For some reason, the day I visited him, a copy of this book in hand, my uncle began talking of Tintin and the near complete collection of Tintin’s adventures, he had helped compile in the family. I don’t know if it was triggered by the Tintin-esque cover of the book, which I had placed on the table. That or not, the digression to Tintin sat well for Nariman Karkaria’s memoir appealed much the same way – his is the story of a youngster, training to be a priest in Navsari, who in 1910, trades that existence for a shot at seeing the world and fighting in one of its biggest wars. It is adventure, honest writing and a progressively evolving view of the world; you sense the perceived manliness of being in the military but also the butchery and meaninglessness of war. The author’s capacity to state things honestly, as they appear to him, probably makes this book less appetizing for today’s politically correct lot. Sample this bit about Indian society, as much valid now as it must have been then: Was it an ordinary matter to reach London, the original vilayat for us Indians? I had grown up hearing so much about the place and its personalities that London seemed to be something out of this world. I was rather impatient to see the city. Who among us wouldn’t like to go to vilayat? The very mention of it leaves many of us salivating with expectation. When a man returns home from a trip to vilayat, he seems to be in seventh heaven and his mother struts around town with her nose in the air. Is it therefore strange that a simpleton like me was so excited? Its narrative free of overbearing judgement, this is a book for those who love a quick, engaging read. One that runs smooth (the original Gujarati text has been translated to English and cast in a very readable style), sticks close to its central objective of travelogue and observation of life and flies like an arrow. Towards the final chapters, a bit of fatigue and repetitiveness in perspective did set in but that was pardonable. Plus, two other factors came to mind. First, it amazed to hear the First World War and the trenches of France described through Indian eyes. Nariman Karkaria’s accounts in this regard are among the few narratives by Indian participants in World War I, discovered yet. Second, the whole adventure in a youngster casting off to Hong Kong without informing his parents and working his way from there via China, Siberia, Russia and Europe to England (counting mainly on the Parsi diaspora for support) and then eventually seeing action with the British army in France, West Asia and the Balkans is an absorbing story cast the old school way. Its appeal is timeless. At least, it was enough to make this fifty plus writer – life’s errors and regrets in tow – wish he was fifteen again and staring at a clean slate. But perhaps, what genuinely engaged me about a memoir from the early part of the twentieth century was something else. Compared to our times reduced to celebrating specialization, monetary success and social standing, Nariman Karkaria seemed all about discovering world and existence without the contemporary recourse to pursuing elite scholarship and bright, saleable future. He heeded the call of the universe and all it took him was resolve, fifty rupees and a steamer to Hong Kong. Further, in his writing style, there is no straining to justify his thoughts and actions; cast it in some politically correct paradigm. He states it, as it is, baggage-free. The First World War Adventures of Nariman Karkaria – try it. For me, it was an astonishing find. The book also reminded me of another account from a slightly later yet adjacent period – With Cyclists Around the World (written about earlier on this blog), which narrates the experience of a group of cyclists from Mumbai (then, Bombay), who cycled around the world during the period 1923 to 1927.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)