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.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.