Documentary channel

In documentary ‘Farewell My Indian Soldier’, plush hospitals, kind women and lasting ties

Vijay Singh’s film revisits the experiences of Indian troops who served the British and French armies during World War I.

“This is what history looks like from below,” remarks a voice-over in Farewell My Indian Soldier. “Not from the perspective of those who write it, but from that of those who create it.”

Novelist and filmmaker Vijay Singh’s 2016 documentary follows Paloma Coquant, a French citizen on a quest to learn more about the identity of her great-grandfather. He was an Indian soldier in the French army during World War I and whose whereabouts remain unknown. Over a million Indian troops served the British and French armies in the war, a majority of whom never returned home.

In the case of Paloma’s great-grandfather, there is no official record of his stay in France. One historian remarks that it would be nearly impossible to find any information on him after all these years.

Farewell My Indian Soldier casts a micro-level gaze on the friendships and relationships that bloomed during the war, rather than focusing on its brutality. In Britain, injured Indian soldiers were kept in lavish hospitals – one soldier described the hospital as “paradise on earth”.

The 61-minute film offers many amusing insights into what it meant to have Indian soldiers fighting a war that wasn’t their own. At least nine different cooking departments had to be run during the war because of different dietary rules among the Indians. Their resting resorts were houses in the countryside, which were run mainly by women. It was here that Paloma’s great-grandmother met the Indian soldier, who was sent back to fight the war soon after he had recuperated.

While the soldiers were given respectful treatment, they were not allowed to mingle with white women due to racial bias. While Indian soldiers in the British hospitals were allowed to occasionally step out to meet their grateful admirers, many of whom were women, they were almost always accompanied by white officers. It was due to this bias that Paloma’s great-grandmother and her infant son were outcast by society.

Vijay Singh. Courtesy Farewell My Indian Soldier Facebook page.
Vijay Singh. Courtesy Farewell My Indian Soldier Facebook page.

Farewell My Indian Soldier is an oddly structured film. While Paloma seems to be the central character, there is practically no arc to her journey. At one level, this seems unavoidable because hers is possibly an endless quest. But the film sets her up as the protagonist and goes nowhere with it.

The documentary is at its strongest when it takes its many diversions in the form of anecdotes narrated by various people, ranging from historians to descendants of the war veterans. One scholar says that the fact that the houses in the French villages were run by women made quite an impact on the Indian soldiers. Short summaries of some of the letters sent home by the Indians were officially recorded. In one such letter, a soldier urges his family to send his daughter to school so that they wouldn’t have to seek an outsider’s help in reading his letters.

From a handwritten diary, we learn that a British soldier fought and won a court case for his Indian counterpart because the latter was denied the right to live in Britain after the war. A passage is dedicated to Gabar Singh Negi, a recipient of the prestigious Victoria Cross, in whose name a fair is held in Chamba every year.

Towards the end, the film returns to Paloma and her mother, Monique Soupart, praying at their house. In an earlier scene, we see a warm, informal chat between Paloma and a Sikh man at his house in England. There is a lovely moment when Paloma shows him that she knows how to tie a turban. She may never find out who her great-grandfather was, but even a century after the war ended, new friendships continue to be forged.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

The quirks and perks of travelling with your hard to impress mom

We must admit that the jar of pickle always comes in handy.

A year ago, Priyanka, a 26-year-old banking professional, was packing her light-weight duffel bag for an upcoming international trip. Keen to explore the place, she wanted to travel light and fuss free. It was not meant to be. For Priyanka was travelling with her mother, and that meant carrying at least two extra suitcases packed with odds and ends for any eventuality just short of a nuclear war.

Bothered by the extra suitcases that she had to lug around full of snacks and back-up woollens, Priyanka grew frustrated with her mother. However, one day, while out for some sight-seeing Priyanka and her family were famished but there were no decent restaurants in sight. That’s when her mum’s ‘food bag’ came to the rescue. Full of juice boxes, biscuits and sandwiches, her mother had remembered to pack snacks from the hotel for their day out. Towards the end of the trip, Priyanka was grateful to her mother for all her arrangements, especially the extra bag she carried for Priyanka’s shopping.

Priyanka’s story isn’t an isolated one. We spoke to many people about their mother’s travel quirks and habits and weren’t surprised at some of the themes that were consistent across all the travel memoirs.

Indian mothers are always prepared

“My mom keeps the packed suitcases in the hallway one day before our flight date. She will carry multiple print-outs of the flight tickets because she doesn’t trust smartphone batteries. She also never forgets to carry a medical kit for all sorts of illnesses and allergies”, says Shruti, a 27-year-old professional. When asked if the medical kit was helpful during the trip, she answered “All the time”, in a tone that marvelled at her mother’s clairvoyance.

Some of the many things a mother packs in her travel bags. Source: Google Images
Some of the many things a mother packs in her travel bags. Source: Google Images

Indian mothers love to feel at home, and create the same experience for their family, wherever they are

“My mother has a very strange idea of the kind of food you get in foreign lands, so she always packs multiple packets of khakra and poha for our trips. She also has a habit of carrying her favourite teabags to last the entire trip”, relates Kanchan, a marketing professional who is a frequent international flier often accompanied by her mother. Kanchan’s mother, who is very choosy about her tea, was therefore delighted when she was served a hot cup of garam chai on her recent flight to Frankfurt. She is just like many Indian mothers who love to be reminded of home wherever they are and often strive to organise their hotel rooms to give them the coziness of a home.

Most importantly, Indian mothers are tough, especially when it comes to food

Take for instance, the case of Piyush, who recalls, “We went to this fine dining restaurant and my mother kept quizzing the waiter about the ingredients and the method of preparation of a dish. She believed that once she understood the technique, she would be able to make a better version of the dish just so she could pamper me!”

Indian mothers are extremely particular about food – from the way its cooked, to the way it smells and tastes. Foreign delicacies are only allowed to be consumed if they fulfil all the criteria set by Mom i.e. is it good enough for my children to consume?

An approval from an Indian mother is a testament to great quality and great taste. In recognition of the discerning nature of an Indian mum and as a part of their ‘More Indian Than You Think’ commitment, Lufthansa has tailored their in-flight experiences to surpass even her exacting standards. Greeted with a namaste and served by an Indian crew, the passengers feel right at home as they relish the authentic Indian meals and unwind with a cup of garam chai, the perfect accompaniment to go with a variety of Indian entertainment available in the flight. As Lufthansa’s in-flight offerings show, a big part of the brand is inherently Indian because of its relationship with the country spanning over decades.

To see how Lufthansa has internalised the Indian spirit and become the airline of choice for flyers looking for a great Indian experience, watch the video below.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.