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Sunday Sentiments


    Posted On May 1, 2022

    By Karan Thapar

    I get sent a lot of books but only browse through a few and read an even smaller number. So I have to thank my lucky stars Nariman Karkaria’s caught my attention. Perhaps it was the Tintinesque cartoon on the cover? Or Amitav Ghosh’s rapturous recommendation: “Amazing! An astonishing find!”


    Whatever the explanation, ‘The First World War Adventures of Nariman Karkaria’, rivetingly translated by Murali Ranganathan, is unputdownable. It’s not a profound book. I wouldn’t compare it to Erich Maria Remarque’s iconic ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. But it is delightful reading. Ranganathan’s glorious translation makes you feel the author is beside you “reminiscing aloud”.


    So who was Karkaria and why is his book such joy? He was a young Parsi from Gujarat, who, in 1915, at the age of 20, left Navsari with fifty rupees and embarked upon an unbelievable adventure. Bombay was his first destination, where the ships in the bay caught his fancy, and soon he boarded one heading for Hong Kong. Undeterred either by ignorance of the city or lack of money, he found shelter and hospitality with local Parsi entrepreneurs. They found him a job and he settled down.


    However, restlessness struck again. This time he set-off on a series of train journeys across China, the whole of Siberia, and all the way to war-time London. There he enlisted in the British army and ended up fighting for King and Country at the Somme, the Middle East and the Balkans.


    Karkaria had an eye for fine detail. In Siberia the priests are like “the dustoors in our villages … people offer fruit, eggs or chicken as donations”. In Petrograd “one has to walk on one side of the road, either on the left or the right, depending on the direction in which you are walking. There is no question of colliding with anybody as you walk.” And he observed people closely. “Only God knows why he elongated the faces of Swedish women!”


    He was also no spendthrift. “How much do you think it costs to eat in a Swedish dinning car? … A single meal … costs five rupees. If you felt like having a cup of tea at four in the afternoon, you would have to shell out nine annas. And coffee was twelve annas … How could a person like me, who was used to paying one paisa for a cup of tea at the Irani restaurants of Bombay, stomach these prices?”


    This is, of course, a war memoir and Karkaria writes of the trenches and gasmasks with a casualness that hides the traumatic experience it must have been.


    “These trenches were named after London streets; our trench was named Liverpool Street. Once we entered … we had to cook for ourselves. In the morning, I made tea with the help of a companion; we had some ‘dog biscuits’ with us, which we soaked in water, then added a little sugar to it, and heated the mixture to make a sort of pudding. We filled our stomachs with this grub.”


    He lived with the ever-present threat of poison gas. “We would always have to keep our gasmasks in readiness as if our whole life depended on them … the medication in the masks dried up our throats, besides making us feel nauseated.”


    Not surprisingly, he was often surrounded by the dead. “Soldiers were falling all around us with piteous shrieks, but there was nothing that could be done. Each man was on his own and could not be bothered about anybody else … Bodies of dead soldiers were lying all around us. These corpses proved very useful in sheltering us from the enemy gunfire … we would lie behind these corpses, and they would act as our shield taking all the gunfire.”


    When the war ended Karkaria returned to Navsari. After serialization in a magazine, his memoir was published in 1922. Ranganathan discovered it by chance in 2012. What a stroke of luck for the rest of us.

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