Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War by Raghu Karnad

Hardcover, 320 pages
Publisher: William Collins (June 2015)
Language: English 
Selected by Mary Mount

“A beautifully written memoir about Indians in the Second World War that reads like a novel.” —Mary Mount

This, Raghu Karnad’s first book, charts the fate of one family through the Second World War, and in so doing sheds light on India’s role in the global conflict at the end of Empire. The narrative jumps to and from Madras, Eritrea, Iraq and Burma, exploring the devastating effects of the war and India’s period of partition from 1947. This is a lesser-told story about loss, the unreliability of memory and premature death.


Everybody's Friend

CALICUT, 1936-39

It is said that the news of the world war reached Calicut along with the morning eggs. Perhaps that isn’t true at all. Perhaps it’s only true that the price of eggs was the first the Calicut Parsis saw of the costs of war, the first of many. Maybe they remembered what happened to the price of eggs, even years and years later, because they wanted to forget what happened to the boys.

If, however, it is true, then it must have begun with a commotion at the Marshall house, nearest the pier. The noise would have been swallowed by the rowdy waves of dawn, on a sea swollen by the late monsoon. If Bobby had been in Calicut, he would have been there in an instant. Rounding the corner to the beach road, he would have spotted the egg boy cowering behind his bicycle; then the Marshalls’ cook, aggrieved, wiping his neck with the tail of his checked-cotton mundu; then Keki Marshall, hollering as though he meant to argue the sun back into its bed. He would bloody well not pay four annas a dozen. Not for eggs. Whatever conspiracy of grocers, hoarders and bastards thought they could double the price of eggs overnight, they were going to learn differently from him, war or no war.

But did someone say war?

The egg boy may have been told that rationing and shortages were expected, and eggs would be priced up as a precaution. But he couldn’t have explained about the Panzers in Poland, the craven declaration from London, or the Viceroy in Delhi already committing India and Indians to the fray. Instead the egg boy fled. He wobbled his bicycle a safe distance from the gate and rested a moment, calming himself down. Ahead of him was a full street of Parsi homes. He knew precisely how many eggs they took. He knew he was going to catch hell at each doorstep. He couldn’t imagine the hell he was going to leave there.

News, like almost everything, travelled slowly to Calicut, though it was the largest town in Malabar. The province lay in the narrow lap of the western coast, with its head leaned up against the high range of the Western Ghats, and its feet dipped in the Indian Ocean. The town was a minor entrepot for timber, pepper and cashew coming down to the sea, and fish, petrol, shop goods, and the post going back up. Once it had mattered more. It had been the seat of the Zamorin of Malabar, whose rule extended south as far as Cochin, and it was here that Europe first trod on India’s soil, when Vasco da Gama scraped up on the beach at Kappad1.

The centuries since had left Calicut to turn in its own slow eddy of trade. Its provincialism concealed the scale of its wealth and commerce, and the rhythms of the town played like a drowsy accompanist behind the full-lunged score of the sea. Arab dhows rode at anchor, waiting to unload sacks of dried fruit from Yemen, then raised their sails and blew away like kites on the horizon’s glittering string. Coconut trees crowded the shore, and further inland all was covered in layers of matted green. Pink lotus wilted in the temple pond, and in the courtyards stood elephants, black and mottled and as brilliantly daubed as the lingam within.


[1] Vasco da Gama landed at Kappad on 20 May 1498, conclusively establishing a trade route between Europe and India.

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