Living in the past

Ghosts of the Raj haunt cities of the empire

October 08, 2018 12:05 am | Updated 12:05 am IST

Rudyard Kipling gasped when he landed in Calcutta in 1888, and promptly labelled it the “city of dreadful night”. But the gasp was not entirely of dismay. As he strode through Calcutta, he was also struck by how much it looked and felt like home — like London.

A visitor to Kolkata today may find this odd and will be left none the wiser if she is shown the newly-sprouted replica of Big Ben as proof, but the ghosts of the Raj are breathing, in the vast green commons of the Maidan, in the grand European-style buildings, in what remains of the tramways. Calcutta Then, Kolkata Now by Sunanda K. Datta-Ray and Indrajit Hazra, with its opulent photographs, will transport one back to the extravagant Calcutta of tree-lined avenues, broughams and mansions.

The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience by David Gilmour takes us inside the mansions to show us what the pucca sahib s actually did during their India exile. In a foreign land, they clutched at familiar customs with a fanatic’s zeal: they changed for dinner even while dining alone in the forest.


Gilmour’s anecdotal narrative does not look beyond the mores, into the heart of the Englishman in India — and this is the space Deborah Baker haunts in The Last Englishmen: Love, War, and the End of Empire . There are no easy binary beliefs to fall back upon for the Englishmen in Baker’s book. Michael Spender and John Auden feel in their sinews the injustices perpetuated in India by their countrymen who pride themselves on their sense of justice, but only on their own turf.

While the imperviousness to the plight of the colonised took different forms, it found its most unforgivable expression in the Partition, which crippled two nations right at the moment of birth. Imagining Lahore: The City That Is, The City That Was by Haroon Khalid examines what the Empire left behind in Lahore — not just the palatial buildings but also the unhealed wounds of a people divided.

Lahore bore the brunt of the partition of Punjab, as Calcutta did of the division of Bengal in 1947. If both cities are deeply unequal in their present structures — with the rich leading sterilised lives while the poor live ever-exposed to disease and danger — that too is a legacy of the Empire, which took every care to keep its white ghettos free of ‘contamination’ from natives.

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