Diya Gupta


Travels with Biren: WW2 through the Eyes of an Indian Doctor (Pg 45 online)

Written by Diya Gupta
Date of Publication: Tuesday, 3rd November, 2015
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"The best moments... are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you'd thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out and taken yours."

- Hector in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys

How do I understand and reconstruct the experience of people long since dead? The question gnaws at me at odd moments of the day – while reading in bed, making a pot of tea, looking out over the Thames from my train, or navigating the alleyways of the Maughan library. I have no personal experience of a conflict situation, let alone a warzone, and yet here I am, at King’s College London, researching Indian experiences in the Second World War.

What did it mean to be hungry enough to participate in a global war for livelihood; to enlist because this war signified a job opportunity; to be made into a prisoner; to be transported across the world to strange lands; to not know how long for; and how it would all end? And all this when the battle for independence from the British Raj was at its sharpest in undivided India?

I grew up in India and no one there ever spoke of the Second World War as anything other than the white man’s war, fought thousands of miles away. Hot on the heels of the Allied victory, Britain lost its Raj, and the nation-states of India and Pakistan emerged in 1947, amidst the tumult of a collapsing empire and the communal violence of Partition. 

Lost somewhere between the pages of decolonisation and nationalism lies the fact that two-and-a-half million people from undivided India fought in the Second World War as part of the British Indian Army. This formed the largest volunteer army in the world – a staggering statistic. How, then, to unpick it and find the fragile threads with which to weave together narratives of these volunteers’ lives?

It was on my second visit to the Imperial War Museum in London, where archives on British and Commonwealth conflicts are stored, that I uncovered Biren's story. There were no memoirs or private papers related to his life, but there was an interview in the sound archive, recorded some 20 years ago.

The notes available on Biren were cryptic. Captain Birendranath Mazumdar. A doctor from Calcutta. Imprisoned by the Germans in the Second World War, but escaped. I put the headphones on. A voice crackled in my ears. "I joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in September 1939, and was posted as a general medical officer at the 17th Base Hospital at Etaples in France."

Though this voice was hoarse and quavering with age, the intonations and accent of the English Biren spoke were unmistakably Bengali, the major Indian language spoken in Calcutta. I instantly recognised, too, the Bengali slippages in his English diction – often, to emphasise a point, or when he became excitable – an instinctive ‘hyan, hyan’, a ‘yes, yes’ in Bengali, would interrupt the flow of English. It is a trait of speaking that still characterises many Bengalis, including me. Calcutta is my hometown too. It was oddly endearing: here was an officer of the British Indian Army, who had died nearly 20 years ago, speaking about his experiences as a young man in the 1940s, and yet it took only two Bengali words to affirm the strength of our linguistic and cultural bonds.

There is something peculiarly evocative about the recorded human voice. The sonic marker of a human life, it carries incredible force. Wearing headphones and listening to Biren speak not only shut out the sights and sounds of the Imperial War Museum, it made him inhabit my mind for the next three hours. The cadence of his voice imposed a rhythmic beat and movement on to the war statistics I had read about; the numbers were jostling each other, like a noisy thronging crowd; they had been breathed into life through sound and were metamorphosing into people.

A non-combatant, Biren was transformed into a prisoner-of-war en route from Etaples to Boulogne with a convoy of ambulances. He was commanded to turn back by a German lieutenant, who informed him that he, Biren, would not be reaching Boulogne: France had capitulated to German forces. How ominous a pronouncement that must have been. "I had nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and had to walk. I had to ask for permission to go to the toilet.” So began the daily discomforts, the lived realities of the prisoner-of-war experience.

I found myself wondering at Biren’s powers of resistance. He certainly portrayed himself as a stubborn and self-willed man, not complying with German authorities on a regular basis, and often openly disagreeing with German officers by telling them that he did not have enough supplies to treat patients with. He remembered in particular the camp in the German town of Marienberg, with memories of Russian prisoners with gunshot wounds and amputated legs repeatedly asking him for assistance. But he could not help them. Shuttled between 17 prisoner-of-war camps and kept in solitary confinement, Biren was eventually incarcerated at the high-security officers’ camp at Colditz Castle, in the heart of Hitler’s Third Reich, for being especially intractable.

As I listened to Biren, I thought of how we might recall an experience as gruelling as becoming a prisoner of war. Surely our memories would centre on our personal deprivations, physical suffering and everyday material discomforts. But Biren’s recollections only touched upon his living conditions in these camps. He remembered, instead, being shocked at the behaviour of fellow prisoners. The Red Cross had distributed food parcels to them, but no one would share his food with newcomers: "I had read so many books of the First World War and the camaraderie there, which was of first-class importance... it was absolutely missing here." Remembering surviving on paltry German rations – soup, black coffee and bread – Biren reflected: "It was funny for me. I was the only easterner there, and they were all Englishmen, Dutch and others... they had the food but they wouldn't share it... I couldn't believe my eyes." It marked the beginning, I felt, of his disillusionment with the perceived liberal and progressive values of the West.

Colditz Castle, functioning as a high-security officers’ prison during the war, was revealed to be Biren’s destination only once he was incarcerated there. “All I heard was the click of the key as the door shut. I was, to say the least, miserable and lost…” He asked the sentry in German where he was; the sentry put his fingers to his ears and remained silent, leaving the prisoner in complete darkness in his cell. As I listened, I tried to recreate this situation imaginatively – a historical space where the fundamental human instinct of responding to another’s distress was purposefully obliterated by the conditions of war. The sentry had to stop himself physically from hearing the question, in case his latent humanity made him disobey orders. This was as much a psychological incarceration for Biren as the physically forbidding boundary walls of the castle.

The only non-white prisoner in Colditz, Biren described his uneasy relationship here with other British officers. Military and colonial hierarchies were firmly entrenched, even among those who were meant to be on the same side: Biren was made to salute a senior British officer every time they spoke as they both “belonged to the King’s army,” and instructed not to fraternise with the Germans, who, as the British suspected, kept trying to lure him into defecting. India was beginning to wage its own war against the Raj with the rise of the Indian National Army, led by Subhas Chandra Bose, and a small group of Indian soldiers had already joined Hitler’s forces in Germany.

It was hard to interpret what Biren made of this. He remained, everywhere, that strange anomaly – an Indian and yet a British Army Officer in uniform. Questions about his identity and motivation never stopped. And yet he evinced no political opinion, other than the fact that he opposed the Raj: “I was one of those who disliked British rule in India because I had seen in my country the oppression of the British.” But he refused, time and again, to defect. His steadfastness, I came to believe, revealed a complex negotiation of political and personal identities within the simultaneous and shifting landscape of motivation among colonised people.

Biren refused to join the Indian National Army, but this did not mean he had no nationalist feelings, nor does it signify that he had imperialist sympathies. Despite being accused of being a German spy, and despite the considerably more comfortable life he could have led by defecting – he chose to remain an Indian officer imprisoned at Colditz. Biren believed in adhering to his oath of loyalty to the Empire, but above all, by not capitulating to German or Indian persuasion, he claimed the right to his own agency. He volunteered to join the British Indian Army out of choice, and he chose not to leave it.

Colditz did not remain Biren’s prison forever. His escape was one of the most remarkable that I had heard of, even for Colditz where audacious escapes were attempted every year. I learnt that the art of attempting to escape from prison also had its attendant military and colonial hierarchies. Biren needed permission to escape, and was told to speak to his British senior officer first – the same one who required a salute each time they met. In this ritual of applying for permission, Biren pointedly remembered to salute and formally made his request. “I can still remember to this day his laugh,” recollected Biren.“You escaping from here – with your brown skin!”

Compasses, money and other valuable escape items were being smuggled into Colditz through food parcels, but surely Biren had not expected that he was going to receive any such help, queried the senior officer. Biren responded: “I expected it, sir.” He then told the senior officer that he was determined to escape some day, saluted him, and walked out of the room.

The escape route from Colditz devised by Biren involved staging a five-week-long hunger strike; the British officers called it “doing a Gandhi.” When word finally arrived that he was to be moved to a different camp, Biren was given some money, with instructions to insert this up his backside. (Remembering the action caused him to chuckle – the public mention of certain bodily parts, it seems, never loses its humorous edge.)

Transferred to an Indian prisoner-of-war camp, Biren conspired with two Indian officers to escape from a train. They were captured by the Gestapo, who gave him a final chance to join the German forces; he was flogged ten strokes on his back when he refused. 

It was the trio’s second attempt to escape that proved successful. Biren remembered the quiet words of encouragement spoken to him by his companions during their escape, a constant refrain of support: “Doctor sahab, shabaash, shabaash.”(“Well done, doctor, well done.”) But he also recalled clearly his annoyance at having to pay the French Resistance 2,000 francs for a safe passage to the Swiss border.

It is these ruptures and interruptions in the narrative that make me particularly fascinated by Biren. In the public memory of the Second World War, his experience is atypical – no one thinks of an Indian doctor’s life as a prisoner-of-war in 1940s Europe. Biren’s narrative undercuts our conventional remembrance of this war; his own memory of events becomes a testament to asymmetrical power relations within the Allied forces themselves, entrenched through many years of colonial rule.

Biren may be an officer in the British Indian Army, but he is never white enough for British officers. And yet he feels able to resist both German and British figures of authority. What Biren chooses not to forget is especially interesting. His narrative is framed by the prisoner-of-war experience, but never becomes a litany of hardships faced in these circumstances. He remembers the pain of being flogged by the Gestapo, but recalls far more vividly how his British senior officer laughed when he announced his desire to escape from Colditz. The memory of this laugh seems to have seared him more than ten strokes of the Gestapo whip.

In the course of listening to this narrative for three hours, Biren had rapidly assembled himself in my mind’s eye. The textbook story of 'the good war', where Allied forces defeat the Nazis and in which non-European volunteers are almost entirely ignored, had crumbled in the face of the complex and grim realities of his lived experience. The battle colours had changed for me: the Second World War no longer remained the white man’s war, culturally and geographically distant.

Biren’s voice, then, became the transformative portal for me to understand the Second World War in new and complex, and enduringly personal ways. I had heard Biren’s fear, felt his pain, relived his sense of outrage and injustice. I had been the listener, the vicarious sojourner, the ghostly third who walked always beside him. Eliding space and time, the dead and the living, Biren’s hand had come out and taken mine.

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