When researching his new book, Camouflaged: Forgotten Stories From Battlefields, author and former army officer Probal Dasgupta chanced upon the life of Lance-Daffadar Gobind Singh, an Indian soldier whose valour in World War I was uncannily similar to the that of the two British officers in Sam Mendes’ 2019 movie, 1917.
In it, the two men defy all odds to cross into enemy territory, delivering a message that saves 1,600 men from a German ambush. Mendes had said he'd heard the tale from his grandfather who served in the war.
Between 1914 and 1918, “close to 1.5 million Indian soldiers participated in World War I; 74,000 of them did not come back—these are official figures. But we haven’t told their stories,” Dasgupta says, wondering if the tale Mendes heard was actually Singh’s story, the details of which were blurred in “the fog of war”.
Recognising this gap, publishers have, over the last few years, begun publishing popular, accessible stories about the defence forces—not just those serving the limited purpose of archival memory within institutions.
Major General (retired) Ian Cardozo, who has written an average of a book a year over the last decade, has used the form of the short biography and the vignette-like story and been published by Bloomsbury, Roli and Penguin. “Citizens need to know about the Indian Army. The reader is not into, say, the history of warfare...they need to be given this information in a format they will read, accept and understand,” he says of his style. Cardozo’s latest, Beyond Fear: True Stories on Life in the Indian Armed Forces (Penguin Random House India) came out in August. Around the same time, Balidan: Stories Of India’s Para Special Forces Operatives by Swapnil Pandey (HarperCollins India) generated buzz; it remains #5 in the Asian History category on Amazon six months after its launch.
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While it can be easy to locate this trend within a prevailing sense of nationalism, Chiki Sarkar, publisher and co-founder of Juggernaut Books, which brought out Dasgupta’s Camouflaged, isn’t convinced there is anything deeper to it: “It’s always worked because…these narratives are dramatic, action-packed, inspiring, with people giving up their lives for a bigger idea—and India has always been an emotional, patriotic country,” she says. “It’s just one of those fail-safe things.”
Additionally, Milee Ashwarya, publisher and senior vice-president of the Adult Publishing Group at Penguin Random House India, notes the commercial value that such narratives bring for publishers: “These stories lend well to series and films. There has been a widespread interest in other languages, too.” Penguin established Veer, a separate imprint for such narratives in 2021, publishing five-six titles annually.
Of Veer’s bigger announcements for 2024 is Four Stars Of Destiny: An Autobiography by Manoj Mukund Naravane, former Chief of Army Staff. Last year, they had brought out a similarly high-profile book, Bipin: The Man Behind The Uniform, a biography of former Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat, by Rachna Bisht Rawat, a prolific writer in the genre.
Dasgupta says it may be insincere to categorise these narratives as separate from other stories about society. This is just literature “in which we are documenting the various facets of conflict…not just valour, but also separation, loss, victory, imprisonment...” he says. “These stories are...observations on societies in conflict. A society that does not go through that process will be incomplete in its storytelling about itself and its own history.”
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