Archive for the ‘Shared Sorrows’ Category

Shared Sorrows – 7

February 4, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)

 

Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 7

 

Sisir Sarbadhikari recounts another story about the deserted Armenian village that he and his fellow POWs marched through on the northwards march from Mosul: when he went to look into a well a swarm of insects flew out. He explains that he had not intended to drink from the well; it was merely out of curiosity that he had looked inside. ‘It was not at all advisable,’ he writes, ‘to drink from these wells; there were Armenian corpses rotting in many of them.’ (129-30).

Over the next few days, as the prisoners marched northwards, they saw other empty, abandoned villages; a couple of them had been burnt down. After some forty days of marching they reached a town called Nisibeen[i], now on the border of Turkey and Syria.

 

 

Nusaybin 1916 (Mideastimage.com)

Nusaybin 1916 (Mideastimage.com)

[This picture of Nusaybin is described as having been ‘taken by German military assigned to the British POW of Kut in Mesopotamia in 1916 during their march to Anatolia .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The shop keepers (Kurdish Jews) and their covered wives in white covers, migrated in mass to the Syrian town across the new border between Syria and Turkey post WW1 and formed the bulk of the Kurdish speaking Jewish community of Qamishli, considered the 3rd largest community of Syrian Jews after Aleppo and Damascus‘ (http://www.mideastimage.com/blog/?cat=30)]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sisir writes ‘In antiquity Nisibeen was a Roman town. Examples of their building styles can still be found. On the river the Roman bridge is still standing and it is used by heavy army trucks… Nisibeen is quite a big settlement; food is easily available there. The Khabur River (the Habur of the Bible) flows through the centre of the town so water is plentiful. It’s different from the places we’ve seen so far; a fine place for bivouacking troops. The people are cultured and well dressed. None of the Armenian inhabitants are left. The local people who remain are all Muslims or Syrian Christians.’ (131-2)

Sisir would return to Nisibeen later, but his first stay there was quite brief. The prisoners soon continued their northward march, reaching Ras al-‘Ain on September 2. They had marched for 46 days from Samarra to Ras al-‘Ain, covering some 500 miles (133).

This is how Sisir describes the camp at Ras al-‘Ain: ‘For shelter [we had] Bedouin tents; like those at the Baghdad rest camp. There were gales all the time, with swirling sand – it was like sticking needles in the body.[ii] A hospital was nominally set up in a small room and serious patients were sent there. Medicines and supplies were few; but at least there was shelter from rain and wind… Rations were irregular … they’d come after two or three days. They didn’t give us any firewood for cooking; we’d have to wander three or four miles gathering twigs and camel dung. There were no trees to get branches from.’ (138)



[i] This town, now on the border of Syria and Turkey, is currently known as Nusaybin. But the 19th century traveler J.S. Buckingham refers to it as Nisibeen, and argues that it was the ancient ‘Nisibir’: ‘The first foundation of Nisibeen is of an antiquity beyond even the reach of records; since it is thought, by some learned divines, to be one of the places enumerated in the Scriptures, as built by Nimrod, “the mighty hunter before the Lord… Its name is more frequenlty written “Nesibis”, on the medals which are preserved of it. It is found to be written “Nisibis” in Greek authors, while the present pronunciation of the name, “Nisibeen”, or “Nesbin”, is said, by D’Anville, to be in conformity to Abulfeda, the Arabian geographer.’ ( Travels in Mesopotamia, London 1827, pp. 242-3).

[ii] E.A.Walker, as quoted by Heather Jones  describes the Indians’ accommodation at Ras al-‘Ain in the following words: ‘they had ‘no shelter; only their own blankets, bare Turkish ration to live’’ (Imperial Captivities: Colonial Prisoners of War in Germany and the Ottoman Empire, 1914-1918, in Das, Santanu (ed.): Race, Empire and First World War Writing, CUP, 2011) . Although there is no disagreement in the two accounts, I am struck by the marked contrast in tone; here, as in other parts of the narrative, Sisir’s description is remarkably matter-of-fact, his attitude stoical. Perhaps this was because his account was written long after the events, when the raw edges of the experience had been smoothed by the passage of time. Or was it because, as a private, and an Indian, he expected less and was more accustomed to difficult conditions?

 

 


Shared Sorrows – 6

January 31, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)

 

 

Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 6.

 

[Below is a map of the region referred to in this and the last few posts, with the boundaries of the administrative divisions  (vilayet) of the Ottoman Empire marked.]

 

 

Iraq 1914 (http://musingsoniraq.blogspot.in/2009/11/blog-post.html)

Iraq 1914 (http://musingsoniraq.blogspot.in/2009/11/blog-post.html)

 

 

 

To return to On to Baghdad: on August 25, when Sisir Sarbadhikari and his fellow POWs reached Mosul they still did not know where they were being taken.

 

Mosul, Old Boat Bridge (http://www.almosul.org/Album/oldmosulcollection.htm)

Mosul, Old Boat Bridge (http://www.almosul.org/Album/oldmosulcollection.htm)

 

It was in Mosul that they received word of their destination: the Hindus (and Sikhs) were to be separated from the British and Muslim POWs; they would be sent to Ras al-‘Ain, where they would work on a rail line. (p. 124)[i]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although Sisir does not make much of it, there is something distinctive about his use of the word ‘Hindu’ here. The word does not occur often in the text, and until this point in the narrative, it has never been used to suggest that the various different non-Muslim groups in the British Indian expeditionary force had felt themselves to be ‘alike’, and different from their fellow soldiers. Sisir’s use of it in this sense here suggests to me that he and his comrades were surprised and disturbed to learn that the POWs from the British-Indian 6th Division, who had served together on the battlefield, were now to be split up along religious as well as racial lines.[ii] Many of them would probably have concluded that Hindus and Sikhs, being neither Europeans nor co-religionists of the Turks, would have to endure the worst conditions.[iii] Their apprehensions would surely have deepened when they learnt that they were being dispatched to an area where thousands of Armenians had been confined in concentration camps. The sense of being singled out for a shared plight probably contributed to the bonds of sympathy that developed between these Indians and the Armenians they encountered.

From Mosul the prisoners marched to Tell Kaaf.[iv] Shortly after this they entered a markedly different landscape:

Here everything is beginning to change[v], writes Sisir, ‘from the climate to the landscape and the appearance of the houses. It’s much cooler than before and the nights are cold. The terrain is no longer flat or undulating, we are now marching through mountainous country; the houses don’t have mud walls and roofs, they are made of stone. Before, there were no trees and no greenery, it was desolate, barren.[vi] Here trees can be seen. Amongst the stone houses, those that are clean, well-kept and nice-looking belong to the Christians (‘Nasrani’)… We are now on the frontiers of Kurdistan. 

 

 

 

Kurdish village, c. 1938 (http://www.saradistribution.com/otherranksofkut.htm)

Kurdish village, c. 1938 (http://www.saradistribution.com/otherranksofkut.htm)

The Kurds’ villages are mostly perched on mountain-tops, in inaccessible locations. How people can get to them is beyond our reckoning. The Kurds aren’t wanderers like the Bedouin (‘Badu’), they do some farming.’ (pp. 124-5)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sisir’s first mention of Armenians comes a few days later, on August 18th. In the course of that day’s march the prisoners encountered two rosy-cheeked Armenian boys, eight to ten years old. Sisir notes that they had crucifixes on their chests. ‘From what they said to us in broken Arabic,’ he writes, ‘we understood that the Turks had slaughtered their father and older brothers; where their mother was they did not know.’ (p. 126)

 

'Armenian village of Gundemir' c. 1901 (Wikimedia commons)

‘Armenian village of Gundemir’ c. 1901 (Wikimedia commons)

On the 23rd of August, the prisoners came to a small village. ‘From a distance the small stone houses, cradled by the mountains, were as pretty as a picture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On approaching closer we saw that they were empty of people. A dog emerged from an abandoned house… At that time we didn’t know that the inhabitants of these villages were Armenians; the men had been slaughtered and the women and children had been driven away.’ (p. 129)

Sisir’s description of the village is accompanied by a few lines from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem ‘The Deserted Village’ (quoted in English):

Along thy glades, a solitary guest…

Amidst thy bowers, the tyrant’s hand is seen,

And desolation saddens all thy green. (129)’

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[i] Cf. Heather Jones, (op. cit.) suggests that the separation of prisoners happened at Ras al-‘Ain: ‘Non-Muslim other rank Indian prisoners were eventually segregated at Ras-el-Ain to work on the railway line; Muslim and British other rank prisoners were transported on from Ras-el-Ain by train to separate camps in Turkey proper.’ But Sarbadhikari’s account suggests that it happened earlier.

[ii] The term ‘Hindu’ was perhaps more relevant to the British army’s administrative practices than to the conceptions of the soldiers themselves. In dividing the Indian soldiers by religion the Turks were possibly following British practices.

[iii] It is generally agreed that Indian Muslim troops were better treated by the Ottomans; whether this was true of British troops is not clear. For a full discussion of this issue see Heather Jones op. cit.

[iv] Vedica Kant, an Indian research scholar in Turkey, suggests that this was probably a small town to the north of Mosul. I am very grateful to Vedica for looking up place names, and for providing translations of some of the Turkish words that occur in the text.

[v] The 19th century English traveler J.S. Buckingham, also remarks on the distinctiveness of this general region and its inhabitants, Travels in Mesopotamia, London 1827 (204-5).

[vi] Sisir uses the English word. Here and elsewhere I have italicized words from the text that were of particular interest to me.

 

 

 


Shared Sorrows – 5

January 29, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (2)

 

 

Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 5

 

A few words about Sisir Sarbadhikari’s book. On to Baghdad was self-published, as I’ve said, and it seems to have vanished quickly into obscurity. I first learnt of its existence through the work of a military historian, Kaushik Roy, but it was an essay by a brilliant young literary critic, Santanu Das, that prompted me to seek it out.[i] Santanu is now working on a longer treatment of the subject and only after his account is published will we have a full understanding of the book’s historical contexts, the manner of its writing, and its place in relation to other accounts of the Mesopotamian war.

A detailed account of the making of On to Baghdad will be of immense value, not just in relation to the book itself, but also in regard to the muteness from which it emerges. For the most remarkable thing about On to Baghdad is that it was written at all: as a published account of the military experiences of Indians in the early 20th century, it has very few peers or predecessors.

In the hundred and fifty years before the First World War hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers had fought for the British Empire, at home and abroad: during the First World War alone, over a million and half Indians were deployed on different fronts. Yet, mighty though these legions may have been in the field of battle, outside it they were as silent as an army of ghosts. Almost everything that is known about them is spoken in the voice and language of the soldiers’ masters, the British. The number of accounts authored by Indian military personnel, in the century and a half that preceded the First World War, is so small as to be counted on the fingers of one hand.

As followers of this blog will know, over the last year the Mumbai researcher, Murali Ranganathan, has unearthed two other First World War memoirs from the Indian subcontinent, one in Gujarati and one in Marathi (see for example, my post of October 15, 2012). Yet it remains true that as a full-length, published memoir of the First World War, by an Indian, On to Baghdad has very few peers.[ii]

India’s literary silence about the First World War is especially notable because this great conflict was an enormously fecund subject for soldiers of other nations. In England, France, Germany and elsewhere it generated enormous amounts of writing, of many sorts. Yet even in this vast corpus On to Baghdad commands a place of special notice, and not only because it happens to be one of the few such accounts written by an Indian. Sisir’s memoir is also one of the relatively few accounts to be written not by an officer, but by a low-ranking private, (the greatest of all First World War memoirs, Erich Maria’s Remarque All Quiet on the Western Front, was another).

On to Baghdad is remarkable also because it is based on a very unusual source – a journal that Sarbadhikari kept through his time in the Middle East, including his years in captivity. His notes went on grueling marches with him, hidden in his boots; at the Ras al-‘Ain camp, where their discovery could have resulted in disaster for Sisir, they were buried underground. Yet, despite the attendants dangers, Sisir seems to have continued to make regular entries in his journal whenever circumstances permitted. There was only one prolonged break, during the months between March 1917 and April 1918.

In his entry of March 18, 1917, Sisir explains this break and describes the manner of his note-taking: ‘After this I couldn’t write in my journal for about a year. In the first place opportunities were hard to find. Apart from that I had to tear up many of my notes for fear that they would be found; I re-wrote some of them later; but I couldn’t with some. You [the reader] mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that the diary that I’ve referred to so far, and which I’ll refer to again, was my original diary (156). After the surrender at Kut, I ripped apart my diary, tore the pages into pieces, and stuffed them into my boots; using those scraps I filled out a new journal later – in Baghdad. This journal was also ruined when I crossed the Tigris on foot. But the writing wasn’t all wiped off, because I had used a copying pencil. I dried the book and used it for my notes of the march from Samarra to Ras al-‘Ain. At Ras al-‘Ain I had to bury the diary for a while but it didn’t suffer much damage. In the infirmary at Aleppo I wrote it out again. (157)’

The journal traveled back to Calcutta with Sisir and was put aside for decades. In his brief account of the writing of On to Baghdad, Santanu Das suggests that the book might never have been written if not for the encouragement  and support of Sisir’s daughter-in-law, Romola Sarbadhikari.[iii] It is not uncommon of course to come across war memoirs based on notes made ‘in the field’ – but few indeed were the journals that survived the sort of captivity that Sisir had to endure. Indeed it was this journal’s very existence, insistently miraculous, that seems to have prompted Sisir’s daughter-in-law into midwifing the book into existence.

Sisir’s notes lend an extraordinary immediacy to his book: at times it reads almost like a diary. Sisir’s descriptions of battles, marches and life in prison-camp are sometimes startlingly vivid. The dates and details also serve to make his account unusually persuasive. There is no showing off, no dwelling on personal injuries and hardship. Perhaps the passage of time had blunted the edge of Sisir’s experiences, for he is able to write about even the most difficult situations with the detachment of an ethnographer. His book is also, to a quite extraordinary degree, free of rancour: he very rarely speaks of ill of anyone, including the ‘enemy’. Despite the horrors that he witnessed and experienced, he evidently never lost his ability to perceive the humanity of others, his jailors and captors not excluded. This too must be considered a remarkable quality in a book about the First World War: this was, after all, a time when most European writers were scarcely able to appreciate the humanity of people outside their own class, let alone their nation. The much celebrated English war writer, Siegfried Sassoon, for instance, was also in the Middle East for a while – but he seems to have been largely indifferent to his surroundings, even though (or perhaps because?) he was himself descended from a Mesopotamian Jewish family that had made its money in India.

For all these reasons, On to Baghdad  is not just a gripping read but also a credible historical document.

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[i] Santanu Das:  Indians at Home, Mesopotamia and France 1914-1918; towards an intimate history  (in Das, Santanu (ed.): Race, Empire and First World War Writing (CUP, 2011).

[ii] Murali Ranganathan has recently unearthed two First World War memoirs: one in Marathi, by Captain Gopal Gangadhar Limaye, published in 1939 (Murali glosses the title as Capturing the War: The Marathi War Memoirs of Capt. Gopal Gangadhar Limaye), the other was written in Gujarati by a Parsi, Nariman Karkaria. This is how Murali describes it: ‘this book was published in 1922 by D A Karkaria from the Manek Printing Press in Mumbai. It is deceptively titled Rangbhumi par rakhad which I would translate as Sorties on Stage. It was perhaps intended as pun for jangbhumi, a word he uses often in the text.’ For more on this, see my blog post of Oct 15, 2012 (www.amitavghosh.com/blog/). I am convinced that other such accounts were written in languages like Marathi, Punjabi, Pahari and Gorkhali. But as of the time of writing, I do not know of any.

[iii] Cf. Santanu Das op. cit. For a more complete account of the making of On to Baghdad and for a fuller picture of the wider contexts of the Mesopotamian campaign, we will have to wait for Santanu’s next book, which is, I am told, nearing completion. I eagerly await its publication.

 

 

 


Shared Sorrows – 4

January 27, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)

 

Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 4

 

 

In the first few months of the campaign, the British-Indian forces met with little resistance from the Ottoman army. The going was so smooth that the campaign was decribed as a ‘river picnic’.

 

Ctesiphon, Capt C.H. Weaver (www.mespot.net)

Ctesiphon, Capt C.H. Weaver (www.mespot.net)

 

But just south of Baghdad, at the ancient town of Ctesiphon,

 

 

 

 

 

 

General Townshend’s army ran into a large and well-entrenched Ottoman force. The British advance was blocked and the 6th Army was driven back to a small town called Kut al-Amara.

 

 

Kut al-Amara, Capt. C.H.Weaver (www.mespot.net)

Kut al-Amara, Capt. C.H.Weaver (www.mespot.net)

 

There, with just one month’s foodstocks in store,

 

 

 

 

 

the British-Indian force endured a siege of five months, at appalling cost.

 

 

Sepoy after the Siege of Kut (wikimedia commons)

Sepoy after the Siege of Kut (wikimedia commons)

 

Many soldiers died of hunger and disease

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

before General Townshend surrendered to Khalil Pasha, the Ottoman commander on April 29th , 1916.[i]

 

 

General Charles Townshend with Khalil Pasha and staff shortly after the surrender of Kut (http://www.iwm.org.uk)

General Charles Townshend with Khalil Pasha and staff shortly after the surrender of Kut (http://www.iwm.org.uk)

 

 

At the time this was thought to be the greatest defeat that the British had ever suffered in Asia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On May 12 1916 Sisir Sarbadhikari

 

 

Paddle Steamer, Mesopotamia, Capt. C.H. Weaver (www.mespot.net)

Paddle Steamer, Mesopotamia, Capt. C.H. Weaver (www.mespot.net)

and the other prisoners of war were sent to Baghdad on a steamer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sisir remained there for a couple of months, and then,

 

Samarra, Iraq

Samarra, Iraq

 

on July 19th he and some other prisoners were dispatched to Samarra, about 60 miles away, by train.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then began a series of grueling marches, in the burning heat of the Mesopotamian summer: the prisoners were driven brutally northwards through inhospitable country with very little food and water. British accounts of the march speak of floggings, starvation and terrible cruelties: ‘troops (British or Indian) falling out of the line of march from sheer exhaustion were left to perish either of starvation or the probability of being murdered by the Arabs.’ [ii]

Cruelty and hardship figure in Sisir’s narrative too, but his tone is stoic, almost dispassionate, and he often pauses to reflect on history and comment on the beauty of the countryside. Of the horrors of the march, the recollection that was to remain most sharply etched into his memory was of the shouts with which the guards would wake the prisoners in the small hours of the night. (121)

In twenty-five days the prisoners marched from Samarra to to Mosul, by way of Tikrit, Sargat and  Hammam Ali. It was after leaving Mosul that they began to see signs of the devastation that had been visited upon the Armenians of this region.

 

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[i] The precise numbers remain undetermined but it is estimated that about 3,000 British and 10,000 Indian soldiers went into captivity after the surrender. Cf Heather Jones: Imperial Captivities: Colonial Prisoners of War in Germany and the Ottoman Empire, 1914-1918, in Das, Santanu (ed.): Race, Empire and First World War Writing, CUP, 2011.

[ii] Quoted in Heather Jones ibid.

 

 


Shared Sorrows – 3

January 24, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)

 

Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 3

 

When Sisir Sarbadhikari volunteered for the Bengal Ambulance Corps, in 1915, he was in his early twenties and had just earned his Bachelor’s degree in law. Such was his eagerness to join the BAC that he actually pulled strings to get in: he would later attribute his enthusiasm to the ‘Spirit of Adventure’, of which he evidently had more than his fair share. Nor was he the only eager volunteer: some were so enthusiastic that they falsified their ages in order to enlist. One of them, Bhola, was only sixteen when he joined up – he would become a close friend of Sisir’s and he too would end up in the camps of Ras al-‘Ain.

The BAC was a small unit, with a total strength of 117, of which about a third consisted of ‘camp-followers’ –  that is to say, cooks, sweepers, water-carriers and so on. It was led by five British officers and about a dozen Indian NCOs. The remaining sixty or so members of the unit were privates, of whom Sisir was one.

Although lowly in rank Sisir was from a family of well-educated middle-class professionals – a class that is often referred to in Bengal as ‘bhadralok’ or ‘gentlefolk’. Sisir himself was well-read in English as well as Bengali: his book is embellished with lines of English and Bengali poetry and he frequently refers to Xenophon and other figures from antiquity.

Many of the other volunteers seem to have been from circumstances similar to Sisir’s. They were not the kind of men who would have joined the regular army as privates, even if that had been a possibility. If the Ambulance Corps appealed to them it was probably because its medical associations lent it a touch of middle-class respectability.

The BAC volunteers were given three months training before being sent off to Bombay to join the 6th Poona Division which was on its way to Mesopotamia under the command of Major General Charles Townshed.

image010

Troops unloading baggage, Alexandra Docks, Bombay, 1st WW

They left Bombay on a hospital ship, the Madras, on July 2, 1915, and reached Basra a week later. From then on, they accompanied the 6th army as it advanced steadily northwards, towards Baghdad.


 

 

 

 


Shared Sorrows – 2

January 23, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)

 

Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18

 

As a writer of fiction I am accustomed to creating characters and inventing stories. But I also often deal with historical sources, and every now and again I come upon something that serves to remind me that reality often exceeds fiction in its improbability. Certainly, I could never have invented a story like the one I am going to recount here. The events date back to the latter years of the First World War, when groups of Indian soldiers and paramedics were imprisoned in the vicinity of Ras al-‘Ain, in what is now Syria. Some of the worst massacres of the Armenian genocide  occurred in the vicinity of this town, and through force of circumstances, the lives of the Indians and the Armenians often became closely intertwined.

The reason the story has survived is that one of the Indian prisoners happened to write about about his war experiences  forty years later. His name was Sisir Sarbadhikari and his book Abhi Le Baghdad (or On To Baghdad) appeared in 1958[i]:

 

on to baghdad_0002

Cover: ‘On to Baghdad’ (Abhi Le Baghdad)

it was self-published and was probably only ever read by a handful of people. But the fact that the text was committed to print was crucial to its survival. It meant that a copy of the book had to be deposited in the National Library in Kolkata – this was the very copy that I sought out last year[ii].

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sisir Sarbadhikari was (as am I) a Bengali from Calcutta [now Kolkata] and he belonged to a middle-class Hindu family.

 

Boats on Hooghly River, Kolkata 1912-14

Boats on Hooghly River, Kolkata 1912-14

This adds greatly to the improbability of the story, for in the early years of the twentieth century the chances that a young man from such a background would find his way into the front lines of a military campaign were close to nil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is because Bengalis were not eligible for recruitment into the British Empire’s Indian army, which drew its soldiers (or sepoys) from certain specially designated ‘races’[iii]. Oddly, especially since Britain’s martial prowess was founded on her navy, the British do not seem to have regarded the term ‘martial’ to be relevant to sailors-

 

ww1 5

Sepoys and lascars in German POW camp near Berlin, 1st World War (Photos: Otto Stiehl, Repros: Ute Franz-Scarciglia, Copyright: Museum Europäischer Kulturen – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

– for ‘lascars’ (Asian sailors) served on many naval vessels, and they were recruited mainly from coastal regions, such as Gujarat, the Konkan, Tamilnad, Orissa, and, very substantially, Bengal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TheBritish Indian army’s recruitment policy excluded most Indians and was widely resented, partly because it was felt to be based upon demeaning racial stereotypes, and partly because it blocked access to one of the most important sources of employment in the colonial economy. The bar did not however apply to the army’s administrative and medical wings and many Bengalis found their way on to the military payroll through this route. When the First World War broke out some prominent Bengalis decided that the army’s medical services might be a means of furthering their claims to serve in the ranks of the regular military. To that end they offered to raise a unit of voluntary ambulance workers in support of the war effort. They reckoned that such an offer would not be refused at a time of crisis, and they were right. They were quickly granted permission to form a unit that came to be known as the Bengal Ambulance Corps (BAC).  This was the unit that Sisir Sarbadhikari volunteered for in 1915.

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[i] Indians at Home, Mesopotamia and France 1914-1918; towards an intimate history  (in Das, Santanu (ed.): Race, Empire and First World War Writing (CUP, 2011) that prompted me to seek it out.

[ii] I owe many thanks to Dr. Swapan Chakravorty and Sri Ashim Mukhopadhyay of the Indian National Library, Kolkata, for their help in this regard. The page references (in parentheses) are to this copy of Abhi Le Baghdad.

[iii] Cf. Barua, Pradeep P., Inventing Race: The British and India’s Martial Races, Historian, 58(1), 1995, pp. 107-16; & Roy, Kaushik: Recruitment Doctrines of the Colonial Indian Army: 1859-1913, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 34 (3), pp. 322-54, 1997.

 

 

 


Shared Sorrows – 1

January 21, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)

 

 

Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18.

 

[In August 2012 I received an invitation from Neery Melkonian, co-founder of The Blind Dates Project, to deliver a keynote address for a conference to be held in Yerevan, in Armenia. There was an element of synchronicity in this because unbeknownst to Neery, I was then writing a series of posts on two Bengali accounts from the First World War, written by Indian medical personnel who had ended up in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, in northern Syria, in 1916: this was one of the major sites of the Armenian genocide (see my posts of July-August, 2012).

The conference, which was called Strategies of UnSilencing, was held on October 26-27, 2012, in the American University of Armenia, Yerevan. This is a slightly expanded version of the essay I wrote for the occasion and it will be posted here over several weeks as a multi-part series. The complete essay will be available later, in the ‘Essays’ section of this website.]

 

DSC02216

Noravank Monastery, Armenia

 

 

 

In memory of Stephen Vertannes.

 

1.

Armenia has been closely linked to the Indian subcontinent for a very long time. The foremost chronicler of the subcontinent’s Armenian community, Mesrovb Jacob Seth, tells us that it was at the express request of Akbar, the great Mughal Emperor, that Armenians settled in Agra in the 16th century. Akbar also took an Armenian wife, by the name of Mariam Zamani Begum. By the time the English arrived at the Mughal court the Armenians were already well established there: it was they who helped the East India Company acquire the Diwani of Bengal, which was a crucial step in the building of the British Empire.[i]

This connection made India an early centre of Armenian publishing: ‘About forty Armenian titles appeared in Madras between 1772 and 1818, including a number of groundbreaking political tracts and the first-ever Armenian periodical, Azdarar, in 1794. Thereafter, the torch of Armenian book-printing in India passed on to Calcutta (modern-day Kolkata), where the first short-lived attempt to set up an Armenian press had occurred in 1796-1797. Calcutta became a recurrent center of Armenian book printing from 1811 to 1853, and thereafter Armenian titles continued to appear there occasionally until 1888.’[ii]

For many years Calcutta, the city of my birth, was home to the biggest and most vibrant Armenian community in India. Even in my own childhood Armenians were an important presence in the city. As a boy I heard stories about famous Armenian boxers; and my father would reminisce about old hotels and boarding houses that had once been run by Armenians.

 

William(1)

photo courtesy Rangan Datta

I often walked past the Armenian College, which was originally housed in the birthplace of the English novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray[iii].

 

 

 

 

 

 

At school I had a friend from Calcutta’s Armenian community: his name was Stephen Vertannes and he died tragically young (this essay is dedicated to his memory).

These connections and memories may explain why Armenian characters have often figured in my books. In my novel The Calcutta Chromosome, one of the key characters is a Mrs Aratounian (a family of that name once ran a hotel in Calcutta); in my most recent book, River of Smoke, there is an Armenian watchmaker from Egypt by the name of Zadig Karabedian

 

El-Muallaqa, Cairo (Wikimedia Commons)

El-Muallaqa, Cairo (Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

(he is the nephew of Orhan Karabedian, the icon-painter whose work can still be seen in the Church of the Mu’allaqa in Cairo).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I should add here, in parentheses, that Armenia’s artistic connection with Egypt still exists: one of contemporary Egypt’s most distinguished painters is from Cairo’s Armenian community. Her name is Anna Boghigiuan

 

 

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and she is a dear friend.


[i] Cf. Armenians in India: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day, by Mesrovb Jacob Seth, first published Calcutta 1937, reprinted Asian Educational Services, New Delhi 2005, chapter 1.

[ii]  Celebrating the Legacy of Five Centuries of Armenian-Language Book Printing, 1512-2012 (exhibition booklet), by Ara Sanjian, University of Michigan-Dearborn, 2012, p. 14.

[iii] The school was originally known as the Armenian Philanthropic Academy. The building, at 39 Free School Street was purchased in 1883, for Rs. 48,000. W.M.Thackeray was born there on 18th July, 1811.

 

 



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