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