The task of making a huge, alien land a friendly and cozy one was never easy. Colonialism mistakenly assumes that a conquered territory has no civilization of its own and has to have one imposed on it. In this scenario, the governing and the governed actors each play their assigned roles in a well-oiled machine. However, situations evolve and conflict arises.
When I was in grade school in Beirut we had a teacher who regularly read us stories from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Through these wonderful stories, I met Mowgli, the naked feral child who lives with a wolf pack.
Rudyard Kipling was born and lived in India which was the setting for his novels As a child I, of course, never picked up on his paternalistic and essentially racist view of that extraordinary country. The wisdom of those days was that “the white man knows best.”
Some considered Kipling to be second-rate as a novelist. George Orwell wrote that “five generations of enlightened people” despised Kipling as “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.” Oscar Wilde said his writing showed “superb flashes of vulgarity.”
England’s role and rule in India was always a murky, ambitious and ambivalent one. It started in the 18th century with the East India Trading Co and gradually extended into wars of conquest through which vast territories were acquired until India became “The Jewel in the Crown” of the largest empire in the world. From 1858 until 1947, the British Raj (or rule) controlled most of the sub-continent.
And then, change happened. Less-educated British people arrived and clashed with highly-educated Indians who had been brilliantly schooled by the British. This contrast is depicted in E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India where characters no longer know what their assigned roles are and totally misunderstand and misjudge each other.
In such a climate it is not hard to conjure up aggression. The British in their snobbishness rapidly retreated to their exclusive and segregated country clubs and Indian doctors and other intellectuals were left in a sort of no man’s land, estranged from their own countrymen.
Today, Indian local customs and values culminate in the cult of the ancient river Ganges which is considered sacred and personified by the goddess Ganga. This is where people come to wash off their sins and be purified in a frenzy of devotion. They do this in water that has been highly contaminated by humans and animals washing, bathing and eliminating as well as toxic waste and untreated sewage. Still, they come.
India is no longer occupied by conquerors, but it is weighed down by ancient superstitions and apathy in the face of outdated beliefs and customs.