Saturday, April 30, 2011

British royalty: a shared hallucination

By Swapan Dasgupta

Maybe I have a wrong set of friends but the conversation throughout last Friday centred on the Royal Wedding in London. One TV channel tried to engage me in an evening discussing on the Purulia arms drop but I was having none of that. Between downing vast quantities of bubbly at the garden party co-hosted by the British High Commission and the BBC (which, for a change, did the right thing and flew the flag) and debating a spooky controversy, my priorities were clear.

The newly-appointed Duke and Duchess of Cambridge may mean very little to the India of 2011. Unlike his grandmother and father who assiduously keep alive their Indian and other Commonwealth connections, Prince William is still in his internship and hasn't yet grasped all his future responsibilities. But in the normal course of things he is a future King of Britain who has broken new ground by marrying a thoroughly English commoner. This may explain why an estimated two billion people in the world watched their wedding on TV. And, presumably, at least 10 to 15 per cent of the viewers were Indians. Yes, the William and Kate wedding did captivate the ordinary, unpretentious middle-class Indian imagination more than the politically-correct commentariat will admit.

This doesn't surprise me in the least. First, regardless of the periodic outbursts of anti-imperialism and nationalist self-assertion, Indians nurture a genuine fondness for Britain and its traditional institutions. We may have ceased to have a King-Emperor in 1947 but Independence and a new political arrangement wasn't accompanied by an enduring hatred and bitterness. There were a lot of things Indians disliked about the Raj but in the six decades of Independence these have been overshadowed by the inheritance we cherish. We may have changed the names of roads and public buildings and banished the imposing bronzes of imperial rulers to obscure venues but the relationship of India and Britain remains "a shared hallucination" (Enoch Powell's telling description).

Those with an interest in the past should research the exhaustive coverage in India of the death and funeral of Sir Winston Churchill—a man who, in his lifetime, was loathed by Indian nationalists for his unwavering defence of the Empire. The posthumous respect showered on Churchill or, for that matter, Lord Mountbatten, suggests a large-heartedness that narrow nationalism has always failed to appreciate. One day, India will also have the decency to relocate one of the discarded bronzes of Lord Curzon to a site overlooking the either the Archaeological Survey of India or the new building of the Ministry of External Affairs. Curzon, after all, began the process of preserving India's inheritance for India and putting the mark of India on a foreign policy that was independent of Whitehall.

In this infuriatingly complex "shared hallucination", the House of Windsor occupies a special place. Why are the Indian immigrants to Britain so categorically royalist? Why do they crave for that invitation to one of the garden parties at Buckingham Palace or even a chance to donate generously to a charity endorsed by the Prince of Wales? No amount of radical multiculturalism has been able to prevent British Indians from adoring the monarchy. This is not merely because Indians (and particularly Hindus) love to adapt; the sentiments are more heartfelt.

Nor does the belief that monarchy is the natural order in Britain stop at the Indian diaspora. I have always been amused that the persistence of Guardian-loving editors here to have the British monarch described as Queen Elizabeth II—much like the ship—has been scuttled by popular usage. For English-speaking India, the old lady with the handbag and the slightly batty husband is still 'the Queen'; there is no other. At the same time, India is a proud Republic.

This peculiar schizophrenia may a source of bewilderment to sociologists but it is nevertheless real. The Royal Wedding proved immensely popular with Indians because it epitomised many of the institutions we hold dear.

The first was the sheer pageantry. It is worth exploring whether the splendour of the occasion was something they learnt from us or we preserved because of them. But the coming together of ceremony, tradition, family and patriotism was something Indians have instinctively celebrated and which the country's new-found prosperity has allowed us to rediscover. We have even recognised its tourism potential, just as Britain has.

Many Indians may not have appreciated all the finer details of the very English, Christian service that solemnised the marriage. They may not have grasped the political significance within England of the singing of William Parry's 'Jerusalem' and the choice of Sir Edward Elgar's 'Crown Imperial' that accompanied the procession of the bride and groom from the altar. But what may have impressed Indians was the fact that the Englishness of the occasion wasn't distorted by some contrived multi-faith or secular improvisation.

I loved the flag-waving on the streets, the street-parties for the kids, the merry-making in the pubs and the overall message of a nation united. And I particularly loved the Bishop of London for quoting the lesser-known St Catherine of Siena to put it all into context: "Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire". That's something we should never forget.

[This article is dedicated to raising the hackles of the grim, the sanctimonious and those who lack the ability to laugh at themselves.]

Sunday Pioneer, May 1, 2011



Ankit Mital said...

Mr. Dasgupta,
I am a regular reader of your column and if I may, a fellow anglophile. I too, like you, have had the privilege of a British Education. Reading your column sometimes makes me wonder whether they would be discernible, either in part or in whole to a reader lacking even an average knowledge of Britain. I doubt the average reader would be able to appreciate the colloquial Queens Language as used in your columns. Sadly even a contemporary Englishman might be forgiven if he pleads ignorance at the mention of Enoch Powell or if his judgement of the man coloured by the Guardian. Your ordinary reader won’t be able to tell Jerusalem the hymn from the city.

So, in a nutshell, I was just wondering whether most of your articles make sense to readers of the pioneer or the telegraph (Calcutta). Maybe shifting to the Daily Telegraph (London) would be better? Though the Indian right would miss you, but it seems to be a lost cause anyhow. And given the current state of the coalition in Britain, the Conservatives need all the help they can get!!

Anonymous said...

Swapanda, tongue-in-cheek jabs at the dour left understood, but I think you speak for Indians of a certain vintage when you write of Indian Windsor obsession. Most of the younger generation watched the wedding not for the tradition or the ceremony but because there was no escaping the ceremony if you switched on the TV. So while you may have watched for the sake of the bygone Raj, most youngsters watched bits of it to see who wore what dress. In any case, to most Indians born after 1965, "the west" really only means one country: the United States. Britain is a quaint old museum-piece, and one treats it like that. Except, I suppose, Libyans.