My thanks to Pen & Sword and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
‘The Flying Sikh’ is an epithet we in India usually associate with athlete Milkha Singh, who won both Asian Games and Commonwealth golds, but this book is about a different ‘Flying Sikh’, the only Sikh airman to serve in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) during World War I and one who went on to have an illustrious career in the civil services and as a diplomat, Hardit Singh Malik.
Born in Rawalpindi (then Punjab, now Pakistan) in 1894, where he was educated by tutors, Hardit went to England at the age of fourteen and attended a prep school and then Eastbourne College, before going on to read History at Balliol College. At Oxford he played cricket and also won a golf Blue. When World War I broke out, like the other young men (boys really, for they were still in their teens) at Oxford, Hardit too, wished to enlist. But as a person of colour and from the colonies, he found this hard, almost impossible to do. He didn’t give up though, starting with the help of his tutor, as an officer/ambulance driver with the French Red Cross, and volunteering his services to the Aéronautique Militaire, which got the attention of the British authorities, and finally enabled him to get permission to enlist in the RFC. Stephen Barker’s book, The Flying Sikh, traces Hardit’s early life, his education in England, his struggle to serve in the war, and his career as a pilot. We get some details of his later life and career as well, but the core of the book focuses on his flying experiences. While readable by all, the book is approached more as an academic text, amply peppered with footnotes (this is a minor irritant in the kindle ARC where the notes seem to pop up mid-page, and one does have to go back and forth to get the sense of things), and a fairly solid bibliography. Barker relies on Hardit’s autobiography as well as archival materials besides other sources. The book includes maps and photographs.
I really liked that this book was sparked off by visual studies from an exhibition that the author had curated showing how photographs can lead as much to a fascinating story as a chance reference or letter or piece of text. And Hardit Singh’s story is indeed a fascinating one, even more so for me who hadn’t come across him before. Hardit certainly came from a privileged background, and the solid grounding that the tutors his father hired for him provided and the family’s means supported his education first in school in England and then at Oxford (In fact his two brothers were also high achievers). But this didn’t mean all was smooth sailing. Challenges had to be faced, and right from the start for the only condition his father had put before him was to book his own passage to England (including the train tickets for his family to see him off at Bombay)—and when he was just fourteen! He did so successfully and went on to take several other challenges in his stride whether it was racism or issues related to his faith or the struggle to serve in the war—achieving all he set out to do.
While Hardit did indeed benefit from the education his father provided for him in his childhood which included sport, his interest and enjoyment of sport, his spirituality, and his ability to adapt and fit in despite the cultural differences he experienced, while also keeping his identity went a long way in contributing to his success. Barker tries to highlight through the book various aspects that set Hardit apart, enabling him to accomplish much. He also considers in detail the political scenario in which Hardit had to achieve his goals, and throws some light on the interesting question of how people like Hardit who were educated in England and part of the colonial government/system were also able to support the independence movement and those involved in it.
We get insights into Hardit’s training and experiences flying on missions at a time when aircraft were new and flying conditions harsh—for instance, an exposure to the elements when in the air, and having to rely on far less sophisticated machines than we have today. He suffered setbacks including crashes and being wounded, but was lucky to survive (unlike two other Indian pilots, of only four serving at the time, who lost their lives). I have to confess, though I don’t mean to make light of these experiences, that I was put into mind of the Biggles books when I was reading these sections, especially since one of the aircraft Hardit flew was the Sopwith Camel.
While by and large this book made for interesting reading, in some sections, for instance the chapter discussing Hardit’s testimony on the experiences of Indian students in England felt a little drier and slow moving and I wished they had been structured in a more interesting way. A stronger grouse I had with the book was in its introductory section, where I felt the author’s reference to Hardit having written his autobiography in his ‘dotage’ and this being necessarily taken to mean that his recollections would not have been as reliable, rather ageist, and something that ought to have been approached more sensitively.
But as a whole, I did enjoy reading the book and learning about Hardit Singh Malik, whom I found to be a most interesting person with an engrossing story.
(Edition reviewed: Kindle ARC; Pen & Sword, 224 pp; release date: 30 May 2022).