Category Archives: British Empire

Happy 70th Independence Day, India

India is merely a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the equator.
-Winston Churchill

Despite Churchill’s pronouncement, independent India is seventy years old, while her old rulers struggle to hold onto their not so united kingdom. On August 15, 1947, India achieved its independence from the oh so benevolent British rule, whose legacy involved mass death by starvation. One of the worst famines to strike British India was the Bengal famine of 1943.  While volunteer army recruits from India were dying by the thousands for Winnie’s King and country, his decisions led to millions of avoidable Indian deaths.

Home to every religion in the world and twenty-two official languages; India’s amazing linguistic and religious diversity is its strength. This diversity is reflected in Indian art, be it Hindustani classical music or popular Hindi cinema. India’s struggles are many and it still has a long way to go before it reaches its full potential, but those are topics for another day.

But today I want to celebrate this milestone by celebrating India’s unity in diversity. First broadcast on 15 August 1988 on Doordarshan,

 

Mile sur mera tumhara, to sur bane hamara ( when my note (musical) melds with yours, it becomes our note)

Mile Sur Mera Tumhara

Bhimsen Joshi gets its started in Hindi, then we travel the length and breadth of India, from north to south and from east to west, ending in Hindi again. I counted fourteen languages including Hindi.

In the order they appear:

  • Bhimsen Joshi (Hindustani Classical music maestro) sings in Hindi
  • Boatman  in Kashmiri
  • People on the tractor in Punjabi
  • Shabana Azmi  (actor) in Urdu
  • Narendra Hirwani (cricketer) in Sindhi
  • Cast of Tamas, a Doordarshan miniseries on India’s partition  in Hindi/Punjabi
  • Balamurali Krishna (Carnatic music maestro) in Tamil (In his audience I could identify Kamal Hassan, Venkatraghavan and Meenakshi Seshadri)
  • Prakash Padukone (Badminton player) in Kannada
  • Couple in Telugu
  • Man on the elephant in Malayalam
  • Mrinal Sen (Film director), Arun lal(Cricketer)  etc getting out of a train in Bengali
  • Assamese singer
  • North eastern dancers (with no voiceovers)
  • Oriya couple
  • Mario Miranda (Cartoonist/illustrator)  in Goa (again no voiceovers)
  • Mallika Sarabhai (Dancer) in Gujarati
  • Tanuja (Actor)  in Marathi

Again we end in Hindi

we see

  • Waheeda Rehman (Actor)
  • Hema Malini (Actor)
  • Sharmila Tagore (Actor)
  • Lata Mangeshkar (Singer), then the voice behind the women
  • Amitabh, Jeetendra and Mithun  (all actors)

Ends in refrain of the Indian national anthem

  • I could only identify Syed Kirmani (cricketer)

If you can identify anyone else who I have missed, let me know in the comment section.

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Indian Summers, Episode 2, Season 1, Its all A Mystery To Me

This review contains spoilers, consider yourself warned.

Indian Summers was back this Sunday night on Masterpiece Theatre. This installment was even worse than the last one. This show has become so mysterious that it is completely opaque now. In addition to the attempt murder of last week this week has an actual murder made to look like a suicide attempt. There is drama, there is sex, there is violence, there is too much going on to keep things straight.

Unfortunately, none of the characters are particularly interesting. I suppose we are meant to sympathize with the simpering Alice Whelan, because she has developed some sympathies towards Aafrin Dalal, the guy who got shot last week. She seems rather clueless. First she abandons her guests who are especially there to pay her a visit to burst unannounced into Dalal’s house.  She then blurts out about Aafrin’s injuries which the family had managed to keep a secret from their ailing father (Roshan Seth).

The other goody goody British character, missionary Doug is rather unsympathetic too, last week he was flirting with a co-worker and this week he was emotionally unavailable to his wife, a meddling busybody, who is a piece of work. Dougie’s unpleasant wife Sarah, is also a budding detective, who is trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of Alice’s missing husband. She wrote  a letter to her peeps in London asking them to investigate. Truth be told, I cannot muster an ounce of sympathy for any of the  British characters in this show.  It 1932 and way past the the time for British Crown to let go of India.  In fact it should have been done after the end of World War I, instead the British presence is becoming an increasingly desperate attempt to keep the restive Indians under the colonial heel.

Obviously, the series makers want us to root for Ralph Whelan  against our own better judgment, since he is so pretty. I couldn’t care less,  they all seem terribly pompous and even more unforgivable for a TV show, unbearably dull. Even the scheming Cynthia was torpid in this episode, perhaps she had a hangover from the party in episode 1. The Indian characters aren’t all that interesting either, so far I only like Dalal’s youngest sister, the one in the school uniform.

The focus of the action or rather inaction was the assassin who has been identified now as Chandru Mohan of the Madras Presidency, who seems to have known Whelan, who called him rakshas (demon). As an aside, Channel 4 better hire Hindi dialect coaches ASAP because their Indian characters cannot pronounce simple Hindi words like rakshas and zindabad correctly. Kaiser, the mustachioed main minion of Cynthia Coffin helped forge a fake Congress membership letter for Mr. Mohan, who was found dead at the end of the episode but not before he got to beat up Ralph Whelan into a bloody pulp. Why would an Indian have the name Kaiser, or has Cynthia renamed him? Equally mysterious, American houseguest throwing herself at Ralph Whelan again at the end of the episode. Why? Is this so called heiress without any prospects that she has to bait cold fish Whelan in sweltering India of all places. Why is she even there?

Then there was also an Indian journalist a certain Mr. Khan who was trying to figure out the reason behind the attempted murder. Despite the obvious photo-op at Aafrin’s bed, Mr. Khan’s seems to have figured out that the shooting was more a case of personal vendetta and not a political act.

In other happenings, Adam the Anglo-Indian child who was rescued by Dougie and Leena was trying to stab himself with a thin blade, what’s his sad story, I wonder. Why did  Aafrin’s girlfriend Sita and his sister Sooni had a rendezvous in the cemetery?  I have no idea. Its somewhat understandable that the two lovebirds of different religions have to meet under the cover of darkness and in secret, but why these women?

Anyway I am fast losing interest in this show and its convoluted happenings. I am going to give it one more chance, mainly because I am interested in the history of the time period and second  also because reviewers who have seen the entire season in the UK say that the show gets better. We shall see. 

In case you missed it, review for the first episode is here.

Grade: C

https://i2.wp.com/www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/irwin/1.jpg

This used to be the Viceroy’s Lodge in Shimla (From Victorian Web)

Indian Summers, Episode 1, Authenticity, You are Doing It Wrong

Indian Summers, currently airing on Masterpiece Theater is more sudsy than substantial. The show is set in the waning days of the British Empire in the town of Simla, the summer capital of British India. Its more Downton Abbey than Wolf Hall, with the Indians playing the part of the downstairs crew.  If like Downton, this show turns out to be a love letter to the days of yore, extolling the virtues of the Empire, when the  benevolent British brought civilization to the heathens  and  the coolies knew their place, I am going to barf.

The show’s  acquaintance with reality is passing at best, in just the first episode we saw banana trees in Simla.   Even more egregious; someone who is barely thirty and looks like he is just out of college is supposedly under serious consideration for being India’s next Viceroy.  All he needs is a wife. Not bloody likely, as a Brit might say.  Being the Viceroy of India was a plum assignment and usually went to  someone with either a distinguished military and/or diplomatic career and the right pedigree. Linlithgow who became the Viceroy in 1935 was in his late 40s when appointed and had served in the army as a Colonel during the First World War. Even the train that takes the sahibs up the hills was all wrong. The train to Simla is a narrow gauge train, and looks nothing like the spacious broad gauge train in the show.

Much of the action takes place at the Royal Simla club, where no dogs or Indians are allowed. Nothing much happens except an attempted assassination that goes awry, we are also introduced to the cast of characters. There is Ralph Whelan, the above mentioned private secretary in running for the Viceroy and his pretty sister, Missionary Dougie and his catty  wife, a rich American and his sister (Mathers) who is trying to snag a  husband and Cynthia Coffin, an army widow and the scheming hostess of the Royal Simla Club, who is a cross between Downton’s O’Brien and the Dowager Countess, round out the main British characters.  Aafrin Dalal, a Parsi clerk who takes the bullet meant for Whelan, his family, including a freedom fighting sister and worry wart parents, Dalal’s crazy Hindu love interest, Sita,  and Dougie’s pretty assistant Leena round out the non-servant contingent of the Indian cast.

Dalals are supposed to be Parsis, problem is that neither of the younger Dalals makes for a convincing Parsi, nor are the  Mathers believable as Americans. In fact most of the younger cast simply seem to be twenty first century Brits playing dress-up. BTW  Dalal being  a member of the Indian Civil Service or ICS seems far fetched too. Before he got himself shot, Afrin Dalal was treated like an errant school boy by Whelan.  The Indian Civil Service practically ran India during the British days just like its successor, the Indian Administrative Service does right now. Selection process was and is extremely competitive. There were about a thousand ICS officers at the time of Indian Independence and only about a third were Indian. ICS officers and their current counterparts, IAS officers also get perks such as government paid accommodation and domestic help. I very much doubt that an ICS officer, even an Indian one would be treated like a peon.The pooja that the would be assassin performs was very Indiana Jones and the Temple Doom like, complete with an idol of Kali. No monkey brains were eaten though.

The part about British only clubs where no Indians are allowed as guests or members, was spot on. There were many such clubs where the colonial masters liked to retreat far from the riff raff they had to rule. Some of these exclusive clubs exist even to this date, as if frozen in time. Although, instead of expat British you will find rich and famous Indians there instead. The British disdain for Indian life and dignity is pretty much on the money too, as their genocide by starvation policies attest.

What intrigued me was Ralph Whelan’s divided loyalties, his Indian ways when he thinks no one is watching, he likes to eat with his fingers sitting cross-legged on the floor. He mentioned to his sister that the only way they could get him to leave India was by killing him. Apart from Ralph Whelan all the other characters seemed like cardboard cut outs. I will probably give the show one more chance and watch the next episode, what about you?

Simla (now known as Shimla) in winter

Grade :  B-

Nisid Hajari’s Narrative of India’s Partition Leaves Much to be Desired

India’s partition, or the last bloody gift of the not so benevolent British rule, is one of those events that echo through history and haunt the present. You cannot understand the geopolitics of the region without understanding the precipitating event that lead to the birth of the two countries.

I started reading Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies on the partition of India,  because of the glowing reviews it had received. I have made it up to a hundred pages so far. To say that it is flawed doesn’t even begin to cover my annoyance with Hajari’s narration. My critique is based on the first 100 pages of Furies and his essay on India’s partition. Here are the reasons why:

1. The moral equivalence between the case for a pluralistic India vs. an exclusionary Pakistan based solely on religion.

2. Gossipy narration worthy of supermarket tabloids, to wit, Nehru liked buxom women, well him and a majority of the male populace. This hardly counts as an insight or even an interesting factoid.

3. The British only provide the backdrop to the melodrama between Mohandas Gandhi, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru, Hajari absolves them of all agency and responsibility.

4. Getting the basics wrong, like the meaning of Satyagraha.

Satyagraha is literally soul force.

It is literally not. “satya” = truth “agraha” = insistence. In other words, Satyagraha is the insistence on truth no matter the consequences.  I can almost imagine Yoda-Gandhi saying to Skywalker-Nehru,

May the soul force be with you.

BTW. what is RSSS? Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is usually abbreviated as RSS not RSSS

5.  Flowery language, top heavy with adjectives.

Several of the Muslim conquerors who had dominated India before the British had brutalized their defeated Hindu foes, massacring thousands and demolishing their flower-strewn temples.

What does this even mean?  I have been to several temples, they are seldom flower strewn, the only flowers one usually finds are on the deity behind the altar.

6. Criticizing leaders of the past based on their followers in the present.

Equally troubling was the moral cover the Mahatma granted his longtime followers Nehru and “Sardar” Vallabhbhai Patel — a Gujarati strongman much admired by Modi, who also hails from Gujarat and who served as the state’s chief minister for over a decade. Echoing Gandhi’s injunction against pushing anyone into Pakistan against their wishes, Nehru and Patel insisted that the huge provinces of Punjab and Bengal be split into Muslim and non-Muslim halves, with the latter areas remaining with India.

Considering what happened to East Pakistan in 1971 and the travails of Pakistan’s other minorities, Patel and Nehru’s actions seem particularly prescient.  I also have no idea what Narendra Modi has to do with any of this.

7. Too much focus on personalities, too little on the events and imperatives, not to speak of the history, that lead to the partition. Some background into the formation of the Muslim League would have been helpful. Shorter Hajari, If the main personalities in the conflict got along better, everything would have been fine. This approach strikes me as ahistorical and wrong. You cannot expect to understand the events of 1946-47 if you have no idea what went on before. Jinnah’s personal history including the difficult relationship with the Congress leaders, is not enough to understand the demand for Pakistan.

8. I have saved the best or should I say worst of all, leaps of logic that leave you scratching your head, like blaming the leaders of the Indian Independence Movement for the mess that Pakistan is currently in.

But however exaggerated Pakistan’s fears may be now, Indian leaders bear great responsibility for creating them in the first place.

So are the ghosts of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel compelling Pakistan to perform self destructive deeds from beyond their grave?

However, I do have to give Hajari’s book credit for making me want to dig deeper about the history of the partition and case for Pakistan. While doing that I came across a better narrator, B. R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution. Ambedkar like Jinnah had locked horns with Gandhi on several occasions and they did not see eye to eye on many an issue. So, Ambedkar is as close to a neutral party as one can get in this saga, who was also an eye witness and a participant to the major political struggles that ultimately led to the division of India.

B. R. Ambedkar’s remarkable commentary on the case for Pakistan written was written in 1940, it is hosted on Columbia University’s website. Ambedkar, an alumnus of Columbia besides being a prolific writer was an  economist and a lawyer by profession. My thoughts on Ambedkar and his commentary has to wait for another post.

The Honourable East India Company

Post Citizens-United many worry about the undue influence of corporations on the democratic process. It has happen before, in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. The shareholders of a joint stock company once decided the fate of millions and had many lawmakers in their back pocket.

Before  British Raj* there was Company Raj. The East India Company made its first territorial gains in India in 1757.  Its territorial conquest of most of India was complete by the 1820s. It passed on the torch to the British Crown in 1858, after the bruising First of battle of Independence or the Indian Mutiny (depending on whom you ask) of 1857.

East India Company was a joint-stock company  granted a charter for monopoly trade rights by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600. It made its first Indian foray in 1610. So for almost 150 years the Company was content to operate  various factories  dotting the long Indian coast line. Three of these factory towns grew to become the cities of Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Madras(now Chennai). These factories were   fortified garrisons where factors or merchants met and carried out their business.

Neither were the British the only ones who had established these factories in India, they had competition from the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French and even the Danes. So eat your heart out Tom Friedman, the world was flat and globalized not only before you were born but long before Britain’s thirteen former colonies declared independence from their original motherland.

The first age of globalization turned exploitative and ugly real fast, especially so after the advent of the  industrial revolution. The East India Company was the prime example of these excesses and egregious practices. Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Edmund Burke,  were all prominent critics of the East India Company.

So just how did a joint stock company come to rule all of  India? Its something I want to figure out as a part of my exploration of British rule in India. My initial interest in this topic was sparked by Shashi Tharoor’s impassioned and witty performance at the Oxford Union debate.

*Raj is the Anglicized version of the Sanskrit Rajya, which means rule.