I came to this book a sceptic, its very title indicating a stance rather than objective analysis. Indian by birth but British in nationality, I was not sure I wanted such a polarised view as, for a number of years now, I’ve felt loyalties shifting towards my adopted land—for the freedom I enjoy there as a woman and in sorrowful recognition of the fact that, all said and done, it is Britain that has given me my best opportunities. However, Shashi Tharoor’s writing—brisk and persuasive—had me rapt and has rendered me a convert.
Yes, I knew that, the British came essentially to trade before seeing how easy it was to divide and rule for their own benefit. I also knew that those imperialists had shown scant interest in the welfare of their subjects, taking what they wanted for over 200 years before cutting and running, leaving behind a nation brutally torn apart by Partition. But it took this book to make me realise how many aspects of colonialism I did not know, or had not seriously considered. Buying too easily into the facile argument that India was a loosely knit gathering of often warring principalities until the British came along, I had not taken into account that most native rulers were not as dissolute as the convenient British narrative made them out to be, ruling over their people with a great deal more compassion than the Empire did. Tharoor cites the examples of Travancore and Baroda royals.
Tharoor also invites his reader to think of what might have happened to the Mughals and the Marathas, had the British allowed them to be. In that long and heart-tugging list of what-may-have-beens, perhaps the most affecting thought for me was what Nehru described as ‘injuries to self-esteem’ while Tharoor, quoting Pankaj Mishra, also reminds us that the ‘European subordination of Asia was not just economic, political and military but also intellectual, moral and spiritual’. Tharoor meticulously and systematically picks apart every single argument presented by Raj apologists such as Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts and Lawrence James who trot out that old tired list of things Indians should forever remain grateful to the British for: democracy, the rule of law, the English language, railways, tea and cricket. Attempting to sum up Tharoor’s incontestable and nuanced arguments while constrained by a tight word-count would be disrespectful and so I can only exhort everyone to buy this book and explore its brilliance for themselves.