Lit For Life 2015 Lit for Life

I believe in the Age of Reason: Charles Allen

Charles Allen: historian, broadcaster and traveller.  

With a recorded family association with India that goes back to the Revolt of 1857, Charles Allen — historian, broadcaster, and the author of 23 books on the Indian subcontinent — has an intense, if somewhat conflicted, relationship with the country of his birth. Born in Kanpur in 1940, Charles Allen was eight when he left India. His links with the subcontinent never snapped. From an interest in British Indophiles and India-based writers of the colonial period — like Rudyard Kipling for example — Allen is now focusing on historical figures from Indian history. His next book is on south India, its religions and sects, and the elements within Indian tradition of what he calls “Dravidian-ness.” Excerpts from an interview at the British Library, London.

The organisers and enthusiasts of The Hindu’s Lit for Life festival are, I am sure, looking forward to hearing you. Would you like to give us a sneak preview of your talk, and share some of the issues and themes that you will be touching on?

One of the wonderful things about India is that you learn something and then you learn that is not the whole story and you go deeper and deeper. I started on the surface — and the surface that I knew was the British Raj — and soon realised that I had just scraped the skin and had to go deeper. Rather like archaeology, you know.

I am proud of the fact that I have done a book on Asoka; he is an extremely important person and his philosophy is still very relevant today. I really began the book because I was angry at the way Romila Thapar had been treated by some elements within Indian society.

Another theme I would like to talk about is (Rudyard) Kipling. I have been interested in him because we have had a family connection. There is a bad Kipling and a good Kipling and while the bad Kipling has done a lot of damage, the good Kipling is worth going back to and rediscovering.

I would like to speak on other things that I am enthusiastic about. I want to put India right on Orientalism. A lot of my heroes are from that small tiny minority of people who came as part of the exploitative structure of India but who actually became enamoured with it, wanted to learn about India and made it their crusade. So my hero would not be someone like Robert Clive, but rather William Jones, James Princep and, to a lesser extent, Alexander Cunningham.

There is yet another strand. I am a passionate believer in the Age of Reason. The Enlightenment, for me, presents a double whammy, because I am a quasi-Buddhist but at the same time also believe in the Age of Reason, which in a sense is against religion. I wish India had more of both.

The general observation is that India has all too much of religion, I thought….

I agree, but there is a fascinating phenomenon in the fifth century BC in India — and indeed in Greece, China and Iran — when at a certain stage of human evolution (that saw) the move to the cities and the growth of city power, people starting to think for themselves and became less reliant on the priests and Brahmins. You get Confucius, Socrates and Plato, and in India interestingly you not only get Buddha Sakyamuni, but Mahavira, and Gosala, the founder of the Ajivika sect. These three or four fascinating sects are the equivalent of the stoics in Greece, and contain the idea that somehow Man is at the centre of things; he can provide the answers, and he can stand alone.

I would love to speak on the theme of history as propaganda, and the need to look at history with open eyes. I think for example that modern India’s obsession with the freedom struggle and its leaders has done enormous damage [for history] and not allowed India to move on. Because it has created a myth…

The freedom struggle was hardly a myth, you would agree …

No, it was hugely important in India’s history, of course, but there is the mythologising of some elements of it and the ignoring of other elements.

I think a very good example, to me, is the move in the United Kingdom led by Lord Desai on the Gandhi statue outside Parliament. I am totally opposed to it, because I feel that if you have to put a statue up there, it should be to Dr. Ambedkar. He was a much greater figure in Indian history than Gandhi, who I think is riddled with inconsistencies.

And dare I say it, I think you have failed to look at him critically, and this is what is so dangerous about having Gandhi statues everywhere.

Moving on, would you like to talk about the work you are currently doing, on south India, I understand.

A key element would be on what element of Indian-ness is Dravidian-ness. (I can’t think of another word for it at the moment.)

Take Mehrgarh. Why is it that the spoken language here has strong commonalities with the language of the people in the south? I am fascinated by other links, example, mother goddess worship, snake worship and so on.

I want to look at the underlying elements that have survived of the earliest India. The book’s working title is Coromandel: Another India. I agree with Edward Said who said the British tried to impose “order upon chaos”. But chaos is very important, you need it. As a Briton, I will impose my kind of order on the chaos that essentially survives in south India.

Are the transitions in your approach to India reflected in your range of writing?

I still think I get things wrong. I have this problem with Gandhi. For me and for my family, the biggest flaw in Gandhi is that, in 1942, he promoted the Quit India Movement, at a time when we were fighting fascism. I find that unforgivable. I also have a huge problem with Subhas Chandra Bose for the same reason, much to the annoyance of my Bengali friends.

Ahimsa and Satyagraha are the hardest things in the world, and part of me weeps when I look at films of people standing there and taking the blows. These are the heroes but they are put in the same class as the goondas who infiltrated the struggle. I don’t mean the young woman, who out of conviction shoots a British general, the symbol of British imperialism. But there is a difference between that and people running amok in Calcutta during the Partition killing Muslims in the name of freedom, and then being lauded.

So to summarise, my next book on south India will be a search for the roots of religion — Vedic formalism, Brahminism and the revolt against that in the 5th century.

About Charles Allen

Charles Allen, historian, broadcaster and traveller, was born in 1940 in Cawnpore (today Kanpur) in India. He left in 1947 to be schooled in England, returning to the Indian subcontinent in 1966 as a VSO (British volunteer programme) to teach in Kathmandu. With more than 23 books to his name, Charles is today an acknowledged authority on British Indian and South Asian history, and in 2004 was awarded the Sir Percy Sykes Gold Medal by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs for his contribution to Asian studies. He is an active Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society, a Council Member of the Kipling Society and a Member of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs and the Frontline Club. Charles’s most recently published work is an Orientalist biography of emperor Ashoka, published in October 2011 as Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor. He is currently working on a biography of Brian Hodgson, the ‘father of ‘Himalayan studies’, as well as a more ambitious project: an exploration of Dravidian India under the working title of Coromandel. His other books include Plain Tales from the Raj: Images of British India in the Twentieth Century, Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling, The Buddha and the Sahibs: the Men who Discovered India’s Lost Religion, The Search for Shangri-La: a Journey into Tibetan History, Lives of the Indian Princes.

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