Decolonising the mind

Stacked shellac cylinders and records of delicate wax were neatly organised in a dingy archive in Berlin’s Humboldt University. As a reporter on a short trip there, the story that I had envisaged was simple: a “soft” feature which, though not new, nonetheless fascinated me.

A century ago, thousands of Indian soldiers who were fighting for the British were captured in imperial Germany. They were placed in a camp outside Berlin, where the Germans attempted to make them revolt against their colonial masters. The extraordinary diversity in this camp attracted linguists, musicologists and chroniclers, and till the end of the First World War, over 1,650 voices from Africa, Asia and Europe were recorded. These have inexplicably survived two World Wars, the destruction of the university, and decades of reconstruction.

My primary interest was the archives itself. It was an unforgettable and chilling experience to hear voices long gone, and lonely, despairing verses in Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, or Urdu. For a few moments, I could imagine snowy days in these desolate camps, where many prisoners lived their final days. But for me, the personalities behind the voices were mere details in a feature around the archives itself.

It was a conversation with the curator, an intern, that changed this. As I left with a digital copy of the recordings, she said: “It would be great if you could, in your story, tell Indian academicians that they can claim the original recordings.”

I wondered, why would a university be ready to part with precious archives that were one-of-a-kind? She said: “Isn’t it an imperial concept just to believe that only we can maintain an archive such as this? After all, captured soldiers were forced to speak into phonographs. We would rather have these go back to India and other countries, rather than become mere objects of study.”

The German sense of guilt is visible in almost every Second World War monument — understandably so, considering the inhumanity of the Reich. But for the Second World War and imperialism? Could there be shame in colonialisation, for didn’t many of us assume it was an inevitable political tool during that era?

As I visited London and its numerous museums, the monuments of Winston Churchill and other figures of the British colonial past, or saw visitors take selfies with the Kohinoor, I could not help but feel a swirl of quiet outrage. Shashi Tharoor had recently written about the decolonisation of the mind. My visit to Humboldt University for a “soft story” perhaps started the same process for me.

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