Wilfred Owen, the young English poet who had found his talent and met his death while fighting in the First World War, had scribbled in his trench notebook a translated line from Rabindranath Tagore, “When I go from hence, let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.” The word, “unsurpassable”, must have spoken to Owen in senses probably unimagined by Tagore himself: the Great War introduced great horrors, the likes of which had never been experienced before. So much so that new words enter the OED with the First World War: words like “trench foot” or “shell shock” try to approximate the reality of this new-age warfare, which creates bizarre maladies, ranging from the loss of sensation in the feet as a result of standing in the freezing mud and slush of the trenches to psychological disorders caused by exposure to the terrors of the battlefield, especially prolonged bombardment.
Even as Owen tried to express this unsurpassable in his bare, gut-wrenching poems, the hundreds of thousands of Indians who went to the trenches to fight for their colonial master, England, remained curiously silent. Vedica Kant makes an admirable effort of finding and documenting the lost voices in ‘IF I DIE HERE, WHO WILL REMEMBER ME?’: INDIA AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR (Roli, Rs 1,995), which has a foreword by Amitav Ghosh. Interestingly, there is a letter she quotes here, from Signaller Kartar Singh in France to Kunar Khan in Ludhiana, where the former says, “We have seen many things of which we cannot write. If we return alive, I will tell you all about it.” The allusion to “things of which we cannot write” sounds much like the unsurpassable that Owen tried to grapple with. Perhaps, as with so many histories of oppression, the stubborn silence of the Indian soldier was a statement in itself — a refusal to be coerced into the grand narrative of the first global war. At a less impressive level, the lack of accounts by Indian soldiers may have been an effect of the illiteracy among the ranks of the Indian army (did Kartar Singh return to tell it all?). Top right shows an illiterate Indian soldier making a thumb impression on his pay sheet instead of signing his name.
However, the soldiers speak in a different way from out of the several photographs in the book, although most of these are of photo-op moments, since they were used for the purpose of war propaganda. So, there are injured Indian soldiers recuperating under the sea-kissed sun in Brighton, squinting at the camera. A photograph shows two Gurkha soldiers, one of whom has lost his right leg and the other his left arm. They gaze with the hint of a smile on their young, girlish faces. But there are two others in the frame — one watches with knitted brows, while the other, who has a fractured arm and elbow, stares at the ground, smoking angrily, looking rather like angsty Camus.
But, surely, the benevolent Empire had not given them many reasons to complain about? A fractured limb or a broken mind notwithstanding, an injured sepoy could always gawp at the sumptuous Oriental designs on the interiors of the Pavilion Hospital — the royal pavilions generously given over to the treatment of Indian soldiers. It is seen on the left in a painting by the Brighton-based artist, Charles Burleigh. One convalescent soldier wrote of this place: “Everything is such as one would not see even in a dream.”
There were other evidences of the Empire’s concern. Separate butchers and abattoirs were provided for making halal meat for Muslim soldiers, non-halal meat for Sikhs, and special ‘uncontaminated’ meat for Hindus. Unfortunately, all these niceties lose their glamour when placed in the overarching narrative of injustice that the war is, an event that kills not the enemy, but humanity. In a photograph that has uncanny reverberations — with the skinned animals foreshadowing the humans who will be stretched on the rack in the Second World War — the consumers enjoy a moment of anticipatory pleasure before they are consumed too in the war machine (bottom right).