Basu on Das, 'India, Empire, and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, and Songs'

Santanu Das
Shrabani Basu

Santanu Das. India, Empire, and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, and Songs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xxiii + 466 pp. $27.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-107-44159-0.

Reviewed by Shrabani Basu (Historian and journalist) Published on H-Asia (April, 2019) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

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In this excellent book, Santanu Das takes us straight to the heart of World War I, not in the muddy fields of Flanders and France, but a tiny museum in Chandernagore, a small town upstream from Calcutta on the banks of the Hooghly River that was a former French colony. Here, in a small cabinet in a dimly lit room in the Dupleix House and Museum, Das found an object that caught his attention: a pair of glasses. The label described it as “blood-stained.” They belonged to Private J. N. Sen, MB (bachelor of medicine), West Yorkshire Regiment, who had died in action on the night of May 22-23 in 1916 in France. Next to the artifacts were a few of his possessions: a razor, a photograph of a young European lady, a book of friendship signed by the same lady, and a small leather wallet. Sen was the first Bengali, originally from Chandernagore, to be killed in the First World War. Sen’s life and tragic death, several thousand miles away from his homeland, was captured in a few objects. It brought home to Das the direct link that India had with the Great War.

The museum visit began a process of research which would take nearly ten years. Das traveled extensively, mining documents in museums and archives across Germany, Belgium, France, Iraq, Turkey, India, and Britain (his grateful thanks to the institutions and grants that supported him runs to several pages). The monumental work India, Empire and First World War Culture, Writings, Images and Songs looks at the war through the lens of the Indian civilians and combatants as reflected in their language and literature.  

Das takes the war away from the Western perspectives of the Tommies in the trenches and the works of the War Poets like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke and gives us instead the poetry of Sarojini Naidu and Rabindranath Tagore. In his earlier book, Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (2006), Das had written about the sensory side of the war and the physical intimacy among the men who went to war in the muddy trenches through the writings, photography, and art work of the time. Here, he delves further, bringing out a wealth of firsthand accounts by the Indians who went thousands of miles for a war that was not of their making. As most of the Indian soldiers were illiterate, their perspective of the war was barely recorded. It is this gap that Das fills with his discovery of the regional literature of the time and the homegrown accounts of the war captured in memoirs, plays, poetry, and novels.

Set in a small village in Bengal is a play written in September 1916 by novelist Satish Chandra Chattopadhyay called Bangali Paltan. It traces the story of two men—one a middle-class person called Nirmal and the other a village idiot or buffoon called Kebla—and their experience in the war. Along with the short story called Usne Kaha Tha by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri published in 1915, they form the earliest literature on the war by Indian writers.  

Das’s meticulous research has unearthed stories about the Bengalis who went to the field. Classified as the non-martial races, they are rarely covered in the war narratives, which largely focus on the Sikhs, Gurkhas, and Pathans. We have the story of Das’s own family: Captain Dr. Manindranath Das, a doctor in Mesopotamia from 1916-18, who risked his life to bandage wounds and treat patients and was awarded the Military Cross. There are other gems: the 209-page memoir Abhi Le Baghdad by Sisir Prasad Sarbadhikari (described by Das as “All Quiet on the Western Front turned upside down,” p. 256), and Kalyan Pradip, a 429-page memoir which provides a literary history of the First World War. Written by an eighty-year-old widow, Mokkhada Devi, the book is a tribute to her thirty-four-year-old grandson, Dr. Kalyan Mukherjee, who died as a POW in Mesopotamia. Mukherjee was part of the Ambulance Corps and served from April 1915 to March 1917. He wrote regularly to his mother about the conditions n the front line. His letters provided a ringside view of the offensive at Nasiriyah and Kut. In November 1916, when Mukherjee was a POW, his mother died. He received the news of her death in the camp on March 3, 1917. Barely two weeks later, on March 18, he too died. His grandmother pieced together his story through his letters and published the book as a labor of love for her late daughter and grandson. Mukherjee’s story is one of the most moving narratives in the book. The memoir of Kunal Sen, an Anglicized Bengali Babu who worked as a postal officer, brings out yet another perspective of the war as seen from the Indian side.

To add to the wealth of previously unseen and unrecorded Bengali literature on the subject, Das has also looked at other regional narratives: the unpublished diaries of the aristocratic Rajput Amar Singh; the 380-page memoir Rangbhumi Rakhad, written by a Parsi Gujarati, Nariman Karkari, who served in a British regiment as a lascar. Das points out that it is significant that trench narratives published by Indians appeared as early as 1922, while Western accounts by Siegfried Sassoon and others were all published in the later 1920s. There is also the account of Kanrei Shaiza, a Tanghkul who accompanied the 66th Manipur Labour Corps to France and wrote Apuk Apaka Pairei Khare (My Journey). Here we have the record of the journey to France marked by seasickness and the dizziness that was felt by the soldiers. Shaiza writes about the dead bodies that were wrapped in fabric and heaved into the sea.

For most World War I historians, it is the archive of letters from Indian soldiers translated and annotated by the Censor Board of Indian Letters that provides the main source of material about the personal impressions of the Indians. Most regimental diaries were written by English officers of the Indian army. Here again, Das has uncovered original material written by Indian officers, clerks, and doctors that gives us the perspective from the Indian side. While accounts of the Indian experience have focused largely on the western front, Das has also provided a wealth of literature about the Indian experience in Mesopotamia, Palestine, Egypt, and Kut. The accounts of Sarbadhikari and Kalyan Mukherjee take us straight into the horror that was the siege of Kut, rarely covered in the Western narrative.

The jewel of Das’s finds was the trench diary of the Pathan soldier Mir Mast, brother of Victoria Cross-holder Mir Dast. During the battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, Mast defected to the German side, taking a handful of Indian soldiers with him. He trained his fellow deserters and traveled as part of a Turko-German jihad mission from Germany to Turkey and Afghanistan. The mission aimed to recruit the emir to the German side, but it failed. Mast left the group in Kabul and made his way home to his village on the North-West Frontier. Mir Mast may have been a traitor, but the main reason for his defection seems to have been sheer homesickness and exhaustion. Like hundreds of other Allied soldiers, he too had been worn out physically and mentally by the war and the desertion was a desperate bid to get back to his family.

Das found his trench notes in the National Archives in Delhi in a sealed envelope. Instead of the writings of a traitor, they were the notes of a man trying to make sense of the war and the conditions on the western front. Simple notes in his diary included a list of English words. They ranged from “haversack” and “blanket” to personal words like “hungry,” “nephew,” and “honeymoon.” What was he trying to communicate about his nephew? Had his nephew got married? Was he on his honeymoon? There was more in the diary. Mast had recorded names of vegetables like “carrot,” “potatoies,” “parsnip,” but he had also written down words like “brest,” “cunt,” and “penus.” Amidst the carnage and the killing, Mir Mast was trying to learn English words. On that bit of paper, in between these random words, lay Mir Mast’s fractured life (pp. 8-9).

In the Humboldt archives in Germany, Das heard the recordings of the Indian prisoners of war. The wailing voice of Mall Singh captured on the scratchy vinyl, show his longing to go home and eat the “butter” (makhan) that he can get in his village. Again, like Mir Mast, these archives record the loneliness, homesickness, and utter despair felt by Indian troops in the war.

Das, a professor of English literature, captures above all the sensuousness of the lives wrecked by war. He deconstructs the photographs of Indian soldiers and the artwork done mainly by Western artists and photographers. He analyses the gaze of the Western eye capturing the sinewy bronze bodies of the soldiers as they bathe, cook, and sit around the camp. The result is intimate and intrusive at the same time.

For Das, the journey to archive the soldiers’ experience had its moments of serendipity. While he was giving a lecture in Leeds in Yorkshire, showing the image of Kunal Sen’s glasses and the objects he had found in the museum at Chandernagore, an English gentleman jumped up and interrupted his talk. He shouted out that the image was that of “Jon Sen,” who had been a student at the university. Sen’s name appeared among the panel of the dead in a memorial at the university. Das learned that Sen had been the only nonwhite member of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He had volunteered in the opening months of the war and joined the Leeds Pals Battalion. He was a much-loved member of the regiment and was remembered by fellow comrade Arthur Dalby as the best-educated in the battalion, who spoke seven languages. However, he was not allowed to even be a lance corporal as Indians were not allowed to be officers at that time. After his death on the western front, Sen’s obituary was carried in the Yorkshire Evening Post in 1916 under the heading “Leeds Pals Lose an Indian Comrade” (p. 4). It is stories like that of Kunal Sen and Kalyan Mukherjee that bring out a very different account of wartime history.

Those interested in First World War history and literature will find in Das’s narrative a beauty and sensitivity, drawing as it does on stories of compassion in the midst of the shelling: the Indian doctor who looks after a dying German soldier; the young girl from a village in Punjab who learns to read and write, so she can send a letter to her father. Combined with meticulous research and scholarship, it makes this densely printed 417-page book a compelling read.

Shrabani Basu is the author of For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914-18 (2016), Victoria and Abdul: The Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant (2010), and Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan (2007).  

Citation: Shrabani Basu. Review of Das, Santanu, India, Empire, and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, and Songs. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019. URL:

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