History revisited

Emotional worlds: Letters Indian soldiers sent home during World War II

What was it like fighting for the British at a time when the struggle for India’s freedom was at its peak?

“I have written to you many times but God alone knows why I don’t get your letters. You say you write regularly. Letters mean half meetings and they are a great consolation to us.”  

— Written in Urdu by an Indian sepoy from Tunisia on May 16, 1943.
An Indian soldier guards a group of Italian prisoners near El Adem aerodrome, during the pursuit of Axis forces westwards after the relief of Tobruk -Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum © IWM (E 7180)
An Indian soldier guards a group of Italian prisoners near El Adem aerodrome, during the pursuit of Axis forces westwards after the relief of Tobruk -Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum © IWM (E 7180)

Two-and-a-half million men from undivided India served the British during the Second World War. Their experiences are little remembered today, neither in the UK, where a Eurocentric memory of the war dominates, nor in South Asia, which privileges nationalist histories of independence from the British Empire.

And yet, military censorship reports from the Second World War, archived at the British Library’s India Office Records and containing extracts from Indian soldiers’ letters home, bear witness to this counter-narrative. What was it like fighting for the British at a time when the struggle for India’s freedom from British rule was at its most incendiary?

An Indian soldier guarding an Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery in Persia, 4 September 1941 - Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum © IWM (E 5330)
An Indian soldier guarding an Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery in Persia, 4 September 1941 - Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum © IWM (E 5330)

Letters were written in Indian languages – Hindi, Gurmukhi, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil – and often dictated to scribes by Indian sepoys who were illiterate. They were then translated into English for the censor, who compiled selected quotations from the letters into a report testifying to the spirit or morale of the soldiers. Soldiers’ names have been anonymised in these reports, and so it is virtually impossible to trace the letters to their writers. All that remains are evocative textual shards – a portal into the soldiers’ emotional world.

The letters forge a material and emotional connection between the home front and the battlefront. In the sentence, “Letters mean half meetings and they are a great consolation to us” with which this post begins, the unknown Indian sepoy links the letter’s affective impact – its “consolation”, assuaging loneliness, homesickness and longing – to its inherent physicality – “half meetings”. An intimate moment is captured between the home front and the battlefront, a negotiation between distance and proximity created by the act of letter writing.

Letter-writing is foregrounded again in the only love letter among the censorship reports. Written in Urdu by an Indian Lieutenant – part of the rising Indian officer class making inroads into the Indian Army – the extract is addressed to the soldier’s beloved during the Allied invasion of Italy:

“Here I am penning this to you in the middle of one of the biggest nights in the history of this war. Love, I am sure by the time you receive this letter you will guess correctly as to where I am. … You would feel that the whole world were shaking with an earthquake or probably the sky were falling over you…Yet in the midst of this commotion, I sit here, on my own kit-bag and scribble these few lines to my love for I do not really know when I will get the next opportunity to write to you.”

Here, writing itself becomes an source of solace amidst the frenetic sounds and activity of the war. It also embodies presence. With the image of the soldier sitting on his kit bag and scribbling, this wartime love letter becomes a remarkable testament to the forgotten experiences of the Indian soldier, and the articulation of his complex inner life, during the Second World War.

This article first appeared on British Library’s Untold Lives blog.

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

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It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

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Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.