Demystifying India

Jane Miller reflects on the end of an empire.

Jane Miller

Ladies of the empire ride an elephant in India.

One of my sons has lived in India for more than 10 years. He’s writ­ten books about the place, and he’s cur­rent­ly engaged in a his­to­ry of how the rest of the world has imag­ined or known India more or less from the word go. He nags me to remem­ber my first thoughts about India, if, indeed, I had any. I’ve told him about Helen Bannerman’s Lit­tle Black Sam­bo, read­ing Rud­yard Kipling’s The Jun­gle Book and see­ing the Kor­da broth­ers’ 1942 film that was based on it. I must have been 9, and I think it was the first film I ever saw. I thought it was won­der­ful. I fell in love with Sabu, who played Mowgli, and I envied him, want­ed to be him. I thought his life magical.

I was 14 in 1947, the year of Partition, and though I remember newsreels about Gandhi and Nehru...I didn’t really understand what was going on: why Muslims were leaving India for Pakistan, and Hindus travelling south to India. Nor, I think, did I know about the appalling massacres that were accompanying the process.

My oth­er mem­o­ries of India are scat­tered. I always knew cur­ry was Indi­an. It came in a pack­et with a snake-charmer on it. Cur­ry pow­der and raisins were used in the war to liv­en up the remains of the week­end mut­ton. I don’t think I met any Indi­ans when I was a child, and I remem­ber my puz­zle­ment on hear­ing a Russ­ian aunt of mine announc­ing — she was giv­en to sig­nif­i­cant announce­ments — that Indi­ans were very good­look­ing, but she didn’t like the pink palms of their hands. Pink, of course, was the colour of India and of the whole British Empire in our school atlases. I sup­pose I could have filled in most of the pink bits of the world map when I was 9, because I col­lect­ed stamps, and even the most exot­ic ones from Africa and the Far East usu­al­ly had the king’s head on them some­where among the giraffes and the palm trees. I’m sure I heard and per­haps even used the word our” in descrip­tions of those pink parts of the world. Our school geog­ra­phy lessons, how­ev­er, ignored all that in favour of a con­cen­tra­tion on the coun­try­side round the school, and then only up to a 25-mile radius. We nev­er ven­tured beyond Portsmouth and Southampton.

Lat­er, when I went more often to the cin­e­ma, there were Pathé Gazette news­reels, in which no one explained sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly what the rela­tion was between these small, dark peo­ple who wore no shoes and the gov­er­nors and ambas­sadors in their gold braid, who seemed to be in charge. Black and white images of peo­ple work­ing in pad­dy fields and car­ry­ing enor­mous bun­dles on their heads were to be found in that yel­low mag­a­zine, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic. There was always a pile of them in doc­tors’ and den­tists’ wait­ing rooms.

I was 14 in 1947, the year of Par­ti­tion, and though I remem­ber news­reels about Gand­hi and Nehru and, even more, odd­ly enough, about Jin­nah, I didn’t real­ly under­stand what was going on: why Mus­lims were leav­ing India for Pak­istan, and Hin­dus trav­el­ling south to India. Nor, I think, did I know about the appalling mas­sacres that were accom­pa­ny­ing the process. But I sup­pose it was at about that time that I noticed Indi­ans here in Lon­don, and at uni­ver­si­ty there were three beau­ti­ful Ben­gali girls in my col­lege. I once heard them teas­ing each oth­er about which of them was a princess, and which a god­dess. I have nev­er been sure whether that was a seri­ous con­ver­sa­tion or not. It was there in Cam­bridge that I first ate in an Indi­an restau­rant, which was called, of course, the Taj Mahal.

By the time my daugh­ter met the man she mar­ried, a Par­si from Bom­bay, I knew a lit­tle more about India. I went there for the first time in 1985 and I’ve been back sev­er­al times since. By then I’d learned of my own family’s long involve­ment with India. One ances­tor went there to make his for­tune in what was then Madras in 1716. A great-great-aunt of mine had taught her­self Ben­gali in the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tu­ry and had writ­ten a book about her hero, the reform­ing Hin­du Ram­mo­hun Roy. And of course I’d seen Satya­jit Ray’s films by then. Today four of my six grand­chil­dren are of Eng­lish and Indi­an descent. India, the home of Sabu, is in the family.

My son writes of a mod­ern India, in which cities dou­ble in size with­in a decade, and the econ­o­my grows almost as fast. He also writes of ancient India as a semi-leg­endary land at the edge of the known world full of rich­es, mar­vels and mon­sters.” Some very ear­ly Greek vis­i­tors report­ed sight­ing Enotikoitoi (or ear sleep­ers) whose ears were so big and pen­du­lous that they could curl them around their bod­ies and use them as sleep­ing bags. Myth and moder­ni­ty have always co-exist­ed in India, and they still do.

Jane Miller lives in Lon­don, and is the author, most recent­ly, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and After­thoughts (2016), a col­lec­tion of her In These Times columns and interviews.
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