Across the Black Waters

For an intriguingly different view of the Great War, I recommend Across the Black Waters (1940) by Mulk Raj Anand. It recounts the experiences of an Indian regiment brought hastily to France in 1914, and the impact of the War on men from half the world away.
These are professional soldiers, mostly second third or fourth sons who have left their villages with the intention of sending back enough money to help pay off the family mortgage. A few might actually manage to win a medal, which will earn them a pension and make their old age comfortable.
These men are used to soldiering (and find the trench work reassuring, because it reminds them of fighting on the frontier) but they have been brought into an utterly unfamiliar culture (and the bitter cold of a French winter). The sepoy’s-eye-view refreshes familiar tropes of Great War literature. In the estaminet the men are self-conscious about drinking in the same place as Sahibs; when Lalu, the main character, makes friends with a French girl, he is acutely embarrassed by the attention aroused when she takes his arm in public. Anand was a Nationalist (and I think a Communist) but he does not overplay the theme of racial prejudice. There is no resentment among the sepoys about their treatment by the British, though an awareness that the French are a lot easier in their relations with other races. When disaster happens, they are more likely to blame fate than the generals. The British officers are by and large drawn sympathetically, especially Owen Sahib, who takes pains to behave decently to the men under his command. Yet Anand makes the Indian characters so interesting and individual that the reader is impelled to indignation on their behalf, as they wait, ‘uncomprehending and still, ignorant of what awaited them in the murderous devices of the devil who controlled their destinies’, and as they are are thrust without notice into one dangerous situation after another.
These men are soldiers, but they begin with little conception of the war they are joining. They have been told that Germans are wicked monsters who kill women and children, but have little interest in the matter; they are mercenaries, and their job is to fight. They find themselves in sodden trenches (too shallow for the tall sepoys) and subject to intense artillery barrage and rifle fire ‘like a rapid dysentery of lead’. They are foot-soldiers in a gunner’s war, and soon well aware that the British have a shortage of shells, which makes the battles very one-sided.
The men are involved in a couple of abortive attacks and a disastrous raid, but the most disturbing incidents are the summary execution of one terrified soldier by his N.C.O., and the suicide of a veteran, for reasons never fully explained.
Anand was born in 1905, so was a boy during the War. He must have done a lot of listening to ex-soldiers, though, because (to me, at least) the details ring true in a way that is rare in novels by writers with no personal experience of the War. In the 1920s, he came to England, knew E.M.Forster and wrote for the Criterion. His first novel was Untouchable, a novel about the iniquities of the caste system (a subject touched on ironically in Across the Black Waters). He volunteered for the Spanish Civil War, and spent the Second World War working for the B.B.C. Quite a career.

7 Comments

  1. Posted February 22, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this recommendation!

  2. Roger
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    I can’t remember the title. unfortunately, but in a book of memoirs Anand mentioned talking about India and WWI with British ex-soldiers when he lived in London.

  3. Elizabeth Plackett
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Interesting to compare this novel with the letters the sepoys sent home from France (published in David Omissi’s anthology Indian Voices of the Great War). Similarities include references to the horrors of war, concerns about ‘the material rewards of military service’, and positive reactions to France and the French. But the letters also show the ‘centrality of religious practice to Indian soldiers’ whereas Anand shows this becoming less and less important to the soldiers. I wonder if, given Anand’s political views, there is an element of wish-fulfilment here?

    I agree with you that the British officers are represented perhaps surprisingly sympathetically – the most brutal acts are carried out by Indian NCOs. In the letters, mentions of British officers are notable for their absence, despite the British belief about their own importance as father figures to their men. Anand’s portrait of the fatherly Owen seems rather to have bought into the British view, (though not his representation of higher-ranking officers).

    Is this the only novel by an Indian (or anyone else, for that matter) about the Indian experience of WW1? Apart from the letters, I’ve not come across any memoirs or oral histories either.

    • Posted March 3, 2010 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      This is the only novel about the Indian experience that I know of. (If any readers know of others, please do tell me about them.)
      The positive presentation of rather distant officers can also be found in English accounts of war experience. In Patrick MacGill’s ‘The Red Horizon’, for example, the officers are similarly rather distant figures who hardly impinge on the important matters of the day to day life of the soldiers.
      As for religion, Anand was certainly keen to mention signs that the distinctions between religions were less rigid in the war zone, and that the caste system was breaking down; as a nationalist, this was what he wanted to believe. On the other hand, he I think he does make clear the importance of religion to many soldiers.

  4. saroj kumar
    Posted June 16, 2012 at 5:04 am | Permalink

    a very good post explains the novel in an interesting and comprehendable way. thank u.

  5. david Si
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    J’ai entendu parlé du livre (a travers les eaux noirs ), j’essaye de le trouvé en France , je n’ai pas trouvé ,si vous savez ou l’obtenir , prévenez moi , car il m’est important de connaitre la vis de ses soldats Indiens dont l’histoire n’en parle presque pas . SVP Merci .


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