Shashi Tharoor shredded the colonial mindset at the second author meet organised by Kalam Club at Taj Bengal on December 28. The writer-MP talked about his latest book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, Indian writing in English and debunked some colonial myths during a chat with Malavika Banerjee, the director of Kolkata Literary Meet (Kalam). Excerpts from the conversation on the topic, ‘Is the Indian mind the last British colony?’
HIS OXFORD UNION SPEECH GOING VIRAL...
Shashi Tharoor: You never quite know in social media what captures people’s imagination and goes viral.… May be it was because we gave it to them there, in their own country. The other reason why it went viral, perhaps, is because it touched a chord among people who may have thought that these were things they ought to have known but either they did not pay enough attention in history class or they just hadn’t read it.
Many Indians are surprised when I tell them that we were not tea drinkers. The British discovered tea in China…. But they did not grow it for us in India. They grew it for themselves. Only a tiny quantity, less than five per cent of the tea grown in India, was kept for the British in India. It was only with the Great Depression of the 1930s, when suddenly the English housewives could no longer afford the luxury (of buying tea), that the British were stuck with vast quantities of unsold tea and were forced to create an Indian market.
THE LANGUAGE AND THE ‘COLONIAL HANGOVER’
I am very proud of the heritage of the English language in India. It was a language of Indian nationalism. The first critiques of British colonialism in India were written in English…. As long as you are using the language to fulfil the advancement of your own people, there is nothing particularly apologetic about it.
But the fact that there is still a school in Calcutta with houses named Charnock and Macaulay is a disgusting thing. For us after 70 years of Independence to continue celebrating this legacy is too much.
The Calcutta Club swimming pool was all white even in the late ’60s, till a newly elected CPM minister led a posse of 25 unwashed villagers from his constituency into the pool. I myself was thrown out of Breach Candy Club in Bombay in the mid ’60s when an American classmate hoped he could ignore the whites and take an Indian friend along…. That was India 20 years after Independence. We did have some embarrassing moments, but the language in itself is fine.
INDIAN WRITING IN ENGLISH
Writing, let me assure everybody who is contemplating the profession, is not a viable means of living. Who can sneer at a writer, who writes in English in India, for wanting also the benefit of the English language audience in a foreign country? I feel it’s absolutely wrong to criticise an author for that. He should be entitled to be able to make whatever money he can from a few British and American readers. I did something I was proud of when The Great Indian Novel was accepted by the Penguin in UK. I specifically said I am taking out the territory of India or the Indian subcontinent from the edition. I knew the British edition will not be affordable to a vast majority of Indians. I therefore wanted an edition which Indian college students can afford…. I sold the rights for much less money — Rs 5,000 — to Penguin India separately… they brought it out in paperback, I remember, for Rs 99. It did become whatever a bestseller was in those days, but at least people were able to afford it. I could afford to do that as I was writing and working. Writing was not the main means of livelihood. I really wrote to be read. But that’s not true with the majority of writers.
ON A PAR WITH WESTERN WRITERS
How do we know that an Indian writer in English is good enough? Only if the white man says he is or she is. That was the assumption in India, particularly among the generation that came up when the British were still ruling us. So, the first few Indian writers — Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan, Santha Rama Rau, Anita Desai and Manohar Malgonkar — were all published first in the West. Indian readers reading English would buy English or American books. They would read these Indian authors because they were found good enough to be published there.
That complex, I think, they have finally shed. Now more and more Indian authors do exactly what I did. And because western critics have woken up to Indian writers, there is also very much the sense that an Indian writer published first in India is on a par with Indian authors published elsewhere.
Media gives us so much more attention now. When I came back to India nine years ago, I also severed connection with my agent in America. I said I am going to write for Indian readers. This is where my market is, this is where my readership is, and I have absolutely no regrets.
THE BRITISH DID NOT GIVE US DEMOCRACY
The British spent most of their rule denying us democracy. It is only towards the very end that they began associating Indians with government posts…. The first free election to the Provincial Assembly goes back to 1937, just 10 years before Independence. So, in the 200 years of British rule, we can say that for 10 years they were willing to be democratic and that does not really say much.
There was never an all-India government under the British until 1946, when an interim government was formed after the British decided to leave. So, first things first, the British did not give us democracy. They had no desire to see Indians asserting democratic rights.
GUILT AND APOLOGY
Willy Brandt, a German Chancellor, went to the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland in 1970 and sank to his knees in apology for what the Nazis had done to the Polish, particularly the Polish Jews. And what’s striking is that Brandt was a Social Democrat… people like him had been persecuted by the Nazis. But he was speaking for the German people in whose name the Nazis had committed these wrongdoings… he felt that as the head of the German government he should apologise.
Then you have Justin Trudeau’s example. The Prime Minister of Canada in 2016 apologised for the Komagata Maru incident. Komagata Maru was a Japanese ship laden with Indian refugees that was turned away from the port of Vancouver at gunpoint. Pretty much everyone on board perished… 100 years, later when obviously there was nobody in Canada responsible for these decisions, he apologised in the Canadian Parliament to the people of India. If he can do it, surely the Brits can. I know the British government is unlikely but perhaps a member of the royal family, since everything was done in the name of the Crown. They may go on their knees in Jallianwala Bagh in time for the centenary of the massacre on April 13, 2019.
NO TO ‘AYE’
I am in favour of dispensing with the unnecessary. In Parliament, why do we say ‘aye’ when we are voting affirmatively for a bill? Who says ‘aye’?! It’s a British legacy, scrap it. Let them say ‘haan’.
And do away with the stiflingly hot convocation gowns that students are expected to wear. In the hot summer months you got not only what you are wearing but on top of that this black gown, very often made of unfit material, fastened by velcro. And, an absurd hat on your head. It is simply not designed for the Indian climate. Is it that difficult for Indian designers to come up with a graceful angavastram, for example, in university colours, that can be a symbol of graduation?
(On the question of renaming places) I am on slightly more uncomfortable ground. When a name of a place, a town or a city is concerned, people develop certain associations with it. Simply by habit. And that habit has a certain value that we are actually displacing them with. So, for me, Bombay is always Bombay. Maybe because I grew up in Bombay... I remember how difficult it was to get a taxi to take you to ‘Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road’ in my childhood (in Calcutta). When we said ‘Wellesley Street’, the driver would know. Certain names need to be changed for political purposes. Wellesley was named after a great British conqueror but he certainly oppressed our people. But why bother to rename Madras Chennai?
There is no colonial association with it, no negative association. Madras may have come from Madrasi, it may have come from a term, some say, of Portuguese origin, but it certainly was not of British origin. Chennai comes from Chennappa Nayaka, who owned the land that the British bought to start their settlement. But Chennappa Nayaka was actually a Telugu, so how can his name become an embodiment of Tamil pride?