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BOOK REVIEW: Sahib: The British Soldier in India / Author: Richard Holmes

Published in Daily Times / Apr 24, 2010

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

They came for the trade. And found something better. When the dust settled, an empire had changed hands. The architects of the change, who bore witness to the rise and fall of the mighty empire, imprinted their impression upon their adopted homeland. The land, in turn, left an indelible mark on the newcomers.

Richard Holmes, himself a soldier and a leading military historian, looks beyond the empire carved from the remains of another civilisation, steering past the colonial designs of the company and later the crown. He seizes upon the red coat and brings the British solider to life by sharing extracts from his letters and references from archived documents. Using their words to animate the land of the pagoda tree (page xxv ) — as 18th century India came to be known — and letting their experiences set the tone, he rekindles the magic that went with the trappings of a sahib and the horror inherited with and inflicted upon the land. A land seen as a “patchwork of races”, evoking the sentiment that it was “not yet a nation until time and civilisation rub off the sharp distinctions of caste and soften the acuteness of religious jealousies” (page 43).

Sahib is a leisurely stroll down memory lane — passing by old battlefields where the elements decided the fate of men more than enemy fire; quietly manoeuvring through the site of classic cavalry charges where “hesitation was fatal” and “determination won the day” and heading out to the quayside to meet the new arrivals stalked by death at every turn.

It takes the underbelly of the British Raj in “India’s sunny clime” where light and dark come together to complete the soldiers’ story. Thus compelled, one puts aside the clean cut, storybook version of the Sahib and settles for a darker and edgier alternative by entering an atmosphere charged with excitement, marked by the anticipation of victory and heavy with the presence of death. These men earn respect and admiration for enduring unimaginable hardships. Fear and revulsion swiftly follow as one goes deeper in this wonderfully rich, shockingly violent world where brutality appears to be the trademark of the outgoing and, also, the incoming rulers.

Any romantic notions of war are quickly dashed by the series of events where victors and vanquished are shown to be “equally brutish” and rules of war do not apply. Oftentimes, atrocities are committed by both — one, lashing out with summary public punishment against natives (page 58), the other, unleashing their wrath upon innocents. There are accounts of officers being tried for attacking fellow officers but rarely persecuted for doing the same to the natives. A soldier’s life is shown to be also forever affected by the “living and enduring presence” (page 81) of the Indian revolt (mutiny) — 1857.

The military man of the time comes in different shades. We meet soldiers who have vowed to die for Queen and the country and are bound to go wherever the regiments were posted, closely followed by the soldier without regiments who is an officer in civil appointments (page 198). And mixed among this noble lot are the soldiers of fortune — mercenaries driven by self-interest whose actions merited a remark in the House of Commons that “the Indian society was being corrupted by money grubbing activities of the Company’s servants in a clear breach of the sacred trust that one powerful nation held towards another” (page 52).

One sees the repugnant practices of the time and also comes across rampant racism; the natives are demons/black miscreants whose voices became discordant sounds and their wealth ended up as spoils of war.

The soldier’s vantage point enlightens and entertains. That the 73rd Highlanders (1780) could take the Indian men to be women because of their “genteel and delicate mien” is bewildering. The bond forged between the British officers and the Pathan finds a unique place and a special mention; after Word War I, the appeal of the Frontier endures, where allegiance was given not to the government but to a man. The sepoy has been singled out for praise as are the poor bheesties (water carriers) for fidelity and bravery in every Indian campaign. Contrasts are drawn between officers who “treated their servants with indifference”, and those who forged lifelong bonds. Trivial details find their way into the narrative, from the complexities of travel to the “sheer luxury of an Indian camp’s life”. The story also makes room for “the fishing fleet”, as the few European women who headed East in search of the many eligible men came to be known, and the heartbreak that routinely followed the families.

In this exhaustively researched, deeply moving epic, the Sahib masters the art of war while surviving the rigours of peacetime living, feels “like a lord”, runs into debt despite the low cost of living, and learns to “sling the bat” ending up with a dreadful concoction of English cum “Hindustani” miraculously understood by the natives, before being escorted out of the pages. He summons a bygone era and relies on the testimonies of his peers for a place in history.

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