Discovering that his grandfather and two grand uncles had served in World War II, Indian journalist and editor Karnad (Everybody’s Friend, 2013) decided to write about their experiences.
Since the author’s subjects left no personal documents, the result is less a biography than a docudrama, but it is an engrossing, revealing account of his nation’s role in that war, a subject that receives only a passing mention in many history books. The Bangalore- and New Delhi–based author’s family was Parsi, one of a dizzying number of ethnic minorities; they were not Hindu or Muslim, largely middle-class, and not opposed to British rule. Financial need and a yearning for adventure directed the brothers to officers’ training for Britain’s Indian Army, a force that ultimately numbered 2,500,000, the largest volunteer army in history. One joined the Indian Air Force, where his first assignment was bombing Afghanistan from bases in what is now Pakistan, an activity still in progress 75 years later. He never left India and died in a crash before the end of the war. A brother, who was a doctor, also died on the Afghan frontier, probably of pneumonia. The third, a lieutenant in the sappers (combat engineers supporting the infantry), fumed at his inactivity for years until he was caught up in the vicious and immense campaign (Britain’s largest and longest of WWII) to recapture Burma, where he was killed in late 1944. The author re-creates their lives and thoughts through unit records, memoirs, and interviews with elderly survivors.
An appealing, if necessarily fictionalized in places, portrait of three officers who did their best fighting a war widely opposed by many countrymen and that provided little benefit to the nation and was quickly forgotten after Indian independence in 1947.