Monday, Nov 12, 2018 | Last Update : 11:30 PM IST

Blame-thirsty Indians and remorseful Brits

In his words: "I am just a professional writer, which means I don't do blogs and try and get money for whatever I write."
Published : Apr 28, 2018, 12:13 am IST
Updated : Apr 28, 2018, 12:12 am IST

At the first of these sessions last week, Shashi’s book was denounced for bad history and bad statistics by a prominent British historian.

Shashi Tharoor (Photo: File)
 Shashi Tharoor (Photo: File)

“Facebook ka Zamana
Beelzebub ka khana
Twitter ki kaali Dak
Saitan ka Khorak
Jab blogs with hate prevail -
Hai technolozee tera kya khel!”

— From Khadi Boli to Hyperboli by Bachchoo

Gosh, if I had three conferences or literary sessions in a month dedicated to my writing, I wouldn’t object to not having won the Booker Prize. I’m sure this is not a sentiment shared by my friend Salman Rushdie who’s had both the prize and the conferences — not all laudatory.

Now in London, there are three announced platforms discussing the work of our politician and polemician Shashi Tharoor and his book on the British Imperial effect on India. The book called An Era of Darkness (what an original title, I wonder how he thought it up!) in India, and something else – “a disgraceful looting Empire” or some such in Britain.

I bought the (cheaper) Indian edition and as I paid for it, I was reminded of the practice at Indian historical monuments and museums of charging 120 times more for entry to them if you possess a white skin. I know Indians with British or American passports who dress Indian, speak Hindi and get in with Indian citizens for Rs 30. I’ve done it myself on principle, defrauding the Archaeological Survey India of 470 bucks.

At the first of these sessions last week, Shashi’s book was denounced for bad history and bad statistics by a prominent British historian. The other two platforms will feature Professor Tirthankar Roy of the London School of Economics and the writer and historian Zareer Masani who have already expressed rather negative views on Shashi’s work.

I believe the book is a bestseller in India and may prosper as well in Britain, the first statistic proving that Indian readers are blame-thirsty and the (possible) second that the Brits are suckers for self-flagellation — the sado-masochistic Fifty Shades of Grey preceding Shashi’s denunciation of British Imperial Satanism.

Last week’s historian acknowledged that Shashi was, after Era was published in India, something of a pop star. Since there are very few pop stars in India, most singers belonging to classical, semi-classical or folk traditions or to the film industry, I might have said Bollywood star or even cricketer. Nevertheless, the curious truth is that another British historian friend of mine who writes on India was researching a book there and was told by a prominent BJP intellectual that Shashi’s fame or notoriety was a Western phenomenon and that his contentions had attracted a very limited following in India.

I don’t know which to believe but it indicates to me that Shashi’s popularity with this book in India and his espousal of the Congress view of history in it doesn’t seem to worry the BJP. It’s not seen by them as competition.

Now, there is ample evidence that the BJP takes the fall-out of literary works seriously. I am reminded of the row that followed L.K. Advani’s saying that Muhammed Ali Jinnah was not all bad. Or of Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah which, through his attempt at historical honesty, put him in the political dog-house. The BJP also seem to take history books seriously, altering school and university texts and challenging the history of evolution.

Having read Era, I think the BJP ought to be a little more worried than their intellectual’s dismissing remarks to my friend imply. Shashi is a senior Congress leader and an obvious contender for high office (foreign?) if the Congress gets power.

This same historian friend pointed out to me that Era argues that if the British had not digested India into their empire, the Marathas would have been a great benign force in the subcontinent. He found this argument somewhat contentious and began producing arguments from the historical conduct and fortunes of the Marathas, including the sorry story of the Third Battle of Panipat, to challenge Shashi’s speculation.

There is, of course, no way of ascertaining whether the valiant Maratha nation would have prevailed in the way that Shashi speculates, but we can easily conclude that a Keralite Congressman would do his party no harm by stretching out a conciliatory handshake to the champions of Marathadom — such as the Shiv Sena perhaps?

I shall attempt to attend one of the Shashi-critical sessions scheduled. I have read Tirthankar Roy’s book on the history of the East India Company and am impressed by his stance and his arguments. He is essentially an economic historian. I don’t think he will engage with the role or purpose of Shashi’s book in Congress or national politics but will almost certainly challenge its economic history and the statistics on which it is based.

One statistic stands out as the most popular. Tharoor contends when the East India Company first sought a foothold in India, the country produced 25 to 30 per cent of the world’s wealth. By the time the Brits quit India, the country’s share of the world’s wealth was down to two to three per cent.

Implication? Gori-Chori!

It’s a curious but winning statistic. I am sure Professor Roy will refute it with compelling arguments but the obvious, for the non-historian, is that the fall may possibly be put down entirely to British exploitation of India but it could also be affected by the fact that Europe had, through scientific progress, technological invention, industrial expansion a 100-if-not-1000-fold, produced wealth as never before. Or within the reckoning of this comparative statistic that America, Canada, Australia and Japan, had begun to produce a thousand times more wealth by 1947 than they did in the time of the Emperor Jahangir?

The Shashi statistic may be true, but so is the fact that far more car accidents in Britain are caused by drivers with driving licenses than by drivers without!

The question, to take Shashi’s side remains: if Europe had all this capital and technological expansion, why didn’t the Brits bring it to India? They only brought the railways and that to take Bombay Dak from the coast to stink out the interior.

Tags: shashi tharoor, british imperial, l.k. advani, muhammed ali jinnah, book