Memoir On to Bagdad by Sisir Prasad Sarbadhikari
The above extract evokes the everyday milieu at the hospital in Aleppo where Sisir Sarbadhikari, after being taken as a POW, worked as a medical orderly in 1917. While the Turks are often described as 'barbaric' in both British and Indian accounts, Sarbadhikari however reveals the lines of sympathy and even identification that develops between him and the wounded Turk soldiers without sanitising any of the brutality inflicted upon them by the Turkish and Arab guards.
Abhi Le Baghdad is as singular in the history of the First World War as it is in the genre of South Asian life-writing. It is possibly the only surviving full-length memoir of the Indian war experience in Mesopotamia, including the Siege of Kut and captivity by the Ottoman forces. For the Indians, Mesopotamia was the main battleground: the largest number of Indians – some 588,717, including 7,812 officers, 287,753 other ranks, and 293,152 non-combatants (often forming porter and labour corps) – served there between 1914 and 1918. An educated middle-class Bengali youth, Sarbadhikari volunteered for the Bengal Ambulance Corps as a stretcher-bearer and arrived at Basra on 15 July 1915. His unit was attached to the 6th Division of the Indian Expeditionary Force 'D' commanded by General Charles Townshend and got caught up at the battle of Ctesiphon (22-23 November 1915) where he nursed the wounded and collected the dead from the battlefield. He experienced the six-month long Siege of Kut, from December 1915 up until Townshend's surrender on 29 April 1916, which he evokes with remarkable power. He was among the 10,000 Indians who were taken as POWS and subjected to two years of trauma, including the horrific march to Ras al-Ayn via Baghdad in July 1916. He then worked in a number of hospitals as a POW, first at Ras al-Ayn and then at Aleppo. Abhi Le Baghdad has a tantalising textual history. It was based on Sarbadhikari's secret Mesopotamia diary written in captivity, which was broken up into individual pages and hidden in his boots during the horrific march from Samarra via Mosul to the POW camp in Ras al-Ayn in July 1916. Later, the contents of the faded pages were copied into a new diary which was hidden underground and retrieved at Ras al-Ayn. An educated, middle-class non-combatant, his extraordinary memoir provides a detailed account of life in captivity and opens up the world of lateral encounters between an Indian subject and the multi-ethnic and multi-religious population of the Ottoman empire. From providing one of the very few Indian eye-witness accounts of the Armenian genocide to evoking the desperate yet cosmopolitan atmosphere in the hospital, Abhi le Baghdad is ultimately an immensely moving and human record of both human lives uprooted by war, as well as how it also creates spaces for fresh encounters. The core of the memoir is the web of relationships, friendships, and alliances that develops between him and the people around him, built around Sarbadhikari's multiple, often contradictory, identities - as POW, as a British colonial subject, as fellow-Asian, as educated and middle-class, as both friend and enemy.