Archive for October 15th, 2012

Murali Ranganathan does it again – an amazing new find!

October 15, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (8)


Visitors to this site will know that I have corresponded with Murali Ranganathan before. In an earlier post I had this to say about him:

Murali Ranganathan is among the most interesting of the many people who have come into my life through book releases and readings. I met him at the Mumbai release of River of Smoke, on June 21 this year. Our conversation was necessarily very brief but he told me that he knew of a few 19thcentury travel accounts of China, written in Gujarati by Parsi merchants. I had had no inkling of the existence of such accounts and did not quite know what to make of this. Although I had the impression of a man of great intelligence and wide-ranging interests, I could not help being a little sceptical. But sure enough, a few days later Murali sent me a list of the books he had mentioned….

Murali is a scholar … of a breed that is increasingly rare in today’s highly compartmentalized world: an independent autodidact who has developed his formidable linguistic and archival skills largely on his own. He works on texts in Gujarati, Marathi, Urdu, Hindi and, no doubt, many other, languages, and possesses a truly encyclopaedic knowledge of 19th century India. What’s more, his scholarly work is driven not by a desire for advancement but by a genuine passion for the subject. If the world were a more discerning place Murali would be a celebrated scholar, notable not only for his work but also for the fact that he has chosen to be free of institutions. But Murali prefers (and I have noticed that this is true of some of my most learned correspondents) to hide his light under a bushel.


A while ago I had written to Murali to ask if he had ever come across any accounts of the First World War in Marathi. On October 9 he sent me this letter:


Dear Amitav

I have been looking for clues to answer your questions regarding Maratha soldiers and the First World War for the last few months but I have not got anywhere near answering them with any confidence. In the meanwhile, I was also infected by travelogitis – and the only palliative was to run through as many  travelogs as I could, the constraints being that they had to be from the 19th century and in non-English Indian languages I know. Among other things, there is something I found that could be of interest to you. Allow me to intrude on your time. Nariman Karkaria, a young Parsi from Gujarat, had apparently always wanted to see the world. Sometime in 1913, when he was in his early 20s, he left home with fifty rupees in his pocket to do just that. He eventually made his way to China, travelled among other places to Peking and then to Japan, when somebody suggested that he might as well travel to Siberia since he was so near. And that’s what he did. He eventually made his way across Siberia to St. Petersburg and then on to Finland and Norway and eventually reached London, I think, sometime in 1914 or 15 (he is not very strong on dates). Another long-standing desire was to see a war and he wasn’t going to let pass an opportunity which suddenly presented itself. He went to Whitehall to volunteer but they shooed him away since he was an Indian and suggested he join some desi regiment. He however managed to eventually register as a Private with the 24th Middlesex in its D Company, and thus became a ‘Tommy’ as he proudly announces. The remaining part (about two-thirds) of the book is the typical WWI story — ‘No food, no water, no sleep, no relief’. Incredibly, he saw action on three fronts in the next three years. In 1916, he was at the Battle of Somme and describes life in the trenches in vivid detail. He was lucky not to die (most of the others near him did) and was sent back to London to convalesce from an injury. After the usual recovery period and some weeks of training, he was sent of to the Middle East front where after many trials and tribulations in Egypt, he was part of the Battle of Jerusalem (1917). He describes the triumphant entry into the city by the British forces. He was then moved to the Balkan front where was in Salonika with the 31st CCS; with the British Army he later travelled through many parts of European Turkey. He was eventually discharged and returned to India after five years of travel and adventure. He, presumably on public demand, wrote this book which 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. 
In spite of the extreme trauma he endures over many pages, there is a certain Wodehousian aura which permeates the whole book. The ‘stiff upper lip’ is palpable and sometimes ‘What ho!’ is almost audible. I must confess I have not read the book in toto but have merely flipped through it to glean the bare outlines of his career. There is much more to his book and I might be wrong with regard to details as I am writing from memory. There are many photographs both from his travels and from the War. I am not sure if he took them himself but some of them are intimate – soldiers bathing in the nude at an oasis with camels for company, for instance. I have very little knowledge of this period or this war to be able to form a judgement about the uniqueness of this experience – an Indian serving in an all-European regiment, seeing action on three major fronts of the First World War and living to tell the tale.  But the book is a sure page-turner. I hope I have not taken too much of your time and also hope that something will also eventually turn up on the Marathi front. Will keep you posted.

Best wishes
Oct 10, 2012
Dear Murali
This is amazing! An astonishing find! Congratulations….! You should – must! – translate this.
I would love to post something about this on my blog: this is really big news (at least in my small universe)! I would like to buy you a bottle of champagne some day.
Very best



ucuz ukash