I'M IN LOVE with the country and would sooner write about her than anything else . . . I shall find heat and smells and oils and spices and puffs of temple incense and sweat and darkness and dirt and lust and cruelty, and above all, things wonderful and fascinating innumberable."
So wrote the young Kipling, echoing the sentiments of generations of his less talented countrymen, who, for better or worse, fell under the spell of India for 31/2 centuries, and who still continue to look back upon their history in the subcontinent with a mixture of incredulity and awe.
India Britannica by Geoffrey Moorhouse is the latest in a stream of books reflecting on the British experience in India. The illustrations are superb and the text brief, but those familiar with Moorhouse's Calcutta will know he has done more than produce just another coffee-table tome. It is, in fact, a compressed but thoroughly enlightening account of the British Raj, written with style and judgment. In 270 pages a detailed history cannot be expected, but as it stands it is a miracle of considered choice, apt quotation and illuminating incident--more inspiration than introduction.
It tells an extraordinary story by any reckoning, and today, with more than a generation intervening since Independence, it is possible to look back on the period with a modicum of impartiality. Moorhouse does not gloss over the mistakes, injustices and sheer obtuseness that existed alongside the devotion to duty and practical accomplishments of the Raj, but he does attempt to illuminate the paradoxes and ambiguities that bedeviled (and enriched) dealings between the many races of India and their rulers, causing a relationship not seen in any other colonial empire, or even any other part of the British Empire. The astonishment is that with such a plethora of documentation to choose from, he has so unfailingly put his finger on the telling anecdote and the revealing action. Thus, with delicate irony, he dissects the contradictions of the times as reflected in the anomalies within individuals. In the early 19th century Mountstuart Elphinstone could write, "I shall think I have done a great service to this country if I can prevent people making laws for it until they see whether it wants them" and at the same time order the ringleaders of an anti-European plot to be blown from cannon, as this form of execution "contains two valuable elements of capital punishment; it is painless to the criminal and terrible to the beholder." At about the same time as the British orientalists were instituting Sanskrit colleges and opposing the introduction of Evangelicalism and Utilitarianism from England, a leading Indian intellectual was writing tracts denouncing widow-burning, while not long afterward Macaulay's famous Minute making English the lingua franca of the educated Indian met with more opposition from the British than from the Indians. While the Englishman Hume was founding the Congress Party in India, a minor Indian royalty was captaining the Surrey Cricket Team and playing for England in 15 Test matches, and while Lord Curzon fretted about the decay of India's historic monuments (and restored the Muslim Taj Mahal to the great benefit of future Hindu tourism), his American wife could write that "the ugliest things she had seen in India were the water-buffalo and the British soldier." Poor old stoic, blasphemous, underpaid Tommy Atkins, in his time keeper of the peace and improbable frontiers for one-fifth of the human race!
The earliest motto of the East Indian Company was Deus Indicat--God points the way--and though readers may well come to the conclusion that the Finger sometimes wavered, it is hard not to admire the assurance that led Metcalfe (a mere Resident, appointed not by the Crown but by the Company), to outlaw hanging and slavery from the Kingdom of Delhi in the 1830s, Bentinck to abolish flogging 50 years before the rest of the world followed suit, and Macaulay to introduce the right of a woman to her own property "in her own person" in 1835--45 years before Englishwomen were accorded the same right.
I would have liked more on the Asiatic Society, that extraordinary group of learned amateurs whose achievements in the uncovering of India's distant past are too little known today, but Moorhouse gives full measure to the work of the equally remarkable and more enduring Indian Civil Service (the term "civil service" derives from the East India Company), pointing with justifiable pride to its unmatched reputation for incorruptibility.
Inured as we have become to the mischievous shorthand of perjorative labels, clich,es and stereotypes, it is difficult for those who did not experience the Raj to understand the state of affairs existing within it. The rhetoric of nationalism once misled Eleanor Roosevelt into talking of the British "occupation" of India, and she must have been as surprised by the indignation of the Indians as by the irritation of the British at her use of this inaccurate and inflammatory term. Moorhouse goes far toward explaining the realities of this subtly nuanced relationship, pointing out the silent influence each country had on the other's language, art and population, as well as the more obvious politics, economics and law. So today, even as the English entertain friends to "punch" on the "verandahs" of their "bungalows" at midday, half a world away, outside Lutyens' overpowering Viceregal Palace in New Delhi, Indian soldiers Beat the Retreat at sunset, the flag is slowly struck, and a military band plays, as in the days of the Raj, "Abide with Me." Just how enduring such memorials will prove is anyone's guess, but perhaps by now both nations can look back on their strangely shared past and say with Macaulay (whose Code of Law was adopted in toto by the Indian Republic), "It is good to be often reminded of the inconsistency of human nature, and to learn to look without wonder or disgust on the weaknesses which are found in the strongest minds."
The book is well indexed and a bibliography with notes is provided under chapter headings--a sensible method of inviting further interest in the period.