Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Welcome to the British Raj

 "In the beginning, there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semifeudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England."

With this brilliant line begins Alex Von Tunzelmann's wonderful  Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, a book I highly recommend for its great depiction of the final days of the Raj. The above quote though, is so fitting for the start of our journey, for it gives an idea of what England and India were, before they became Ruler and Ruled. 

The symbol of the  East India company

It all began with the East India company, the predecessor of the British Raj, which initially dealt with trade in India. It was not long before trade became military and administrative control of many parts of India and the East India Company was soon acting as an 'agent of British imperialism in India' till the Great Revolt of 1857* (dismissed by the British as just a 'Sepoy Mutiny' and referred to by several Indian historians as 'The First War of Indian Independence.' The truth, as in most cases, probably lies somewhere between those two descriptions )

The 1857 Revolt shocked the East India Company since it succeeded far more than they thought it would. It was time for a change and the era of the British Raj (British Reign) ruled directly by the Crown, was heralded. It lasted from 1858 to 1947, when Partition tore apart two nations born out of bloodshed and trauma - India and Pakistan. 

The British Raj was an exercise of imperial control over the masses of India, to tap into India's immense wealth, raw material and take advantage of warring rulers of Princely states to establish the might of the British. The Raj was also an exercise where two different civilizations and peoples with little in common, found themselves at a place where they needed to interact with each other.

These interactions fascinate me tremendously, because not only do they showcase the contact between people of different cultures but also serve as a remarkable source of insight into the minds of the people who lived through the Raj and reaped its benefits and disadvantages. 

Unlikely friendships were made, alliances were forged, Englishmen served in India with pride (it wasn't for nothing that India was referred to as the 'Jewel in the Crown' of the British Empire), some became Indophiles, many were born and brought up in India and felt alien only when they went to England. Indians, meanwhile, went to England to be educated and many became Macaulay's Children. It was, in a sense, a wonderful exchange of ideas and cultures. The East met the West, not on equal footing, but it was still a remarkable meeting .

So while rich Indian boys were sent to the best English boarding schools and Universities and Indian children were taught by English governesses, several thousand Englishmen and women began to discover India. And with their help, we discover the British Raj.

Here are the contents of a rather amusing (to me) booklet given to Philip Gallop, a new member of the Royal Air Force stationed in Bombay. With thanks to Genevieve and the BBC:

Welcome to Bombay
Bombay’s citizens are very anxious to ensure that you enjoy yourselves, so that when you move on you will have the happiest memories of their city.
Exposure of your head to sun before 4pm, eating over-ripe fruit or fruits not protected by skin, drinking water from a street fountain, walking bare-footed, drinking intoxicating drinks during the day - especially spirits or soft-drinks from marbled-stoppered bottles, patronising beggars, medicants, fortune-tellers and curio dealers.
Service Organisations:
Freemasonry: Headquarters:
Gallop was also provided a map of Bombay, with specifically marked 'Out of Bounds' areas:
Next week we see what the women, English and Indian, made of each other and the Raj. 
Many thanks to Mel U of The Reading Life for joining in with A Passage to the British Raj. His post featuring stories written during the British Raj from what is now Bangladesh is definitely worth reading.

* For a fictionalised, Bollywoodised take on the Great Revolt of 1857,  watch Mangal Pandey: The Rising starring Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens.


Anonymous said...

This sounds fascinating. Sri Lanka also went through something similar although on a much, much smaller scale and everytime I visit there are relics of the British Raj everywhere. Lovely post and I'm definitely going to check out the book!

Kals said...

Thank you! Glad you liked it :) Yes, of course. In fact, I don't know much of what exactly Sri Lanka went through, but it can't be more different than what we did. There are remnants of the Raj everywhere here and we seem to be always influenced by it, consciously or otherwise :)


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