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Nov 21, 2014

Across the Black Waters: MRA

The Tribune

The war novel by Mulk Raj Anand
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by Randeep Wadehra

Across the Black Waters by Mulk Raj Anand. Vision Books, New Delhi. Pages 264. Rs 495.

WORLD War I was fought from 1914 to 1918, in which Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Italy, Japan, the United States and other allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Much has been written by western authors about their respective soldiers’ contributions and sacrifices. However, the Indian soldier’s contribution has remained by and large ignored. This novel, described by British literary critic Alistair Niven as Mulk Raj Anand’s best since the "Untouchable", fills in the gap to a great extent.

Lalu is an Indian sepoy, part of the two divisions-strong-contingent of the Indian Army. For the first time he is sailing, that too for waging war on His Majesty’s behalf against the mighty Germans in France. He like others in the ship has only a vague idea of his destination and the actual war theatre.

The innocence of Indian sepoys has been brought out vividly by Anand in the scene where one of the characters describes the British monarch as an incarnation of God. The Indian soldier does not question the orders from the Commander-in-Chief, as relayed by the company havildar.

This faith in the divinity of the monarch enables him to sacrifice his all in an alien land for an empire that has given him nothing worth fighting for. Thus Lalu and his fellow sepoys find themselves in Flanders, a historical region in northwest Europe, including parts of northern France, western Belgium, and the southwest Netherlands along the North Sea. For many centuries it enjoyed virtual independence and great prosperity as a centre of the textile industry. The Hapsburg wars in the Low Countries caused the eventual division of the region, which suffered heavy damage during both World Wars.

It is strange that western literature and history do not take into account the sufferings and sacrifices of the Indian sepoy. It required a Mulk Raj Anand to chronicle the ordinary soldier’s extraordinary fortitude while facing heavy odds in strange environs. Pain and anger are evident throughout the narrative. However, the novel is remarkable for its sensitive handling of the characters who come from humble backgrounds. This is probably because the author himself is the son of a subedar in the Dogra Regiment.

The tension and unpredictability of war is borne with resolution by the sepoys. The front is live with the exchange of gunfire and invectives, and the ground is littered with bodies of the dead and the dying. Amidst all this, they are able to snatch some light moments.

For instance, while waiting for the orders to launch a counter-attack, they are facing the enemy’s artillery fire when they hear their comrade-in-arms named Daddy Dhanoo, snoring away. Lalu remarks, "Woe to the enemy if they see such warriors as Dhanoo". When he wakes up he is asked to go back to sleep but not snore lest he should frighten the enemy.

They show a capacity for philosophical dissection too. Such heavy topics as the significance of duty, obedience and dharma in the context of war are discussed with rustic earnestness.

Daddy Dhanoo is a typical example for whom, "obedience and duty were along with God not only the ultimate laws of the universe, but interchangeable. If loyalty to the spirit which creates the universe was only possible through worship and the remembrance of the Almighty, then the obedience to the sarkar, whose salt one had eaten, was the highest dharma. And his pantheism was activist..."

The unsophisticated sepoy is shown in the novel as being capable of infinite shades of subtlety whenever it came to differentiating between right and wrong according to the unwritten military code... everything else was "reduced to the test of the heart, the ultimate arbiter".

As with his other novels, Anand’s characters are ordinary people caught in circumstances that vary from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Their dreams, their aspirations are by no means grand.

Yet there is something majestic about their dignified struggle against odds. This volume might not be comparable to Leo Tolstoy’s "War and Peace". But in the portrayal of the ugly side of war, it is as poignant. The human virtue and failings come out in variegated shades.

Perhaps this is the reason why this novel has been translated into 11 European languages; the British Council adapted it for a play to mark the 80th anniversary of the end of World War I, ignoring the claims of such renowned works as "All Quiet on the Western Front".

More than a collector’s item, this novel is a must for those interested in knowing our past in its less pleasant shades.

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