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'The Last Englishmen-Love, War and the End of Empire' review: Bringing history alive

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A retelling of the last 20 years of British rule in India is peopled with animated characters, their dreams and despair

By: Anusua Mukherjee

W.H. Auden is said to have found the bitter truth of war in the last week of World War II. He explicates it in his poem, ‘Palais des beaux arts’, (quoted by Deborah Baker) through a Brueghel painting where Icarus, the mythical Greek figure, is seen drowning in a river after plummeting straight down from the sky — even as he flails his arms, life around him goes on as usual, with the ploughman plodding his weary way and the angler looking for fish in the same waters in which Icarus is sinking. It is this indifference to personal tragedies, which are seen as inevitable collateral damage in the great games of empires, that, for Auden, has marked not just the World Wars but every battle fought down the centuries.

Against the grain

The pivotal characters in Baker’s book, set in India and Britain in the last 20 years of British rule in India — John Auden, geologist of the Geological Survey of India (GSI) and brother of W.H.; Michael Spender, surveyor and brother of the poet, Stephen Spender; SudhindranathDatta, Bengali poet and intellectual — fight this indifference, which they find not only in the cold heart of the British Empire, but also, more frighteningly and embarrassingly, in themselves.

The one persistent dream of Michael and John (the titular last Englishmen in India) is to be included in the expedition to scale the Everest — a project which was being marketed by the British government as the ultimate patriotic act. Enticed by the enterprise, even as they see it for what it is — a massive publicity stunt for the Empire — Michael and John feel its taint in themselves.

John, who lands up in India in 1926 with the GSI job, resists becoming the hated figure of the pucca sahib, ensconced in the “petty snobberies of bungalow life.” While he never quite becomes one, to his credit, he is also “too wrapped up in himself to reach out to Indians.” Michael’s dilemmas are somewhat similar: he undertakes an expedition to map Tibet in 1935, but is overcome by shame — the image of the families of nomadic herders living in abject poverty haunts him even as he complains of imperfectly boiled eggs.

In the sections about Sudhin (another last Englishman, by upbringing) and the intellectually heated addas of Parichay, the Bengali magazine he headed and edited, the p.o.v. turns from the conquering race to the conquered. And yet the crisis of conscience facing Sudhin is not very different. As an Anglicised Bengali, he has to hold out against the possibility of becoming the servile and imitative babu. Bon mots fly in the Parichayaddas as the Imperialists, the Fascists, the Capitalists, are critiqued and brought down, but Sudhin has to interrupt: “‘What can bookish, middle-class bhadraloks like ourselves ever have in common with them (landless tenant farmers)?”’

The question really is of degrees of indifference in these days of the end of the Empire in India and World War II in Europe. At the darkest end of the spectrum there is someone like Churchill ranting against India and at the lighter end there are politicians like Nehru, who extends support to Britain’s war against Germany and sends men out to die, on the assumption that this cooperation will help free India. In between there are liberals like John, Michael or Sudhin, who care and do not care. The distance and involvement of the latter are like the writer’s, who must feel and not feel in equal measure to present a balanced record.

Treading a fine line

Baker, of course, is a master of balance. Her books tiptoe on the fine line between factual and fictionalised biographies — while sticking to archival material, she brings her subjects alive by giving them psychological motivations, which are firmly grounded on what they did or wrote. In The Last Englishmen she applies the same broad technique. This remains history, but with animated characters having inner lives.

However, the characters come to life slowly, chiefly because Baker seems wary of letting her guard down. Reading the first half of the book is somewhat like going on a Himalayan expedition — the sentences are sometimes opaque like rocks; unfamiliar characters suddenly appear out of the mist; the terrain is slippery, with too many things happening at the personal and political levels. But then there are bursts of invigorating shower — Baker’s humorous touch. Sample this, about Michael Spender’s Aunt May: “Every morning over breakfast, she shared her Night Thoughts with her husband. Long married by then, he only half listened.”

The staccato beat of Baker’s sentences gives way to a mellower tone in the last few chapters as she describes the streets of Calcutta in 1943, where thousands of displaced people pile up, starving, dying. Baker does not sentimentalise: her chiselled sentences are more effective in bringing home the horror, and in sparking off outrage at the unconcern of the British authorities.

The sections on Sudhin have an affable quality that is missing in the sections about the Englishmen. Perhaps Baker found a kindred soul in the poet: it is impossible not to like this learned, courteous man with a sad, winning smile. Baker’s prose reminded me at times of Sudhin’s poetry: taut with control, but with a river of passion gushing underneath.

The Last Englishmen: Love, War and the End of Empire; Viking/ PRH, Deborah Baker, ₹599.

Courtesy The Hindu

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