Robert Clive was hailed as the ‘heaven-born general’ and he went on to lay the foundation of British rule in India

On the evening of Friday, the 13 of July, stood a few hundred smartly-dressed men and women under the open sky in the lawns of Taj Connemara, listening to the short and sweet speeches being made on the stage.

It was a reception hosted by the ambassador of France on the occasion of the country’s National Day. As I stood in a corner, sweating profusely like others because of the collective heat generated by the human bodies, my mind perched on a what-if question.

Playing with what-if questions can be quite an enriching time-pass: What if Subhas Bose had stayed on in the Congress? What if Vallabhbhai Patel — and not Nehru — had become the prime minister of India? What if the DMK had not split? What if Jyoti Basu — instead of Deve Gowda — had become the prime minister in 1996?

The path of life is strewn with such questions, including those of personal nature, such as: What if I had become an engineer instead of a journalist?

The what-if question that struck me on this evening at Taj Connemara (now called Vivanta by Taj Connemara) was: What if the British had been defeated by the French in the three Carnatic Wars that took place between 1746 and 1763? Had that been the case, you would find this column being written in French.

Not only that: you’d probably be entitled to a handsome allowance from the French government in case you are retired; your children would be getting a chance to study in France; you would be having access to some of the best wines in the world; you would be making annual trips to Paris — residents of Pondicherry who opted for French citizenship should be able to brief you better about the benefits.

But one man decided to stand between you and the delights of Paris — that was Robert Clive.

Clive was only 18 when he arrived in Madras, as a clerk of the East India Company, in 1744, on May 31 — the peak of summer. Those days, the waves of the sea kissed the gates of Fort St. George, and Clive only had to walk from the boat to his room in Writers’ Building (long demolished) inside the fort. The heat and monotony of his job depressed Clive so much that he put a gun to his temple soon after his arrival. But when the gun refused to fire, Clive knew he was destined for greatness.

In 1746, when French forces stationed in Pondicherry took over Fort St. George, Robert Clive escaped to Cuddalore and signed up as a soldier and fought bravely. His acts of bravery came in for commendation by the commander of Company troops, Major Stringer Lawrence, who is considered the father of modern Indian Army.

In 1751, when there was a war over succession to the Nawabship of Arcot, Clive threw his weight behind Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah, while the French supported Chanda Sahib. Clive won — that is why you have Wallajah Road today, and not rue Chanda Sahib.

Following this victory, Clive was hailed as ‘heaven-born general’ and he went on to lay the foundation of British rule in India. Clive’s decisive victory over France two and a half centuries ago was resonant even on this evening: the lawn where the reception was hosted by the French ambassador is called the English Garden.