This week on World on Fire, our characters are facing complications to their plans. David and Henriette are struggling to hide from French Nazi collaborators. Kasia begins working for James, and finds out she has to spy on fellow Polish expats who may be sending British secrets back to the Nazis. Marga is now pregnant and a prisoner confined to bed rest. Harry and Stan are ordered to assist the Australian troops in defending Tobruk from General Romnel’s advancing forces. Let’s take a closer look at how the British Indian Army unit has to survive more than the desert heat in this episode as well as across the season.
A key part of World on Fire’s success overall has been its decision to actively undo the perception from other period dramas that only white Europeans were involved in fighting Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. We’ve followed Connie and Albert’s stories closely, and last season featured the African troops involved in the Battle of Dunkirk. This season is tackling the erasure of the 2,000,000 volunteers of the British Indian Army both in front and behind the camera with Ahad Raza Mir playing Rajib and director Meenu Gaur.
We left Rajib at the end of last week narrowly escaping death by dehydration after Stan forced the racist troops to give Rajib water. And that was only after Rajib confronted Stan on his earlier behavior. This week Rajib, Harry, and Stan are assigned to assist the Australian unit in defending Tobruk from General Rommel’s forces. Their orders are to defend Tobruk to the last man because the Germans cannot be allowed to capture a port city to move troops and weapons by sea. Rajib believes that a tactical minefield is not the most effective formation to stop Rommnel’s forces, but his superiors refuse to change their mind. He doesn’t give the Nigels a response. When one of his men questions him later about his silence, Rajib says he can’t answer back every insult. He has to pick his battles with the micro and macroaggressions he faces every day in the British Army.
We next see the British troops under heavy gunfire. The Germans were successful in demolishing the outposts the British were using for defense. After the battle, Rajib and his men sleep in the trenches to make sure the Germans don’t make another attempt. There is an interesting argument about self-worth as well as how much their lives are worth to the British army. In the subtitles, one of the men says he doesn’t want to be a “punkhawallah”. In Hindi and Urdu, the root of the word refers to the fans made from palmyra leaves used to cool houses in India. A punkhawallah (also spelled punkah wallah) was an Indian servant who silently operated the fan to keep the British imperialists cool before electric fans. Rajib’s men can see the higher ranks barely recognize them as fellow soldiers in the battle. They don’t want to be complicit in their own dehumanization. Between the lines, there’s also fear of returning to servitude.
Later on, we see Rajib reading a letter from his wife. They’ve been married for a decade, but likely haven’t seen each other in several years. The Australian commander gives Rajib one of his cigarettes. Rajib then notes that three of his men died in the battle and no one honored their sacrifice. Even though our characters are likely involved back home in the ongoing movement for Indian independence, they know that Nazi Germany invading India is far worse than the British imperialist regime.
Rajib’s plot for this episode ends with another scene where his men are facing their superiors. His unit is ordered to relay bombs in standard formation. Rajib salutes and the commander doesn’t return the gesture. His men also refuse the at-ease order because the military protocol has been broken. All of them refuse to leave until the white commander salutes them all. This was a microaggression worth pushing back on.
Can Rajib and his men survive more German airplane raids and the disrespect from their superiors? We’ll find out next week on World On Fire!