Monday, 2 July 2012
Book Review: Eaten By The Japanese - The Memoir of an Unknown Indian Prisoner of War by John Baptist Crasta
John Baptist Crasta, the author of this amazing book, was British Indian soldier who fought in the Second World War in the Malayan theatre, was taken prisoner by the Japanese, endured horrific atrocities, but survived to tell his fascinating tale. On his return to Bombay, John Crasta continued to serve in the army until his retirement. He married Christine, a Mangalorean girl in 1947 and they had four children, one of whom Richard Crasta went on to join the Indian Administrative Service and later migrated to the United States and became a full-time writer, publishing books such as The Revised Kamasutra, Impressing the Whites; Beauty Queens, Children and the Death of Sex, and What We All Need.
John Crasta’s story-telling (as edited by his son Richard Crasta) is succinct and to the point. Eaten By The Japanese does not go much beyond one hundred pages and that includes essays by the author’s son Richard Crasta on his relationship with his father, the problems he faced in getting this book published and the reception it faced. After being taken prisoner by the Japanese, John Crasta had to make a choice – whether to join the Indian National Army which was being set up by leaders like Captain Mohan Singh and Rash Behari Bose or to stay loyal to his oath. We are told that coercion and even torture were used to force Indian PoWs to join the Indian National Army. Despite that, many like John Crasta refused to join up. Did John Crasta’s religion have anything to do with his decision? I wondered. This question is not specifically addressed in this memoir, but the fact that out of a total of sixty five thousand prisoners, only twenty five thousand volunteered for the INA sort of suggests otherwise. John Crasta says that the average Indian jawan did not wish to be unfaithful to the British after having served them for many years. One gets the impression that those who signed up to the INA did so more to escape the brutal treatment at the hands of the Japanese than anything else.
I found it unbelievable when I read that some of the PoWs who refused to join the INA were tortured. John Crasta says that a camp called Separation Camp was created where non-volunteers, especially officers who didn’t volunteer, were put to extreme hardship. Many died. Subedars Sher Singh and Fateh Khan were in charge of Separation Camp. ‘High ranking officers who refused to have anything to do with the INA were thrown into it without clothing or food, made to carry heavy loads on their heads, and to double up on the slightest sign of slackness. They would be beaten by sweepers, the infamous Nimboo having been put in charge of them. They would be caned, beaten and kicked. Various other devices of torture, perhaps copied from the Germans, were introduced. Many people died in that camp. Others were removed to a hospital, only to die a slow death. Some others, not being able to ber the hardships, agreed to “sign” and were released.’
The Japanese tortured the prisoners – beat them for no reason, overworked them, gave them little food and drink, provided little or no medical care even for those seriously ill. I found John Crasta’s descriptions of being transported by a cargo steamer from Singapore to Sourabaya in Java and from Sourabaya to Rabaru in New Britain via Palau to be the most horrendous of the various horrible things described in this book – the extremely cramped conditions, the lack of food, the pitiful amount of water, the disease outbreaks, the beatings and the inevitable deaths – except for the cannibalism of course.
The Japanese practised cannibalism. John Crasta tells us of a specific instance when two men of the 13th Pioneer Company, Budhu Mistry and Giana Mistry, who had complained of illness, were given injections by the Japanese which killed them both within a couple of hours. They were buried immediately but the same evening the Japanese ordered the bodies to be dug out, had the arms, thigh muscles and livers cut out from the corpses, cooked and ate it. Well, those men who were eaten were atleast dead. There were many instances of live men having flesh gouged out of their bodies and thrown away to die in agony, even as their flesh was cooked and consumed.
Reading a kindle edition of the book, I was forced many times to switch off the kindle and put it away, only to come back to it almost immediately afterwards. I finished the entire book in one sitting. How does one reconcile Japanese treatment of PoWs during the Second World War with modern day Japan, which though it is yet to apologise for its behaviour in as comprehensive a manner as the Germans, is a very peaceful nation which is at the forefront of technological innovation and is in many respects a model nation? In his essays on Rediscovering his Father and the Political Incorrectness of Truth which follows the main novel, Richard Crasta quotes Pico Iyer who is married to a Japanese woman and lives in Japan. Iyer says that ‘in Japan today, Indians are the lowest of the low.’ Why should it be so hard for the Japanese to issue an apology to all the Indians who were abused and manipulated, and to their children and descendants? Crasta wonders. I guess the first step would be for the Indian government to seek such an apology. As far as I know, the Indian government hasn’t sought one.
After the war, Indian public sentiment was understandably on the side of those who joined the INA. The British didn’t dare punish the mutineers. After independence, those Indian soldiers who fought on the side of the Japanese were feted and rewarded while those like John Crasta were consigned to the dung heap of anonymity. The sympathy and support for INA soldiers is so prevalent even now that John Crasta’s son Richard Crasta found it very difficult to find takers for his father’s story. Crasta tells us (quite rightly in my opinion) that if for any reason the Japanese had conquered India, they would most likely have treated Indians as slaves – such was their contempt for Indians. It is interesting to note that when after independence Nehru asked General Cariappa to get the Indian army to absorb the former INA men, he refused saying it would be the end of the army in India since the soldiers who refused to fight on the Japanese side considered the INA soldiers to be turncoats.
Richard Crasta’s essays on Rediscovering his Father and the Political Incorrectness of Truth beautifully captures his relationship with his father. As a young man, Richard Crasta had little respect for the humble soldier John Crasta who insisted on cycling everywhere, wearing clothes which were not exactly haute couture. This attitude changed as he grew older and started to appreciate the extent of pain experienced by his father as a Japanese PoW. When Richard Crasta took a lot of trouble to have his father’s manuscript printed as a book, it was as much a form of atonement for his previous indifference and disrespect as it was to help his father tell his extra-ordinary story.
An excellent read, especially for those interested in the Indian National Army and the Japanese treatment of prisoners of war.