Of roots and wings

COLONIALISM, by its very nature, is a set of unequal relationships between the colonist and the indigenous population. The driving forces behind it are profits, power, escape from persecution/lack of opportunities in the colonist’s metropole and conversion. Exploitation is an implicit causal element. Eventual definitive results include subjugation and displacement of the local residents. India, which for the British was not a settlement but a purely exploitative economy, is still grappling with the humiliating legacy of colonial rule. Or, then again, is she?

The real bequest of colonists is portraying their regime as an aesthetic act with due disregard to any consequent ideological problems. They “sanitise” much that is odourous in their rule and erase much that is culturally specific-leading the colonised to believe that their reign is not only beneficial but vital and desirable. And, therefore, the myth perpetuates because it perpetuates—long after the rulers have politically “vacated”. People then become “complicit in their own de-culturisation and disempowerment”.

But, as we know, there is nothing like benevolent colonialism, there are only historic revisionism and collective amnesia for a people whose lands, resources, rights and freedoms are preempted by a colonising nation. Arundhati Roy likened the debating of the pros and cons of colonialism to debating the pros and cons of rape.

Pavan K. Varma, in his erudite research, which finecombs history and delves into personal experiences from around the world, focuses on the core signifiers of British rule which have become pervasive enough to become “invisible” today. The most prominent, of course, being the English language whose incongruous “adaptation” has reduced Indians to a caricature of the White Sahib. Varma rightly takes the plea that where England, Japan or Germany would have been if they had continued to venerate and place French, for example, above their own tongues?

We continue to speak miscegenated versions of English in imitative accents using “the vocabulary of a newspaper `85 for much of what is central to our psyche, English has no words”. We use it less as a means of communication and more as a carrier of culture—and refuse to understand the difference. The upper class use the language as a means of social exclusion while the other classes try to hack and hew and then suture up some kitsch for upward mobility. The upshot of the whole futile exercise has been the gradual replacement of Macaulay’s clerks with graduates in call centres. Any indulgent “acknowledgement” of our supreme artistic, political or business endeavours by the West is entirely incidental and totally marginal.

Add to that the “pigmentocracy” introduced by white supremacist institutions and the values they inculcated, our society remains highly stratified by colour. Our architecture remains the “single biggest failure of modern India”. Our popular culture takes off from where the West abandoned it while our rich indigenous cultures wilt from lack of replenishment.

Varma argues for the use of English as an international language but not at the expense of our mother tongues. Using numerous examples, he makes a case for developing respect for what is our own, i.e., “reappropriate our culture authentically and with dignity”.

The book is a revealing example of the dialectics of colonialism. It also provides sound arguments for making transformational changes at the top and from deep within, so that we are no longer “brown fish swimming in a bowl held in white hands” that we have been for the past 300 years. Compulsory reading for anyone aspiring to become an Indian.

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