Tuesday, August 18, 2015

An Indian Eye-opener

British writer & Historian Yasmin Khan reveal the untold chronicles of Indians fighting in WWII for the British Empire in her second book – The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War

History is meant to be learned from. And one of the most intriguing yet rarely discussed topics is the role of India in World War II. Still under British rule, fighting the war meant fighting for the empire. Yet, not many know of the immense contributions of these brave hearts. Now, we have British writer & historian Yasmin Khan come up with a book The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War. The book speaks for the lost heroes that are the Indian civilians, non-combatants (prostitutes, nurses, cooks, and peasants), sailors & soldiers who fought during WWII. Published by Penguin, this book lets you know the stories, by sieving through interviews, newspaper reports, unseen archival materials.

The whole concept came from the photographs Yasmin found of the war in India in the archives, which depicted workers at docks, aerodrome builders and so on. “And they seemed so different in content to the way historians wrote about that time. When I was writing my first book about the partition, I felt that in a way, there had been too much emphasis on religious difference and partition in many of the existing historical  narratives – all the most extreme social & cultural changes of the 1940s – the growth of cities, the arrival of soldiers, the food shortages – which were a direct consequence of the War seemed to have slipped into the margins. That’s why I wanted to write a book about the Second World War in India too. It’s a shift of focus, looking at the same events but from a new angle.”

Such an important aspect of modern Indian history but not many Indians or British are aware of it.
Yasmin Khan 
Yasmin feels that the interest is increasing regarding the role of Indian veterans in UK. “But so often it’s just a case of adding a multi-cultural twist to war commemoration. I think we need to go beyond this and consider how the whole of the British Empire was exploited as a wartime resource. Many got very rich in the UK & India. Also just how difficult it is to live through a war, how war affects daily lives, beyond just the soldiers involved – women, children, the elderly suffered too. It’s beyond a question of simplistic nationalism –it’s a story that Pakistanis, Nepalis, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis also share.”

This London born writer has grandparents from all over, with her maternal grandfather born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “He was actually in India as a soldier during the war - and my grandmother was Irish. On the other side, my paternal grandparents were from pre-Partition United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh) and were refugees to Pakistan. So, it just seemed essential to understand the history of the British Empire to understand how I had come about.” Having studied History at Oxford, she taught at the University of London (Royal Holloway) for 7 years. Presently, Yasmin is an Associate Professor of History at Oxford and a Fellow of Kellogg College. She also works in the Department for Continuing Education, particularly with mature & part-time students. Her first book The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan won the Gladstone Prize & got long listed for the Orwell Prize. Her family consists of her husband & young family.

Yasmin found it to be a difficult book to structure due to different people covered. “My main criterion was to try & write from the bottom-up, to find voices that we don’t normally hear in the histories of South Asia in the 1940s. It has a chronological sweep and flows from 1939 but moves around the world from London to South East Asia and across India and Nepal. I wanted it to convey something of what it felt like to be alive at that time, living in an Indian small town or cantonment.”

The Raj at War is full of stories, both big & small. And a few have touched the author. “Undoubtedly the Bengal famine of 1943… It is still difficult to read some of the reports or to look at the photographs. It was such a tragedy and I don’t think historians have fully got to grips with it yet. I am looking forward to Janam Mukherjee’s book Hungry Bengal. Compared to partition, the Bengal famine hasn’t had enough historical attention,” Yasmin revealed. Regarding the impact of the war and the Indian involvement on the Anglo-India relations, she feels it brought in new decline to the relations, which has been developed in the book. “There was a lot of mutual incomprehension, and a parting of old friendships. Nehru found it heartbreaking. Ultimately, the Raj came to an end – it couldn’t be sustained after the war’s impact.”

She is quick to answer regarding the points that might interest the readers. “There are some amazing events described – like the building of the Ledo Road, a crazy 500 mile road between India and China which cost the lives of thousands of labourers. Nobody even thought that building it was possible at the time… the Bombay Dock explosion of 1944 which made some 80,000 people homeless, when the whole harbour went up in flames. There are also individual stories, like the role of Aruna Asaf Ali who went underground in 1942 and spent the war on the run from the police as a Quit India activist. So many lives were transformed in unexpected ways because of the war.”

History never leaves you, they say. In some way, the book & its offerings are quite vital to present day India and readers, according the Yasmin. In her view, the war is very much a vast subject of interest all over the globe, in terms of films, TV & books. “And yet there are still so many completely unknown stories from South Asia. I think it’s vital that we understand the past in Britain and India – not just to score points against each other or to have arguments about the Raj – but so that we understand the world that we live in is a recent construction, that things were very different even in living memory.”

Now, she definitely wants to take a break from writing on similar subjects due to its association with intense misery & violence. “It’s really exhausting! I’d like to work on a different canvass for a while. I’ve had a longstanding interest in the British radical Annie Besant who became the president of the Indian National Congress in 1917 and was a major influence on Gandhi and other Indian leaders. So, I’m having a look at her papers.” Read this history, which alluded you in many ways…

The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War by Yasmin Khan

PUBLISHER: Vintage Publishing              
PUBLISHED: 16th July 2015
GENRE: Non-Fiction                                    
PRICE: Rs. 699                                                
PAGES: 432

Yasmin Khan’s Photo Credit: unitedagents.co.uk

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