100-year-old page-turner is an ‘incredible discovery’ – Governance Now

Young Parsi’s WWI memoir translated from Gujarati is an engaging read

The First World War: The Adventures of Nariman Karkaria

Translated by Murali Ranganathan
With a foreword by Amitav Ghosh

HarperCollins, xxv+230 pages, Rs 599

With the explosive growth of publishing in India over the past decade, there are more new releases than public new issues in the stock market of the early 1990s – several a week. Like companies issuing new shares at the time, most books are not intended to be in foreign currency beyond a year. But there were already gems back then. Every now and then a book comes out that reminds readers why they are addicted to reading in the first place. In recent weeks, ‘The First World War: The Adventures of Nariman Karkaria’ is that book.

It is not a new work. Nariman Karkaria (1894–1949) wrote it in Gujarati about a century ago. But his “Rangbhoomi by Rakhad” – the only First World War account written by an Indian to have been discovered so far – is also largely forgotten in his native language.

Karkaria, a young Parsi from Gujarat, has always wanted to see the world. So he left home as a teenager with fifty rupees in his pocket to do just that. After working in Hong Kong and Beijing for a few years, in 1914, when war was in the air, he decided to volunteer for the British Army. Passing through China, Manchuria, Siberia, Russia and Scandinavia, he reached London in early 1915 and managed to enroll as a private in the 24th Middlesex Regiment. He was now a Tommy.

Incredibly, Karkaria saw action on three major fronts over the next three years. In 1916, he was in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme. After recovering from an injury, he was sent to the Middle East front where he fought in the Battle of Jerusalem in 1917. He was then transferred to the Balkan front in 1918, where he served in Salonica. After being released, he returned to India and wrote a book in Gujarati about his years of travel and adventure, which was published in 1922.

Credit for bringing it back to life goes to Murali Ranganathan, a Mumbai-based historian and translator. Ranganathan’s research is centered on the 19th century, with particular emphasis on Mumbai and western India. His translation, from Marathi, of ‘Mumbaiche Varnan’ was published in 2008 as ‘Govind Narayan’s Mumbai: An Urban Biography from 1863’. With equal happiness, he turned to Gujarati.

The book is, as Amitav Ghosh writes in the foreword, “a unique work in every way, in the story it tells, in the swashbuckling manner of its narrative, and above all, in the excellence of Murali’s translation, which conveys the writer’s spirit so vividly…” Ghosh’s blurb says it all: “Incredible! An amazing find!”

Karkaria joined the British Army in World War I and fought on three different fronts. Back home – Navsari, near Surat in South Gujarat, he shared his amazing adventures with many listeners and then started to write a column in a Gujarati newspaper. The column pieces have been compiled in the form of a book. “Part autobiography, part travelogue and three parts wartime memoir, the book manages to hold its own in a field very crowded with first-hand accounts written by soldiers who served in the First World War” , writes Ranganathan in his introduction.

“A hundred years ago, in 1922, Nariman Karkaria published his memoirs of the First World War in Gujarati. Its English translation, ‘Nariman Karkaria’s World War I Adventures’, is fitting to be published on the occasion of the centenary,” Ranganathan said in a statement prepared by the publishers. “Unshy about describing the horrors of war, Karkaria manages to retain both his sanity and his sense of humor during his five years in the British Army. ‘it takes us on an adventure through China, Russia and Europe with a detour through the Middle East. Written in the Parsi version of Gujarati and containing countless words that have never seen the inside of a dictionary, I had more fun than expected when translating, plus hunting down the elusive Nariman Karkaria in the archives was exhilarating.

Rahul Soni, Editor-in-Chief, HarperCollins India, echoes Ghosh in calling the work “truly an amazing discovery”. “Imagine: over a hundred years ago, a 16-year-old boy leaves his small Indian town to see the world, travels to China where he hears about an exciting war taking place on the other side of the world, decides he has to be in it, travels all over Asia and Europe to get there, enlists and becomes a soldier – and that’s not even the most amazing part of the story! then beat on three major fronts in three years, but it also lives to tell the tale, a tale that eventually fades into the mists of time, until it is unearthed nearly a century later by Murali Ranganathan,” Soni explained in a statement.

“This is the only first-person account of a book by an Indian who served in the First World War – and Murali achieved two great feats here – first, as a researcher, after excavating this text and then as a translator, producing a brilliantly readable English version.