The Thriving Colonial Raj in India in Three Random Books

Three books that show how the continued dominance of western writers in India still reflects our colonised mind set.

Here is a brief list before we begin.

  • Heartrending stories of utter destitution inside a slum and/or on the pavements? Check.
  • Soul crushing tales of a poor AIDS or terminally-ill patient rotting away in a Government hospital? Check.
  • Tales of police brutality and bureaucratic corruption endured by a helpless person? Check.
  • An elaborate account of a superstitious Hindu ritual? Check.
  • An even more elaborate account of the “caste system” and present day caste wars? Check.
  • An exposition of the Hindu-Muslim conflict with mandatory mentions of the Babri Masjid demolition, and more recently the 2002 Gujarat riots? Check.
  • Manufactured “news reports” of how India has become intolerant and how all Indians are living under the shadow of totalitarian fear.

The last three items probably gave it away.

The India-Writing Template of the West

I am talking about the typical themes that feature in a book written about India by Western writers. It’s as if these writers have an India-writing template that they need to compulsorily adhere to. Of course, these aren’t the only themes but they do find a mandatory if not obligatory mention in almost every such book. Other common themes include accounts about temples, different facets of Indo-Islamic culture, contemporary politics, and rural India.

India’s forced embrace of globalisation in the mid-1990s reawakened the West’s interest in India, and one major consequence has been an explosion of books about India written by Westerners to such an extent that it qualifies to be called a separate genre in itself. And almost without exception, every such book in this genre reflects the same biases, is uniformly superficial, is ignorant of history, and in some cases, openly dishonest. Equally, almost every writer of this genre declares either in the preface or the afterword that he or she dearly loves India (for a humorous take on how this sort of thing works, read this piece). And so the questions persist: what kind of love compels these Western writers to regurgitate biases, reflect ignorance, and reinforce the image of India as a poor, third world nation which seems to have nothing but endemic poverty, filth, squalor, superstition, oppression of Muslims, and the ugly caste system? Is it that India has absolutely no redeeming features, not one positive whatsoever?

A Sense of History

A sense of history is a very reliable guide to unravel seemingly complex issues of the present. When we trace the roots of the biases of today’s Westerners writing about India, it quickly becomes clear that they are colonial biases introduced with vile dexterity by the British or extensions thereof. Add to this the heady mixture of Indian English journalists and academics explaining again, a colonial view of India to them, the bias completes a full and vicious self-reinforcing circle. For good measure there’s plenty of first person accounts these authors had with Indians from various walks of life in the course of their India story-hunting jaunts and in cases where these accounts don’t serve as good demonstrations of their aforementioned love for India, they serve to reinforce those aforementioned biases.

Painting of Dutch East India Company Travellers. Pic: Google Image Search

We need to fast forward from the ancient Greeks to about 1600 when the Dutch first set foot on Indian soil. The 17th through early 19th centuries were truly heady times both for Europe and India. All of Europe wanted to trade with India, the land of opportunity, the place of plenty… back then, every European was a potential Indian Green Card aspirant. Fast forward slightly and you have all sorts of European travellers seeking India — not entirely different from the Western writers on India today. And so — in no particular order — you had the French traveler-cum-doctor Bernier and his companion Tavernier who travelled in and wrote extensively on India during the later years of Shahjahan’s rule and during and after Aurangzeb’s reign. H.M. Eliott’s masterly The History of India as Told by Her Own Historians was published in 1867 and still counts as a definitive work of firsthand insights gained from keen observation whilst traveling within India. James Todd’s Annals & Antiquities of Rajaputana, published in 1920, is second to none both in its scope and the vastness of its coverage.

Thus, between when the Europeans discovered India and finally when the British left it financially impoverished and culturally devastated, you had writing enough to fill several gigantic libraries. No subject was spared by those Westerners who were interested in India: warfare, politics, education, medicine, magic, religion, culture, Sanskrit, society, art, literature, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, grammar…

From Ralph Waldo Emerson to William Dalrymple

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Early Western scholars who wrote on India were almost unanimous in declaring that India had touched the pinnacle in almost every sphere of human activity. Schopenhauer and Emerson swore by the Upanishads. But this Western admiration didn’t last long because military successes and industrialisation also brought with them the deadly virus of racism, which made rapid and spectacular inroads everywhere including India. In an astonishingly swift period, those who had knocked on India’s doors as trader-supplicants suddenly realised that they were the world’s superior race because of their skin colour. Christian theology served racism very well when it was recast as a tool to aid and abet colonialism.

The consequences of this for India were catastrophic. Suddenly India was a land which only had a history of being conquered, had no original culture, was primitive and superstitious, was a society defined and divided by caste, had no literature, had not contributed anything to world civilisation… A new harvest of colonial writers and officials emerged with the express purpose of “civilising the natives”. They set about refashioning almost every aspect of India to suit the colonial project — its history, religions, society, education, and so on. Macaulay’s Policy on Indian education is perhaps the most iconographic representative of this project. And it is this refashioned India that most of today’s Western writers rely upon as a foundation for understanding India. Add to this the Marxist conquest of Indian academia and media post-Independence, and we have a comprehensively distorted picture of the country in every aspect.

As we see, this distortion is faithfully and confidently reproduced in contemporary Western writing in the India genre. Like the writers had some deep and original insight. In my reading, and in the present time, the most representative of this distortion is the hugely popular India-genre writer, “White Mughal,” William Dalrymple whom Hartosh Singh Bal characterised as a “pompous arbiter of literary merit in India”. However, Bal’s piece barely peeks through the curtain. What lies behind is pretty grotesque.

It is one thing that William Dalrymple is touted as an India-expert by his compatriots and aspiring India-genre writers in the West. But the greater tragedy is the fact that Indian writers in English also look up to him as an India-expert. It became an intellectual fashion statement of sorts for these young ‘uns to carry his fat, ill-informed volumes under their armpits, “discuss” them in coffee shops, and quote him as some sort of authority on Indian history, society and culture. When questioned about his distortions, the standard retort: “he goes to the Nehru Memorial Library, National Archives, etc and does painstaking research, so he must be right.” Max Mueller, William Jones, Macaulay and the rest of the colonial club intellectuals and scholars did similar if not more backbreaking research on India. What was the consequence?

And so, to provide a bird’s eye view of what exactly the likes of Dalrymple have done to India — and continue to do — I’ve chosen, at random, three books on India written by western writers in recent times.

The Age of Kali

In the garb of professing extreme love for India, William Dalrymple has consistently repeated every colonial bias there is about India and has presented a one-sided, and in some cases, a mangled version of its history. Constraints of space don’t permit me to examine his entire body of work on India but his 1998 India travelogue, The Age of Kali, is a fair example of said grotesqueness.

Dalrymple’s bias and his flawed understanding of India shines right through on the tenth sentence of his preface. He misrepresents the goddess Parashakti as one “seated on a throne of five corpses.” And he repeats the same mistake in the chapter that deals with Devi Parashakti. The accurate meaning translates to “she who is seated on a throne of the Spirit (as in “spiritual”).” And so it goes on, this string of ill-informed observations and deductions about ancient Hindu traditions, gods and goddesses. Elsewhere in the book, he simply can’t stop gushing about all those superstitious Indians thronging at the Madurai Meenakshi temple. Nor can he stop waxing repeatedly about the Goddess’ fertility and her powers of seducing her husband, Shiva. Throughout, the undercurrent of Hindus-as-superstitious plays on like a broken chord. Now these temples, rituals and traditions date back to centuries and have solid philosophical and cultural foundations. If only he had cared to read the Shasanas (temple inscriptions) or the sthala purana (local history of these temples preserved unbroken for centuries), his understanding of Madurai Meenakshi would have perhaps been different. At any rate, it’s clear that Dalrymple has made no effort to learn anything about them accurately but then he doesn’t allow his ignorance to interfere with his confident pontifications. Ask yourself this: why is it that to millions of Hindus Madurai Meenakshi evokes reverence and devotion whereas William Dalrymple considers this Devi merely as a seductress?

In another essay, he hunts down a poor woman, a victim of gang rape and manages to coax her story out. The point here is not about her heartrending plight but the phenomenon of what’s called “misery journalism”, which does precious little to alleviate the suffering of the victim but does wonders to the career, fame and wealth of misery journalists. And Dalrymple indulges in misery journalism not once but three times in the same book.

And these misery tales quite obviously, have generous doses of “caste,” which according to Dalrymple is “central to Hindu philosophy.” When he makes such a sweeping claim about an entire culture and civilisation that continues to stand unbroken for millennia, Dalrymple needs to show us exactly one work of Hindu philosophy that discusses “caste” as being central. The correct word is varna, which is vastly different in meaning and import than the colonial concoction, “caste.” There are works in other realms of Hinduism that talk about varna but it has no place in Hindu philosophy, which chiefly investigates impersonal and abstract concepts. Interestingly but unsurprisingly, Dalrymple’s idea of caste emancipation is a covert approval of the convicted Bihar jailbird Lalu Yadav’s 15-year-long goonda raj not to mention Mulayam Singh Yadav’s equally brazen criminal enterprise that masqueraded as Government in Uttar Pradesh.

The Age of Kali abounds in such serious factual inaccuracies made worse by not backing them up with even a shred of evidence. However, there’s something worse: distorted history. For instance, on page two, William Dalrymple claims that Buddhism was wiped out in India by what he calls “an aggressive Hinduism.” This isn’t new — Dalrymple merely regurgitates an old Marxist lie. From Ambedkar to the Communist scholar Rahula Sankrityayana, almost every scholar concurs with the fact that it was the medieval Muslim invasions that extinguished Buddhism in India. Equally, Dalrymple claims that over 2,00,000 Muslims were killed by the Indian army when it liberated Hyderabad in 1948. As for evidence, he once again provides none. He also glosses over the barbaric Portuguese Inquisition at Goa as if it were an event of no consequence. And then he shows himself to be quite a believer of the absurd when he parrots the lie about how “the miraculously undecayed body of St. Francis” was put on public display in Goa. This was proven to be a fake and reported widely in the media. So one wonders why Dalrymple chose not to mention both sides of the “saint” Francis miracle.

But I’ve merely scratched the surface. Almost every other essay in The Age of Kali is guilty of factual errors, ill-informed assertions, sweeping conclusions, historical distortions, unsubstantiated opinions or all of the above if you consider the book as a whole. Dalrymple’s claim that his book is a “product of personal experience and direct observation” cannot be a justification to evade accountability for his cultural, factual and historical misdemeanours. In the end, one wonders why Dalrymple is unable to find a single positive aspect in this vast country which he pretends to love dearly; it appears as though he finds only filth wherever he travels in India.

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers

What Dalrymple accomplishes in his motivated travels throughout India, Katherine Boo attempts in a slum in Mumbai in her spectacularly unreadable Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. It seems as if Katherine Boo is William Dalrymple on acid.

You name the cliché about India, you find it in almost every other sentence in her book. Caste, Hindu-Muslim strife, the poor, the downtrodden, the beggars, hijras, the lame, the terminally ill, the rotten slums, the corrupt and brutal cops, “Old vs New” India, venal politicians… all of this in this Mumbai slum, which Boo likens to a microcosm of India. By the time you reach page nine, you know the book is already doomed because by then Boo’s deliberate attempt to wrangle tears out from the reader’s eyes — with elaborate and tortured descriptions of human misery and suffering — is unmistakable. Oh it also contains such putrid linguistic specimens as “Officer Fish Lips,” describing a Police officer. There’s also a “One Leg” someone.

But she’s unstoppable, relentless in her ruthless quest of mining the worst of the worst from this Mumbai slum named Annawadi. Never mind the fact that this slum came up by illegally encroaching Government land — a crucial point, which she tries to gloss over as a minor factual irritant. Boo also takes inspiration from the 70s Bollywood when she writes that “to be poor… was to be guilty of one thing or another,” a straight lift from the popular dialogue, “is desh mein gareeb hona gunaah hai,” and variants thereof.

At the end of more than 250 pages of this kind of stuff, you want to jump from the nearest building. I really deserve an award for reading it till the end. But like I said, misery journalism is pretty rewarding. Katherine Boo’s book, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers won the National Book Award in the US for 2012. She’s also the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the MacArthur “genius” award, the Los Angeles Times Book Awards, and prizes from the New York Public Library, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Indeed, India is that fecund soil where the Western sappers and miners of the misery of her people can retire rich.

Oh and Katherine Boo is married to Sunil Khilnani, the progenitor of the deadly “Idea of India” notion which breathed the much-needed fresh oxygen into our Communists and Far-Left eminent parasites on the Indian state. This one phrase enabled scores of these scullions to garner plum positions in Sonia Gandhi’s court.

India: A Portrait

Next, we have Patrick French, the lesser-known India-genre cousin of William Dalrymple who wrote India, a Portrait, which is the output of a travel exercise similar to that of Dalrymple. It may not as horrid as Katherine Boo’s book — in fact, it takes original talent to reach Boo’s standard — but it is still a pointless meandering and an unnecessary addition to the corpus of Dalrymplesque writing on India. As a minor detail, Dalrymple acknowledges French’s help in his first book on Delhi (City of Jinns). See how the club works?

Indeed we wonder what reaches of genius Patrick French scales in order to call Sardar Patel a Congress power-broker. This in the first chapter titled “Accelerated History” which French liberally peppers with such insidious claims. This chapter tries to compress the pre and post-Independence history of India into a capsule and ends up inflaming the disease of factual errors and opinions disguised as facts. It only gets worse from there onwards.

Like Dalrymple, Patrick French’s quest for scavenging misery is rewarded when he meets a labourer who was rescued from a granite mafia don who had made him his slave, complete with iron fetters. French also uses this story to give his grand version of the Indian Caste System. Except that this version is dissimilar to Dalrymple’s only in the matter of word choice.

India: A Portrait also talks about the post-liberalisation India and faithfully adheres to all the Western clichés of “New India” — call centers, Bangalore’s IT companies, malls, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, the newly affluent urban middle class and so on. Taken together, the book merely resembles an assemblage of random newspaper cuttings hurriedly sewn together.

To be fair, the only passable section in the book is the one dealing with the dynasty politics. But that’s something even a news desk guy with three years of work experience could have done.

In the end, India a Portrait is a pointless book that retains much of the colonial prejudices about India, and follows the template mentioned at the beginning of this essay. One wonders why it was even written.

Closing Notes

But then, the authors of such books on India know their target audience: the wealthy publishing industry in the West. They care little if their books are received well or respected in India. And they know they can get away with even the most flagrant errors, distortions and inaccuracies because the academic and intellectual elite of India actually fawns over them like they are demigods. And this elite is far more ignorant than they are about the traditions, culture and history of their own country.

And that’s how we continue to have — and perpetuate — a flourishing colonial Raj where all manner of imported India “experts” who arrogantly teach India to Indians. The colonisation is so deep that even when the so-called “Hindu right” or whatever other laughable appellation attempts to give a response, it does so using the language of the coloniser. Enough said.

Compare these books with say those of V S Naipaul — another Westerner whose India Trilogy is a good collection of firsthand travel, experience, research, penetrating observation and reasoned conclusions. He shows none of the colonial or Dalrymplesque bias and is honest in his criticism. His note for instance, on the Taj Mahal as a magnificent building that serves no function (An Area of Darkness), that it is wasteful monument to a cruel despot’s vanity is a good example of this honesty. Whereas the likes of William Dalrymple have orgasmed in rapture for pages on end describing the structural and artistic beauty of much lesser monuments. It is a very seductive technique because the average reader is sucked in by Dalrymple’s skilful prose and picturesque textual narrative. What’s missing in these feats of prose are insight and truthfulness, which are ends in and by themselves. It is akin to the Vodka diplomacy that Soviet Russia had perfected so well.

I know it is futile but the likes of William Dalrymple would do well to heed this fine verse written by their greatest litterateur even as they continue to pour their slanderous India-expertise on Indians:

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

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Sandeep Balakrishna
Writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. Author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." He has translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.
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