Across the Black Waters (1939) by Mulk Raj Anand

Book Review by George S: Across the Black Waters is the second volume in a trilogy by Mulk Raj Anand. The other volumes are: The Village, which describes the early life of Lalu, and ends with him joining the Indian Army; and The Sword and the Sickle, which follows his life in the years after the First World War, and his involvement in the Indian Independence movement. <!–more–>

Across the Black Waters begins in the autumn of 1914, when Lalu reaches Marseilles with his regiment. After the decimation of the British regular army at Mons and Le Cateau, and while Kitchener’s army of volunteers was still in training, the British drafted in Indian regiments to give crucial support in the trenches. The novel describes the journey of Lalu’s company to the front in the autumn of 1914, and the actions they took part in at Messines and Festubert. (What Mulk Raj Anand does not mention is that after this Indian soldiers were removed from the front line in France, though they continued to fight in Palestine and in other non-European battle zones.)

The story is told in an episodic way, short sections describing moments or incidents. We see everything through the eyes of Lalu and the other soldiers, who have only a limited idea of what the war is about and what they are doing in Europe. During the first chapters they are continually asking, ‘Where is the war?’

These are soldiers from the Himalayan region; many are experienced soldiers, but none had ever been outside India. France is a strange world to them, partly familiar, partly unfamiliar. Through their reactions we learn a good deal about the relations of British and Indians in India.

The soldiers are fascinated to catch glimpses of French people who live in slums, women who wash their clothes in the river like the women at home. The French are delighted to see them, and cheer ‘Vivleshindou!’ the Indian soldiers are delighted to find that they are welcome in French cafes and bars – even ones where British officers are drinking. Their experience in France exposes the apartheid of British India. (There is even a visit to a brothel where there are European women, though Anand preserves the fictional decencies by making the visit abortive.)

Most fascinating is the different view of European women. Unlike the Memsahibs of India, who always kept up a facade in front of the natives, the French women are uninhibited and friendly. This strikes home to Lalu when he sees Frenchwomen saying goodbye to husbands and sons heading for the war:

Some of the women were crying even as his mother had left home after the holiday. He was sad, because they were sad. […] And yet, there was an insidious fascination about their suffering, for he had never seen the Sahibs behave like this. Somehow the English in India always concealed their emotions.

Lalu even finds a French girl who is fond of him, but is frightened of ‘the unwritten law that no sepoy was to be seen on familiar terms with the women of this country’. Yet ‘the pride of walking with her coursed in his veins, blinding him to the military and social prohibitions’. The novel never explicitly preaches about racial equality or the politics of British rule in India, but incidents showing the men’s experiences in France, reveal the artificiality and fragility of race relations in India.

Anand describes the soldiers:

‘[A]s the second, third or fourth sons of a peasant family, overburdened with debt, they had to go and earn a little ready cash to pay off the interest on the mortgage of the few acres of land, the only thing which stood between the family and its fate.’(168)

( They could save five or six rupees out of the eleven rupees standard pay to send home.) Anand describes them as:

A passionate people, prone to sudden exaltations and depressions, more faithful than any other if they believed, they were neutral in this war because this was not a war for any of the religions of their inheritance, nor for any ideal which could fire their blood or make their hair stand on end.

In this war, they are mercenaries:

Ordered about by the Sarkar, they ware as ready to thrust their bayonets into the bellies of Germans as they had been to disembowel the frontier tribesmen, or their own countrymen, for the pound a month which the Sahibs paid them.

These Indian soldiers have come to a war quite different from the ones they are used to:

[T]heir idea of the war was still of the campaigns on the frontier, where hungry tribesmen often came into villages dressed as goats, sheep or crows, looted rifles and ammunition and made off into the hills.

This war is much deadlier:

‘they who had never suffered heavy shell fire, who had no experience of high explosives, who had never seen steel birds fly in the air, who had never been taught anything but the bayonet charge which had been so useful for two generations on the frontier, whom had only two machine guns to each regiment…’

They are mostly bigger than the English soldiers, and find the trenches uncomfortably small – just one of the ways in which they do not quite fit in. Still, they accept their orders and their fate in this alien war, and ‘smothered any fears they had in a collective effort to prove true to the salt of the Sarkar’.

They discover that this deadly war has its own customs and its own version of what Uncle Kirpu calls ‘the Indian law of chivalry’. In crucial respects,, British and Germans mostly follow the principle of ‘live and let live’.

For both parties had to attend to the elemental necessities and it would have been easy for either of the parties to wipe out the other or to shell the roads behind the trenches where the supply wagons stood.(106)

Anand must have talked to a lot of veterans, because the book is full of the sort of detail you don’t find in official accounts, like a group of soldiers huddled around ‘a small Huntley and Palmers biscuit tin, full of twigs and burning biscuits on which they were warming themselves.’ Warming yourself on burning biscuits – that detail has to come from a veteran, doesn’t it? The book is dedicated to his father: ‘Late Subedar Lal Chand Anand, M.S.M (2/17th Dogra)’, which indicated a possible source of his information.

The company are richly characterised. There are the two older soldiers, Daddy Danoo and Uncle Kirpa. There is the Lance-Naik, , uncertain in his office, so continually making the mistake of being too hard on the men, and fuelling their resentment. The British officers are liked by the men, especially Owen Sahib, a kind and paternalistic man with a ‘tired gentle face’; he is recognised to be a gentleman. Major Peacock, an ‘old-style officer who lived to a formula’, is less liked, but is respected; he is ‘one of the few officers who speaks Hindustani well, and who remembered the names of the sepoys, yet was somewhat un-understanding of the sepoy heart.’ (209) These officers command the fates of the soldiers, but rarely interact with them except on an official basis. The English remain something of a mystery to the sepoys, who are particularly puzzled by the Chrismas truce of 1914, and seem almost relieved when it is over.

The novel’s main conflicts and interests are in the interactions of the men, with contrasts of character, small enmities and jealousies. Crucial for Lalu are the deaths of his two father-figures. Daddy Dhanoo and Uncle Kirpa. Dhanoo is discovered dead after a fight at Messines. Kirpa’s death is more disturbing. Put into the guard-room for insubordination by the insecure Lance-Naik he is found dead, having committed suicide. The act seems out of proportion to the circumstances that prompted it, so is deeply puzzling as well as deeply distressing to Lalu, who looked to Kirpa for help and advice.

Most novels about the war by people who did not fight in it are unconvincing. This one is not. It is clearly the result of deep research, and also a real sympathy with the sepoys. Anand was a nationalist, and this novel makes clear some of the reasons why Independence should happen, but it doesn’t preach. It’s a good book.

A note at the beginning says:

This book was sketched out in a rough draft in Barcelona, Madrid, during January and April 1937, and entirely rewritten in Chinnor, Oxon between July and December, 1939.


This is a hint that the book was originally drafted in Spain during the Civil War; Anand is perhaps making a claim to authenticity as someone who has seen something of war.

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