A book launch was held yesterday at the former residence of the Commander-in-Chief of British India, now called Teen Murti Bhavan. At an estate that placed symbolically behind the imposing Viceregal Lodge, two Indians sat on the stage to launch a book, and to demolish the notion that 200 years British rule was "good" for India.
The venue at Teen Murti Bhavan - NMML auditorium - was packed. Folks who lingered outside to tuck in a few more chai-pakora's had to stand by the doorway as the author, Shashi Tharoor and historian R. Mukherjee too the stage to discuss the book, "An Era of Darkness - The British Empire in India".
The discussion took on a predictable course with Tharoor outlining the reasons why he thought a such book was necessary; the realization that most of his countrymen were blissfully unaware of the methods used by the British to systematically reduce the country from an global economic heavyweight to a basket-case, and of contemporary notions of nationalism.
One point that stuck in my mind came up in the Q&A session. An elderly person sitting on the front row asked, "Throughout history, why is it that we were betrayed by our own people?"
Tharoor skirted this question, and restricted his answer to the usual suspects - the Mir Kasim's and Mir Jaffer's - of the British Era. In introduction to his book he tosses the ball back to the other court by saying, "...when a marauder destroys your home and takes away your cash and jewelry, his responsibility for his actions far exceeds that of the servant who opened the door for him, whether hout of fear, cupidity or because he simply didn't know any better".
It is difficult to imagine that the grand quislings in our history were acting out of fear, cupidity or ignorance. The Mir's of Bengal seemed to be driven primarily by ambition, greed and self-interest. Ditto for Jaichand, the king of Kannauj, who allied with Mohammad of Ghor, to settle a personal insult, or political score with the Chauhan ruler of Delhi.
Clearly, there is something more basic at work in our minds. In a country that has always been a slow-cooking melting pot of different races, languages and habits, almost every ruler would have sought out existing fissures, divisions and rivalries to consolidate their own power-base. It is a trend that continues to this day.
Greed and self-interest was also apparent in the manner in which the audience jostled around Tharoor, doggedly ignoring all pleas to come in an orderly line. A singular lack of concern for others that was also being played out at the traffic roundabout outside where vehicles refused to give way, and slowing themselves in the process; along the footpaths where bikes and scooters rushed into a space that belonged to pedestrians, and, finally in the metro trains where perfectly healthy men squatted on the train floor, while others struggled to find space to stand upright.
Clearly, the era of darkness is yet to disappear into our history books.
* BL review - http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/books/uday-balakrishnan-reviews-an-era-of-darkness-by-shashi-tharoor/article9391768.ece
* IE review - http://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/books/shashi-tharoor-book-an-era-of-darkness-british-colonialism-in-india-3741446/