Diya Gupta

“I have written to you many times but God alone knows why I don’t get your letters. You say you write regularly. Letters mean half meetings and they are a great consolation to us.”

- Written in Urdu by an Indian sepoy or soldier stationed in Tunisia on 16 May 1943. His name is not known.


Ghosts from the past lurk in the Indian archives of the British Library. They turn up in unexpected files, opening doors to forgotten histories. What was it like fighting for the British at a time when the struggle for India’s freedom from British rule was at its most incendiary? Military censorship reports from the Second World War, containing extracts from Indian soldiers’ letters home, become a textual portal into the soldiers’ emotional world on the battlefront. Leafing through these reports today, mediated as they are through selections made by the colonial censor, we understand what writing home meant to the Indian soldier. Letter writing was a literary tool by which to reflect on his place in the world as an imperial defender in international theatres of war.

Two-and-a-half million men from undivided India – modern-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – served the British during the Second World War. Their experiences are little remembered today, neither in the UK where a Eurocentric memory of the war dominates, nor in South Asia, which privileges nationalist histories of independence from the British Empire. And yet hundreds of letter extracts in the military censorship reports bear witness to this counter-narrative. Letters were written in Indian languages – Hindi, Gurmukhi, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil – and often dictated to scribes by Indian sepoys who were illiterate. They were then translated into English for the censor, who compiled selected quotations from the letters into a report testifying to the spirit or ‘morale’ of the soldiers. Soldiers’ names have been anonymised in these reports, and so it is virtually impossible to trace the letters to their writers. All that remains are evocative textual shards.

These letters forge a material and emotional connection between the home front and the battlefront, revealing a vast and complex range of Indian experiences in the Second World War. In the sentence, “Letters mean half meetings and they are a great consolation to us” with which this article begins, the unknown Indian sepoy links the affective impact of the letter – its ‘consolation’, assuaging loneliness, homesickness and longing – to its inherent physicality – ‘letters mean half meetings’. He recreates a spectral connection between the body of the writer who is present, ghostlike, in the medium of the letter, and the corporality of the reader, holding the letter in his or her hand. An intimate moment is captured – a ‘half meeting’ between the home front and the battlefront, a negotiation between distance and proximity created by the act of letter writing.

How far did this letter travel? From the fighting lines in Tunisia, where some of the most intense battles against German and Italian forces took place, the letter traces a journey to the heartland of rural north India – a village in Punjab, which served as a traditional army recruiting ground for the British. A textual connector between the farthest corners of the Empire and imperial strongholds requiring defence against the Axis alliance, the letter both maps the breadth of a global war and plunges deep into the heart of a sepoy’s ardent desire to hear from home.

An Indian soldier guarding an Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery in Persia, 4 September 1941 - Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum © IWM (E 5330)

An Indian soldier guarding an Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery in Persia, 4 September 1941 - Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum © IWM (E 5330)

Connections with home are expressed through the materiality of objects and the physicality of the body in the letters. Food dominates much of these epistolary conversations, with Indian soldiers reflecting on their army rations and diet abroad. All the while, rumours of a great and devastating famine sweeping India in 1943 reach them, despite censorship of news and letters. A Havildar or junior officer, part of the Sappers and Miners unit, writes from the Middle East:

“From my personal experience I can tell you that the food we get here is much better than that we soldiers get in India. But whenever I sit for my meals, a dreadful picture of the appalling Indian food problem passes through my mind leaving a cloudy sediment on the walls of my heart which makes me nauseous and often I leave my meals untouched.”

The soldier represents empathy with this imagined community of sufferers through images of his own body, and his reactions are expressed in physiological terms – the thought of acute food shortage in India makes him visualise the walls of his heart being covered with ‘cloudy sediment’. In visceral terms, this is how he understands empathy. The spectre of famine in India hovers, Banquo-like, before him every time he sits down to eat his rations carefully provided by the colonial British government; the imagined projection of food deprivation in his homeland many thousands of miles away reaches out and, almost literally, touches his heart and prevents him from eating.

Representation of a family struck by the Bengal Famine of 1942 by Bangladeshi artist Zoinul Abedin.  ©British Museum 2012,3027.1

Representation of a family struck by the Bengal Famine of 1942 by Bangladeshi artist Zoinul Abedin. ©British Museum 2012,3027.1

Empathy continues to run, finely woven, through the archived extracts of the letters. A South Indian soldier writes to his friend: “All the letters from home are pathetic and touching and I am now in an ocean of sorrow. What is the use of such a life? I do not know when I am going to start a happy life. I received a letter from my wife that my house is washed away by floods in the Adyar Cooum River and they are now sheltering in a choultry in Madras. It often drives me mad. What is to be done? In such a condition how can man be happy when his family is in such a dangerous plight?”

Physical calamity here transforms into metaphors of being overwhelmed by water – the letter-writer’s house being destroyed by flooding results in him being engulfed in an “ocean of sorrow”. This particular expression of grief is also a further representation of empathy – the metaphor becomes a linguistic tool by which the letter-writer feels with his body the natural disaster affecting his family. This simulated experience – the soldier’s “ocean of sorrow” – leads to an existential questioning of the use of his life, and he articulates psychological and emotional desperation at the physical estrangement from his family that his army service has forced – “It often drives me mad. What is to be done?”

Edward Bawden,  A Hindoo Kitchen: RIASC 8th, 10th and 12th Indian Mule Coys, Zghorta, Syria   © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 2220)

Edward Bawden, A Hindoo Kitchen: RIASC 8th, 10th and 12th Indian Mule Coys, Zghorta, Syria © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 2220)

How, then, do these textual exchanges of letters provide insights into the Indian soldier’s psyche? Do the archived extracts reveal ruptures in the imperial identity foisted on the Indian soldier fighting in a colonial war? The previous epistolary extract underscores desperation about war and estrangement; the following gives us a glimpse into the depths of an Indian soldier’s physical and emotional exhaustion. Writing home in Urdu, an Indian sepoy, part of the Artillery brigade, declares: “I cannot come on leave. You have written to me not to care for promotions and to prefer leave. I can get neither promotion nor leave and I don’t want promotion. All I want is leave. I am getting tired.”

The negative constraint (“I cannot come on leave”) is balanced here against intense desire (“All I want is leave”). Contextualised against the intensity of the combat with German and Italian forces in North Africa, the letter writer’s bare pronouncement – “I am getting tired” – reveals the vulnerability of his psychological resistance to war; he longs for the emotional succour of his home in India. These fragile cracks highlight how a colonial archive mediated through military censorship and translation, and negotiating the verbal and the textual, is still able to recover the forgotten experiential and personal perspectives of the Indian soldier.

Few letters, surprisingly, discuss the actual witnessing of war, and there could be several reasons for this. Indian soldiers knew that their letters were being intercepted by the colonial censor, and may not have wanted to write frankly about battlefront intensities. They also may not have wished for loved ones at home to worry. Or perhaps what they saw was simply too difficult and too traumatic to articulate in letters. Here, however, is an exception – an Indian sepoy describes his feelings on learning of death at home while he is on the battlefront:

“You have written about the death of mother-in-law but you must know that here I see so many persons dying daily in the field. The land has become red by their blood and if you dig the land even two inches, you will see the soil red. We are marching in a line. Someone is shooted and falls down senseless and bleeding like a drain yet we can’t stop to help him except seeing. It is military. Here there is no room for fascination and love.”

The quality of the English translation for the censor is shaky, and yet, even through this rough transition into a foreign language from the vernacular, the writer’s power of literary expression shines through. It seems from this extract that he is, or wishes to be, inured to news of death at home, and turns instead to the death he sees everyday. The imagery used to describe a soldier being gunned down while marching in line is highly evocative. The wholeness of the human form here, embodied by the Indian soldier, is shown to disintegrate, merging with the natural world as the porous, injured body leaks into the earth.  Digging the land – perhaps a nod at the soldier’s previous occupation as farmer and peasant in Punjab – reveals the colour, and cost, of war in soil that is soaked red. The wounded man bleeds “like a drain” – a strange simile, jostling together both the image of wasted life blood trickling away from the bullet-ridden prostrate body, and the collapse of the human body into a sewage system.

This letter-writer recognises that “there is no room for …love” in the army, and the letters corroborate his statement. If there are few letters about witnessing the war, there are next to none about love. The one exception, though, is an extraordinary piece of wartime letter writing. Here, the writer is an Indian Lieutenant – part of the small but rising number of aspirational, middle-class Indian officers making their inroads into the Indian Army. The lines are written to the soldier’s beloved during the Allied invasion of Italy:

“Here I am penning this to you in the middle of one of the biggest nights in the history of this war. Love, I am sure by the time you receive this letter you will guess correctly as to where I am. I bet you, you wouldn’t like to stay here a single minute. You would feel that the whole world were shaking with an earthquake or probably the sky were falling over you. I really wish I could reproduce some of the noises, which are going on at present round me. Oh! it is terrible. Yet in the midst of this commotion, I sit here, on my own kit-bag and scribble these few lines to my love for I do not really know when I will get the next opportunity to write to you.”

We come back to where we started – with a focus on the act of letter writing. Here, writing itself becomes an image of solace and calm amidst all the frenetic sounds and activity of the war, and the unknowability of the future. “Scribbling these few lines to [his] love” is the writer’s way of documenting the immediacy of the war, and his presence in it. The writer expresses his desire to “reproduce” the noises of war for his beloved at home; letter writing can but represent them through language. Yet, by evoking the image of the soldier’s body as he sits on his kit bag and writes, this wartime letter becomes a remarkable testimony to the forgotten experiences of the Indian soldier, and the articulation of his complex and intimate inner life, during the Second World War.

Diya Gupta is a third-year PhD researcher at the Department of English at King’s College London, working on a literary and cultural examination of Indian soldiers’ experiences in the Second World War. Her project was chosen for a short film highlighting Arts and Humanities research, which received over 1,500 YouTube hits: She has worked as project researcher for the BBC Monitoring series at the Imperial War Museums, and her work has been published in the London literary journal The Still Point.