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



8 Responses to “Murali Ranganathan does it again – an amazing new find!”

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  1. Comment by Pushpanjana Karmakar — October 15, 2012 at 4:38 pm   Reply

    it sometimes delights me to learn that there are persons in the world who choose to believe that knowledge does not necessarily share a symbiotic relationship with the “institutions” and can be an outcome of special earning- earning the power of inquiry and curiosity. And Sir, how strangely, perhaps not that strangely, some of your characters that find favour with me the most are Tridib who metaphysically had taught you to “use imagination with precision” and Alu who wanted to tell his father that he may love books but books won’t love him, who had left a spell of palliative wonder on me and who have grown in their soil, so fertile, and sparsely venting without the trappings of institutions. i have learnt that inquisitiveness is the cornerstone of a derivative existence, an existence that can be afforded to be lived obscured yet ordained.

  2. Comment by mayuranki almaula — October 24, 2012 at 12:50 pm   Reply

    Dear Amitav,
    We have read every book of yours. This blog is enlightening in more ways than one.
    My mother Prof Bharti Modi is a retired prof of Linguistics. She has spent a long time working on Parsi Gujarati. She has diverse interests and would be thrilled to meet with Murali. Is there any way in which they can be put in touch with one another?
    Her book was funded by UNESCO
    Hoping to hear back

    Warm reg

    • Comment by Firoza Punthakey Mistree — April 22, 2016 at 10:07 am   Reply

      Dear Mayuranki,
      I work in the field of Zoroastrian and Parsi studies and would love to write to Prof Bharati Modi .
      Best wishes
      Firoza Punthakey Mistree

  3. Comment by Murali — October 25, 2012 at 3:20 am   Reply

    Hi Mayuranki

    Delighted to hear about your mother; if you can supply me an email id or phone number via this comments section, I will get in touch with her.


  4. Comment by Yogesh — May 14, 2013 at 6:24 am   Reply

    Hi Murali, The Rangbhumi par rakhad book sounds great. Never imagined an Indian Backpacker during those times. Would love to read it, have you managed to translate it ? Is there a way i can get this book (my In laws are Gujus, can have them read it)? Heard your radio show about the Govind Narayan’s Mumbai, it was fascinating. I would love to meet you as a fellow tam and based in Bom and have interest in History esp. Mumbai. Pls send me your contact details to

  5. Comment by Rashna — August 30, 2013 at 5:31 pm   Reply

    Dear Amitav, Murali and Yogesh,
    Rangbhoomi par rakhad marks the culmination of the Parsi travelogue that developed from 1860 with the development of the Parsi press. While initially stories appeared as segments in Parsi-Gujarati newspapers, gradually entire travelogues were published. In the 1890s however the travelogues primarily mapped the contours of Parsi economic trade and cultural exchange, hence narratives about journeys to China, present day Singapore and Indonesia, Iran, Europe incl. England. Rangbhoomi par rakhad marks the literal and metaphorical expansion of these contours by the 1920s. The last travelogues were written in the 1950s, once again in newspapers and dealt with the what could only be considered as the great unknown to the Parsi community at the time i.e. South America. What distinguishes all of these travelogues however is their obvious performative style, hence rangbhoomi. I would read them with a pinch of salt.

  6. Comment by Kalyani Pandit — April 17, 2014 at 8:29 am   Reply

    I am working on a documentary on the Maratha Soldiers who fought during the World War 1. While surfing online I stumbled upon your blog and this article.
    I was hopingto getin touch with you regarding the same so if you could provide me with your email id.
    And if its possible, I would appreciate if you could provide me with email id or any contact details of Mr. Murali Ranganathan, to contcat him regarding the same.

    Hope this message reaches to you soon.
    Waiting to hear from you.

    Kalyani Pandit

    • Comment by Chrestomather — April 23, 2014 at 4:03 pm   Reply

      Dear Kalyani

      You can write to me through the ‘contacts’ page on my website.



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