#DesiBooksReview 3: Nariman Karkaria and the Gujarati travelogue tradition

#DesiBooksReview Issue 3

The First World War Adventures of Nariman Karkaria by Nariman Karkaria | translated from the Gujarati into English by Murali Ranganathan | HarperCollins India | April 20, 2022

“I could not utter a word when I came face to face with the aged gentleman. I was so tired and traumatized that all I could do was burst into tears. He tried to comfort me and gave me a patient hearing. He was taken aback when he heard my entire story and tried to boost my morale in many ways. I began to think he was going to do only that, but I was mistaken. He had been so affected by my story that he felt I needed some reassurance. He offered me a large dose of brandy to strengthen my nerves and sent off with two of his men to the office of Nusserwanjee Modi, which was located in the city. There I was offered a meal which, having starved through the day, tickled my Parsi taste buds.” 

Nariman Karkaria, all of sixteen, finds himself in this predicament after leaving his hometown of Navsari in Gujarat, India in secret and embarking on a journey to China with just fifty rupees in his pocket. After the experience in Hong Kong as described above, he works as a store assistant for some months, gets restless again, and decides to go to mainland China. This is the start of his travels that take him, via Siberia and Scandinavia, to London, where he decides to see the First World War firsthand and joins the British Army. He returns to India after the War, having seen action on three fronts and, shockingly, surviving to tell the tale.

Karkaria’s account of his travels was first serialized in a Gujarati magazine and then published as a book, Rangbhoomi par Rakhad. The First World War Adventures of Nariman Karkaria is the English version of the book, translated by Murali Ranganathan and published a hundred years after the original. 

Narrated in a breezy, ebullient style, the memoir is suffused with Karkaria’s self-deprecating humor and spirit of adventure. His descriptions are detailed but matter of fact. He takes us through a world that is long gone—a world of journeys by steamships and railway trains pulled by steam engines. A world in which a person still had the time to meet an acquaintance and accompany him on his sightseeing journeys through one’s city. Karkaria is also careful to mention the prices of food and drink. Perhaps he does this to help his readers who may want to travel to the same places. He is most eloquent when describing the beauty and glory of ancient monuments and his sense of awe is palpable. 

The spirit of adventure and enthusiasm are another highlight of the book. Once Karkaria decides to join the army, the long and arduous training and the obvious risk to his life do not deter him from his desire to experience war firsthand. That said, his descriptions of his experiences of live action in the trenches are more in the style of a documentarian.

“The Germans were hardly at any distance from where we were—say about a hundred yards away in their trenches. In spite of this situation, the Commanding Officer gave orders to advance further. We had no option but to run, and we ran in pairs. We would advance about ten steps before throwing ourselves flat on the ground. Our progress did not last very long. Soon enough, the enemy started firing at us with their machine guns. We were staring death in the eye. But as luck would have it, there had been a fierce battle on this very site just four days ago, and the bodies of dead soldiers were lying all around us. These corpses proved very useful in sheltering us from the enemy gunfire. As we advanced, we would lie behind these corpses, and they would act as our shield taking all the gunfire. Ah, what a terrible experience! Just one bullet and we would also have joined the army of cold corpses!” 

His own injury is also dealt with in the same unsentimental way:

“Lady Luck finally deserted us. A heavy shell landed just ten yards from where we were and exploded very loudly; we tried to jump away from it, but were not lucky enough to escape without being hit. I was also hit by a fragment. Even though I jumped as quickly as I could into a trench, my leg was injured in a gruesome manner.” 

Soldiers are so notorious for slipping into cannons-to-the-right-of-us-cannons-to-the-left-of-us stories that their audiences or readers often engage with a great deal of skepticism. But this soldier’s story is so pragmatic that the reader sometimes feels a bit of nostalgic longing for some flourishes of that  absent bombast. 

The most curious thing about The First World War Adventures of Nariman Karkaria is that, at the end of the book, after having traveled with Karkaria through a large part of the world and participated in a war, the reader doesn’t know Karkaria any better, not being privy to any but his most obvious and surface thoughts and feelings. There are also no other characters in the book. There are people—Parsis, Germans, British, Jews, Mohammedans, Chinese, and so on—but they are a collective presence and the reader does not meet any particular individual. Did Karkaria make any lasting friendships with any of the Tommies beside whom he fought a ruthless war? Was he traumatized by his war experiences? If he was, he chooses not to tell us. This curious fact does not make this part-travelogue part-war memoir any less interesting, though the reader might wonder at the deliberate distance that Karkaria maintains from his readers. 

Another aspect that a reader might like to know is this: did Karkaria encounter discrimination? Racism? Did the fact that he was an Indian in a British regiment make it tougher for him? There is a telling remark on page 191 about Georgia:

“. . . this country is one of the best in Europe. They do not discriminate based on color or caste. It does not matter if you are black or white or from a high or low caste. Everybody is treated just the same.”

One must assume that Karkaria must have faced discrimination but he chose not to share it with his readers. Perhaps he felt that such unpleasant details had no place in a travelogue, where the primary desire—at least in his time—was to entertain the reader with unique sights and extraordinary experiences. 

Karkaria is continuously aware of his audience. Like a modern day travel blogger, he frequently addresses them and invites them to notice the wonderful sights and the peculiar customs of places and peoples. The impression one gets is that of an enthusiastic, down-to-earth person with a sense of humor, an eye for detail, and a passion for travel and adventure. This is when one realizes the exemplary nature of the translator’s work. One imagines the lexical and idiomatic dilemmas Ranganathan must have faced, and the considered choices he must have made with a Parsi Gujarati dialect—a variant of the language spoken by Parsis with much of it unintelligible to modern readers—that is almost a hundred years old. So it is even more commendable that Ranganathan also succeeds in transmuting Karkaria’s breezy style, humor, spirit of adventure, and sense of wonderment. One feels one is listening directly to Karkaria, perhaps sitting on the fringes of a large crowd that has gathered as he beguiles them with stories of his unique experiences.

Karkaria had no predecessors in Gujarati literature as role models for his memoir. Ranganathan notes in his introduction:

“Karkaria therefore drew his inspiration from and modeled his narrative on the Gujarati travelogue which, by the 1920s, had developed as an important part of modern Gujarati literature.”

By the time Karkaria’s work was published there was a vibrant tradition of Indian travel writing in several Indian languages. The examples that immediately come to this reader’s mind are K. P. Kesava Menon’s Bilathi Vishesham (published 1916; an account of the author’s experiences in London, bilathi being the Malayalam word for London) and Londonum Parisum (published 1877) by G. P. Pillai, both in Malayalam. Kesava Menon, in the introduction to his book, expressly mentions that, though there are many books about the westerner’s experience of India, there are few that describe an Indian’s experience of the western world and this is a void he seeks to fill. A similar sentiment is expressed by Amitav Ghosh in his foreword to this book:

“. . . I discovered that even though millions of Indian sepoys fought in the armies of the British Raj, between the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, first-hand accounts of their experiences are vanishingly rare . . .”

Viewed in this context, and also because of the unique lived experiences it reveals, Murali Ranganathan’s rare find and expertly rendered translation of a Parsi Gujarati’s front row seat in the First World War deserves a special place among both the travelogue and the war memoir genres.

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