It is the centenary year of World War I.
While speaking of wars and geopolitics, history hardly speaks of the small actors. Foot-soldiers are not even a footnote in the recorded history.
David Omissi has compiled and edited a collection of letters written by the Indian soldiers in World War I to their families in India. While speaking of the letters written by soldiers from India one cannot help but wonder, how did the illiterates communicate with their families? How did the ones whose mother tongue did not have a script write to their families?
What I try to record here, however, is not just the story of the struggle of the soldiers to communicate. This story is also about the ripples such a situation created. This story is around the letters that an Indian soldier wrote to his family in Jharkhand from the fields of World War I.
While researching for a creative work I came across an advocate in Khunti [Jharkhand]. When asked if he was the first generation literate from his family, Dhanik belonging to the Munda tribe said, “No. Second.” Pausing for a while he said, “In fact you can say third.” When asked to explain “you can say,” Dhanik, knowing the focus of the research- formal education and the tribals- said, “But my grandfather did not go to school.” Not wanting to lose focus of the research I asked Dhanik how his father’s family, which he said lived in a remote tribal village, realize the importance of education and send his father to the school. The questions led to an answer which enveloped an explanation to the previous answer too.
Very casually, without making it sound any grand, Dhanik began narrating the story, “It seems during the first world war the Bristish took my grandfather to fight the war as a soldier.” According to Dhanik his grandfather did not know to read or write. So one day when the family received a letter from the grandfather they were as much surprised as they were happy. But, the joy came with some amount of disappointment as the letter was written in English! “It seems he was taught English there. He wrote letters in English,” explained Dhanik.
When asked how the family read the letters Dhanik spoke of an individual in the nearby village who read the letters and translated it for the family in Mundaari. The man also wrote letters to the grandfather for the family. The man, Dhanik said, charged good amount of money because the grandfather wrote in English and not in any Indian language. The replies also had to be in English as the grandfather did not know to read any other script. The man who read the letters would come at his convenience and also read, translate and write at his convenience. He wouldn’t care for the urgency of the family. Dhanik quoted his father telling him that the man who read letters acted quite pricey because he knew his importance and because there was nobody else to do the job.
“My grandmother was annoyed by this man for his attitude. And reading grandfather’s letters and writing to him was becoming a costly affair. That’s when my grandmother decided to send my father to school. It meant she need not pay a huge sum for reading and writing letters and also did not have to wait for the pricey scribe,” said Dhanik. At that point seeing me laugh probably Dhanik thought the authenticity his story is being doubted. “Really. Till few years ago the medal and a certificate that the Bristish had given to my grandfather for his work was lying here somewhere,” he tried convincing.
On realizing that his account of his grandfather is not being doubted Dhanik continued. His father had just learnt basic reading and writing when the grandfather returned home. Though school going had no practical purpose for the family Dhanik’s father continued going to school. And when Dhanik was born he sent him also to school. Dhanik laughed concluding the story saying, “Had there been no World War I guess I wouldn’t have become an advocate.”
[Originally written for The News Minute]