All the Raj

Some thoughts upon reading David Gilmour’s The British in India.

1) The title of the book lacks parentheses, The British (in India). Or at the very least, a comma – The British, in India. After all, the focus is on the British character and what the colonial experience reveals about it (apparently, it wasn’t all bad). And if you find yourself rolling your eyes and saying to yourself, here we go, white people talking about themselves again…, you might be right. But at least Gilmour is aware of that reaction. In that sense, this is a very modern book – aware of racial, cultural contexts. And the relentless focus on the experience of the white colonizer comes across as less an act of, ahem, imperious superiority as one of modesty. Excuse me, he seems to say. India is much too big and broad and complex – and trying to do justice to the entirety of the Raj is an impossible task for a single book. Let mine be a more circumscribed task. Focusing on white people as, well, an act of humility.

2) The British went to India for a myriad of reasons, and not all of them martial or mercenary. In fact, it is somewhat curious – at least in my reading of the book – how ancillary those motives really were, given the images that we conjure up when we think of the Raj. Columns of khaki-dressed soldiers bayonetting mutinous locals, or the East India Company hauling off wooden crates of stolen treasures. But the soldiers were tucked away in their barracks and the box-wallah were to be found at the bottom of the social barrel.

3) So, who were the British in India, and what the bloody hell were they up to? Well, they weren’t making music, or writing books, or doing anything much in the way of intellectual heavy lifting – the usual sorts of things you would expect the British to get up to when they aren’t working. These weren’t those sorts of British. You might have expected the exoticism of India, the adventure of traveling to faraway places and witnessing man’s inhumanity to man to produce a treasure of great books. In terms of literature, colonial India should not be a topic, it should have been a genre. But the Raj produced – among the British, I hasten to add – almost no books of much worth. There was Rudyard Kipling to be sure, one by George Orwell, one by E. M. Forster, perhaps the Paul Scott quadrology could be added to the mix. There was some execrable nonsense (M. M. Kaye, that sort of thing) but that was pretty much the end of it. But the Anglo-Indians were a self-selected bunch and it becomes clear that the espirit de corps was an indifference, hostility even, to the intellectual life. These were practical men and women who believed in doing practical things. Rather pig sticking than poetry. This forms the heart of the Gilmourian defense in the exercise of Empiring – that people went from an abundance of motives, and not all of them bad. Many went to proselytize and to teach, and many fell in love with the place.

4) The center of life – in the minds of both for the locals as for the Anglos – was the famed ICS (Indian Civil Service), indefatigable, incorruptible, incorrigible. And there lies the rub – how did the Raj manage to keep going, taking such a toll on both the colonized and the colonials? Reading the book, the British Empire feels like a kind of self-reinforcing mechanism, an institutional animal hell-bent on self-survival on the grandest of scales, maintained by positive feedback, path dependent, ultimately unsustainable. Empire was a beast to be fed, not a means to a political or mercantile end. You served the British Empire, the British Empire did not serve you.

5) In its approach, The British in India is a very modern book. Its theses are buttressed by an arsenal of facts – evidential pile-ups, cross-indexed nuggets of information. I suppose such a book would have been possible before the days of spreadsheets, tagging and search terms, but it would have been hardly worth the effort required. I for one would like to know the ins and outs of Gilmour’s, um, content management system because he certainly puts it to good use.