Of ‘Babus’ and Sipahis: Mulk Raj Anand’s Across the Black Waters

Mulk Raj Anand’s Across the Black Waters, published in 1941, is said to be the only world war novel in Indian Writing in English. It is the second part of a trilogy – the other novels being The Village (1936) and The Sword and the Sickle (1942) – depicting the chequered career and life of its central character, Lal Singh or Lalu. In  Across the Black Waters, Lalu is a sipahi in the 69th Rifles. His regiment lands at Marseilles, is transported to Orleans, then to Wulvergham (Wulvergem), near Ypres (the Belgian town which was the site of some of the worst battles), before being deployed in the Battle of Festubert (May 15-15, 1915). While following orders to rush enemy trenches, Lalu receives a bullet in his leg, and is captured by the Germans (this is how the novel ends).

Soldiers of the 15th Sikh Regiment  with locals in Flanders, c. 1915. (Image Source: UKPHA Archive)

Soldiers of the 15th Sikh Regiment with locals in Flanders, c. 1915. (Source: UKPHA Archive)

To Lalu arriving in Marseilles, ‘the quay seemed to be drowned in a strange and incongruous whirlpool: Pathan, Sikhs, Dogras, Gurkhas, Muhammadans in khaki, blue-jacketed French seamen and porters, and English Tommies.’ A European war in an age of formal empires, the Great War inevitably became a global war (the First World War, at it later came to be known), dragging in countries like India. Recent research published on the occasion of the war’s centenary  commemoration has been something of a revelation for those of us  for whom the First World War was the poetry of Wilfred Owen or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Wartime photographs in particular, published in books like Vedica Kant’s ‘If I Die Here, Who Will Remember Me?’: India and the First World War (2014) and made available online by researchers, libraries and archives, show the extent to which non-Europeans were a part of the war. Writing about about this new research in the Guardian, Santanu Das (author of Touch and Intimacy in First Wold War Literature) referred to the problem of constructing a non-European archive of the Great War since few of the one million Indians, or 140,000 Chinese, or 166,000 West Africans who participated left behind dairies and memoirs. ‘In India, Senegal or Vietnam there is nothing like the Imperial War Museum; when a soldier or village headman died, a whole library vanished.’

'A British soldier overseeing the work of two Indian clerks who are going through the mail. ' (Source: bbc.com)

‘A British soldier overseeing the work of two Indian clerks who are going through the mail.’ (Source: bbc.com)

David Omissi’s Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-18, published in 1999 and again in 2014, gives us extracts from the thousands of letters written by sipahis in France and England (where the wounded sipahis were hospitalized). These letters (or their extracts and transcripts), which otherwise would have lost to us, have survived in military archives because they wee scrutinized by censors for political references and for damaging and demoralizing comments. The sipahis, aware  that their letters were being read, resorted to using codes – and self-censorship. Also, the sipahis being illiterate, did not themselves write the letters but used  the services of scribes. The letters are thus highly mediated but, despite this limitation, Omissi explains why they are still important. He refers to the problem of writing history ‘from below’ given the absence of material generated by the subaltern classes themselves. ‘The significance of the soldiers’ letters,’ he writes, ‘lies partly in the simple fact of their existence: they allow us to read (admittedly at several removes) the words of the illiterate, and to hear the voices of those who were (at least from the point of view of historical records) normally voiceless.’

An illiterate soldier giving his thumb impression on the pay book. (Source: bbc.com)

An illiterate soldier giving his thumb impression on the pay book. (Source: bbc.com)

Sipahis’ letters may be the closest thing we have to an Indian subaltern record of the First World War but reading them is problematic. As Gajendra Singh writes in Testimonials of the Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars (2014), ‘authorial intent, reception, and meaning are uncertain …[and] any form of “resistance” was rarely overt and involved connection with colonial military discourse.’ He cites a letter written in September 1916 by Jemadar Hasan Shah recounting a fictional meeting with a dying British soldier:

I was on the battlefield accompanied by a sowar, and came upon a wounded British soldier. ‘Well friend,’ I said to him. ‘How are things with you? ‘Quite all right,’ he replied. ‘I am proud I was of service in the fight, but I am thirsty.’ I gave him water to drink and asked if he wanted anything else. ‘I regret nothing,’ he said, ‘except that I shall not meet my sweetheart…4 months ago she wrote and said in the whole world she loved only me and begged me to come to her soon.’ ‘My friend,’ I said to him. ‘May the All Merciful God satisfy the desire of your heart, and unite you with your beloved.’ ‘I am finished,’ he said. ‘And when my end comes, my one regret will be that when my love called to me I was unable to go to her.’ ‘My friend,’ I said, weeping with pity. ‘My condition is the same as yours.’ 

Though the censor may have viewed the letter as reflective of the Indian soldier’s affection for his British counterpart,  ‘the main purpose of the letter, however, seems to have been to use the voice of the British Private to express the fatigue and homesickness that the sipahi felt but could not openly admit.’ 

Singh writes that British military intelligence gave Kipling letters written by Indian soldiers so that he could write fictional ones for purposes of propaganda.  The letters Kipling composed, which were published in The Saturday Evening Post and The Morning Post, were intended to counter pro-Indian sentiment in the United States. Lalu, who unlike most sipahis is literate, writes a letter to his mother. It is too long to quote here. However, this letter and the ones Kipling wrote (cited by Singh) seem curiously empty when we remember Jemadar Hasan Shah’s letter. Anand and Kipling’s letters lack polysemy.

Punjab Recruitment Poster: Translation by Amarjit Chandan: Who will get this money, rifle and uniform? The one who will enlist in the army immediately. (Image source: War Battles Armies/Facebook)

Punjab Recruitment Poster: Translation by Amarjit Chandan: Who will get this money, rifle and uniform? The one who will enlist in the army immediately. (Source: War Battles Armies/Facebook)

In Across the Black Waters, the following passage gives us the socio-economic background of the sipahis and their reasons for joining the army:

…when they first joined the army, these legionnaires did so because, as the second, third or fourth sons of a peasant family, overburdened with debts, they had to go and earn a little ready cash to pay off the interest on the mortgage of the few aces of land, the only thing which stood between the family and its fate…

Sometimes a war was on somewhere, in a geography of which the family or the son had no conception, and he faded out into thin air, only to confirm his own and the family’s prejudice that all who went beyond the mountains or across the black waters were destined for hell…

But, occasionally, one man in a village returned, with a stripe on his arm or a star  on his shoulder, or a medal on his chest, and demanded a large dowry… And the young men of the village looked at him and soon the recruiting offices of the district became busier…

Mulk Raj Anand’s father was the head clerk of the 38th Dogra Regiment. In his memoir Seven Summers (1951), one of Anand’s earliest recollections of the cantonment at Mian Mir, where he spent his early childhood, is that of the road separating the white offices’ bungalows form the barracks in which soldiers lived.  But vis-a-vis the sipahis, his father was a privileged man:

He was the only literate man in the whole regiment of Dogra hillmen, to whom the sipahis brought their letters to read, from whom they requested the drafts of their petitions. The indigent sweepers, washermen, and bandsmen of the Mian Mir cantonment came to him for loans of money. And he was greeted with joined hands and the words, ‘I fall at your feet’, by our relations among the coppersmiths and silversmiths who came from nearby Lahore, or our home town Amritsar, or from various parts of the Punjab. 

Babu Khushi Ram, in Across the Black Waters, is an ‘exalted personage’ to the sipahis who both respect and resent him.

Anand was a child when First World War broke out; in Seven Summers he recounts how a family outing was interrupted by the news of the war’s declaration. So unlike Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (or the poems of Wilfred Owen), Across the Black Waters is not ‘witness’ literature.  Anand wrote the novel to honour his father with whom he was on bad terms (his father disapproved of young Anand’s involvement in anti-British protests) and because of his commitment to writing about the lives of the downtrodden and underprivileged. Anand sought to represent the feelings of Lalu on being confronted with the experience of the Great War, an experience that nothing could have prepared him for: ‘For a moment he was cut off from everyone. And he felt as he had felt once when as a child he had gone with his parents to a cattle fair and got lost and had run in panic, weeping salty tears, looking for someone he could recognize.’  He writes about the character Dhanoo who does not fear dying as much as he fears the impossibility of having the last rites performed on his dead body in a foreign land. And he describes the panic in the ranks when it is announced that the 69th Rifles would separate into two – ‘they had come accept to their togetherness as a law of nature and they had naively expected that they would all be put to fight side by side with each other.’

For, the son of the head clerk of the 38th Dogra Regiment was one of founders of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA). The PWA, which had its first meeting in London in November 1934, was formed at a time when the epic struggle against imperialism in Asia and Africa and the fight against fascism in Europe were on.  It was a charged time when writers, artists and intellectuals felt they had a decisive role to play. In literature, the project involved writing about the basic problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness, and political subjection. Anand went on to create Untouchable (and Premchand Godan), a novel about a latrine-cleaner, something unprecedented in Indian literature (and unique even today).

The PWA was a radical and counter-hegemonic movement. Most of its members were middleclass. Today their attempts may strike one as futile or naive. Spivak’s famous essay assures us that intellectuals cannot speak for the subaltern. Tabish Khair’s Babu Fictions (2001) argues that Indian Writing in English is incapable of representing the underprivileged, non-English sections (the ‘Coolies’) of the nation. However, it has been  pointed out that Khair’s argument that Anglophone Indians can never shed their compromised elite status repeats a colonial slur: earlier the British used to assert that indigenous speakers of English could never cast off their ‘Indianness’. (Khair’s use of the pejorative term ‘Babu’ is interesting.) It has also been pointed out that the idea that English in India is an expression of upper-class status is a reductive one.  In the 1934 London meeting, there were Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi writers present. That is why the PWA’s manifesto, first drafted by Anand, was in English.

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