Archive for August 9th, 2012

On to Baghdad: 1

August 9, 2012 in On to Baghdad | Comments (9)

 

Sisir Sarbadhikari’s Abhi Le Baghdad (On to Baghdad) is in my view, one of the most remarkable war memoirs of the 20th century.

 

 

 

In no small part does the book owe this to the diary on which it is based. This diary (in various iterations) accompanied Sarbadhikari through his travels around Mesopotamia, Syria, Turkey and the Levant. It went on many grueling marches with him hidden in his boots. He kept it with him even in prison camp, where its discovery could have resulted in disaster for him. That it survived the war is nothing short of a miracle.

Sarbadhikari explains the history of his journal quite late in the book, in a brief paragraph.

March 18, 1917

After this I couldn’t write in my journal for almost 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 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. 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 completely effaced 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. (156-7)

These notes lend an extraordinary immediacy to On to Baghdad. Sarbadhikari’s descriptions of battles, forced marches and prison-camps are sometimes startlingly vivid. I know of nothing like it in Indian writing (although I have a feeling that a similar text may exist in Marathi, since many of the soldiers who fought in Mesopotamia were Marathas).

But it isn’t just the immediacy of the text that makes the book so remarkable: it is something about Sarbadhikari himself. Not only is he a fine observer, he is also to a quite remarkable degree, free of rancour and prejudice. Despite the horrors that he witnesses and experiences, he never loses his ability to perceive the humanity of others, ‘enemies’ and captors not excluded.

He evidently became quite fluent in Turkish and this gave him unusual insights into the lives of ordinary Turkish soldiers: he understood that many of them were worse off than the prisoners they were guarding. There is sometimes an almost ethnographic detachment in his writing. There is also something very winning about his lack of grandiosity and pretension: never does he try to ‘come the old soldier’ – the whole book is pervaded by a kind of ingenuousness.

These qualities are unusual in any depiction of war, but they are particularly so perhaps in memoirs of the First World War. For this was a time when writers, sometimes even very gifted writers, had difficulty in recognizing the humanity of people outside their own class, let alone those of other races, religions and nations.

 

 

 

The quirky appeal of Sarbadhikari’s sensibility is evident in his choice of title. Here is how he explains it:

 

 

 

 

Major-General Charles Townshend, the Commanding Officer of the 6th Poona Division, said in his Order of the Day of November 3, 1915, ‘we have successfully taken Sahil, Qurna, Kut al-Amara and other such places so our aim now is to move on to Baghdad’. We all assumed that Baghdad would be easily taken; that any other result might be possible never so much as entered our minds. In many units, British officers began to say that they would celebrate Christmas 1915 in Baghdad.

But instead of taking Baghdad we were forced to retrace our steps and retreat. After Umm al-Taboul there was a rearguard action and we had to go on marching, without once halting for a rest.  Marching beside me was a Muslim sepoy of the 66th Punjabis: he had taken his boots off his feet, and tied them together by their laces; with his rifle in hand he was limping along and saying to himself ‘Ya Allah, abhi le Baghdad’, meaning by this: ‘’On to Baghdad’ you said; now enjoy this.

 

 

 

 

 



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