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.
[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.