To commemorate the centenary of India’s service in the First World War, the British historian David Omissi collected the letters of Indian soldiers away from home in Indian Voices of the Great War, published this year by Penguin. These eloquent letters offer a poignant glimpse into the lives of these Indian soldiers, whom history forgot.
David Omissi in The Caravan:
A wounded Sikh to his father
18th January 1915
Tell my mother not to go wandering madly because her son, my brother, is dead. To be born and to die is God’s order. Some day we must die, sooner or later, and if I die here, who will remember me? It is a fine thing to die far from home. A saint said this, and, as he was a good man, it must be true.
Ram Prasad (Brahmin) to Manik Chand (c/o Sikander Ali, Bamba Debi Bazar, Marwari Water Tank, Bombay)
Kitchener’s Indian Hospital, Brighton
2nd September 1915
And send me fourteen or fifteen tolas of charas [hashish], and understand that you must send it so that no one may know. First fill a round tin box full of pickles and then in the middle of that put a smaller round box carefully closed, so that no trace of the pickles can enter. And send a letter to me four days before you send the parcel off. [Letter withheld]
Ser Gul (Pathan, 129th Baluchis) to Barber Machu Khan (57th Rifles, serving at the front)
Indian Hospital, Rouen
13th September 1915
I have no need of anything, but I have a great longing for a flute to play. What can I do? I have no flute. Can you get me one from somewhere? If you can, please do, and send it to me. Take this much trouble for me. For I have a great desire to play upon the flute, since great dejection is fallen upon me. You must, you simply must, get one from somewhere. I have no need of anything else. But this you must manage as soon as you can.