The Commerce of Remembrance

History has a new audience nowadays.

Gone are the days of cerebral discussions in conferences, workshops, graduate or post-graduate classrooms and columns of heavy reading in learned journals and literary magazines. History is now available through online streaming services and a vast cross section of non academics now sit down over dinner and make their way through the annals of British history (The Crown, Victoria, The Tudors), colonial history (Beecham House), the great monarchies of the world (Catherine the Great, The Last Tsars) or period dramas (Poldark, Downton Abbey). The more ‘modern’ a country becomes the more it looks back to the past, while the past itself is now a carefully cultivated mythology.

Self-identities, always a complex matter, are now being created by hearkening back to a golden period very different from a muddled chaotic present. History is now a meticulously staged event, recreated through lavish costumes, manor houses , palaces and rolling parklands. For serials set in the Orient, usually India, history is an exotic escapade with the usual props of the lotus and the tiger, the snake and nautch girls, bandits and fair damsels in distress.

Such are the economics of successful historical dramas that an entire ancillary industry develops. During our Downton Abbey phase we bought Downton Abbey calendars, mugs, and signed posters. The commercial puffery works quietly and one doesn’t really stop to consider what we are doing as we hit the pay now button on our screens. History is being commodified through the Poldark and the Downton Abbey tours but we don’t really worry about the money.

Salman Rushdie in his essay “Outside the Whale” had described movies based on Raj nostalgia (Gandhi, A Passage to India, The Jewel in the Crown) as being part of the refurbishment of the Empire’s tarnished image at a time when Britain stood beleaguered under the Thatcher era. Today, caught in the chaos of Brexit, all those who share the cosmos of the British cultural legacy return to bouts of nostalgia through a glut of return-to-the-past TV shows. Many of these shows rework the grand imperial theme albeit through a newly stylised, commercially profitable avatar.

Through continuous representation creeps in a subtle legitimisation, as if colonial history, though condemnable, nevertheless had an aura and grandeur about it.

Indians are complicit in this process. Most post-colonial writers living in the West choose to systematically highlight those concerns which can make a good Booker nomination. To read Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, Neel Mukherjee and even Amit Chaudhuri (to name a few) is to return over and over again to the same themes: diasporic conflict, identity, displacement, disruption in the “margins” and the “centre” . Perhaps these novels, legitimised by their Booker shortlistings, conform to what the Booker still wants — Britain as the legitimising centre of cultural work. And so a re-hashing of the familiar themes!

For those of us who live and work in India without the comforting security of summer sabbaticals and writing retreats to Europe and America, our daily problems are very different from what these writers articulate.

Park Street in Calcutta is not the hallowed haven of partying and Flury’s cakes that diasporic Indians still remember fondly; it is a road chock full of traffic with jaywalkers, Uber cabs and a Kolkata Police sergeant looming up with traffic tickets as we struggle to reach a pathology for a blood test.

The old bungalows of the 50s and 60s mean nothing to us for we are caught up in the privations of daily life, paying hefty municipal taxes for living in them, trying to keep the road in front of our house free of street hawkers who are politically patronised, wondering whether the garbage vat will be cleaned, negotiating broken pavements and unruly cab drivers — an endless cycle of errands and duties in a city where civic systems have been eroded over the years.

Doubtless those who live in other Indian cities face the same.

And yet, like a Wes Anderson movie, such real lived experiences are never described in the works of these writers. Caught in the moment of rupture sometime in the 70s, 80s or 90s they create worlds of post-colonial exotic in much the same way as the makers of Victoria and Downton Abbey create mellow worlds of escape.

Cabaret dancers in Calcutta 1960s

August, Munnoo and Empire

Shashi Tharoor’s famed speech on British reparation for its misdeeds has always struck me as being the brilliant but theatrical rant of a showy man. Colonial rule was oppressive, money-minded and debilitating but it was also a historically complex phenomenon in which many Indians collaborated and benefits were sown. Leaving aside the Princely States who were frank defenders of British rule, the fact that I am writing this post in English from a beautiful high-ceilinged British-built bungalow of the nineteenth century in Calcutta which was the British city to beat all others  shows that I too may be a product of colonialism. My school and college institutions certainly were—the one set up by the Loretto Sisters in the garden house of an eighteenth century British judge, the other established in 1817 to facilitate Western secular education through the medium of English. Tharoor certainly is also a product of Empire. His voice is modulated to Etonian splendour and I’m really not sure if the shopgirl at Debenhams  in Liverpool would have quite understood him. But then he wouldn’t go there, would he! A spot of shooting with cronies in an impressive two hundred year old estate in the Scottish Highlands would be more his style.

Issues regarding identity have always been touchy though. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s masterly novel “English, August : An Indian Story” shows an English Literature graduate remembering his Milton and Pope in the grimy heat of fictional Madna which represents small town India. Agastya can make nothing of nothing and finds himself alien in the IAS society as well as in village life. A century and a half ago  Gilbert Elliott, the first Lord Minto yearned for the Scottish Borders as he sat watching a nautch in a sweat-soaking evening at the Governor General’s weekend retreat at Barrackpore.

When Lord Minto went to Java for a Company campaign, the Hindu Rajah of Bali presented him with a brood of young girls and boys as slaves. Lord Minto took a fancy to two of them, and as he tells us in his Reminiscences, named them Child and Man and took them back to Scotland in 1813. The good Lord Minto died before he could reach his home  but Child and Man had been sent on there in advance. What happened to them after he died? Sunk in history except for a few mentions in a Scotsman’s letters in the nineteenth century, I think of two Malayan children, torn from their home in Asia, alone in the chill green of a village near the North Sea and wonder what befell them.

Carrying slaves back to England was a bad habit in the nineteenth century. William Hickey (1749-1830) was a lawyer better known for his Memoirs, written around 1810 and giving us extraordinary glimpses of colonial life in London, Madras and Calcutta. In Calcutta his Memoirs provide a fascinating account of famous names and events, including the young Rose Aylmer, beloved of Walter Savage Landor, who died of a most severe bowel complaint “brought on entirely by indulging too much with that mischievous and dangerous fruit: the pineapple”.  Hickey returned to England in 1810 after burying two wives, one of which was his Indian mistress Jemdanee and their young son. On his return he brought with him his servant Munnoo and a pie-bald dog Tiger. Munnoo had been acquired some time before.
Here’s how:

“I engaged a remarkably smart, good-tempered boy about thirteen years old named Munnoo, who had then lived with me upwards of four years, without ever being of the least real use, his chief occupation being to make other servants laugh by his monkey tricks when waiting at table and standing at the back of my chair as he always did; his mother, who doated upon the boy, would not for a long time consent to let him go to Europe, until an offer of [approximately £60] which I made her proved irresistible; she accepted the money and agreed to part with her favourite Munnoo, and a more attached and faithful creature never existed than he has proved to me.”

By December 1808 Mr Hickey had taken a house in Beaconsfield to be near an old friend and his twin sisters. Here he resumed the life of an elderly English gentleman ( in great contrast to the peccadilloes of his youth) walking, reading, going to London. Here too lived Munnoo in a precarious in-between manner till the child took the matter in his own hands.

“In the month of February my favourite Munnoo, without the least hint or solicitation on my part upon the subject, expressed an earnest desire to be made a Christian.  I had upon first coming to Beaconsfield put him to school to be taught to read and write; his schoolmaster, having made the Catechism the first object, probably turned his thoughts that way.  I therefore applied to the Reverend Mr Bradford, Curate of the place, who very kindly furnished him with the books requisite to give him all the necessary information previous to becoming a member of the Church of England, and as the boy was extremely zealous, he soon entitled himself to receive baptism, which ceremony was performed in the church of Beaconsfield, by Mr Bradford, his sponsors being myself, a man-servant of mine, and my sister Sarah.  Upon this occasion I thought it would be as well to anglify his name a little, and therefore instead of Munnoo, I had him designated in the parochial register, “William Munnew”.

Poor Munnoo! Caught between two worlds, belonging to neither, Mr Munnew married in 1813 a girl called Anne and had two children, christened most unimaginatively Anne and William, before rising from servant to “licensed victualler”. He died in the 1830s and left behind a large Munnew family in Westminster whose descendants had little Indian in them save their genes. The image tagged to this post shows a portrait of Munnoo with his master and the dog Tiger, all three looking distant and thoughtful to India which they have left behind.

An interesting way of seeing the British colonisation of India  is to see it as one in a wave of colonisations and empires of over two thousand years. The British experience was no worse or better than the others.  And though Munnoo and Jemdanee, Child and Man lived fragile lives, they showed that humanity can adapt itself to the unfamiliar in many ways.


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This is Bumpy Dog who died over a year ago on this day of natural causes. She lived in the compound of an apartment house in leafy Alipore which, as anyone familiar with Calcutta knows, is the posh neighbourhood of an otherwise squalid city. When we moved into our flat in 2005, my son was three and Bumpy Dog two-plus or minus a year and a half. No one knew where she came from but as Bumpy knew her place in the Great Chain of Being she was tolerated. She would sit in the car park but slink away  when cars came and the lordly sahibs and memsahibs disembarked, shouting into their expensive mobile phones and cradling their designer bags. She grubbed quietly in the rubbish bins and kept well away from the dachshunds, golden retrievers, pugs and labradors that went for sedate walks twice a day with their trainers and orderlies. She had three litters and watched helplessly as each one of her pups was crushed under the wheels of the imperious cars that dashed into the car park till I called in the RSPCA and had her spayed. After that she was safe, and watched gratefully as my son sent down  bones and biscuit crumbs twice a day. He named her Bumpy because it was the Enid Blyton stage of his life.

A memsahib with time on her hands and a cruel, cruel heart lived on the top floor. Propriety dictates that I keep her name a secret. This memsahib fancied herself to be a landscape-gardening expert and set about to take over our little front garden. She would bring in flower pots, bury them into the soil with the flowers peeping out of the ground and pretend that she had grown them. She forbade any of the children from playing on the grass. And she decided that Bumpy Dog was a threat to her flowers, so one night she kidnapped Bumpy Dog, put him into a sack and instructed her driver to hide the sack in her car boot and throw it somewhere far away. All was done secretly. I had heard strange squeals at one a.m one night but could not connect it to the disappearance till much later.

For three weeks we hunted everywhere for Bumpy. I drove despairingly around Alipore, then moved to the riverside, the railway station, all the major rubbish dumps and the three animal shelters in and around Calcutta. There were dappled dogs and brown dogs, black mongrels and white ones, lean and starving ones and well-fed ones but no Bumpy.

Finally I had exhausted all my options save two. I offered a reward for Bumpy of about 200 dollars.  And I prayed to the God of forgotten creatures to return her and restore my belief in the hope that we live in a moral universe.

Three weeks later my driver burst into the room. “She’s back.”

He had seen her limping in through the gate, spattered in mud, ribs showing, wounded in her front paw but alive. She crept in, went to her place in the corner of the compound wall and sank down amidst the dry leaves and tattered newspapers.

No one came forward to claim my reward. But a whisper went round the neighbourhood, amongst the maids and drivers,  that I had performed black magic and tracked her down.

Bumpy lived five years more. Although we left that apartment and moved elsewhere, kinder souls continued to feed her till she died, as quietly as she had lived.

And though the kidnapper was, I am told, furious, she must have realised that it was no longer about a garden and stray-dog poo. It was about wanton brutality on the poor, the defenceless, the forsaken.

And this time we won.

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Stray Thoughts

Here’s a secret: I am partial to reading books in which the relationship between man and dog forms a part of the plot. I’m not sure if this is because I grew up on a healthy diet of Enid Blytons with Buster snapping and Timmy woofing and Loony dancing on the kitchen mat, or because my first real friends in this world were brown eyed mongrels sheltering in the garden of our railway bungalows or begging for waste chapatis at the outhouse door. Whatsoever may be the cause, an ill fed stray haunting  the rubbish heap for left overs still brings a lump to my throat.

Lately there are fewer dogs on the city streets. Sometimes I gather rice and bones and have to look for hours before I can spot a decently starving one. The ones that move in packs are huge fellows, battle scarred veterans of years on the streets, worldly wise and grave who disdain my offers. Wasted puppies have disappeared — perhaps they have all been crushed by the cruelties of urban life and its  shrinking spaces. So too has human tolerance — in my childhood the shanty dwellers near my grandmother’s home shared their meagre meals with a brown spotted mutt but the shanties are now pucca houses with television and computer and the mutt is no longer to be seen.

J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is the obvious choice for dogs as a metaphor for the unaccountable sadness of modern life, but so are lesser known classics — The Kingdom by the Sea by Robert Westall with its wonderful evocation of World War II in which a boy and dog stay together to survive, Jim Kjelgaard’s A Nose for Trouble and surprisingly Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss in which Mutt the dog suffers a bleak end, befitting the general melancholy of Kalimpong split by the Gorkhaland agitation.


Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation has been one of the most influential texts in the world of animal ethics but another one which is no less informative and relevant is Hiranmay Karlekar’s Savage Humans and Stray Dogs: A Study in Aggression. Karlekar, a senior journalist, writer and thinker, who was in college with my parents, has done much to promote awareness of aggression against animals through his columns.

Hinduism, in its general inclusivity, has Bhairav, a manifestation of Shiva in his terrible form, with a dog as his vahana or vehicle. On the left is a favourite representation of mine: the God as a wanderer surrounded by a host of defenceless animals. I like to think of a day when man realises that he is, after all, a non-human animal. That and nothing more. Perhaps even less!

Bloody Scotland!

It’s been ten days since I returned from a crime writing festival called Bloody Scotland and what a bloody exciting experience it was! A kind of  David Lodge -small world recaptured complete with writers, critics, literary enthusiasts and book agents along with thousands of men and women celebrating late summer sun in picturesque Stirling. And sampling delicious crime! Irreverent snatches of conversation as I tripped to and fro the Albert Halls and Allen Park Church included “I hate Josephine Tey-however did they call her a crime writer” and “the Scots are a bit of a nuisance but they do their detectives well”.

Fellow panelists Lin Anderson, Doug Johnstone and Abir Mukherjee remembered Calcutta including the frayed nerves, yellow taxis, College Street and much else that is this vast chaotic churning city I call home. We also remembered Calcutta’s Scottish connection, the jute, tea and indigo, the Dum Dum bullets, the 1857 encounter, Byomkesh Bakshi and real life crime at Lalbazar. Abir read out an excerpt from his first novel A Rising Man while I did a short piece from my first book F.I.R. For an hour, at least, there was some corner of a foreign field that was briefly Calcutta.

Bloody India!

This was my first visit to the Scottish Highlands. As the train slid away from Edinburgh to Inverness I was struck by the change in landscape -hedges and homely looking pastures gradually shifting into bleak Northern scenery with a strangeness about the sweeping hills and still lochs as if they were frozen in time. So too were the sheep, motionless in the twilight, gathering themselves for the cold night, while bunches of woolly brown cows so different from our Indian ones fringed the meadows at what seemed like eight o clock at night in the long twilight of the Northern skies. Most of the stations we stopped at were deserted and looked like a detached almost surreal movie set, as in the 1970s series Sapphire and Steel with their flowers, benches, clocks and empty waiting rooms.

Loch Ness

I can think of no better crime scene than Scotland. No wonder Douglas Henshall, who played DI Jimmy Perez in the television series Shetland drew a packed audience at his event with Ann Cleeves!