Saturday, May 5, 2018

Goodread Review: An Era of Darkness

An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in IndiaAn Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India by Shashi Tharoor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As Indians we are taught about the British Empire in school as a significant part of our course. We are given a broad out line of the events that saw the arrival and entrenchment of the British East India Company as a powerful trading and eventually ruling power in India, the takeover of Indian rule by the British Crown, the growth of national consciousness among natives and the nationalist struggle for freedom leading up to Independence and Partition in 1947. The trajectory of our colonial history is read and reread by students in school and even in college for those who choose to take up History, to the point where a sense of weariness and boredom sets in, and one gets desensitized and tired of its repetitiveness. This is essentially because the facts are often laid out in textbooks in a very dry and empirical manner, with the intention to impart data, not provoke emotional responses. It is hardly surprising, then, that a great many youngsters grimace at the thought of reading up on our colonial history once they are no longer compelled to do so by teachers and examinations.

Shashi Tharoor's book remedies this very shortcoming in this marvelous book of his. Written in the aftermath of his 2015 debate speech in Cambridge University that went viral and thrilled the country into sitting up and thinking back on the inglorious British Raj with anger, the book is 300 pages of un-putdownable prose filled to the brim with information and eloquent arguments. The speech that sparked off this project was in support of a debate motion about whether Great Britain owed its former colonies reparations. Tharoor argued that the answer to that is an unqualified yes, and An Era of Darkness carries on this very argument. A group of Imperial apologists continue to hold to this day that the British Raj was in fact a blessing in disguise for the backward and disorganized Indians. Tharoor decimates this argument piece by painstaking piece, taking up almost every so-called English blessing to India - democracy, rule of law, a sense of nationhood, and of course the railway - to show that these were in fact often unintentional byproducts of a system of commerce and governance that was built primarily to fulfill the need and more often the greed of the mother nation - Great Britain. He makes extensive use of figures and quotations from contemporaries to display the extent of British rapacity and callous disregard of the well being of natives while ensuring continuing domination by the Empire, leading to the decimation of indigenous industry and agricultural produce, loss of traditional socio-political systems, and even the occurrence of horrifying famines. He traces back many of the contemporary problems that India faces to having roots in colonial oppression, most significantly the communal issues in India and widespread shortage of national resources. Ultimately, he zeroes in on the English language, the game of cricket and the drinking of tea as the only lasting legacies of value from the Raj; a careful reading of the narrative so far describing the extent of damage done to the national character and condition by the British during their imperial days would make it evident how piteously inadequate and almost ironic such a legacy is.

An Era of Darkness imbues life and soul in a subject that often runs the risk of growing stale to the Indian of the 21st century. Tharoor of course is a gifted storyteller; the book is a joy to read as much for the lilting flow of language as it is for the cogent argumentation it presents. It will be worth a read by anyone who has an interest in History, and even the professional scholar should be impressed by the extent of research and substantiation of arguments with relevant data that has gone into the book - unless of course it is one of those scholars who expect all 'academic work' to be cut and dried and tear-inducing!

The book should be read by Indians as a reminder of our legacy and all its horrors, but perhaps more importantly, by the inhabitants of that erstwhile coloniser, Great Britain, to make them aware of the role their ancestors played in reducing one of the oldest and grandest and richest civilizations of the world to such lowly depths of poverty and backwardness. It is important that they realise the inhumanity of imperialism, lest they start considering it a favourable and even glorious feat, as a section of Britain is wont to do today.

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