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 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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.