There is an India boom going on in movies, books and television, and no one knows quite what to make of it. It is not hard to figure out why it swept Britain. When your pound hits $1.08, you like to remember the days when it could be called sterling. But why the United States? It is not in decline. And Americans have few ties of blood, history or culture to India. Why are we forfeiting Sunday evenings for "The Jewel in the Crown"?

The Indian ambassador addressed the question the other night before a standing-room-only crowd at the Smithsonian. (The talk was moved there because, sponsors said, the Freer Gallery could not handle the overwhelming response -- more evidence of the boom.) His suggestion was modest. "It could be, if you don't mind my saying so, that you are very impressed by what the British produce for television."

A trip to "A Passage to India" this weekend convinced me otherwise. It is neither Mother India nor good television that is fascinating Americans. It is colonialism.

I was convinced not so much by the movie as by the audience. At the upscale uptown theater I went to, the sentiments of the audience were decidedly pro-Indian. But the enthusiasm was not full-throated. It seemed merely correct. There was an obvious, though unacknowledged, ambivalence: the audience cheered for the Indians, but it had come out on a cold February night for the Raj.

After all, Americans do not stand in line to see Indian movies about India. Satyajit Ray does not get shown in 60, let alone 600 theaters, as does "Passage." We were out to see empire at work. Salman Rushdie, the Pakistani novelist, has it right. For all its mandatory anti-imperialist gestures, he argues, Raj fiction from "Gandhi" to "Jwel" renders the British Empire, "in spite of all its flaws and meanness and bigotry, fundamentally glamorous."

That is what makes colonial entertainment so popular. It is the same thing that makes those TV "Newsprobe" expos,es on prostitution or pornography such a ratings hit. The convention is to say (as the ads do) that one must keep up to date with these scourges so that one's indignation may be suitably informed. The truth is that deploring a taboo -- at length -- is a way of enjoying it.

The India boom is a respectable way for Americans to enjoy colonialism, the ultimate political taboo. It is perhaps the only way. Americans take such little pleasure in the real thing. Americans have never shared the European zest for occupation. No one sighs for Tokyo, Saigon, Havana or other places Americans once controlled. In American popular culture the glamor is in winning the war, not staying on to run things. John Wayne took Iwo Jima, but did not stick around to set up a cricket club.

We undertook, for example, to introduce the people of South Vietnam to the blessings of blue jeans and bicameral legislatures, but found the task distinctly unpleasant. Someone had to do it, so we did -- joylessly. Americans have always considered foreign involvements entangling. True, we pursued Manifest Destiny to conquer a continent; but beyond its shores, ours has been the most reluctant of empires.

In the postwar era, with our power at its zenith, our adventures in what may be called neocolonialism have been tentative, and dutiful to the point of moroseness. When we finally find ourselves in control, we can't wait to get the hell out. Look at the latest episode, the takeover of an oversized Caribbean golf course. From day one, Congress demanded and the president promised to get out of Grenada as soon as a local constabulary could be organized. Our whole ideology is geared to accept ruling others as a means to another end -- overthrowing tyrants, containing communism -- not as an end in itself.

British colonialism, on the other hand, justified itself not as an instrument of (indigenous) popular will or as a form of self-defense, but self-confidently in terms of its own innate superiority. Americans envy that colonial ,elan (seen abroad perhaps in America's commercial missionaries, not in its political class), but are too republican to embrace it. So we observe it at the movies, refracted safely, dream- like, through the defunct history of someone else's rule in a place we know nothing about.

The India boom is a form of illicit enjoyment of forbidden colonial fruit. But more than that. It is also a form of political introspection. It asks, "Do we want a Raj?" The Raj is our colonial model: English-speaking, relatively benign, and doomed. It was the best that colonialism had to offer. (Ho Chi Minh, who knew something of the subject, wrote of Gandhi -- in 1922! -- that he "would have long since entered heaven had he been born in one of the French colonies.") Cheering it, jeering it, studying it in our own lazy way, through a director's eyes, we are trying it out -- in imagination -- on ourselves. For the British, the Raj is looking back. For Americans, it is looking forward. Americans are, after all, the only people (in the West) with the colonial option. Shall we exercise it?

Americans tend not to want to, and Raj nostalgia prepares us for just that answer. By returning again and again to the fall of the British Raj, we are, I think, rehearsing our own future: the day we too shrink to the size of Britain now. Perhaps, above all, the India boom is anticipatory nostalgia for our own, soon-to-be, colonial past.