If you don’t know your history, you cannot fully fathom the present or future. In the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar-winning book, Farthest Field: A Story of India’s Second World War, writer, journalist and searcher of truth, Bengaluru lad Raghu Karnad has done this succinctly.
His inner meanderings after a chance conversation with his mother into the lives of his grand uncles and grandfather and their part in World War II opened up an angst-filled history, that as a boy, he was far removed from.
The realities of another generation’s choices or the lack of them, is this story that has won the Yuva Puraskar (in the English category) in its attempt to understand lives – and the India that was so enmeshed in World War II. It brought on a soul searching need to document but with gentility, and this history retold is Raghu Karnad’s game-changing account into a genre, dealt with empathy and flair.
The author who is currently in Wyoming on a Norman Mailer’s writer’s scholarship is stunned and overwhelmed with the award. “It’s a very nice surprise. A surprise, as it was out of the blue — there was no shortlist — in fact, I think my publishers only found out because Arunava Sinha was looking over the list. It’s a good feeling being on a list that celebrates so many languages,” Raghu shares.
The son of renowned playwright, writer and actor Girish Karnad, Raghu’s early years have shaped his searching and contemplation, and this book is a fine example of his travails into a family history and a war. Raghu coursed through a wealth of information, and with uncanny depth and indelible context told a story that happened 70 years ago, finding through his research, the building blocks to an award-winning book.
What next? He declares, “The first rule of Write Club is — You do not talk about writing until it’s finished, of course. Then nobody can get you to stop,” he laughs, adding, “I do think Farthest Field is quite original in its genre — I’m not aware of any other books that approached either history or memoir the way it does.
But I like to think it can be placed alongside some very good books, like Laurent Binet’s HhHH — a book that invites readers to think about how the past is composed. HhHH is more rebellious and self-conscious, but FF is full of hints at the delicate jugaad at work,” says Raghu who is not new to writing, having won the European Commission’s Lorenzo Natali, Every Human Has Rights awards and the Press Institute of India Prize for Reporting on Conflict. His writer’s ‘block’ has always been an inspired and candid attempt at understanding reality.
Writers are a silence-seeking breed, and Raghu is no different. Though his silence comes dotted with retreats, reading and his father’s eagle eye. Raghu says, “My father was very thoughtful and gave me a lot of space as he wanted to avoid influencing it. Once the manuscript was complete, he made suggestions (like it needed a preface).”
That conversation with his mother became an all-consuming search. “She mentioned a granduncle, Bobby, who fought in the Second World War – not one, but two grand uncles, and my grandfather. I was startled. Suddenly, I was contemplating the idea that all the young men in my grandmother’s generation had gone off to war, and hadn’t returned – there was this private apocalypse in the family, caused by a war I hadn’t known India had much to do with,” he recalls. A South Indian with a Parsi connect, Raghu found resonance with the protagonist Bobby Mugaseth (his grand uncle).
“Bobby is my grand-uncle, my grandmother’s little brother. There’s no fiction. What that leaves is non-fiction — the contents of an army log-book, view of a grassy battlefield seen in Manipur today, a letter about a secret romance. It’s more a question of where memory and history merge. There’s nothing I invented — I did attempt to see the world through the eyes of young men and women who died long ago.”
Raghu admits being influenced by his father. “When I was about 10, he (his father) spoke against hate politics in the Ayodhya movement. One night, some men threw stones at our house... one nearly hit my sister. He’s always used his public presence to stand with the victims of political bullying, and still does. I admire that.”
There are also lessons he has imbibed on this journey of lives so close, “As a journalist, I’ve written about people’s lives, ordeals. You don’t realise how glib your handling of other peoples’ stories are until you contemplate one closer home. Writing about family is a moral education. The passages I found hardest were always ones about their private struggles.” Which has in various parts, given Karnad a maturity beyond his years, “You learn to despise clichés. For a scene of the family mourning, I spent ages staring down at bare facts, reluctant to shape them into a portrait of grief. This level of respect didn’t come from my knowing the family better. It came from realising that I didn’t know them in that moment at all.”
Busy unleashing his creative energies in Wyoming, “A sense of mystery replaces factual conviction that non-fiction is meant to display (in my book). I was glad to be reminded that all non-fiction is personal to someone – and that nearly everyone, in the depths of their interior lives, is a stranger,” he concludes....