Shards of Broken Shackles
Reflecting on India's 77th Year of freedom from the British Raj
Welcome to Berkana! I have lately been meditating on the importance to arrive at my roots with as much conviction as I do in my present. I feel at home in my present self, although the impermanence of identity has haunted me as long as I have developed self-awareness. We all are made of layers both conscious and unconscious, weaved into our existence for generations. There are certainties about us, the visible part of familial and cultural conditioning, that we recognize within us. But then there are other parts that are buried beneath a million peels of the subconscious, becoming inherently a part of our experience, and hence shape our character. Therefore some of what we are can be explained with plain logic, like checking a list of labels that society has created to categorize a human, but some of our inclinations remain unexplained. For instance, I fail to understand my obsessive fascination with colonial architecture and artifacts, or my love for neo-classical music that haunts me in my moments of creativity and solitude. I usually am unclear of what I am thinking unless I write my thoughts down and then step back to analyze and understand if it comprehends a coherent emotion, experience, or idea. So here, I attempt to not only reconnect to my roots but also understand my inexplicable Stockholm syndrome like romanticism with the literature, art, music, and architectural remnants of colonialism.
A Golden Bird, out of its Golden Cage
I am aware of the history of my country and my people. ‘Loot’ - the 200 years of systemic mining of wealth that the colonialists have unleashed on the Indian subcontinent emptying us of our wealth and resources built for approximately 5000 years in just about a turn of two centuries. The religious and communal disharmony instigated by the British East India Company under the protection of the Crown. The British as they departed, left every nook and corner of my motherland, broken, pillaged, and destabilized politically, and economically. Her people left to pick up the pieces from the shambles of shame, property, deprivation, and bloody communal riots. Why should I ever have a fascination with anything that belongs to such insidious times? These are one of those conflicted feelings that seem to be a part of my consciousness that haunts and baffles me senseless. The West has broken the financial backbones of my nation, from which we are still reeling. And we are yet to receive a formal apology from either the present British royals or the publicly elected administration to appease the past wounds. An apology is essential in spirit of recognition of the damages done to the social and financial institutions of India - ‘The Golden Bird’, they called it in their smug ways. And yet I ache with a deep colonial nostalgia that almost moves me beyond my passive acceptance of the past, the one that both angers me and propels me into a melancholic trance wrapped around centuries of generational undulation in the name of progress.
Nostalgia is a word used in the appropriation of history, for looking at the past with longing for something that is lost forever. Something that inherently belonged to us, but now we don’t even know what it was. I wonder if my nostalgia is a product of an image of comfort that I have been raised on, the blueprints of the world left behind by the colonizers. Or is it my innate love for the English language that inadvertently shaped my consciousness to love the style of the West? I devoured my literature textbooks like a child does a fresh batch of deep-fried crispy Rosette cookies, also known as Achappam or Accha Muruku in southern India. My childhood was safely tucked away between fond memories of reading and eating homemade snacks. Maybe that is the source of nostalgia because the foundation of Indian literature in the English language was built upon the conjured images of orientalist and racist views of Rudyard Kipling, E M Forster, and other similar writers who created a reduced white man’s perspective of whatever a brown person’s identity seem to uphold in their egocentric fictional universes. Colonialism has been, at best, dealt with the least amount of scrutiny by these writers and has later been justified as an “Englishmen’s earlier understanding”. In my opinion, these works are covertly racist and create vivid montages in order to hide the casual acceptance of colonialism as a colossal system that pushed well-meaning men who eventually transform into racist and harmful antagonists. But that is a whole another topic that deserves its own analysis essay, so let's keep it for another time.
Often Bent, Never Broken
The Crown has been a symbol of our past indignation, which is rarely acknowledged. Our plight to recover from their past well-organized and well-documented crimes was often passively witnessed without any response. However pretentious sympathies, there were plenty. Hence suffice to say that we, at the peaks of our nationalistic sentiments on the 77th Independence Day, are easy to get triggered by the words ‘Commonwealth’ and ‘Queen’.
The pre-colonial India was a bunch of states trying to find a suitable alliance to secure a seat at the table of the Delhi Sultanate. The sultanate was primarily the Mughal administration. The country thrived with peace with occasional conflicts which were solved by extension of kinship within the royals. Indian princes and princesses married many Mughal princesses and princes to maintain order and avoid conflicts amongst the kingdoms. The Mughals held the utmost power, and hence all the comprises were made on their terms. At its peak, Mughal India’s economy consisted of more than 24%-35% of the world’s total wealth. If you don’t believe me check out what 'Massdion, Development Centre Studies The World Economy Historical Statistics: Historical Statistics', has to state:
From the 1st century CE to the start of British colonization in India in the 17th century, India's GDP varied between 25% and 35% of the world's total GDP, more than all of Europe combined. It dropped to 2% by the time Britain departed India in 1947.
Under the rule of the sixth emperor of the Mughal dynasty, Aurangzeb, the sub-continent was torn between revolts and power moves by other regional kings. Although Aurangzeb expanded the empire to its greatest territorial extent, his policies and actions, including religious intolerance and centralization of power, contributed to internal instability and unrest. The weakening of the Mughal Empire during Aurangzeb's reign created opportunities for the British to tighten their hold across the sub-continent under the guise of diplomatic reforms, liberal policies, and legitimized trade. The British East India Company spread through the lands like efficient networks of fungus to feed and grow on the toxic remnants of the internal political turmoil of the torn Mughal India.
The Fallacy of Progress
I have heard a million times people - well-educated, liberal, and seemingly intellectual people justify colonialism in one sentence - “But what about the railways?” Well, one must get over the savior image self-painted by the colonizers to understand that the British were no generous benefactors when they connected the subcontinent with extensive railway lines. The motive was to mobilize resources to various ports, which were then carried out of the country and right into the Queen’s coffers. The construction of railways was funded by Indian taxpayers, and the economic benefits often flowed back to Britain in the form of profits pocketed by British shareholders. The total wealth drain of India under British rule, in today's value is an estimated $45 trillion. And when they finally left, the sub-continent was torn between various religious sects, turned against each other, and the railways became a site for mass slaughters as India and Pakistan formed separate countries. The British policy of “divide and rule” came in handy as the inglorious British Raj was coming to an end. Pretty sure some officers reveled in the bloodshed as the brown people raped and butchered one another, the pleasure of a showdown before retiring. At this point, I would like to request the half-assed liberals to kindly keep their delusional explanation for why colonialism was not so bad for India and the British were such white messiahs who propelled our progress, out of their pretentious mouths.
Let's talk about the sophistication of culture and progress for a while.
Indian Indigenous Dravidian language family, consisting of about 80 varieties spoken by 220 million people across southern and central India and surrounding countries, is at least 4800 years old. According to the mythological and literary epic Ramayana, the city of Taxila was founded by Bharata, the son of Kaikeyi, and younger half-brother of Lord Rama. Taxila was at the crossroad of the leading trade roads of Asia and was an epicenter of culture and knowledge exchange with scholars from across the world including but not limited to the Persians, Greeks, Scythians etc. The highly systemized Vedic model of learning helped establish large Universities such as Nalanda, Taxila, and Vikramashila which originated around the 5th century BCE. In early Buddhist literature, particularly in the Jatakas, Taxila is frequently mentioned as a university center where students could get instruction in almost any subject, religious or secular, from the Veda to mathematics and medicine, even to astrology and archery. Even the original manuscript of Buddha’s origin story, the Jataka Tales, was written in the Pali language, which is a derivative of the Sanskritic and Devanagari languages widely used during the Indo-Aryan Vedic period. The origin of Ayurveda, and medical details such as methods of early rhinoplasty, classification of burns into four degrees, explaining the effect of heat stroke, frostbite, and lightning injuries, classification of eye diseases in 76 categories, introduction of wine as surgical anesthetic, and classification of bone dislocations were found in Sushruta Samhita, considered to be one of the foundational surviving ancient texts on medicine and Ayurveda. It was written by Maharshi Sushruta, a great ascetic, saint, and visionary in the field of surgery and medicine born in the mid-1st millennium BCE in the kingdom of Kashi. So no, progress was not brought to our ancient and sophisticated civilization by the British. India has always been progressive, not measurable with the metrics of the West, but nevertheless rich in art, literature, ideologies, and even medicine.
Ahead of the Curve
I am a golden child of a golden age of India, raised away from the past trauma of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre by Colonel Reginald Dyer who amassed a troop of 50 soldiers to shoot at 1700 unarmed civilians who organized a non-violent protest for the freedom movement. I am born in a millennium when there was no export ban on Indian goods by the governing colonial government, to purchase the raw material for cheap and then distribute their mass-produced goods at low cost to their colonies to extort more money, and drive our artisans, farmers, and textile laborers into further poverty. I am raised on Gandhi’s values of Satyagraha (insistence on truth), on peaceful non-cooperation. I did not bear the brunt of the violence that was a byproduct of colonialism. My grandparents who fled Bangladesh rife with communal conflicts, seeds of which were implanted decades before the actual partition of the subcontinent, knew the real pain of loss. They lost their land, home, generational wealth, and the most precious of all, their roots because of the unrest and divide created in our sub-continent by those who thought they were superior just because they had less melanin in their body, because they sat on chairs, and ate with knife and fork, wore pants, and drank tea in bone china cutlery. Maybe I am raised away from all these loss and contempt, into a world with more tolerance, and mutual respect, imbibed with the importance of forgiveness and compassion. But I am raised in the absence of a sense of belonging, an alienation from my own culture, a sense of shame of being brown that was freely passed down like heritage across generations, in reluctance to accept my country’s foul history, in lack of representation in the global stage, in longing to become someone who could be respected in global communities. I might be a golden child, the dream of my ancestors, springing out of their prayers, tears, and blood. But I am also a product of the colonizer's love-hate relationship with my land. My identity, at best, is a conflict. I am a child of destiny, equal parts oppressor and oppressed.
I asked myself for the longest - How could a person whose people were treated worse than cattle, driven out of their homes, herded and shot, slurred at and whipped, called animals and vermins, lost all their great-great-grandmother’s history, lost all their great-great-grandfather’s ancestry, ever be respected, accepted, and celebrated for their work and identity? And I hear my ancestors whisper, permeating through my subconscious, by being brave they said, by not mincing words to avoid making others uncomfortable, by taking time to grieve, to know forgiveness intimately, by carrying compassion bigger than your heart, by unsubscribing from all political and religious ideologies, by being sincere in your intentions, and by being friends with those who speak their truths with courage too, by calling mother Earth your home.
So I promised myself that my work will lead to the dissolution of boundaries rather than creating more. Now I can give myself the permission to heal from my nation's gruesome history and request the rest of 1.4 billion Indians to let the bygones be bygones even if it still hurts. We are global citizens of a modern world working towards more intricate problems, and it’s about time that we let go of our differences to collaborate and celebrate our unique individual strengths. To make this beautiful abundant mother Earth, a better place.
Soon up next
I recently traveled to the Nilgiris, apparently ‘discovered’ by a British administrator. A fancy way to stamp the achievement of a servant of the crown who set the foundation of the very first British settlement in the then-untouched Nilgiris. Before the settlers arrived, the rightful warden of the Nilgiris were the several indigenous tribes of the region, whose history has been overshadowed and mostly forgotten by the collective. The Nilgiris is a magical place, and I plan to tell you more about it and its people in my next post.
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