ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Palpable, Intractable and Incorrigibly Plural

India, Empire, and First World War Culture: Writings, Images and Songs by Santanu Das, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018; pp xxiii+466, £19.99.


World War I ended 101 years ago, yet, in many places in the world, particularly the troubled West Asia, it is as if the “armistice” has barely held over the last century. The past reaches into the present and the present leaches back into the past to produce a patchwork and palimpsest of conflict and ceasefire. And this is why the histories of war must always be disturbed, necessarily, by the memories of war. The whirlwind of conflict is too present, even in our time, to pretend otherwise.

If the history of war is what congeals in the archive, in orders, demarchés, campaign dispatches and communiqués, then the memories of war are held in the ephemera of story and song, in voice and image, in the silences between what people say when they write letters home from the front. The last decade has witnessed a concentrated efflorescence of scholarship and reflection on the human dimensions of Indian participation in World War I. These include new writing by the historian Gajendra Singh (The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars: Between Self and Sepoy, New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), long-form non-fiction writing by Srabani Basu (For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914–1918, Bloomsbury India, 1915), and a forthcoming historical monograph on non-combatants of the Indian labour corps in World War I by the historian Radhika Singha.

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