T S Eliot’s poem ‘To the Indians who Died in Africa’ is an interesting Eliot piece. It is not often you read a poem by Eliot which refrains from striking the grand pose. He tended to invoke the giant issues of human soul every time he penned a poem, except of course, when he wrote those cat poems. But this is a puzzlingly small-aimed poem. A bit advise not grand wisdom, I guess. That this poem in imbued in the war and empire atmosphere is obvious. What he has to say to the Indians is funnily passive, “Look, it is ok if you die absurdly in a foreign country’. It is noteworthy how Eliot deploys rhetoric to persuade the reader that it is indeed true that there was a common purpose among the Indian and the English soldiers.
It appears to me that in the first two stanzas the speaker evokes the image of the ‘normal scene’ so that we see how different it is for one to die in a foreign country. Then of course he goes on to assert that this need no more be seen as unusual or as tragic. He seems to suggest that the place where a man meets his destiny is his destination. He associates destiny with the inevitable culmination of one’s life as well as one’s efforts. He suggests that the divide between home and exile is illusory; that the opposition between ‘our’ and ‘your’ is not real. Every country will have such places where ‘foreigners’ are buried (whether it is the English midlands or some village in Punjab – ‘Five Rivers’). He emphasises that the common purpose really erases the differences that notions of ‘home’ and ‘exile’ foster; the divide that notions of national difference highlight. The death of an Indian soldier in Africa fighting Germany and defending England may appear absurd. But the speaker points out that the Indian and the English soldiers are united in a common purpose. As for greater meaning in such lives and deaths, he says it is to be seen only after ‘final judgment’.
To the Indians Who Died in Africa
* T. S. Eliot
A man’s destination is his own village,
His own fire, and his wife’s cooking;
To sit in front of his own door at sunset
And see his grandson, and his neighbour’s grandson
Playing in the dust together.
Scarred but secure, he has many memories
Which return at the hour of conversation,
(The warm or the cool hour, according to the climate)
Of foreign men, who fought in foreign places,
Foreign to each other.
A man’s destination is not his destiny,
Every country is home to one man
And exile to another. Where a man dies bravely
At one with his destiny, that soil is his.
Let his village remember.
This was not your land, or ours: but a village in the Midlands,
And one in the Five Rivers, may have the same graveyard.
Let those who go home tell the same story of you:
Of action with a common purpose, action
None the less fruitful if neither you nor we
Know, until the judgement after death,
What is the fruit of action.
Eliot, T. S. “To the Indians Who Died in Africa.” Collected Poems 1909-1962
This is what Narayan Chandran has to say about this poem:
It is intriguing that T. S. Eliot has repeatedly drawn upon Indic sources, especially the Bhagavad-Gita and its philosophy of disinterested action, while writing on war and world affairs through the 1940s. Eliot’s Occasional Verses, particularly “To the Indians who Died in Africa,” betray the poet’s imperialist biases, unlike much of his poetry, in which they do not seem to surface visibly as in his prose writings and conversations. Couched in the language and imagery of the Gita, Eliot seems to tell the Indians that their action is its own reward; the irony hardens as we recall historical facts and situations that drove hapless Indians to support the Allied war effort in many theaters outside India. The essay also looks at two other British writers on Indian themes, Kipling and Forster, whose texts seem to cast an interesting sidelight on “action,” whose punning resonance Eliot seems to relish in writing his war poems. Eliot, evidently, had little use for the philosophy he quoted back to the distressed Indians.
* Chandran, K. Narayana – “A receipt for deceit: T. S. Eliot’s ‘To the Indians who Died in Africa”. Journal of Modern Literature March 22, 2007.