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Indian experiences in the Second World War: a literary and cultural examination

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Two-and-a-half million men from undivided India served the British during the Second World War. Their experiences have recently attracted scholarly attention, challenging both the dominant Euro/US-centric narrative of the war in the West and South Asian nationalist histories. My PhD research builds on this interest but adopts a new perspective, seeking to provide the first literary and cultural examination of Indian experiences in this war. 
Through four thematic chapters, this thesis offers a sustained analysis of the Indian war experience by placing colonial photographs and archival fragments of letters in dialogue with memoirs, novels, poetry and Indian philosophical thought. Selecting these texts from a rich body of contemporary Indian literature and lifewriting, I argue for the importance of recovering the emotional history of 1940s India during a time of ‘total war’. 
My focus is wide-ranging, encompassing non-literate or semi-literate sepoys on international battle-fronts to women poets Tara Ali Baig and Muriel Wasi, and diasporic Tamil poet M.J. Tambimuttu. Other works examined include prisoners-ofwar memoirs by John Crasta and R.G. Salvi, Bengali famine poetry by Sukanta Bhattacharya and Samar Sen, Bengali novel Ashani Sanket (Intimations of Thunder, 1944–1946) and Rabindranath Tagore’s intellectual responses to global war. The range of sources and writers used aims to broaden the frame of Second World War studies by foregrounding the complex, fraught nature of colonial involvement. 
The thesis also remains alert to modes of representation, examining how war shapes literary form in English and Bengali languages. How can we understand re-conceptualisations of home by interpreting a colonial photograph, an Indian National Army officer’s memoir of loss and a Bengali doctor’s representation of landscape in Burma? And how does Tagore’s metaphor of the demon of war become internalised by Indian recruits in an anti-colonial, anti-war Bengali novel? 
This thesis argues that it is by making image and text, life-writing and literature, ‘speak’ to each other that we can untangle the troubled yet transformative legacy of the Second World War in the Indian subcontinent.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Supervisors/Advisors
Award date1 Sep 2019

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