In the drawing room of a bucolic residence in Bangalore, Raghu Karnad fidgeted with his voice recorder while questions shifted shapes in his head. Facing him was Lt. Col. CM Beliappa, a war veteran in his ’90s. “He mentioned, quite nonchalantly, that his first overseas deployment in 1943 was to join the troops occupying Iraq. I was trying to seem cool and knowledgeable, but my thoughts were a riot: Did he say Iraq?” says Karnad, about the very first interview for his debut novel Farthest Field – An Indian story of the Second World War. Earlier this year, his essay ‘The Ghost in the Kimono’, which narrated the story of the Japanese interned in the PuranaQila in Delhi, had sparked off discussions amongst war scholars around the globe.
The genesis of the book lay in re-examining the mundane. Things that he was accustomed to — the pale colour of the wall, a photo amidst others, arranged in a particular manner and from within the silver rims, three men beaming, all dressed in suits and one who looked a lot like himself. That was his grandfather, KodanderaGanapathy, and the other two his granduncles, Bobby and ManekDadabhoy. Together they form the crux of Farthest Field, which is a tale of a forgotten era and about the men who found out late that they had spent years on the wrong side of history. Unlike Jean Binet’sHHhH, one of Karnad’s favorites, wherein the author scrutinises himself as he writes the story of Heydrich, the Nazi governor of Czechoslovakia, here the author’s maternal family serves as a prism through which we look at unscripted lives.
Karnad doesn’t recollect cozy family get-togethers, where relatives gathered to narrate and listen to reruns of the family’s valour stories. In fact, he grew up with only a faint idea of a military legacy. The day he began questioning his inheritance, his life rearranged itself. “My grandmother never told me these stories”, he says, “She had buried those memories deep, like a lot of people who went through the war did. In my grandfather’s case — and he’s not the central character in Farthest Field — I knew he’d served in the War, though not in any theatre that I could recognise. It never occurred to me to ask what an army doctor was doing in Waziristan in the early ’40s. Part of the answer, it turned out, was that India feared an invasion by the Fascist armies through the North-West Frontier Province — a fact that still challenges my imagination, even now, after writing the book. The Indian Army actually laid down anti-tank obstacles, called Dragons’ Teeth, in the Khyber Pass. There are a lot of facts like that in India’s WWII history.”
Landmarked with such moments of serendipity, the voyage of this book had always been rewarding for him. The book, which closely trails facts and makes shocking revelations while traipsing into the heads of Ganny, Bobby and Manek, documents voices of a cluster that have almost disappeared. “I spent a fair while worrying about genre rules, but I accepted that this story wanted to be written a certain way – and my job was to write it, and then be honest about how I approached it. There’s a review out there in which Manu Joseph quotes Gunter Grass, saying that the difference between fiction and non-fiction is a bookseller’s concern, not a writer’s. Manu calls that nonsense and says ‘There’s no honest state in between fact and fiction’. Obviously, they’re both wrong. Fact and fiction are different, but they’re rarely pure elements. When you’re writing narrative, they bleed into each other continually.”
A forensic non-fiction would seem a tricky genre for a debutant, but until this story appeared, Raghu wasn’t thinking about writing a book. “This sort of took over my life. I think it’s fair to say that the book you think you’ll write is like the band you think you’ll form, because you just took a photo that would look great on an album. What I call forensic non-fiction is essentially non-fiction with some license extended to describing the interior lives — the thoughts and beliefs — of people who weren’t around to be interviewed. That stuff is still researched, still truthful I hope, though it can’t be proved.”
For over two years, Raghu walked into strange apartments and occupied a variety of couches and chairs, almost always opposite a nonagenarian, who would rummage through his sack of discarded memories — of starched uniforms, of bullets, of corpses and of youth — to pull out answers in a specific hue. It doesn’t seem coincidental that the jacket of his book is a shade of brown, of gathered dust and the stories that are camouflaged beneath it.