- India, Empire, and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, and Songs by Santanu Das
Santanu Das shares an exciting narrative of historical discovery in his new book India, Empire, and First World War Culture. As his acknowledgments explain, the project took him to archives around the world (Berlin, Canberra, Delhi, London, Paris, Ypres) to draw on materials in many languages, over a decade when the field of colonial memory studies was being transformed by extended centennial commemorations. At the same time, scholarship has been transformed by blogposts, digitized materials, and expanding web sites to which he has himself contributed. We have already tasted parts of Das's global study as they appeared in the flood of new publications, but we experience their broad transnational scope and impact afresh as part of a book about memory that begins and ends by assessing present historiographic practices. Ranging from Brighton to Berlin, from prisoner of war camps to the Punjab, and from Marseille to Mesopotamia, Das exemplifies the "cultural turn" to close readings of photographs, paintings, and songs as well as writings in several genres. Readers who relished Das's 2005 book Touch and Intimacy, with its chapters on Wilfred Owen and nursing texts, will welcome this volume's analyses of the sensuous material representations of the war and of the sepoy soldier. Beautifully illustrated, the book juxtaposes passages from poetry or a novel with appropriate photographs, many of which capture a tender touch or a circulation of gazes in an encounter between cultures. Das shapes the reader's sense of intimacy with his materials through his own vivid narrative of the accidental surprises of his archival research. Hoping to read a manuscript account by a notorious deserter, Mir Mast, about his jihad mission, Das was handed by a librarian a "tatty notebook" containing a vocabulary list in Urdu and English with words such as these: "parsnip, potatoes, prick, penus" (sic). Where another scholar might have smiled and moved on, Das pauses for a witty "reality-check" on what young soldiers in the trenches actually talked about, in their "appetite for life" (9).
As he weighs the sounds and traditional patterns and rhythms of songs by POWs recorded by German ethnographers on wax discs in a section called "Sonorous Fields," Das brilliantly fleshes out the emotional implications of a tremulous voice: the prisoner audibly catches his breath before the microphone, to speak of his yearning for butter and milk on a return to India. Gathering texts in a multiplicity of languages, Das orchestrates manuscript findings and translations by colleagues in order to bring these documents together today, as he explains in extensive acknowledgments and fascinating footnotes. He generously credits recent investigations in this buried archive and guides us to new work on wartime orality. Given the number of Indian languages, such help was essential to enable his detailed commentaries on the aural and poetic qualities of texts. It is not always easy to bring a translated text to life, and Das takes note of mistranslations of Rabindranath Tagore that misrepresent prewar texts as wartime texts.
The structure of this study stretches across a carefully designed sequence of materials. The opening section on recruitment and resistance develops evidence for the blend of ambivalence and complex issues of agency in the formation of the "volunteer" Indian army (14, 87). Das offers a "palimpsest" of motives to volunteer and of motives to resist engagement in the war. Men are [End Page 445] motivated by manly self-respect, pride in belonging to a "martial" caste, economic need, and fidelity. Yet these coexist with resistance to violence and with growing nationalist resistance to British authority. Much scholarship since David Omissi's collection of censored bits of letters has rested on the truncated evidence of illiterate soldiers' letters home, transcribed by scribes, then censored and translated. Das in turn recovers columns in vernacular journals about recruitment drives and modes of coercion, as well as individual letters and documents in British and Indian archives that expose...