This is a pre-read book review
Normally, people read a book first and then do a review of that book based on what they read. I’m going to do things a little backward and give you my review first and then go read the book.
The book that I’m talking about is called An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India by Shashi Tharoor. It was released in Oct 2016. I have been waiting to read this book for quite some time.
While much has been written about the British empire and the brutality of colonization, none of those accounts came from an Indian perspective. African-Americans have been able to recount the horrors of slavery through books such as Inhuman Bondage and Many Thousands Gone, but Indians have only been served an ersatz history of the empire by apologists such as Niall Ferguson (Empire) and Lawrence James (The Rise and Fall of the British Empire).
Tharoor’s book, which took shape after his speech on the subject went viral last year, is an extensive examination of the economic and cultural damage wreaked upon India over the 200 years it was under British rule. In order to establish their dominion, the British dismantled the organic structure of the subcontinent which was always, as the historian Jon Wilson noted, “a society of little societies”.
Tharoor rubbishes the argument that the British were better than the native kings they were supplanting by citing the good governance in kingdoms such as Travancore, Mysore and Oudh. Even the Moghuls, who ruled India for over three centuries, assimilated themselves into the region and the capital extracted under their empire never left the country.
The British, however, kept themselves aloof from the customs of the indigenous people and systematically siphoned off the country’s wealth to Britain. According to Tharoor, “By the early 1800s, India had been reduced from a land of artisans, traders, warriors and merchants, functioning in thriving and complex commercial networks, into an agrarian society of peasants and moneylenders”.
Tharoor is at his eloquent best when deconstructing the malice and connivance of the empire. One only wishes that Tharoor had delved deeper into the curious absence of the right wing from the Indian freedom struggle. This could have laid bare their hypocrisy in invoking patriotism while using the same tactics deployed by the British. Sedition was enacted as an offense in 1870 to suppress any criticism of British policies so it’s rather unfortunate that, after a hundred and forty-six years, the same law is being used to arrest anyone criticizing the present government.
Tharoor’s book is also important in the current political climate where the contribution of some prominent freedom fighters is being systematically erased from school syllabus. The present government’s drive to erase any version of history that doesn’t align with their wilful retelling is similar to how the British doctored the narrative in their favour while making themselves appear like saviours.
I find it disheartening when I come across Indians who defend the British empire. Calcutta, in particular, has a colonial hangover that shows no signs of getting cured.
Tharoor’s book bridges the gap and deserves to be read by both British and Indian audiences; the British can perhaps use it to acknowledge the disgrace of empire while Indians can use it as a reminder of how we shouldn’t be divided and taken advantage of again. After all, as Tharoor states in the book, “history belongs in the past, but understanding it is the duty of the present”.