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Now or Never - review

We all have heard of the Dunkirk Spirit, how the flotilla of small boats went across the channel to rescue thousands of beleaguered troops and effectively allow the Allies to survive and be able to restart their war effort against the Nazis and their Axis.

Some will know that there are still heroes to be found and they can be anything from pigeons to soldiers to nurses and maybe mules even. To make a great story be read/heard we need characters and then whatever happens is believed and stays in the consciousness.

Bali has written many brilliant books, he cares deeply that we get into the character’s and what they do, he can do pretty much any age and genre and always astonishes with his ability to capture the reader and keep them locked in the world he writes about.

This book takes a very simple story, well simple in that it happens pretty much in one place over a short period of time, not simple in that it deals with some very powerful messages, including an underlying view of the post Raj and how some had racism engrained whatever their class.

We dip into Northern India several times, initially just to set a scene with a brave and honourable boy of 15, who like many, became a man instantly. Fazal signs up and becomes older, he travels so far and finds hell, on many levels. Yet, he endures and has a sanguine calm that shows what a belief in a religion and humanity can achieve. He pals up with Mush a slightly more clued up volunteer and they travel as brothers not in arms, because the supply corps weren’t allowed to bear arms, there is a harrowing scene where Fazal knows he may have done something that could cause him grief, but he was trying to help those around him in a very tight situation. The military had some peculiar rules and methodologies that always puzzled me and Bali highlights several in this wonderful book.

The class and rank system of unquestioning loyalty or court martials etc is very apt, we find out about a real-life hero, no other than Paddy Ashdown’s own dad, here in the book as himself and acting as I am pretty sure he really did. Bali worked with his surviving son, Mark in telling the amazing bravery of Capt. John.

There is so much good in this story with random characters appearing and sadly disappearing instantly, such was the futility and bravery of war, still is. Instant camaraderie and instant funerals.

Buried without ceremony and maybe as is pointed out without obligation to any beliefs. The gallows humour is well observed, Muslims explaining their no alcohol and no pork and Halal and prayer routines, whilst their friends just eat and drink and are oblivious to the inner dilemma of survival against belief. The love of Fazal for those around him and his trio of mules in the face of literal and constant threat is profound, he imbues humanity and caring beyond his tender years, naming the youngest mule, Baba after his beloved grandfather. We find glimpses of India and its warmth and culture thrown into the harshness of frozen France, Mangoes and Masala against dry biscuits and bully beef, quite a conflict of culture.

The ever-present strafing by Stukas and deadly Messerschmitt’s is relentless and it is a true miracle that in theory of the 400 strong battalion led by Capt. Ashdown, literally only one Indian muleteer died. The scenes with mules and men being shot at and questions of compassion and duty are quite powerful.

The absolute betrayal of the Indian men by the British Military Powers is brutal and beggar’s belief, how they could even try to stay loyal to the cause they signed up for shows moral strength beyond the norm. I hope that in time we all find out as much as possible about the war and other pasts and find a way to become like Fazal and John, not like the other Commissioned Officers and a few of the other troops.  The Indian band of brothers have their own motto, Hukum Hai, it seems to make a lot of sense when you have something that matters, like getting on with life and being loyal and as Fazal’s wise old Baba said…’there is always a way’. The simile of swarming hornets in Rawalpindi juxtaposed with the German planes in France plaguing Fazal is a genuine masterstroke.

The addition of the wonderful Nurses late on it the melee is a great way of showing that those who care and do their best are needed the most, compassion and belief and loyalty are intrinsic codes we all should follow, no matter our skin colour or religion.

This book is a wonderful way to find out about the war in a cultural and emotional way, but has inbuilt accuracy and is readable to anyone 9+

I’d recommend we all ask older people to tell us the past, it was their life and we weren’t there, oral history and storytelling is done in other cultures far more than here, we need to make more effort to actually listen and learn not just see glorification of extreme efforts. War need not happen, but it feels like there are more wars than any one unified one, we need not walls we need minds and hands to be joined together and soon.

Plus a quick mention to the cover illustrator, Alette Straathof, books need pictures as much as words… the look of despair in Fazal’s eyes and the glimpse of India behind him is quite a poignant image, one other brief allusion is how much a good cup of tea does for the soul…