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.

The Nagas on the Western Front

Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist who has lived and travelled in South East Asia since 1975. In 1985 he and his Shan wife journeyed from North East India across Burma to China, meeting insurgents and gaining first-hand knowledge of the conflicts and troubled politics of the region. His Land of Jade recounts this difficult and dangerous journey which took eighteen months to complete. (The book, first published in 1996, has been recently reprinted.) Lintner’s daughter was born in Nagaland. In an interview, he has recalled how – since his trip was a clandestine one – he had to hide in the toilet when the midwife arrived!

Lintner’s latest book, Great Game East: India, China and the struggle for Asia’s most volatile frontier (2012), is an authoritative survey of insurgency in Northeast India and South East Asia. In my last post I wrote about the Khasi and Garo porters who were recruited for the Labour Crops in France during World War I. Reading Great Game East I discovered that there was a Naga connection as well. Lintner writes that the British ordered every Naga village to supply porters. 4000 – perhaps 5000 – Nagas were sent to the Western Front. Traditionally, the Nagas had lived in fortified villages and made raids on each other. But on the Western Front the Nagas, now grouped together, developed a sense of tribal identity.  On their return home some of them formed the Naga Club and ‘it was in the Naga Club that a new Naga nationalism was forged.’

After the war a soldier named Jadonang, who had served in Mesopotamia, began a millenarian cult among the Rongmei tribe and declared himself the king of the Nagas. Lintner describes the haraka movement, propagated by Jadonang, as ‘a genuine, spontaneous uprising against the injustices of British colonialism. Foreign occupiers had imposed restrictions on cutting bamboo, which the tribals had done for centuries, and forcibly recruited villagers for corvée labour to build roads and houses for the new masters.’ When some of his followers were involved in human sacrifice, Jadonang was arrested, sentenced to death and hanged in 1931. But his cousin Gaidinliu became the cult’s new leader. She was captured in 1933. Here is Nehru writing about ‘Rani’ Gaidinliu:

What torment and suppression of spirit they have brought to her, who in the pride of her youth dared to challenge an empire! She can roam no more in the hill country through the forest glades, or sing in the fresh crisp air of the mountains. This wild young thing sits cabined in the darkness, with a few yards, maybe, of space in the daytime, eating her fiery heart in desolation and confinement. And India does not even know of this brave child of the hills, with the free spirit of the mountains in her…

There is of course an obverse side to Nehru’s romanticizing of Gaidinliu. In Nagaland: The Night of the Guerrillas (1978), Nirmal Nibedon writes about Nehru’s disbelief when he saw a memorandum drafted by A Z Phizo’s men. Nehru was certain an outsider had drafted it. Nibedon adds: ‘This is where Nehru and his advisers went wrong. The Nagas had not only learnt to speak the foreign tongue, but many could spell and write it correctly.’

Lintner cites a Naga legend, recorded by Verrier Elwin, the anthropologist who was Nehru’s adviser for tribal affairs. According to this legend, ‘God, in the beginning of time, gave men skins of deer to write their history on. But the hillmen, “hungry and omnivorous, cooked and ate their writing material, with the result that they were unable to leave any records of their past.”’ As Lintner notes, many hill people in South East Asia have similar legends of the lost book. I know the story the Khasis tell of a great flood from which a Khasi and a Bengali were trying to save themselves. The Bengali had tied his bundle of books on his head but the Khasi held his books in his mouth. As they were swimming, a huge wave swept over them and the Khasi lost his books (or accidentally swallowed them).

Perhaps these stories are a response to the European missionaries who arrived in various parts of the Northeast and South East Asia in the first half of the nineteenth century. They brought with them not only the Book but also the culture and technology of the book – printing the Bible in local languages was a crucial part of the missionary project. One has to marvel at the ingenuity of the tribal communities in explaining what must have been perceived as a serious cultural lack. (It is also an example of the dynamic and contemporary nature of folklore.)

In my previous post I wrote that we’ll never know what the Khasi and Garo porters who served in the Labour Corps felt or thought since they were probably illiterate: they would have left no letters (or other written records) in the huge archives that the European libraries are preparing to make available online in 2014. But now my feeling is that I may have been both condescending and wrong.

World War I and the Shillong Connection

Modern wars tend to be global. The Napoleonic Wars involved an unprecedented number of European countries. World War I extended far beyond the boundaries of Europe. India, as a colony of Britain, was drawn into the war. More than a million of our soldiers ended up serving in war fronts in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Nearly fifty thousand Indian soldiers were killed and many more thousands were wounded or maimed. World War II was fought on our doorsteps. The heroic battles at Kohima and Imphal succeeded in halting the Japanese push into India and led to their withdrawal from Southeast Asia. The war memorial at Kohima has an epitaph that is as true as it is  moving:

When You Go Home

Tell Them Of Us And Say

For Your Tomorrow

We Gave Our Today

But World War II has no place in our collective consciousness, not even here in the northeastern states. In Forgotten Armies (2004), Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper write that ‘the story of India at war from 1939 to 1945 has been pushed to the margins by the telling and retelling of the story of independence and partition of British India into the republics of India and Pakistan.’ And so we only dimly remember, if at all, the ‘forgotten armies’: the Indian soldiers who fought, died or were taken prisoners; the porters, guides, labourers, the nurses and doctors, who participated, or were forced to participate, in the war effort; and the Indian refugees from Burma who died in the high passes of (what was then) Assam and Manipur.

I didn’t fully realize that my hometown, Shillong, had a connection to World War I until very recently. I knew of course that Motphran near the crowded bazaar called Iewduh (formerly known as Burra Bazaar) was a war memorial. The area where it is located is a tangle of cars and pedestrians and it’s easy to share the general indifference to  the memorial, which when I last saw it  was in a state of neglect. It may have been restored (I haven’t been to Shillong for a year), though I doubt it.  There used to be a taxi stand there (I don’t know if it’s been shifted), and when I and my friends said ‘Motphran’ we meant the taxi stand rather than the memorial.

Motphran means ‘Stone of France’ in Khasi. The memorial was erected by the British after the end of World War I in honour of the 67 porters of the 26th Khasi Labour Corps who were killed in France.  Carved on the memorial is this quotation from Horace: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.  Wilfred Owen contemptuously called this line, which means ‘it is sweet and dignified to die for the homeland’, ‘the old Lie.’ In Motpran, it is doubly ironic.

Jim Corbett, that old imperialist, was given a wartime commission as captain and ordered to raise a labour corps; he took five thousand men from Kumaon to France. What I didn’t know was that the British sourced men for their wars from the Khasi and Garo Hills as well. An old newspaper report on Motphran mentions that the British would seek the help of Khasi chieftains whenever they needed men to be recruited as soldiers and that many Khasi men fought for the British Empire. (The 26th Khasi Labour Corps also served in World War II.)  In Tura, a cenotaph, erected by the British after World War I, honours the 58 men of the 69th Garo Labour Corps who died in France. The Garos were made to work as porters and to dig trenches. The Khasis must have done the same. In their memoirs, British colonial officials who lived and worked in Assam often praise hill men for being hardy and useful porters (in contrast to the supposedly lazy and weak plainsmen).

What were the thoughts and feelings of the Khasi men who, nearly a hundred years ago, were sent off to a distant land to help in a war that must have meant little to them? In ‘Ah! Motphran of the 26th Labour Corps’ by Wandell Passah, a poem that badly needs the blue pencil, they are described as ‘brave men very willing to go.’ Somehow I don’t think so. Twelve European libraries, including the British Library, are working together to complete a major online project called Remembering the First World War to mark the centenary of the war in 2014. Among the material that will go online will be the letters that were written by the 130,000 Indian soldiers who served on the western front. These letters, which are in the British Library archives, should provide glimpses (the letters were subject to military censorship) of how the Indian soldiers saw Britain, France, and the war. I assume that the Khasi porters were not literate. If this is correct, then it is unlikely that we will ever know what Bah Lyngka, Bah Kyrwai Synteng, Bah Nakshir, Bah Pkan Marngor, Bah Sholishon, Bah Ren Sing, Bah Don Marbaniang, Bah Kyrdit, Bah Jir Wallang, Bah Pahoh Thabah, Bah Muluk Nongrum, Bah Mohon Khyriem, Bah Likshon War, Bah Hummu Marwein, Bah Kdep Khongsir and the others actually thought or felt.

Wandell Passah mentions a great uncle, Bah Noling Passah, who was killed in action at Baghdad. From the reference he makes to Al’kut in Iraq, it seems he means the  Siege of Kut-al-Amara which took place in 1916 and in which thousands of British and Indian soldiers perished. I was reminded of A K Ramanujan’s poem, ‘Small-Scale Reflections on a Great House’:

once in nineteen-forty-three

from as far as the Sahara,


half-gnawed by desert foxes,

and lately from somewhere

in the north, a nephew with stripes


on his shoulder was called

an incident in the border

and was brought back in plane


and train and military truck

even before the telegrams reached

on a perfectly good


chatty afternoon. 

Modern wars have the power to intrude into the lives of ordinary people and families far away. To think of those Khasi and Garo porters dying half way across the world is both sad and disturbing.