RUE BRI­TAN­NIA

India Today - - INSIDE -

Pulitzer-nom­i­nated bi­og­ra­pher Deb­o­rah Baker’s new book, The Last English­men: Love, War and the End of Em­pire, is a work of his­tory and imag­i­na­tion, a crowded por­trait of the last cou­ple of decades of Bri­tish rule in In­dia. Over a mil­lion In­dian troops fought in the Great War, with nearly 75,000 killed in ac­tion.

But Bri­tain, cog­nisant of the grow­ing clam­our for In­dian in­de­pen­dence, re­warded that loy­alty by at­tempt­ing to tighten its grip. Barely six or so months af­ter the end of World

War 1, Colonel Regi­nald Dyer or­dered

troops to fire into an un­armed crowd at Jal­lian­wala Bagh in Am­rit­sar. Peace in Europe lasted barely two decades be­fore World War II left Bri­tain too de­pleted, too poor and rav­aged to re­sist the in­evitabil­ity of In­dian self-rule. Once again, In­dia sup­ported the war ef­fort, pro­vid­ing and pay­ing for thou­sands of troops. The Last English­men be­gins with the North­ern Ir­ish poet Louis MacNe­ice con­tem­plat­ing a trip to newly in­de­pen­dent In­dia for the BBC to write a se­ries of ra­dio plays about the end of the Raj.

“Even so,” Baker writes, “Louis thought, what was the point of look­ing at In­dia through Western eyes?” He goes in the end, of course. Look­ing at In­dia through Western eyes is lit­er­ally what John Bick­enell Au­den, el­der brother of the poet W.H. Au­den, does as an em­ployee of the Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey of In­dia. “Though he never suc­ceeded in be­ing the first to climb the high­est peaks,” Baker writes, “no other ex­plorer of his time looked as closely at the moun­tains of the Hi­malaya and the rocks they were made of as John Au­den.” Baker writes with real feel­ing and knowl­edge about the Hi­malayan ex­pe­di­tions. She de­scribed her­self in an in­ter­view as an “arm­chair ex­plorer” who had al­ways “wanted to climb the Hi­malaya with tents and ropes and fire-cooked meals.” The co­pi­ous re­search re­quired for the book pro­vided the per­fect ex­cuse.

Au­den and Michael Spender (yes, also the brother of a poet, Stephen Spender) are part of a project led by moun­taineer Eric Ship­ton to map the Karako­ram range. The con­quest and map­ping of the Hi­malaya, par­tic­u­larly Mt. Ever­est, is as a metaphor for the Bri­tish in In­dia, for the de­sire and even­tual fail­ure to as­sert their do­min­ion, to con­trol na­ture. The younger, more fa­mous Au­den wrote a play with Christo­pher Ish­er­wood in 1936 called The As­cent of F6, which, Baker writes, “neatly drama­tised Bri­tain’s strug­gle, in its on­go­ing quest for Ever­est’s sum­mit, to project its im­pe­rial power over a restive In­dia.”

Of course, Au­den (W.H.) was a tren­chant, scathing critic of the pre­sump­tions of Em­pire. In his poem ‘Par­ti­tion’, he wrote of Cyril Rad­cliffe, who drew the bor­ders between In­dia and Pak­istan, “Un­bi­ased at least he was when he ar­rived on his mis­sion / Hav­ing never set eyes on the land he was called to par­ti­tion.” John Au­den, too, Baker shows, was dis­il­lu­sioned with em­pire. When he’s told to steer clear of In­di­ans upon his ar­rival in 1926 to join the Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey, John con­cludes that the ad­vice of his com­pa­tri­ots, tinged with Nazi-like in­ti­ma­tions of racial su­pe­ri­or­ity, is “use­less or ab­surd, like the lines and props for a play whose run is long over”. He even­tu­ally mar­ries a Ben­gali, Sheila Bon­ner­jee, a grand­daugh­ter of Womesh Chan­dra Bon­ner­jee, the first pres­i­dent of the In­dian Na­tional Con­gress, “a fan­tas­ti­cally wealthy lu­mi­nary of the Cal­cutta bar­ris­toc­racy, and a social pil­lar of the Set.” Be­fore that though, John Au­den, Michael Spender and Louis MacNe­ice are also con­nected by their love of artist Nancy Sharp, who is trapped in an un­happy mar­riage with the painter Wil­liam Cold­stream. Sharp has an af­fair with MacNe­ice and later mar­ries Spender.

Baker is mar­ried to the nov­el­ist Ami­tav Ghosh and writes about Ben­galis with warmth and wit, with sym­pa­thy and love. Ben­gali babus might be re­viled fig­ures, mocked by both In­di­ans and English for their af­fec­ta­tions, but, for Baker, they “were po­ets and philoso­phers. They had minds that liked to roam where their lives could not”. Along­side Au­den and Spender, poet Sud­hin­dranath Datta, pub­lisher of Parichay, “a lit­er­ary jour­nal mod­elled on T.S. Eliot’s Cri­te­rion, [which] first ap­peared in 1931” and host of Cal­cutta’s liveli­est adda, an­chors The Last English­men.

The ti­tle al­ludes, at least in part, to a quip by Jawa­har­lal Nehru, which serves as the book’s epi­graph: “I am the last English­man to rule in In­dia.” Those who like to pil­lory Nehru may read that as an ad­mis­sion of guilt, but it is not. Rather, it is a pre­cise, ironic ex­pres­sion of the am­biva­lence of those in­cul­cated with Euro­pean cul­ture and man­ners but keenly aware, as Sud­hin is, that “should a white trav­eller re­quire a rail­way berth in the mid­dle of the night, he would be obliged to give up his own”. That the “Datta fam­ily for­tune de­rived from an al­liance with In­dia’s oc­cu­piers” is part of a “com­pli­cated legacy” of the “be­twixt-and-between” world that Sud­hin, and the Bon­ner­jees, in­habit.

But it is in these in­ter­stices that the in­di­vid­u­als in Baker’s book, Bri­tish and In­dian, con­nect, even amongst the de­struc­tion, death and degra­da­tion of war and em­pire. As Louis MacNe­ice put it, early in the book, “real free­dom wasn’t a mat­ter of get­ting out of things but of get­ting into them. Per­haps if he stuck a lit­tle bit of him­self into In­dia, In­dia would stick him back”.

The Last English­men can be an up­hill strug­gle, but the view once you reach the top is re­mark­able. —Shougat Das­gupta

EM­MANUEL THEOPHILUS

THE LAST ENGLISH­MEN: Love, War and the End of Em­pire by Deb­o­rah BakerPEN­GUIN IN­DIA `599

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