Free Notes – ‘To the Indian Who Died in Africa’ by TS Eliot

The 20th century witnessed few greater poets than T.S. Eliot who exercised more influence on formation of the modern style of writing poetry for more than forty years. Not only was his style distinct but he also used conversational speech laden with complex poetic images with layers of diverse thoughts to portray various aspects of life. The poet was fond of allusions and he very effectively used them to convey a wealth of meaning through just a few lines. This individuality of Eliot is perhaps best expressed in his magnum opus -‘The Waste Land.’ The canon of Karma and detachment as propagated in the Hindu philosophy was not unknown to Eliot and the present poem highlights these principles.

Themes That man should pursue his actions with a spirit of detachment is the main theme of this somber poem. Exactly such a theme has been enunciated in the Bhagavad-Gita by which the poet seems to be substantially inspired. The Bhagavad-Gita advises to renounce longings for worldly possessions such as riches, fame, family, property and the likes. That is why the poet says that every country is home to one man and exile to other. If a man is conscientiously performing his duty in another country, irrespective of the country of his birth becomes his native land. Therefore, a ‘foreign’ or ‘native’ land is but only a relative term in the sense that one has to remain detached from his native land when one has to answer the call of duty. The Indian soldier and his comrades-in-arms including his British allies in the poem are good examples of such persons performing their duty in the alien land, Africa. Some of them are not fated to reach their own country but would die in another man’s land. Nevertheless, the land on which they sacrifice their lives for a great and common cause, gets to be their home while the land that was their home now ceases to be the same. Their great action would bring its own reward though they would not know of it ‘until the judgement after death.’

Another salient theme of the poem is the doctrine of Karma. Through the selfless action of the Indian soldier and his likes in Africa, the philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita is echoed that – “To action alone has thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of actions be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction”. T.S. Eliot says in the last line of the third stanza that wherever he dies bravely that soil is his. It occurs to the poet that the soldiers of different countries fighting for a common objective may not know the outcome of their strivings. Nevertheless, this possibility does not diminish the worth of their sacrifice. They become immortal as they are glorified in the memory of their people through their sublime act. The judgement after death shows the poet’s preoccupation with the Christian doctrine ‘of the last judgement’ as mentioned in the Old Testament.