Across the Black Waters – a must read for schools
This post was written by John Perkins Head of History at Guru Nanak Sikh Academy, Hayes, West London. He delivers the Edexcel course ‘India the Road to Independence’. As part of the course he uses the novel, Across the Black Waters by Mulk Raj Anand, to support his delivery. Through teaching history he has become more aware of the contribution of commonwealth soldiers but in particular those from India.
Teaching Across the Black Waters
WW1 history comes to life through a novel
A few years ago now I had the privilege of being put in touch with Dominic Rai about a book that I had never heard of and the possibility of working with students at my school in West London.
Previously in my teaching I had made use of letters from Sikh Soldiers that had been written during World War I to give voice to the Indian Soldiers and make students aware that there were soldiers from around the Empire who contributed. Photographs had also been a tool that I had used with images of Kitchener’s hospital in Brighton in order to generate discussion, but the chance to use a novel was an idea that excited me.
As part of the initial project we recorded students from the VIth form reading letters home from soldiers on the Western Front before we went up to Westminster and read them to an audience at the Launch Event of Salt of the Sarkar at the House of Commons. This event gave the students a greater sense of awareness of the commonwealth contribution to the war effort as well as the chance to get out of the classroom with their historical studies. One student has continued to study history at Royal Holloway and has continued to focus on the first half of the 20th Century and how that impacted on South Asians.
Since then the book has become part of my teaching at A level when addressing India’s contribution to WWI. We start by reading chapter 1 as a class and discuss what it tells us about Indian ideas of Empire and significance of going on to fight in WW1. We look at the hopes they had and the loyalty to the Raj as well as the development of the nationalist agenda. The novel gives the view of the Indians through the voice of the Indians themselves and this is significant as it helps to give greater insight into the relationship that was an important part of the journey to independence. Certainly getting students to consider how the experience of leaving a rural area of the Panjab and finding themselves in a war in Europe would have affected the soldiers has enriched this part of the syllabus.
The book has also brought me back into contact with a former student and she then worked with Dominic to run an event at her university. For me this is the beautiful gift that ‘Across the Black Waters’ gives when read with students and shared with others. It helps to remind us that all groups were there in a war that was global and helps generations to remember those who served. For my students who are predominantly South Asian there is the chance to link to their heritage through literature, and for them to read the work of an Indian author and know that they exist is also so important.
As time moves by I believe the book will continue to be something that I share with students and look to share with others as well. It has a rich narrative of the experience of war through the eyes of the Indian regiments. From this we can learn how the experience of war ignored ethnicity and men were equalised by the horror they faced.
Lalu waits for the command for his company to move into the battle.
“Although they expected some such orders, they were sullen because an attack meant hurling themselves at the enemy with bayonets, and being mown down by machine-gun fire.”
Listen to John and his students read letters home from the Indian soldiers on the Western Front and share their thoughts about the letter they have each chosen. https://soundcloud.com/salt-of-the-sarkar/salt-of-the-sarkar-podcast-2-2