Friday, August 26, 2005

What we like to believe (August 26, 2005)

The debate over The Rising is about India's perception of itself

By Swapan Dasgupta

Let me make an honest but terrible confession. My deep and abiding interest in history began through reading Combat comics. My favourites were the Battler Britain comics about a doughty Royal Air Force officer who, almost single-handedly, took on a German army that seemed incapable of doing much beyond spluttering “Achtung” and “one Englander less.” This interest in a war that ended a decade before my birth was supplemented by films like 633 Squadron, The Guns of Navarone, Operation Crossbow and Longest Day where the good guys invariably prevailed over the baddies who liked boasting that “Vee have vays to make you talk.”

On entering my teens, an interest in India’s past was nurtured through historical novels, written in an era before it was obligatory for Indian writers to reduce the country to one gigantic laboratory of magic realism. First, there were the archaic but robust G.A. Henty classics on the adventures of Clive and battles against Tipoo Sahib. They were written for schoolboys of another country and another generation but they were a nice diversion from books of the Enid Blyton kind. Henty was the original precursor to George Macdonald Fraser’s wonderfully educative books on the wicked adventures of Sir Harry Flashman. I recommend the Flashman books to anyone who has any interest in imperial history.

Then I graduated to Manohar Malgonkar, arguably the best Indian craftsman of the historical novel. Malgonkar’s The Devil’s Wind captured the romance of Nana Saheb and the 1857 uprising, and Bend in the Ganges taught me more about the last phase of the freedom struggle than all the textbooks available at that time. And let me not forget Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet that was so sensitively made into the epic TV-serial Jewel In The Crown by Granada.

Oh yes, there were also some black-and-white Bengali films of indifferent quality on events like the Chittagong Armoury raid, the poet Mukunda Das and the 1942 Quit India Movement. They weren’t anything to write home about and were, in retrospect, unwittingly comic. In their misplaced earnestness they, however, conveyed a flavour of another time, much better than the few ‘histories’ Bollywood deigned to produce.

I delve into my own childhood in the context of the increasingly silly controversies over Ketan Mehta’s Mangal Pandey: The Rising, set around the revolt of 1857. There are some political cretins who want the film banned because it doesn’t mention Mangal’s Ballia janmabhoomi. Then there are other innocent nationalists who have got all worked up at the images of the Sepoy martyr first downing a lota of bhang and then cavorting with fallen women of indeterminate provenance. Finally, there the pamphleteers who say the film should have been all about Mangal coming under the spell of some mysterious Wahabi fakir.

The Rising is not a history, and nor does it pretend to be anything but a loose adaptation of an Amar Chitra Katha-type legend. It is a grand Bollywood extravaganza, with epic battle shots in a Central Asian terrain, realistic costumes and Englishmen who both look and sound like the real thing. Aamir Khan is dashing in an Errol Flynn way as the rebel Sepoy, who was dug out of archival obscurity by British historian John Kaye and immortalised by V. D. Savarkar as the first martyr of the India’s first war of Independence. The film-makers add a nice touch by weaving a parallel plot about the self-doubts of the Scot, Captain Gordon, who befriends Mangal and actually sounds Scottish. The Rising they combine a good adventure story with a garnishing of Bollywood mirch masala.

In historical terms, as Rudrangshu Mukherjee has shown in his well-timed monograph on the real ‘Mungul Pandy’, The Rising is fantasy. Mangal, he concludes, after a study of the available evidence, was quite an “accidental hero”, completely impervious to any winds of nationalism that may have been blowing across the plains of Hindustan.

Looking at the celluloid Mangal, any worthwhile historian would have little hesitation in echoing what The Dean of Lincoln Cathedral had to say about the fascinating story of The Da Vinci Code: “a load of old tosh.” Regardless of whether the Brahmin Sepoy was a victim of bhang, as the court martial suggested, or a symbol of patriotic defiance, as Savarkar claimed 50 years after the event, The Rising takes charming liberties with history.

The question is: so what?

In India, popular history—as opposed to academic history—is not only about what exactly happened but what is believed to have happened. The latter perception stems not from the East India Company’s detailed records but from the nationalist legends that grew around the first Sepoy “martyr”, some five decades after the event. Whether it is Shivaji or Siraj-ud-Doulah, Mangal Pandey or Bhagat Singh, popular history is always a blend of reality and folklore. It is neither necessary nor desirable to contest it. In real life, Shivaji and Maharana Pratap may have looked quite something else but in the Indian imagination they will always be the dashing warriors created by the imagination of Raja Ravi Varma.

This has always been so. The great Arab scholar Al Biruni came to India with the Ghaznavid vandals of Mahmud in the 11th century. He was a keen observer and what struck him was the fact that the Hindus did not share the sense of history that prevailed in West Asia. The Hindus, he wrote, a thousand years ago, “do not pay much attention to the historical order of things; they are very careless in relating the chronological succession of their Kings, and when they are pressed for information and are at a loss, not knowing what to say, they invariably take to tale-telling.”

It sounds an indictment but it also suggests that Indians never believed that history rests in the archives. History is what we, today, like to believe was our yesterday.

This negotiable sense of the past is due to another reason too. For the past three decades, professional historians in India have demonstrated their ability to destroy all interest in the subject. First, the numbing prose of the likes of Bipan Chandra and other Arjun Singh favourites has infected generations of school-children with a virulent allergy to history. Secondly, from being gripping tales of heroes, villains, kings and saints, history has been reduced to deathly boring dissections of social formations, modes of production and syncretic culture. Narrative history has been killed. With it has died the romance of history. Both are casualties of kill-joy comrades, many of whom also double up as film critics these days.

The great thing about The Rising is that it has helped rekindle some interest in the events of 1857, just as Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi did about the Mahatma and Shyam Benegal’s The Forgotten Hero did about Subhas Chandra Bose. A country needs heroes to nurture its sense of nationhood. Once upon a time these values were imbibed in schools and shakhas. Unfortunately, they only teach science and mathematics in schools these days. It is left to Aamir Khan to tell us about our past. He does it much better than either grim Marxists with limited vocabularies and scant use of the full stop or incomprehensible post-modernists.

“To poison a nation”, the African writer Ben Okri once said, “poison its stories. A demoralised nation tells demoralised stories to itself.” The reel versus real debate over Mangal Pandey is not really about history. It is a debate over India’s perception of itself. My vote is unequivocally for The Rising.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, August 26, 2005)

Friday, August 12, 2005

Regae, halal and 7/7 (August 12, 2005)

The British need to become emotionally British again

By Swapan Dasgupta

The day after 7/7 and the American media’s discovery of a caricatured version of the stiff upper lip and British resilience, an English historian sought to capture the grittiness of London through the evergreen lyrics of Noel Coward: “Every Blitz/ Your resistance/ Toughening, /From the Ritz/ To the Anchor and Crown/ Nothing ever could override/ The pride of London Town.” Three weeks later, there was Boris Johnson, the incorrigible editor of The Spectator and Conservative MP for Henley preaching “We’ve all got to be as British as Carry On films…”

For the scattered inhabitants of what The Daily Telegraph describes in Rhodes-esque terms as the “Anglosphere”, the past month has been both traumatic and heady. Traumatic because it was not easy to comprehend why a British-born, cricket-loving son of a fish-and-chips shop owner in Leeds believed that martyrdom on the Piccadilly Line was the most appropriate way to precipitate a global Islamic Caliphate. Equally disturbing was the finding of a YouGov survey that 24 per cent of Britain’s 1.1 million adult Muslims actually sympathised with the objectives of the London bombers. The bewilderment over the new breed of Islamist terrorists was well described by the novelist Hanif Kureishi. “These men”, he wrote, “believed they had access to the Truth, as stated in the Qur’an. There could be no doubt—or even much dispute about moral, social and political problems—because God had the answers. Therefore, for them to argue with the Truth was like trying to disagree with the facts of geometry.”

The implications are hideous. If terrorism is to be fought by addressing what well-meaning liberals insist are the “root causes”, how is any government going to grapple with the certitudes of people who insist their actions are divinely ordained? Political therapy may necessitate something even more farcical than compulsory screenings of Carry on up the Khyber and assorted Ealing comedies at the British equivalent of Guantanamo Bay.

Yet, there is light at the end of the London Underground. It may be impossible to persuade the Osama bin Laden devotees that God’s kingdom on earth should await a backward journey in time or be confined to Pakistan. However, some of the post-bombing reactions in Britain do suggest that even a “good-natured nation”—Tony Blair’s words—isn’t obliged to meekly offer itself as jihadi fodder. In the face of attacks from a determined bunch of crazies who, unfortunately, enjoy a measure of community sanction, robust and united self-defence is the only way out.

The Blitz wasn’t only about East Enders cheering the King and Queen during their walkabouts, the inspiring eloquence of Winston Churchill over crackling wireless sets and good-natured queues at the local butcher’s shop. If that had been the case, Britain would have emulated the fortunes of a Republican Spain which, as the cynical poet put it, lost all the battles but had the best songs. What came to be called Britain’s “finest hour” was made possible by the relentless production of Hurricanes and Spitfires, by adroit diplomacy that saw President Franklin Roosevelt extending covert support, and the incredible mobilisation of the military and civilian population alike. It was also made possible—and the Blitz mythology glosses over these—by draconian action against black marketers, saboteurs, British fascists, “aliens” and anyone suspected of either aiding or abetting the enemy. The British resolve didn’t happen because Britons thought goose-stepping and jackboots were silly. It happened because it was made to happen.

The problem with popular history is that it is woefully selective. Britain, there is little doubt, had a glorious war. At the same time, it had an equally inglorious run-up to the war. In hindsight, the umbrella-waving Neville Chamberlain may appear a slightly ridiculous figure who even mistook the butler at Berchtesgaden for Hitler. Yet, it is undeniable that by the time he landed in Northolt promising peace with honour and peace in our time, he was the most adored politician in Britain. From the balcony of Buckingham Palace flanked by royalty, he was feted by crowds who frankly didn’t give a damn whether Czechoslovakia remained independent or became an outpost of the Third Reich. Appeasement wasn’t a conspiracy hatched at Cliveden; it was a popular impulse. At the beginning of 1938, only Reds and discards spoke of a coming war with Germany; 24 months later was the Blitz.

History doesn’t invariably repeat itself. Yet, there are disconcerting similarities between events leading up to the Blitz and the run-up to 7/7. Between 1935 (that’s when Hitler’s menacing potential was first acknowledged) and 1939, Britain deluded itself into believing that Hitler was at best a vulgar upstart and at worst a mendacious crank who would sooner or later over-reach himself. The policy of appeasement arose from the belief that it wasn’t necessary to confront some innocuous displays of torchlight dramatics. And, of course, there was an underlying guilt at having punished Germany a little too harshly at Versailles in 1919.

Whether Britain’s current guilt pangs over the Balfour Declaration of 1918 correspond to the inter-War angst over the Treaty of Versailles is for the future to judge. What is patently clear, however, is that solidarity with Palestine has helped mask some of the most insidious forms of pan-Islamism. At the root of this airbrushing of history is Britain’s profound post-imperial guilt. The wave of immigration into Britain from South Asia and the West Indies between 1948 and 1974 may have been necessitated by a mix of economics and obligation. However, the hiccups arising from the abrupt entry of black and brown faces into a society traditionally wary of foreigners—maharajas, cricketers and Gurkhas apart—were sought to be tackled with a Patiala peg of something called multi-culturalism.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to suggest that in terms of debilitation, the British multi-culturalism of the past 25 years is akin to the appeasement policy of the 1930s. In trying to force-feed cultural pluralism down the throat of native Britons, the liberal establishment committed a colossal blunder. It presumed that integration was a one-way street and the majority’s obligation to the minorities.

The consequences were catastrophic. British identity was confronted with its scissor crisis. There was the challenge from the European integrationists and there was the confusion over multi-culturalism. While Brussels pressed relentlessly with its complex rules and regulations, the race relations industry experimented with reggae and halal. The fancy dress parties in Brixton, Southall, Wembley and Brick Lane were by themselves quite harmless, adding some flamboyance and bad food to Britain. Unfortunately, they went hand in hand with the message that immigrants had no obligation to integrate themselves into the Anglosphere. On the contrary, multi-culturalism demanded the creation of little Indias, Pakistans, Bangladeshs and Jamaicas in the heart of urban England.

The declaration of war on Britain by jihadis, nurtured, schooled and fattened by a permissive and contrite state, was a disaster waiting to happen.

Post-7/7 there hasn’t been a physical backlash but the ferocity of the emotional reaction has been staggering. “The rules of the game”, Blair assured the indignant last week, “are changing.” It would be heartening if the change is not confined to expelling every rabid, neo-literate mullah back to Pakistan and keeping youngsters with pantomime beards and desert headgear under MI5 surveillance. In enforcing Britishness, Britain must reclaim some of its own values and upholding institutions that stand in danger of crumbling through prolonged neglect. Since the age of irreverence dawned in 1968, Britishness has been equated with a passport issued by HMG. It’s time Britain became emotionally British again.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, August 12, 2005)