By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Raghu Karnad
Narration by: Kahlil Joseph
India’s contribution during WWII is poorly served by this audio book version of “Farthest Field”. Raghu Karnad notes many important Indian issues when writing about the lives of three Indian volunteers, but their bravery, tenacity, and valor are diminished by Kahlil Joseph’s unemotional, monotonous, and seemingly unrehearsed narration. As a writer, Karnad fails to endear his characters to reader/listeners by painting too large a picture for what could have been a more character driven history. Karnad offers a fine conclusion to his book but the names of many of his characters are not memorable enough to elicit emotion or recollection by the listener.
By 1945, India provided the largest all-volunteer army of any country during WWII. That is an incredible achievement in view of India’s colonial history with Great Britain. Karnad implies that one of the reasons for such a high number is because many Indian citizens were starving to death before the war. The army, largely led by British military officers, offered food. Karnad notes that 36,000 volunteers from India die during the war. Whatever reasons India citizens had for joining the Allied effort; Karnad illustrates how valorous these volunteers were. (Though not mentioned by Karnad, Indian soldiers earned over 30 Victoria Crosses during the War. The Victoria Cross is awarded for courage in the face of the enemy. It is the highest military decoration of the British Empire.)
Karnad explains that India fought in the Asian theatre, northern Europe, and east Africa. Their principal action was against the Japanese in South East Asia but they also fought the Italian and German armies in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Karnad notes that the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, became a revered leader of the volunteer army. Auchinleck had been relieved of command in Africa and was assigned to India in 1942.
Karnad helps one understand the context of the war by noting the antipathy felt by many Indian citizens toward British colonization. Gandhi is famously against the war and is jailed, along with a number of India’s leaders, during the war. This antipathy eventually leads to Indian independence after the war and a split of Indian culture into Hindu and Muslim factions. That religious split eventually leads to the independent states of Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Karnad’s last chapter draws the title, “Farthest Field”, together by explaining how India fought far from home for a country (Great Britain) they resented. But, India acquitted its resentment by bravely fighting and defeating the Japanese in Burma. Karnad notes that history is written by the victors but India is largely left behind in WWII’s storied past. After trudging through “Farthest Field”, a listener wishes a more coherent, emotive, and better–narrated story had been told. Karnad barely cracks the door to India’s WWII history.