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June 14, 2020

January 5, 2020

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#161: THE RAJ.

January 5, 2020

#161.  THE RAJ.  In the cave temples on Elephanta Island, in the harbor of Mumbai on the west coast of India, there is an extraordinary grouping of bas-reliefs, carvings and sculptures, including the famous three-headed bust of Shiva in his role as creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe.  The sculptures, apart from natural wear, are marked with defacements and missing limbs where bored soldiers of the British Army used them in the nineteenth century as target practice or for the occasional spree of vandalism.  This for many years has been my image of the British occupation of India, and reading Lawrence James’s excellent history Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (St. Martin’s Press, 1997) has been a constant reminder that the term “ethnocentrism” is only some hundred years old.  One of the most infuriating elements in reading the book is the condescending, ignorant paternalism of the British lords, faced with one of the oldest extant civilizations and wildly proud of paying it the immense compliment of including it in the British Empire.   The contrast that was constantly in my mind while reading James’s book was with Barbara L. Eck’s India: A Sacred Geography (Harmony Books, 2012), which traces in the Indian landscape the sites and presences of Indian myth, its pages glamored with the names of Hindu deities and temples.  Open James’s book, in contrast, and you are likely to see numbers of troop deployments and estimates of pounds spent and pounds profit.  The early presence of the British in India, in the guise of the East India Company, was a business venture pure and simple, just with guns and soldiers in the place of ad campaigns.

        As you can probably tell, I’ve been wanting to get that off my chest for years, and in truth the story is inevitably more complex. James in his final peroration forces us to wonder what Indian history might have been had the British never arrived, and the history of a territory so multi-tribal and multi-cultural was never going to be anything but turbulent, as India’s recent (2019) political climate has again demonstrated.   Indeed, perhaps the best corrective in reading him, for me, was to understand the degree to which partition was not entirely forced on India by the British but already a matter of local agitation.  The control of the subcontinent (which was a single entity, India, in name only) by the East India Company or, later, the British government was never entire, never total, and India had a way of getting out from under and careening along on its own energy, like a car with too many drivers.  James is a good guide: he has mastered an enormous amount of research, and darts off into wonderful side topics on how the British people who leapt or were dragged into this enormous project of empire lived, survived or failed (try to imagine, for instance, being one of those poor third sisters from Brighton or Brixton sent to India on a husband hunting expedition).  James’s Raj filled a gap in my knowledge of India and extended my sympathy for the people caught up in it, both British and Indian; it’s intelligent, well-written and labors mightily to be impartial and humane in judgement.  You can’t fairly ask for more.

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