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The English Patient

<i> Jeffery Paine is a contributing editor of the Wilson Quarterly and a visiting fellow at the East-West Center. His book, "Father India," was published in November</i>

There is a way for you to participate in the history described here. Read this review in your pajamas while sipping a cup of Indian tea, preferably on the veranda of a bungalow. Some random Indian words that strayed into the English language--for instance, bungalow, veranda, pajamas--are the last living vestiges of the once almighty British Raj.

Language also tells us something about the fate of British India. Like Saigon, which is now Ho Chi Minh City, the great cities of Britain’s rule in India no longer even wear their imperial names: Bombay is now Mumbai, Madras is Chennai. The statues of the English viceroys have been torn down, often replaced by Gandhi (whose slight form seems to rest uneasily on the oversized pedestals). When Connaught Place in Central Delhi, named for a son of Queen Victoria, was recently rechristened--or perhaps re-Hinduized--as Indira and Rajiv Chowk (square), even some Indians protested the erasing of history. “What are we going to tell our children? That the British never ruled here?” some protesters demanded. “Then how did the English language come here? From the Russians?”

In the world of scholarship, British India, or the Raj, is suffering a different kind of erasure. Too many historians write in a technical insider’s jargon that no ordinary reader could penetrate, and an indictment of British colonialism precedes the investigation. And what about popular histories? “Raj’s” immediate predecessor from last season, Anthony Read and David Fischer’s “The Proudest Day,” demonstrated a knee-jerk political correctness by depicting a mono-linear cavalcade of uniform British injustices and Indian resistances.

Unlike Read and Fischer, James attempts to lift the Raj out of too-simplistic ideological debate and return it to the endless, squirming minutiae in which, pell-mell, it originated. An old-fashioned popular historian, James is curious about historic detail for its own sake, which gives him carte blanche to include hundreds, if not thousands, of facts absent from all other such histories.

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Take sex. He compares, period by period, English prostitutes (chief desideratum: lewdness) and their Indian counterpart (desideratum: sophisticated technique). This Peeping-Tomism into dark corners is hardly idle prurience. In the early 19th century, as many as a third of British troops in India contracted syphilis each year, the treatment for which could disable the sufferers for up to two months--a significant drain on the army’s resources. Gandhi later opposed British force on the subcontinent through the use of nonviolent love (ahimsa). It was a quite different kind of love, however, that nearly defeated the English earlier in India.

Seven hundred pages crammed with such minute, fascinating particulars--cultural, political, economic, military, medical--make “Raj” the most thorough, intelligent single-volume history of British rule in India. The gargantuan sprawl of the material, however, defeats the author’s attempt to give it any artistic shape. To bind his oversized story into a whole, James must resort finally, despite his genial temperament, to an ideological glue or argument after all.

“The recent history of so many of Europe’s [now independent] colonies has been a saga of decline into tyranny, chaos, and internecine war,” James writes and then argues, in the face of these post-colonial dictatorships and civil wars, that the Raj in India deserves a qualified good word said about it.

If the Taj Mahal epitomizes Mughal India, then British India should be symbolized by the cast-iron railroad bridge over the nearby Jumma River. The Taj testifies sublimely to a self-indulgent emperor satisfying his private whim, James writes; the British bridge to public funds employed for the public good. But his argument goes beyond historic symbols; James credits the Raj for much of what is good in India today. Democracy, for example, has proved remarkably resilient in India, and where did the Indians learn democracy, he argues, but at the liberal Englishman’s knee? Or take education: More than 50% of Indians are literate today, instructed in a pedagogic system that the British set in operation.

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Anyone with half a mind could quibble. The truer test of the British achievement in education might perhaps be measured by the mere 8% of Indians who were literate when the English evacuated the subcontinent. As for democracy, the Indians in fact gained their appetite for it not from their British tutors but from fighting those colonial authorities who barred Indian participation in power. Even Gandhi conceded, however, that the British had set a fair portion of the groundwork for modern India’s political and educational vitality. The limitation in James’ apologia pro Britannia lies elsewhere.

Irony lies at the heart of British rule in India. James’ argument for a benevolent Raj centers on the claim that its administrators were, by and large, idealists: Perhaps for the first time in history, a conqueror justified its right to rule not by armed might or by God’s will but rather by all the benefits it would bring to its new subjects. James is certainly correct about colonial administrators like the viceroy Lord Curzon, who even opposed the British army when it rode roughshod over native justice. Yet the irony is that British idealism did Indians more harm in the long run than a horde of marauding vandals bent solely on plunder.

In order to justify their benevolent overlordship, their right to govern India, the English colonialists had to reduce the native Indians to the status of inferior people incapable of governing themselves. When, early in the 20th century, the British Cabinet in London requested that Lord Curzon appoint at least one Indian to his governing counsel, Curzon (revealing his own subtle racism) balked: It simply could not be done, he replied; on the whole subcontinent not one Indian was sufficiently qualified. This psychology of colonialism harmed not merely the Indians, Gandhi would later argue, but stunted the English rulers as well. When they described their Indian subjects as effeminate, childish or irrational, the colonial masters implied that by contrast, they were hyper-masculine, no-nonsense rationalists, a role that hardened their own emotional arteries and warped their finer sensibilities.

Seven hundred-plus pages allow James room (barely) to narrate all the deeds of the Raj and to take a roll call of its endless dramatic personae from the empire-builder Warren Hastings to the leader of Indian independence, Jawaharlal Nehru. But James does not sufficiently explain the elusive, changing ideas that underpinned the events and propelled those people through them. “Raj” crucially does not mention Charles Darwin, who admittedly never went to India but who is more essential to its story than practically any Englishman who did. Before Darwin, the English spoke of India as a backward society that time and education would remedy (just as, in James’ apt analogy, education would one day enfranchise England’s own working class). But after Darwin, the colonialists began to refer to Indians as an inferior race, that for guidance would evermore require the racially superior British version of man.

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By the time Lord Curzon arrived on the scene, the British imagined they were erecting permanently, building in stone, a Raj that would last a measurable proportion of all eternity, upon which the sun might never set. But, relatively speaking, it all vanished in a day--in a single long lifetime. There were people alive when the British crown began governing India (in 1857, replacing the East India Co.) who were still alive in 1947, when the British exited and left India an independent nation. James furnishes a thorough and splendid narrative of Britain’s long day in India. But it is the subtle, often racist ironies beneath his conscious narration of events that explain why that efficient and partially idealistic Raj had to end.


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