Earlier this year, in an unusually bracing March chill that kept dusting the ridges of Landour with snow, I made my way down the crest of Mussoorie from behind the extravagantly turreted Chateau de Kapurthala, past the back entrance of the Savoy, across the dug-up detritus of the famous old Mall, and back up to Christ Church. This is the first church ever built in the Himalayas, and the fulcrum of Christianity in Devbhoomi—the fabled abode of the Hindu gods that is Garhwal.
In settings like these, it’s impossible to avoid contemplating the fleeting, essentially fragile nature of human endeavour. When the British essayed forcibly into these ancient mountains, it was in the secure knowledge their writ would remain permanent. Their Raj would always last. European dominance was incontrovertible. This is why the new rulers made no concessions to the setting’s own cultural history. Instead, the Bishop of Calcutta, who presided over the project, expressed considerable glee that it was to be ‘the first church built in India after the pattern of an English parish church’.
From our 21st century vantage, laboriously clambering up derelict lanes, it’s impossible to reconcile these scenes of utter neglect with what flourished here in Mussoorie’s heyday. Writing in 1878, Mrs Robert Moss King (her husband was the collector of Meerut) reported: ‘It is a funny sight to a newcomer to see the crowds of dandies [hand-borne palanquins] ranged outside, looking like miniature canoes that have been beached. If the congregation consist of 200 women and 100 men, that means 200 dandies, which, with an average of three coolies to each gives 600 attendant coolies, besides 100 ponies and 100 syces.’
Those masses of churchgoers are long gone. Mussoorie’s native population of Christians has very clearly dwindled under 1,000 (though official statistics indicate a slightly higher total). Thus, when I reached Christ Church, in its choice location commanding the slopes above the sweep of ‘the Doon’, I was unsurprised to find no signs of life. It was only after two small boys emerged from throwing stones in the plastered portico and I rousted them to wake up the groundskeeper, that the side door was cracked open to allow entry.
Think back to early March. The Russians had just invaded Ukraine (on 24 February) and the world was aswirl with propaganda and misinformation. It was apparent Vladimir Putin intended on rearranging the map of Europe, and had even evoked the spectre of nuclear war. At the same time, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka faced down huge pressure from the West to abstain together in highly unusual lockstep on the US-sponsored UN resolution to condemn Russia. A new world was being born, but it was yet unclear what shape it would begin to take.
Russia and Ukraine were on the minds of many during my days in Mussoorie, which has an unobtrusive but substantial military presence, including the elite Institute of Technology Management (ITM) of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, as well as the collective future cadres of the Indian Administrative Service under training at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. The incipient war in Europe was also pressing in on my own thoughts on that long walk up to Christ Church. It was the topic of my upcoming Dhaka Tribune column—I had just finished talking to Admiral Arun Prakash, one of India’s most astute and accomplished military men.
On that morning, the 77-year-old had startled me repeatedly with his straight talk and clear thinking, beginning with his assertion that ‘humanity is at an inflection point’. Admiral Prakash warned that the world could not afford to allow the Thucydidean dictum to reign: ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’. The world was compelled to action, he said, ‘Russia will pay a big price and it has to happen that way, otherwise it will be open season, and a recipe for the world as we know it to dissolve into chaos.’
There’s no questioning Admiral Prakash’s sagacity, or his military and political reasoning. Unfortunately, that kind of high-minded conventional wisdom tends to fail, and sometimes it can contribute to catastrophe. Here, one can never forget that the 1919 Treaty of Versailles settlement imposed on Germany directly led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, and the unimaginable suffering of World War II.
Being part of the Anglosphere means being submerged in an ocean of indoctrination about the World Wars. But here in India, which was spared the brunt of that particular carnage except at the (admittedly epochal) Battle of Kohima, there’s another problem of persistent erasure: the subcontinent having supplied hugely significant cohorts of fighting men that made the difference in both conflicts. All these priceless living memories have been downplayed since 1947 due to the misguided notion that millions of Indians were only serving colonial ‘masters’.
Like most members of my generation—I was born in 1968—‘facts’ about the World Wars have never been in question, because we have been carpet-bombed with the victors’ version of history. For us, and for anyone who thinks they already have an excellent grasp of how those wars came about, Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (2008) is an essential antidote.
In this masterpiece of elaborate assemblage, the American author juxtaposes archival snippets from articles and official documents (there is also some commentary). You can see how the Americans and British keep goading Japan and Germany, but it took an array of specific choices to cleave the world into hostile factions dedicated to the complete submission of their supposed rivals. It did not have to be that way. There were many warning signs, correctly identified again and again by conscience-keepers who tried to avert the coming catastrophe.
Human Smoke begins in 1914 with Stefan Zweig, the great Austrian Jewish writer, who is attending a movie screening in France. At one point, he writes that an image of the German emperor came onscreen and ‘everybody yelled and whistled, men, women, and children, as if they had been personally insulted. The good-natured people of Tours, who knew no more about the world and politics than what they had read in their newspapers had gone mad for an instant. It had only been a second, but one that showed me how easily people anywhere can be aroused in a time of crisis…”’
Baker writes in his book’s terse afterword: ‘This book ends on December 31, 1941. Most of the people who died in the Second World War were at that moment still alive. Was it a “good war”? Did waging it help anyone who needed help?’ There are no easy answers provided, but a hint: ‘I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They’ve never really gotten their due. They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right.’
Those last four words strike me deeply, along with the question: what does it mean to win but be wrong?In fact, Baker’s conclusions are anathema to the militarist dogma of the West, which bristles with alleged facts that range all the way upwards to the monstrously inhuman claim of the necessity of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—because they saved lives in the long run.
I thought of Baker’s book on that anxious morning in Christ Church, my skin crawling with the sense that we were once again being inexorably ratcheted towards unthinkably painful global conflict. Turning from the beautiful stained glass windows to the plaques and memorials on every wall, I became absorbed in what they spelled out for me—and all of us.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but at the time it hit quite hard. All around me, an array of beautifully maintained engravings detailed the heavy human cost of militaristic misadventures, spelling out the names of hill station boys who left this magical setting to lose their lives for no good reason, in moments of mania that made zero positive difference to anyone and left no discernible impact on history.
There was Raymond Digby Angelo of the Gurkha Rifles, who ‘died of wounds in Wano, Waziristan, on November 30th 1894’. Nearby, there’s Harry Abercrombie Angelo ‘of the Burmah Police who died at Mandalay on 8th May, 1886 and his brother George Liptrott Angelo, Lieutenant and Adjutant of the Madras Infantry’ who also ‘died at Mandalay on 4th January of 1887’.
As the father of three sons, I was especially saddened by one plaque: ‘In loving memory of Vincent Walter Kenneth Mackinnon, Lieutenant 53rd Sikhs, killed in action at Sheikh Othman, Aden on the 21st July 1915 aged 22 years, and Colin Alexander John Mackinnon, 2nd Lieutenant 1st Middlesex Regiment, killed in action in France on the 26th September 1815, aged 18 years. Beloved and only sons of Vincent and Lillian Mackinnon of Mussorie.’ Right below, this passage from an old Anglican hymn:
Now the labourers’ task is o’er /
Now the battle day is past /
father, in the gracious keeping /
Leave we now thy servants sleeping.’
What a loss for Vincent and Lillian Mackinnon. What a loss for little Mussoorie. In that moment, I inevitably recalled Alec Vas, the brightest of my grandmother’s cousins, who persevered through Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn before volunteering with the London Irish Rifles, and perishing in France in 1916 (his headstone reads: ‘The sacrifice of an Indian from Goa’). Even 100 years later, the loss of all his great potential is keenly felt in our family. It must have been the same for the Mackinnons, and for Mussorie. Have we learned nothing? Is no sacrifice enough? How can it be that the world is going back there again?
It is quite dodgy to admit that you have been thinking darkly about the possibility of World War III. For writers whose reputations rest on being the opposite of alarmist, you take pains to avoid going there very easily. And yet, the red flags kept going up, and my historical-analytical radar went on tingling, so when I came back down the mountain and flew home to Goa, I went straight to Raghu Karnad’s superb Farthest Field: An Indian History of the Second World War (2015)—another essential antidote for our gaps in understanding the unmaking of the world that occurred just over 75 years ago.
Hoping that he would not find my concerns out of place, I emailed Karnad. My friend took some time before responding: ‘I’m haunted by an opinion poll from August 2020, after Galwan, which India Today headlined as “59% say India should go to war with China”. If I take this figure seriously, it makes my blood run cold: not just at the thought of a hypothetical war, but at an actual society being so misled and mindless about what it wishes for. I just think: God, we know nothing. We really know nothing.’
He said, ‘We’re like the Europeans in the belle epoque, at the end of a century of peace in their continent, and ready to march into the First World War: a black hole of grief, waste and pain. Like them, we’ve been spared the experience of general war, close to home, for many generations. We’ve watched technology transform so fast, we’re barely able to manage its powers in peacetime; we can’t imagine how in war that power will be used to kill and lay waste. Instead, we use this precious stage of peace to spin fantasies of redemptive aggression—mythic war, religious war, surgical strikes—which we confuse for a real-world state of conflict. History warns us about war, obviously. It also warns us about the delusions about war which grow in times of peace.’
That was back in March, and the situation has only gone downhill since then. A few days ago (it is now July), Vladimir Putin updated Russia’s parliamentary leaders, ‘We have heard many times that the West wants to fight us to the last Ukrainian. This is a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, but it seems that everything is heading towards this. Today we hear that they want to defeat us on the battlefield. What can you say? Let them try.’ It has been many months of unrelenting warfare with at least 75,000 casualties, and we are still only at the beginning.