The centenary commemoration of the First World War in Brighton will leave most Indians discomfited, finds Janice Pariat
I am trekking the crest of a smoothly rolling slope in the South Downs of East Sussex on a rare sunny afternoon. I may be lost, but the sun is sliding warmly off the grass, the air is filled with the rich smells of the countryside, and I have company: a herd of solemn-eyed Sussex cattle, watching curiously from behind a barbed wire fence. Beyond a cluster of trees, the hillside is empty. I’m searching for the Chattri Memorial. You might think it easy to locate a domed pavilion in the manicured English landscape. But it isn’t. And, since I’ve left the sprawl of Brighton far behind me, there’s no turning back. I trek on.
My husband and I have lived in Brighton for well over a year. Despite my frequent forays to India, this town by the sea has become—dare I say it?—home. We’ve discovered certain prerequisites: a well-stocked independent bookshop, favourite pub, quiet tea room, some close friends, a suitably greasy “just around the corner” chippy. We take in the crisp sea air on the promenade, and in the summer, grumble about those tourists clogging up our streets. When friends visit, we show them around, usually ending with a wine-drenched picnic in the Pavilion Gardens, amid playing children, languid buskers and fearless seagulls.
From a visit to the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, we know the town has its origins as an ancient fishing village that became renowned as a health resort in the 18th century for the medicinal use of its seawater. The extended royal patronage of George IV, infamous for his wild and dissolute lifestyle, gave the town the Royal Pavilion—its exotic and inarguably bizarre landmark—and also played a part in drawing the rich and famous to its elegant Regency seafront. With the building of the railway in 1840, Brighton was within easy reach of day-trippers from London, eager for a spell of fun and frolic on the pebbly beach. That’s probably what drew us here. It retains its easy, on-holiday air. Imagine our surprise then, when we discovered a far less blithe chapter of its history. During the First World War, 12,000 wounded Indian soldiers were hospitalised at sites around town. While this may have happened a century ago, I feel as though something has altered irrevocably. For me, walking these streets will never be the same.
The “Great War” continues to haunt the British imagination—although in markedly polarising ways. The dominant narrative of it being a necessary conflagration for “the defence of liberty” is challenged by others who try not to confine themselves to the perspective of belligerents. The controversy spills over into the battle of the remembrance poppies—red for the military dead, white for civilian victims, even a purple one for animals killed at war. While the flower was adopted by military veteran groups in the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, USA and Hong Kong, there seems to be no record of its usage in the Indian subcontinent.
As a colony of the British Empire, undivided India contributed approximately 1.5 million soldiers and non-combatants to the British cause over the course of the war. They were mostly from the peasant-“warrior” classes of north and north-western India: Pashtuns, Dogras, Nepalese Gurkhas, Jats, Sikhs, sundry “Mahommedans”. This was in accordance with the theory of “martial races” by which the British dispensation divided its subjects into “warlike” and “non-warlike”. In September 1914, the first two Indian divisions, Lahore and Meerut, arrived at Marseilles to the joyful cries of “Vive les Hindous”. They were placed under the command of a British general named Willcocks (for officers could only be drawn from white British backgrounds) and were almost immediately sent to the trenches to fill the gaps left by the heavy casualties suffered by the British Expeditionary Force. Most of them took part in some of the fiercest battles—Ypres, Givenchy, Neuve Chapelle, Festubert and Loos—frequently suffering traumatic losses.
Considering the number of journeys—over land and across the English Channel—the injured soldiers undertook to arrive at Brighton train station, it seems miraculous that so many made it here alive. They were met, said Jody East, curator of exhibitions at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, by an excited crowd most curious about the “foreigners”. The soldiers were sent to Kitchener Hospital, the largest with two thousand beds; the York Place schools, for the more seriously injured; the Dome and Corn Exchange, originally George IV’s stables and riding school and now a multi-arts venue; and the Royal Pavilion. (The last two chosen less to make the wounded feel at home in “Indian” surroundings, as is commonly believed, but rather because the town authorities were reluctant to hand over the use of a couple of lucrative hotels.)
The Pavilion now houses the Indian Military Hospital Gallery, which offers a small permanent display of paintings, archive photographs and film footage of that era. Next to a flickering video clip of King George awarding the Victoria Cross to Jemadar Mir Dast are the lines: “The Victoria Cross is a very fine thing, but this [poison] gas gives me no rest. It has done for me.” Under glass lies a booklet that had once been distributed in India, meant to advertise the Empire’s “benevolence” to the wounded in Brighton. We are informed of how various dietary requirements were accommodated, as well as the careful upkeep of Hindu caste divisions: three groups of kitchens were created; respecting Hindu and Muslim sentiments, beef and pork were banned; it was ensured that the food was not touched by British cooks; and dal, ghee and traditional spices were imported from India.
High on a wall, from a letter written by a wounded Punjabi Rajput, are these words:
“This is not war. It is the ending of the world.”
I grow increasingly disquieted.
The rooms of the Royal Pavilion have long been restored to their former chinoiserie glory, and it’s hard to imagine the place as a bare-walled infirmary. Here, we rely on the images of Charles Hilton DeWitt Girdwood, a Canadian-born photographer who documented the Indian hospitals in England. I am struck by how young the soldiers are, how stoically they gaze past us. I pick out sites so easily recognisable: the circular high-vaulted Dome lined by beds—in the space where we’ve sat to watch concerts—and the lawns of the Pavilion Gardens where soldiers play cards and quoits. Yet even these photographs, faithful as they are, can be misleading, capturing merely the poised and external, the stasis away from the war. It is not difficult to be distanced from the past by sepia-tinted nostalgia.
It is the soldiers’ words that move me.
Recently, the collection of correspondence from Indian soldiers (copied by British military censors) has been digitised by the British Library and placed online. What was it like, I wonder, to be in Brighton then, just as I am a hundred years later? Gazing at some of the same buildings, the same sea? I’ve walked past Sea Life Aquarium countless times, but glance at it differently after reading a soldier’s description: “Today I saw a museum in which all the living fishes of the world were kept in boxes of water . . .” Glimpsing a courting couple, I remember the “Maharatta” clerk who wrote to a friend in Sholapur, “The men and women of this country go about boldly hand in hand! We feel ashamed, but such is the custom of the country.”
The letters offer an array of voices, clarifying what Dr Santanu Das, reader at King’s College London, said in his lecture “The Indian Sepoy in the First World War”: “There is no monolithic or single “Indian war experience”. It has to be nuanced to the specificities of rank, kind of work, class, region and theatre of battle, among others.” While one letter claims, “We pass our days in joyful ease while government showers benefits upon us [the sick and wounded],” another grieves, “Alas we are not free to go about at will. In fact we Indians are treated like prisoners. On all sides there is barbed-wire and a sentry stands at each door . . . . True, we are well fed, and are given plenty of clothing but the essential thing—freedom—is denied.”
These words fracture Girdwood’s images.
We see why there were separate “Indian” hospitals, why contact between the patients and townspeople was strictly limited. A pillar of the Empire’s carefully cultivated racial and social hierarchy was the firm belief that the separation between whites and Indians must be maintained. Overfamiliarity between them would subvert the relations underpinning imperial domination. As Das points out, “In spite of the elaborate and often superb facilities at the Pavilion hospital for the Indian wounded—a combination of Victorian paternalism and hard-nosed imperial war propaganda—and occasional pockets of intimacy between Indian sepoys and European soldiers and civilians, most of the imperial structures and racist hierarchies remained intact: barbed wire surrounded the hospital grounds so that the Indian sepoys could not venture into town, and the most senior Indian officer remained inferior in rank to the junior-most English officer.”
As the year slides closer to the centennial months, commemorative events, in the UK and worldwide, will take on additional fervour. In town, the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery is organising “War Stories: Voices from the First World War” (July 2014 to March 2015), an exhibition commemorating the centenary of the war in Brighton and Hove. Centred around the experiences of 12 people, including an Indian soldier, it reveals the impact of WWI through personal stories. The Brighton and Hove Black History Project, which focuses on the history of Asian, African and Afro-Caribbean peoples, will hold a wreath-laying ceremony at the Pavilion’s Indian Gate. On June 6th, the Chattri Memorial will host a service of prayers, hymns and speeches.
While it is necessary to acknowledge the sacrifices made by these soldiers, I can’t help but feel uneasy at the thought that these events unite people in the memory of an opportunistic imperial venture. That commemorations of this sort may help reframe the legacy of the empire as one that sparked bonds of “fraternity” is deeply ironic. This washes away the fact that most of the soldiers who were wounded and made the trip to Brighton were colonial subjects and only heroic when available as British cannon fodder. No one here in Brighton celebrates the Uprising of 1857. Britain still carries a proud imperial legacy with which—unlike Germany—it has barely reckoned.
When looking at the pictures of Indian amputees, possibly in their teens, I am struck less by their heroism than their misfortune in being born at a time when sacrificing lives on battlefields was considered acceptable. As Priyamvada Gopal, who teaches at Cambridge University, wrote in The Guardian, “They were colonised subjects whose war this was certainly not, and in whose countries Britain was doing anything but defending freedom—its own occupying troops as unwelcome as German ones in Belgium.”
Everywhere ring the cries of “remembrance”, but what sort of remembrance will it be? Prime minister of the UK, David Cameron, calls for a “commemoration that captures our national spirit”, complete with bunting, flag-waving and street parties. It would be the greatest pity for the anniversary to turn into a rallying cry for national pride—the very sentiment that is reinforced by wars. I would rather the commemoration of the First World War acknowledge that this particular conflict was not as much against militarism as a war between militarisms.
When I finally find my way to the Chattri Memorial, after asking a kindly couple for directions, it is late afternoon. The sun is sliding behind the hills, leaving me in long shadows. The white octagonal structure looms high above me, its marble dome and pillars glowing in the fading light. Below, three granite slabs lie over the original concrete crematory bases, marking the location where 53 Hindu and Sikh soldiers were cremated. If there is consolation in such things, it is a beautiful place to pass through fire.
A few miles away, 17 Muslims soldiers were buried at Horsell Common in Woking. It was chosen for its proximity to the Shah Jahan Mosque, which at the time was apparently the only mosque in England. (Due to vandalism in the 1960s, their bodies were re-interred in the Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey, but the original memorial, an elegant arched doorway, has been restored and is still standing.)
Apart from a couple with two young children, I am the only one there, and all around me lies the pristine quiet countryside. Perhaps all commemorations should only be this. Silence. So we do not drown out the voices whispering to us from the past. That it was not war; it was the ending of the world.
Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land, which won the Crossword Book Award for Fiction and the Young Writers’ Award from the Sahitya Akademi in 2013. She writes cultural features for a wide number of magazines and edits Pyrta, an online library journal. This nomad at heart lives between the UK and India