How a dying Raj fended off Japanese blows
THIS year marks the 60th anniversary of India’s partition and the emergence of two independent South Asian states. It has occasioned much fanfare in India and Pakistan and among diaspora communities across the world.
In the literary world, it has led to a host of historical and biographical works concerning the main events and players from the last days of the British Raj and the independence movement.
Indians of all creeds paid a heavy price in property and lives to prop up the Raj. The independence struggle also cost many lives. Often forgotten are the sacrifices Indians made to defend British colonial possessions in Southeast Asia against Japanese invaders in World War II.
Australian writer Neelam Maharaj has used her debut novel to resurrect the stories of Indian soldiers and their families who fought the Japanese in Malaya and Singapore. Maharaj is familiar with the topic, given that her father fought in the British army and was incarcerated by the Japanese in the notorious Changi prisoner- of- war camp.
Surviving Heroes is based on real- life stories of families directly affected by the war. The story is woven around the lives of Ramesh and Nirmala Kapur. Ramesh is an officer in the British army, the son of a brilliant academic from Lahore. Ramesh is a Hindu, but his parents encourage him to befriend people of all faiths. His closest childhood friend, who also joined the army and fought with Ramesh in Singapore, is a Muslim named Ehsan.
Like many Indian men of his time, Ramesh enters an arranged marriage. Nirmala, a home economics student in her late teens, hails from a middle- class Hindu family from Delhi. Both inherit their families’ staunch patriotism and a strong desire to rid their nation of foreign occupation.
Ramesh and his fellow Indian soldiers are encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi to join the British war effort. Despite his natural affinity to fellow Asians, Gandhi feared the Japanese would be much worse as colonisers than the British. Gandhi also believed Indians would be rewarded for their war sacrifices with independence. Yet Indian troops were subjected to racial discrimination and humiliation by their British commanders. The Japanese knew this, and they sponsored the highly respected Indian National Congress dissident Subhash Chandra Bose to raise the Indian National Army from among Indian PoWs.
Of course, patriotism combined with war can make scoundrels of even the most loyal. Gandhi strictly forbade Indians from using violence to fight the British. Hence, Indian PoWs joining the INA to fight the British with Japanese help knew they would be regarded as traitors to Gandhi’s non- violent struggle. At the same time, the PoWs witnessed at first hand Japanese brutality against British, Chinese and Malay soldiers, and civilians slaughtered in cold blood. For Ramesh and his colleagues, joining the victors against the enemy at home must have been tempting. At the very least, it would have been seen as the fastest route to joining their loved ones back home.
Some of Ramesh’s closest friends joined the INA’s march through Burma. But when the tide turned, the army was abandoned by fleeing Japanese forces and charged with treason by the British. Its leader, Bose, died mysteriously in a plane crash during the dying days of the war.
Maharaj’s father, on whom the character of Ramesh Kapur is presumably based, also served in Singapore and Malaya but, while a prisoner in Changi, resisted attempts by the Japanese to forcibly enlist him in the INA.
The Kapur family’s secular vision of Indian independence was dashed soon after Ramesh and Nirmala Kapur were reunited. Maharaj’s portrait of the religious riots on both sides of the partition fence is, for me, the most disturbing part of the book. Like the Kapurs, my grandfather was forced to flee his beloved ancestral home in Delhi.
Maharaj’s characters powerfully touch the partition nerve. For them, even the Japanese invaders of Singapore who slaughtered Chinese and other civilians without remorse weren’t as brutal as India’s sectarian killers. The false sectarian patriotism of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh murderers meant that Indian independence became little more than a partition of scoundrels.
Surviving Heroes is a powerful work: the story it contains deserves to be told and retold well after the 60th anniversary celebrations of India and Pakistan come to an end. Irfan Yusuf is associate editor of AltMuslim. com and the 2007 winner of the John Iremonger award for writing on public issues.