Indian summer of discontent

October 24, 1997

IT HAS often been said that Britain and India share a special, love-hate relationship. Recent events have shown that it is still very much alive and kicking, and have reminded both countries of how difficult it is to speak truthfully and dispassionately about India, as academics are supposed to do.

First there was the death of Mother Teresa. Though somewhat overshadowed by the death and sanctification of Princess Diana, this was the occasion for an incongruous military-style state funeral in Calcutta, in which Indian and western leaders combined to canonise the remarkable Albanian nun - perhaps literally in the case of the Pope - as a sop to their bad consciences about Indian poverty. Briton and Indian alike wanted to hear nothing against her. Little was said, either in India or in Britain, about how ineffective in tackling Calcutta's problems Mother Teresa actually was.

Then there was the sensation surrounding a first novel by an Indian, Arundhati Roy, which eventually bagged the Booker prize for fiction. The God of Small Things has been sold to 30 countries and earned more than Pounds 1 million in advanced rights sales. According to its author: "I don't want Brownie points because I'm from India. My book doesn't trade on the currency of cultural specificity, even though the details are right. That is why, I think, it has been bought in so many countries." Here, unlike with Mother Teresa, there were some notable dissenting voices, both in India and in Britain. But no critic has publicly analysed the phoniness of the book, which is a curious and mainly irritating mixture of Midnight's Children, Cold Comfort Farm and Winnie the Pooh.

Most recently, the Queen visited India and had a rough ride from the Indian government and press. Nothing she did or said seemed to go smoothly. At Amritsar, the site of the so-called "massacre that ended the Raj" in 1919, Prince Philip took exception to a memorial implying that some 2000 Indians had been killed by British troops; the real figure was much less, he said. As any historian, Indian or British, knows, the prince was in fact correct - the accepted figure for deaths was about 400 (with 1200 injured) - although he was undoubtedly tactless, as well as politically incorrect, to say so on the spot.

The doyen of commentators on the Indo-British relationship is the India-born, Oxford-settled Nirad C. Chaudhuri, CBE, who has been excoriating its hypocrisies for well over half a century. In his latest book, Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse, to be published by Oxford University Press next month on the occasion of his 100th birthday, Chaudhuri writes: "The most striking aspect of government in India after the gift of independence by the British people was its total falsity. Nothing was authentic, nothing sincere, nothing disinterested in it. Instead of showing fear of this gift from white men, all Indians exulted over it. Those who took over the business of governing India proved the truth of the saying: 'Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.'" But, lest Britons choose to flatter themselves as advocates of fair play and democracy for India - in this week of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Edinburgh - Chaudhuri also has this to say of the present-day British and their Indian colleagues in Britain. "Racial arrogance and colour prejudice have not disappeared among the English people. Both remain in the marrow of their bones. This is felt, to my knowledge, by all Indians who hold high positions in administration, industry, or even universities, perhaps most keenly in the last. Most of them have become anxious about the tenure of their posts."

Thoughtful English people or Indians, if they are honest with themselves, will have to admit that there is more than a grain of truth in Chaudhuri's trenchant critique.

The THES and Gresham College are hosting four weekly lectures on South Asia, "The Legacy of Independence", beginning on November 10 at 5pm with Lord Desai.

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