Somewhere, halfway through Yasmin Khan’s wonderful new book, I go looking for a picture of Aruna Asaf Ali, née Ganguli. I have only the vaguest recollection of her, but the woman Khan describes is entirely fascinating. When we first meet her, Aruna, the wife of Congress party member Asaf Ali, is “more noted for her saris than her political views”. But then her husband, along with much of the national leadership of Congress, is imprisoned in 1942. Though she is not among those arrested, she will shortly make the British government wish she had been.
Aruna, now a friend to revolutionaries, goes underground to evade arrest, popping up all over the country to ferment rebellion against the Raj. Eventually her fame and popularity eclipses her husband’s. Behind bars, he frets for her safety and agonises over his own, much less militant politics; he notes in his diary that his wife, 21 years younger, is “now an overzealous stranger,” bobbing her hair short and using unknown pseudonyms. Their marriage survives India’s eventual independence in name only. The crucible of the war years and the long struggle for independence has exposed and exacerbated every disagreement, every divergence in ideology between this man and wife. On a much grander scale, it will do the same for the Raj and its colony.
On the eve of World War II, the literacy rate in India was 12.5 per cent and life expectancy was 26. In the years that followed, Khan notes that “The war flattened out pretensions of empire… It mobilised women, workers and the urban middle classes in radical new ways. It heightened nationalism, both in India and in Britain…” The war, she concludes, left the Raj “in debt, morally redundant and staffed by exhausted administrators”. Certainly, World War II made the British Raj untenable in India. Jinnah himself would note: “The war which nobody welcomed proved to be a blessing in disguise.”
Khan is an associate Professor of History at the University of Oxford and no stranger to this period in South Asia — her first publication, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, won the Gladstone Prize in 2007. In The Raj at War, Khan makes the assertion that “Britain did not fight the Second World War, the British Empire did”. There is an aspect to this that is well known — after all the Indian Army accounted for a significant portion of Britain’s forces, and men from this country fought and died in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. By 1940, about 2 lakh soldiers were enlisting a month and by 1945, the force would number well over 2 million — the largest volunteer army the world had ever seen.
But Khan’s book expands its remit to embrace those who tend to disappear into the background in most military histories: she writes of the mothers who sent their sons to war, the merchants who made their fortunes off supplying armies, and the peasants who saw their fields of paddy razed to make runways. In fact there are so many narrative threads in this ambitious, dense book that the author never seems to rest. Instead, she casts a dancing spotlight, its intimate circle illuminating lives through fragments of letters, memoirs, official reports and even popular folk songs.
As a result, this book contains within it multitude of other books, each compressed to a chapter or just a few paragraphs. For a reader, the absence of a central, strong narrative arc can be disorienting, but it is in the end a rewarding experience. Khan is an intelligent, compassionate guide to this moment in time, bringing depth and nuance not just to the events that we study in our history books but seeking beyond to those that are neglected such as the Bengal famine.
There is a telling moment at the end of this book where the Congress Minister in Madras, Raghavan Menon is approached by British writer Compton Mackenzie about a volume the latter is writing on the Indian experience of the war. Menon’s response leaves Mackenzie surprised: “He said at once that he was not interested in the book because he and his party had not considered it their war.”
It is an argument that seems to have lingered in India’s consciousness, for to acknowledge it in all its complexity would be to threaten the supremacy of chauvinistic, patriarchal national narratives. In Britain, Khan writes, remembering would be equally inconvenient for a country intent on celebrating a “story of plucky small-island British heroism”. The latter explains why it took till 2002 for the Commonwealth to install a memorial in London to honour India’s war dead.
In this context, The Raj at War is a very welcome addition to the historical canon. Khan produces stories that fascinate, that startle and that bring us to a point of confrontation with what she dubs the “terrible decisions, strange juxtapositions and unforeseen consequences,” of a long and devastating conflict — but at least now we have the option of acknowledging them all.
Published in the Hindu BusinessLine on September 11, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel.