Madras could be even mentioned in the same book as Pearl Harbor.” Before he became interested in this subject, he wouldn’t have known about George Orwell’s 1942 remark that if Singapore were lost to the Japanese, India would become “for the time being the centre of the war, one might say the centre of the world”. Or that Winston Churchill had pronounced the possibility of Japanese landing in Ceylon and south India as “the most dangerous moment in the war”.

Creative but not fiction

The journey to this book began when Karnad started wondering about the three men whose black-and-white portraits adorned his maternal grandmother’s house. One of them, Bobby, turned out to be her younger brother; another, Ganny, was her husband, Karnad’s grandfather; the third, Manek, was her brother-in-law. They had all died, much too young, while fighting for the Allies, a species of soldier destined to be overlooked by history because they were in the service of India’s colonizers during the headiest days of the freedom struggle (and because they never afterwards had the opportunity to fight for independent India). And Karnad knew nothing about them, had never even got the chance to speak with his grandmother about them. “I still can’t believe I was so late,” he writes in his Prologue, pre-echoing the impatience of the Bobby he will create for this narrative.

I say “create” because there had to be some writerly licence involved. Even as he meticulously researched the journeys of his long-dead kin, delving into units’ diaries and other records, Karnad knew there were some things – their thoughts as they moved across frontiers, their feelings about what they were doing – that he could never have access to. And what are “facts” anyway? Even the interviews he conducted with Army veterans now in their nineties included unreliable memories and glib narrative-constructions; as John Still observed centuries ago, the memories of men are too frail a thread to hang history from.

And so Karnad made the decision to write this book as “forensic non-fiction” (“I started out with three unknown, dead men on my hands. Who were they? How did they die, and where, and what took them there?”), making it clear that his descriptions of inner lives are to a degree extrapolations. When we read about Bobby, “his young eyes primed for slights”, noticing that his grandfather’s obituary didn’t name his father, we know that Karnad himself, two generations later, has seen the obituary during his research, and imagined his youthful grand-uncle frowning at it. There are also novelistic descriptions and details that are obviously made up, from the little moments (a bottle of soda falling over and fizzing in someone’s rice during an argument) to the big ones (Manek and his wingman signaling to each other while flying).

If you have a rigid view of what non-fiction should be, or think that all good biographies or autobiographies capture clear, quantifiable truths about their subjects, or that fiction is just a lot of “made-up” stuff meant mainly for “entertainment”, this approach might not work for you. But after reading Karnad’s prologue, I was perfectly happy to accept this book on its own terms.

While using his three protagonists as starting points and chronicling their lives (including his grandparents’ struggle to be together in the face of family disapproval), he examines the side-stories, the larger contexts that surrounded Indian participation in the war. How the urgencies of the time muddied class and race lines, creating situations where British soldiers could no longer afford to see Indians as servants, not to be socialized with (even though there was continued resistance to empowering Indians with the most modern weapons). How the Indian Air Force, modern in sensibility unlike its counterparts on terra firma and in the water, reflected new expectations for the country by refusing to segregate faiths and castes. The continuing sense of responsibility felt by many Indians to the Empire, the distrust of the Subhas Chandra Bose approach – and how these feelings could coexist with a nascent form of nationalism.

Many of the descriptions are vivid, even poetic. “The strange agriculture of the desert,” Karnad writes, describing a troop’s attempts to clear and nullify a minefield, “One side planted steel seeds, and the other side harvested them. Only some lived out their natural design, to rise suddenly as a plumed palm of shocked air and sand.” Two warplanes flying haphazardly over a Burmese forest are “deranged eyeballs […] glaring round at the earth, the sky, the sun, the towering cumulonimbus, at each other, and their own instruments”. Some of this sounds surreal, but no more than what some of the actual fighting must have been like. Soldiers are often inexperienced (bumbling recruits “cut open their lips from the kick of the .303 rifles, and wore their gas masks upside down”) and fearfully mythologise the enemy – the German field marshal Rommel is seen as a magician whose Panzers seemed to rise up out of the desert’s nothingness, there are whispers about “Japs” being unbeatable in the jungle because, like yellow-skinned apes, they leap through the treetops.

Through all this, even when Bobby is inactive, he becomes a medium for the telling of other people’s stories, for tales about the heroics of jemadars and lieutenants on various fronts. He regards his own life as an anti-suspense novel, we are told. (“How will our hero escape his monotonous safety, and find his way to danger?”) Even when he sees what he thinks is an “awful spectacle”, he finds others around him chuckling and relating tales of much greater horrors. But eventually, he does find himself a participant in a crucial confrontation in Kohima, which Karnad describes as the greatest defeat in the history of the Japanese land army; a fight that helped preserve not a foreign empire but India itself, and a fight too quickly forgotten, its significance overlooked in the euphoria about the Allied landings in Normandy and elsewhere in mid-1944.

An intimate theatre

For me, the best bits of Farthest Fields were the personal ones: when Karnad is describing his own maternal grandparents in bed together – using love as an antidote to the uncertainty around them – or describing Bobby imagining a pier that extends westward, “its timbers multiplying and flying out over the water, building him a bridge to the war”. Or later, when he laments the self-serving First World narratives that tell us (for instance) that Britain was a brave little island withstanding the evil of fascism, when really the policies of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were part of a continuum that included the policies of British imperialism.

Some of the passages that dealt with the actual fighting felt a little distant, not as compelling. This may in part be because I am not a seasoned reader of war books, and can get easily daunted by military terminology, descriptions of manouevres, throwaway references to this or that division. But even speaking “objectively”, I felt that the book shifted just a little too fast from being tentative and searching and focusing on intimate stories to becoming a full-fledged war narrative, comfortably immersed in the minutiae of fighting.

Yet through it all there is our restless hero, anchoring the narrative, retaining our emotional investment. In a remarkable passage late in the book, the disoriented Bobby, surrounded by gunshots in the Naga village Jotsoma, “watched the battle, and then he could see himself watching the battle, and then for a moment he saw someone else, far away and in the future, watching him watch himself, at this moment”. While this time-travelling meta-reference might seem at first to be self-indulgence on the author’s part, I saw it as an honest breaking of the fourth wall to remind the reader about what the terms of this book are: how it aims not for documentary-like veracity but to reveal deeper, poetic truths about people, their private and public battles and about the histories that are in danger of slipping away from us.

Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War, Raghu Karnad, Fourth Estate.