India, or at least one aspect of it, has been fashionably fascinating this season, judging by the success of current films and television programs. Americans have been drawn to evocative tales of British rule -- the Raj -- a time of humiliation for the Indians and heady power for their occupiers.
"The most fascinating aspect of this Raj nostalgia is: Why are Americans interested?" asked Indian Ambassador K. Shankar Bajpai at a recent talk to a standing-room-only crowd in the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium. Initially scheduled for the smaller Freer Gallery auditorium, the talk was moved by the sponsor, the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program, because response was so, as Bajpai put it, "overwhelming."
The crowd was attentive, drawn by an Indian viewpoint on "The Raj Nostalgia" as exemplified by the Oscar-nominated film "A Passage to India" and the 14-part television series "The Jewel in the Crown." Bajpai had mixed feelings about the attention his country has been getting -- pleased at the interest, but concerned that the popular idea of a nation of 750 million is limited to what is portrayed in these films and the novels on which they are based.
He felt a certain "despair," he said, quoting W.B. Yeats, that it had taken "the 'noisy insolence' of these films to bring you here." Indian history goes back some 4,500 years and the British, who departed in 1947, were around for only about 200 of them, Bajpai noted. The complexity of India's vast history has all but buried the last vestiges of the Raj, he said.
And yet, like India itself, things are not always so clear.
Urbane and witty, this Oxford- and Geneva-educated Brahman spoke in a style distinctly British -- self-deprecating and cosmopolitan. He quoted Aldous Huxley, Jean Paul Sartre, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx and Yeats, not Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru or Mahatma Gandhi. He recited from memory A.E. Housman's "Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries." His own upbringing was very British, he noted, with Scottish nannies and prep schools.
His father and grandfather were knighted by the British, he said, and were of the intellectual elite with whom "the British felt more comfortable than either the princely elite or the moneyed elite, who they used for their own purposes but somewhat disdained." He had, he said, a privileged upbringing -- which included a few years here at St. Albans while his father was the agent general for India before independence was granted.
But his privileges could not obscure the effects of colonialism, and it is this facet of British rule that the films do not reflect accurately, he argued. He quoted Huxley in noting that one of the "evil" effects of colonialism is that "it tends to make the subject nation unnecessarily conscious of its past," debilitating people who become obsessed with distant glories rather than present realities. "We have been told that we have been conquered because it is our fate," he said. ". . . There can be nothing inherently good in colonialism or the colonial experience."
The colonial life style portrayed in the films -- obsequious servants attending to every need, evenings at the gymkhana club lubricated with gin and free of any skin color but white, power wielded by mediocre men who would be low-ranking functionaries in England -- existed for a comparatively short period, Bajpai said. It was only after the Mutiny of 1857 that the British took over the government, and both civilians and the military brought their families to India from England. There were only 100,000 English in India at the peak, he said.
The tone of Indian-Anglo relations was set during the period between the Mutiny and World War I, he said, and women played a major role in determining it. In both "Jewel" and "Passage," for example, women are the ones who are interested in "the real India," venturing beyond the tea parties of their fellow colonialists to seek contact with Indians. Women are also portrayed as the ones most viciously racist and wrapped in hypocrisy, although Bajpai politely did not mention that.
"I cannot tell you what paragons of virtue we were made to look on the British as being," Bajpai said. "No matter that they bathed once a week while we bathed twice a day. We supposed they were so superhuman they had no human functions at all."
Despite the prevailing Victorian morality, British men were notorious for philandering all over India, he said, as evidenced by numerous Anglo-Indian children.
The current films do not portray the "real India," Bajpai said, but use it as a "backdrop." India has defied definition for centuries, and "no artist has done it justice," he said. It is a land known for its wretchedness, and that seems to dominate so many works about it -- Bajpai said he has found four novels about India, for example, that are titled "Heat and Dust."
"So we come back to the question: Why are you interested?" he continued. "It could be, if you don't mind my saying so, that you are very impressed by what the British produce for television.
"Maybe we are just a passing fad. But I venture to think that we are not."