The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | India, Empire, and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, and Songs

India, Empire, and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, and Songs. By Santanu Das.  Cambridge University Press, 2018. xxii + 466 pp. $69.99 (cloth); $27.99 (paper).

Reviewed by Claire Buck, Wheaton College

India, Empire, and First World War Culture is a book that First World War scholars have been eager to see published.  Following his influential study of British war writers, Touch and Intimacy in First World War Writing (2006), Santanu Das turned his attention to the recovery and analysis of Indian war memory and history.  He is now prominent in the wider recovery and centering of colonial and transnational war memory as a scholar and a public intellectual. His editorial work, in, for example, the edited collection Race, Empire, and First World War Writing (2011) and The Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War (2013) has challenged scholars to understand war writing in less Eurocentric and more international ways. During the war’s centenary, Das advised on curatorial projects at the Imperial War Museum and the British Library and engaged a broader public through BBC Radio 4’s “Soldiers of the Empire” series. India, Empire, and First World War Culture is the culmination of this work, meticulous in detailing one nation’s war, ambitious in conceptual and geographical reach, and as field-changing in its implications for literary studies as Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1974).

India, Empire, and First World Culture is a large book in length and scope. It encompasses an “undivided India” that in 1914 included present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burma, with all the linguistic, religious, and racial heterogeneity that this implies.  His inclusion of the Indian home front allows women’s voices to be heard. Das also explores transnational, lateral relationships, from intellectual networks of influence that took Rabindranath Tagore on a wartime lecture tour in Japan to the cross-cultural encounters of minor transnational subjects such as the Punjabi sweeper who rescued and adopted an Armenian boy in Ras al-‘Ain (271). His project is to explore “the many-layered cake” of First World War India, one that includes “the sepoy and the civilian, the subaltern and the elite” (14). 

The book’s ten chapters are organized into four sections. Das starts with the war’s outbreak in “The Restless Home Front,” capturing the divergent responses and internal ambivalences among Indian elites and lower classes about the war’s significance for India. In section two, “Race and Representation,” Das analyzes the construction of the sepoy as a figure of fascination in European visual culture and British war writing, preparing the way for the book’s tour de force in section three, “The Sepoy Heart.” The three chapters of this section use letters, poems, songs, prayers, diaries, and memoirs to explore the everyday, affective world of Indian combatants and non-combatants in Europe and the Middle East. The final section, “Literary and Intellectual Cultures,” traces the war’s role in shaping how prominent intellectual and literary figures imagined a post-war world with Asia at its center. Threaded through these sections are Das’s key themes: the heterogeneity of Indian war experience and memory, the complex interplay of class, rank, religion, language, and race in Indian war experience, and the transformation of reading practices and conceptual frameworks necessary to center “life writing from below” (204). 

Holding the book together is a seemingly simple claim that India, like the European nations, produced a rich literary and cultural response to the First World War. The demonstration of the claim is far from simple for reasons that are both archival and conceptual. European war memory and history rests on a superabundance of war writing, much of which is easily accessible to scholars and curators in print and online, in public archives and private collections. By contrast, the archives of colonial war history are, as Das tells us, dispersed and fragmented. Because most colonial combatants and non-combatants were non-literate, testimony from the men and their home communities is rare. Das has had to construct the book’s archive, joining with other scholars and citizen-historians. This archive includes diaries, letters, poems, fiction, memoirs, and philosophical and political writings, most often by elite writers such as novelist Mulk Raj Anand, prominent woman nationalist and poet Sarojini Naidu, and intellectuals such as Tagore and Muhammed Iqbal. Das gives new visibility to other war writings, such as Kalyāṇ-Pradīp, a memoir written in Bengali by the 80-year-old grandmother of Kalyan Mukherji, who served as a doctor in Mesopotamia, and Abhi Le Baghdad (1957), the memoir of Sisir Prasad Sarbadhikari, a medical orderly who, unlike Mukherji, survived horrific conditions under siege in Kut and as a prisoner of war (POW).    

To enter the world of the sepoys, the bhistis (cooks), the dhobies (washermen) and their home communities, Das uses a dizzying array of sources. Some will be familiar to war scholars, such as the sepoy letters sent from the Western Front, translated into English and transcribed for surveillance purposes, and the 2,677 audio recordings of POWs in Germany made for ethnographic purposes. Many others will be unfamiliar, such as the recruitment play Bāngāli Palṭan [Bengali Platoon] and the list of words, in Urdu and English, from the trench diary of Mir Mast, a sepoy and later anti-colonialist activist. Material culture also plays a critical role, from the haunting “blood-stained” spectacles, the arms of which “embrace” the photograph of Private Jogendra Sen in a museum in Chandernagore, to the “cigarette cases . . . medals, coins, photographs [and] trinkets” descendants of Punjabi veterans showed Das on his field trip to Bhondsi in 2014 (16). The book is itself an archival treasure trove, including over 50 illustrations, offering glimpses into an ever-expanding, emergent archive that permanently alters the canonical archives of European and American war memory.

India, Empire, and First World War Culture is by no means only a work of recovery.  Das demonstrates that the recovery of colonial war memory and experience cannot be separated from the assumptions and methodologies scholars bring to the archive.  Foremost is his argument that non-literate does not equal non-literary. In a compelling chapter on the richly polyglossal Punjabi home front, Das puts rumor and song in dialogue with print and visual sources to convey the essential interdependence of the oral and textual.  He recreates the “narrative pleasure [that] resided in reciting, quoting, narrating, [and] singing” (78). Das likewise asks the field to rethink the genre of “life-writing” (238), the italics making room for oral fragments, such as the recording of the POW Jasbahadur Rai in 1916. This 23-year-old Gurkha sepoy used a Nepali song genre, jhyaure, to testify to traumatic war experience and imprisonment. The book is replete with instances of close, loving, and respectful reading of a folksong or a letter fragment to bring to life an affective history of the war from below, the perspective of sepoys, laborers, and their communities. Each letter, song, document, or object, as he writes, “open[s] up new ways of “reading”—and writing—life, and particularly colonial lives, in times of war” (9). Das demonstrates that attentiveness to language and form in literary and non-literary texts plays a specific and important role in understanding “a more complex psychological and sensuous” dimension of colonial war memory (26). Literary studies needs such models.

India, Empire, and First World War Culture is a book that all First World War scholars should read in its entirety, whether they work in national, postcolonial, or global contexts. Most especially, those of us in literary and cultural studies will find new archival resources that promise to open European and North American war studies to more comparative and transnational work. Das teaches us to read this colonial archive by blending traditional methodologies from literary and cultural studies with practices drawn from historians and scholars of visual culture. The result is a new understanding of the “contradictions and complexities” of colonial war and memory in India as experienced by the elite and the subaltern (307). This new understanding that reflects the emotional ambivalences, intimacies, and traumas of the war for combatants and non-combatants alike. Das writes that the “global turn” First World War studies has already seen in military and cultural history has yet to happen for war literature (342). India, Empire, and First World War Culture provides scholars with models and tools to make such a turn, but it is Das's deep love for every artifact and the lives the artifacts represent that will make the turn certain.


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