A couple of weeks ago Murali Ranganathan wrote to let me know that he had found a First World War memoir in Gujarati (see my post of Oct 15 Murali Ranganathan does it again – an amazing new find!)
I have long felt that a First World War memoir in Marathi must exist (the expeditionary force that was sent to Mesopotomia in 1915 consisted largely of the 6th Poona Division and many of the soldiers and auxiliaries were from Maharashtra). A week ago Murali wrote to let me know that he had indeed found a First World War memoir in Marathi! Here is his account of it.
Capturing the war:
The Marathi War Memoirs of Captain Gopal Gangadhar Limaye.
An introductory note by MR.
Published in February 1939, nearly two decades after the events they recalled, the War Memoirs of Captain Limaye, start from early 1918 when he received a temporary commission in the Indian Medical Service and continue through to 1921 when he was discharged from the army. As part of the 87th Punjabis, he saw action in Mesopotamia and was involved in operations against the Kurdistanis in 1919 and in quelling the Arab Rebellion in 1920. While both these operations are from a period after the armistice (11 November 1918) and technically may not form part of the First World War, they can be viewed as an extension of that war and as the foreword suggests, “in many ways conditions during these operations were more trying than those during the period of the Great War proper.”
Originally written in the period immediately following his return, parts of the memoir first appeared in the Marathi monthly magazine, Masik Manoranjan in 1923-24. In many ways, the book is an unique artifact. It is based on the notes Dr. Limaye kept during the war and the letters he sent home. It contains over fifty photographs, most of them taken by the author. And all that could not be photographed, is sketched or painted, with the book having over fifty sketches, small and large. Wherever his narration required maps, he drew them himself; the maps provide a distinctive pictorial representation of the war front. To top it all, there are his cartoons related to his war experiences, some of which originally appeared in the Bombay Chronicle in the 1920s. As he confidently declares in his introduction, the world of Marathi literature had never before seen a book like this. And sadly, never since!
The memoirs are preceded by by a foreword (in English) by Lt. Col. J. M. Hunt of the 5th Battalion, 2nd Punjab Regiment (which was the new avatar of the 87th Punjabis). He was a colleague of the doctor during this period and was the senior-most officer who could be traced after 20 years, others having died or otherwise disappeared. Hunt tries to jog his memory of events and imagines a Dr. Limaye committed to his work, liked and admired by the injured soldiers, and an enthusiastic spark. The Marathi text has a prefatory note by General Nanasaheb Shinde, retired chief of the Baroda Army.
In his stolid preface, General Shinde laments the complete dearth in Marathi of memoirs and autobiographies by soldiers who had seen action during the First World War. He remarks that the thousands of Marathi soldiers who ventured to the battlefields and lived to tell the tale must have had minimal powers of observation and registration, not to mention narration.
From the author’s introduction onwards, one gets a distinct feeling of perkiness which seems to permeate the character of Dr. Limaye. In the few photographs not taken by himself, he comes across as diminutive, almost elfin, charmingly mischievous and sprightly. Born in 1895, he was 23 when he first went to East Africa in 1918. And for the next three years, he seems to have maintained the same lightheartedness of character with which we are first made acquainted. The introduction contains a meticulous account of how and when the memoirs were written, the antecedents of the photographs, maps and sketches, the notes and letters which he referred to, and the publication history of some of the material.
The memoirs start from his joining the army at Peshawar, which he says is as foreign to him as Africa. His brief stint in East Africa, based in Zanzibar and Dar-es salaam, and his interaction with the natives are described with anthropological fervour. On a two-month furlough in India, he was suddenly recalled and asked to report to the Middle East. By way of Basra and Baghdad he joined his battalion which was involved in the quelling of the 1919 Kurdish revolt in Chamchamal and then found itself caught in the Arab Rebellion of 1920. The 87th Punjabis saw action in Hillah and was part of the harried withdrawal of the British forces from Diwaniya. During the relief of Kufah, he was injured in the foot by a bullet on 12 October 1920 while ministering to the injured at the battlefront. He was informally reprimanded for venturing right to the head of the battlefront to attend to the injured instead of keeping to the rear. There is even a long-shot photograph of him sitting injured on the ground next to his ambulance lines, soon after he was shot.
There are the usual accounts about the excessive heat, lack of water and the adverse conditions (but thankfully, no trenches!) in which they had to live for much of the period. However, his enthusiasm never seems to flag. A lot of the confidence which comes across in the writing can be linked to his work, in the most trying circumstances, as a medical practitioner amongst men who need him most urgently.
Besides the main narrative of his war experiences, there is a separate note on each period where he particularizes his daily schedule of activities, the places he stayed in, the food he ate, the salaries and allowances which he received, the transport which was available to him. An appendix contains a detailed calendar of the three years giving his location and the principal events which occurred during this period.
Last but not the least, there is a section on war ditties (in English) which Dr. Limaye composed as the war situation demanded. They were to be sung at the mess-table. The longer ones narrate the activities of the 87th Punjabis and the idiosyncrasies of the various officers, including their one-armed General. Two of the shorter ditties are reproduced by way of example.
March of the 87th Punjabis.
Flies to the right of them
Mosquitoes to the left of them
Sand-flies beneath them
Bullets in front of them.
Dust inside them
Heat outside them
Into the Marsh of Hillah
Marched the sturdy PUNJABIS.
Soliloquy of a B. O. R. (British Other Rank)
To drink or not to drink, that is the question!
To abstain – to die; to drink – to trot.
Whether ’tis nobler in the Heart
To suffer the pangs of thirst
Or by drinking to quench them!
HILLAH, August 1920. (when there was severe shortage of water.)
Part of the good humour which permeates the book can be traced to the reputation he had developed in the 1920s and 1930s in the Marathi world as a writer of wit and humour. Before these memoirs appeared, he had already published six collections of short stories, mainly humorous (whose reviews are listed in the dust cover). Perhaps some more appeared later.
Dr. Limaye sets out to provide his reader with a vivid portrait of what fighting in a war might be like. Using all the media available to him, and marshaling all his resources most competently, Limaye certainly succeeds in ‘capturing the war’.
Sainyatil Athavani [War Memoirs]
By Captain Gopal Gangadhar Limaye, MBBS, BHY (Gold Medalist)
Foreword: Lt. Col. J. M. Hunt, 5th Battalion, 2nd Punjab Regiment
Preface: General Nanasaheb Shinde, ex-chief of the Baroda Army
Publisher: Kemkar ani mandali, Mumbai
xvi, 201 pages, illustrations, plates and maps.
Copy seen at the Mumbai Marathi Granthsangrahalaya, Mumbai.
Should be available in all good Marathi libraries.
 The choice of General Nanasaheb Ganpat Shinde (1875-1951) was probably influenced by the fact that he had, four years back in 1935, published the first military autobiography in Marathi. Titled the Autobiography of a Soldier, or From Lieutenant to General, [Eka Sipayanche Atmavrutta] (Mumbai: Damodar Savlaram ani Mandali, 1935), the general rues the fact that he never saw action in forty years of service. It documents his close association with the royal Gaikwad household at Baroda, and his administrative activities. Though he was in harness during the period, the First World War does not get a mention in his 500-page autobiography.
But the General does have an independent arm-chair book on the First World War published in the immediate aftermath of the War titled the History of the Indian Army and the Allied Forces, [Hindustancha Lashkari Itihas ani dost rashtrancha fouja], (Varodara: M. C. Kothari, 1922), that I have not seen.