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The First World War Adventures of Nariman Karkaria — A Memoir review: A globe-trotting war veteran - The Hindu

A 15-year-old boy from Gujarat sets off to seek his fortune in China, winds up serving in the British Army during World War I, sees action in three fronts and finally returns home. No, this is not one of those boys’ adventure stories but the true tale of Nariman Karkaria.

There’s something quite riveting about  The First World War Adventures of Nariman Karkaria: A Memoir, translated by Murali Ranganathan. I couldn’t help wondering if the original was as lively and humorous as the English translation, though Ranganathan does say in the Introduction that “Karkaria’s story is best read in his own words...” The title references World War I, but it comes pretty late in the book. The first section is devoted to Karkaria’s early “turbulent” life; he portrays himself as a truant and undisciplined boy.

Travel itch

His travel itch began at the age of 12 when he was taken to Bombay and saw various vessels in the harbour. His training as an  andhiyaru (Zoroastrian priest) “did not sit well with my stormy nature”. So, at the age of 15, Karkaria fled home, went to Bombay and boarded a ship to Hong Kong. A notice published in the Parsi newspaper  Jam-e-Jamshed gives a succinct account of his travails. It ends with a warning to “those who intent to come to Hong Kong without any assured employment or proper references that the business prospects and reputation of China are no longer what they used to be and exist only in name.”

But Karkaria would not let his troubles keep him down. Descriptions of a trip to China, a short visit home, then to China and onto London via Siberia, Russia and Scandinavia are peppered with anecdotes of meeting people and sightseeing. In London, Karkaria manages to get into the British 24th Middlesex Regiment.

Before plunging into his adventures, he gives the reader a quick idea of how the forces were organised. Karkaria sees action in the Western Front, is injured in the Battle of Somme, is moved to Egypt after his recovery and is in Azerbaijan when he is discharged from the army.

Reports of life during the war — life in the trenches, using gas masks, securing enemy trenches, scouting for the enemy’s position, the food they ate — alternate with stories of places he visited, interactions with local people and the like. No matter where Karkaria is, he makes meticulous notes of prices everywhere and compares them with amounts back in India. This offers a counter to doubts about whether the author was drawing a long bow.

Fighter, tourist

It is also interesting to note how he moves with ease between fighting battles and being a tourist. The chapter titled ‘The Conquest of Jerusalem’ recounts in minute detail how the Turkish soldiers fought, how the soldiers went down with malaria and more. The next, ‘A Tourist in Jerusalem,’ gives the reader a vivid image of the historical city, almost as if the preceding chapter had been wiped out of his mind. The one thing that stands out, which Ranganathan also mentions in the Introduction, is that we never get to know anything about his colleagues. Fellow soldiers remain a huge anonymous mass.

Ranganathan talks about another book by Karkaria based on his travels in Iran and a war memoir written in Marathi. Here’s hoping there are more translations that offer a window into another world.

The First World War Adventures of Nariman Karkaria: A Memoir; Translated by Murali Ranganathan, HarperCollins, ₹599.

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