FARTHEST FIELD–An Indian Story of the Second World War by Raghu Karnad. W. W. Norton and Company. 320 pages. August 2015. $17.53 Hardcover. Available on Kindle

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It is said that the news of the world war reached Calicut along with the morning eggs. Perhaps that isn’t true at all. Perhaps it’s only true that the price of eggs was the first the Calicut Parsis saw of the costs of war; the first of many. Maybe they remembered what happened to the price of eggs, even years and years later, because they wanted to forget what happened to the boys.

If, however, it is true, then it must have begun with a commotion at the Marshall house, nearest the pier. The noise would have been swallowed by the rowdy waves of dawn, on a sea swollen by the late monsoon. If Bobby had been in Calicut, he would have been there in an instant. Rounding the corner to the beach road, he would have spotted the egg boy cowering behind his bicycle; then the Marshalls’ cook, aggrieved, wiping his neck with the tail of his checked-cotton mundu; then Keki Marshall, hollering as though he meant to argue the sun back into its bed. He would bloody well not pay four annas a dozen. Not for eggs. Whatever conspiracy of grocers, hoarders and bastards thought they could double the price of eggs overnight, they were going to learn differently from him, war or no war.
But did someone say war?

The egg boy may have been told that rationing and shortages were expected, and eggs would be priced up as a precaution. But he couldn’t have explained about the Panzers in Poland, the craven declaration from London, or the Viceroy in Delhi already committing India and Indians to the fray. Instead the egg boy fled. He wobbled his bicycle a safe distance from the gate and rested a moment, calming himself down. Ahead of him was a full street of Parsi homes. He knew precisely how many eggs they took. He knew he was going to catch hell at each doorstep. He couldn’t imagine the hell he was going to leave there.

News, like almost everything, travelled slowly to Calicut, though it was the largest town in Malabar. The province lay in the narrow lap of the western coast, with its head leaned up against the high range of the Western Ghats, and its feet dipped in the Indian Ocean. The town was a minor entrepôt for timber, pepper and cashew coming down to the sea, and fish, petrol, shop goods, and the post going back up. Once it had mattered more. It had been the seat of the Zamorin of Malabar, whose rule extended south as far as Cochin, and it was here that Europe first trod on India’s soil, when Vasco Da Gama scraped up on the beach at Kappad.

The centuries since had left Calicut to turn in its own slow eddy of trade. Its provincialism concealed the scale of its wealth and commerce, and the rhythms of the town played like a drowsy accompanist behind the full-lunged score of the sea. Arab dhows rode at anchor, waiting to unload sacks of dried fruit from Yemen, then raised their sails and blew away like kites on the horizon’s glittering string. Coconut trees crowded the shore, and further inland all was covered in layers of matted green. Pink lotus wilted in the temple pond, and in the courtyards stood elephants, black and mottled and as brilliantly daubed as the lingam within. At the market, Maplah wives in long-sleeved blouses and headscarves mingled with bare-breasted Ezhava women selling clams and jackfruit. The town had no garrison, no real port. So Calicut concerned nobody but the sahibs who owned plantations on the Wynaad Plateau, the many local castes and creeds, and the Parsis.

The Parsis: pale as scalps, mad as coots, noses like commas on the page. They were devoutly civilised, consummately lawful, and still abided by the spirit of the first contract they made in India, as refugees shin-deep in the surf. Parsi: it meant from Persia, and the label never peeled away; the centuries only stiffened their pose, polite and helpful, as India’s permanent houseguests.
They were friends to all, up to the King and down to the cobbler, and while they could be silly buggers, there was always a politesse, acceptance of the King’s law, distaste for conversion or preaching aloud. They were sporting in business, and businesslike at sport. What Gurkhas were in the Army, Parsis were in civilian life-the exemplary race, making the best of British command without any desire to usurp it. So they retained the state of public grace that best served private wealth. Humata, hukhta, huvrastha: Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.

Bombay was their metropole, Karachi too; further south they got a bit native. In Malabar the men all spoke Malayalam, could gallop it in their mouths, but the women were not exposed too much, for the sake of their complexion, and their accents remained. Women wore saris but the men wore shoes indoors. Like Anglo-Indians, they were attentive to cutlery; unlike Anglo-Indians, they were content-a creed of Oneness had chased them out of Persia, and a creed of Innumerables had received them, and they had prospered, most major of minorities. At the beginning of the new war they were as numerous as they would ever be, and that was only 100,000, a homeopathic dose for India: a thimble of sweet milk set down beside its vats of steaming oils and syrups.

Raghu Karnad is a journalist and the author of Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War. He has written for Granta, the International New York Times, the Financial Times, n+1 and Caravan, and is a contributing editor at theWire.in.

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