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Sunday, May 1, 2011

British royalty: a shared hallucination

By Swapan Dasgupta

Maybe I have a wrong set of friends but the conversation throughout last Friday centred on the Royal Wedding in London. One TV channel tried to engage me in an evening discussing on the Purulia arms drop but I was having none of that. Between downing vast quantities of bubbly at the garden party co-hosted by the British High Commission and the BBC (which, for a change, did the right thing and flew the flag) and debating a spooky controversy, my priorities were clear.

The newly-appointed Duke and Duchess of Cambridge may mean very little to the India of 2011. Unlike his grandmother and father who assiduously keep alive their Indian and other Commonwealth connections, Prince William is still in his internship and hasn't yet grasped all his future responsibilities. But in the normal course of things he is a future King of Britain who has broken new ground by marrying a thoroughly English commoner. This may explain why an estimated two billion people in the world watched their wedding on TV. And, presumably, at least 10 to 15 per cent of the viewers were Indians. Yes, the William and Kate wedding did captivate the ordinary, unpretentious middle-class Indian imagination more than the politically-correct commentariat will admit.

This doesn't surprise me in the least. First, regardless of the periodic outbursts of anti-imperialism and nationalist self-assertion, Indians nurture a genuine fondness for Britain and its traditional institutions. We may have ceased to have a King-Emperor in 1947 but Independence and a new political arrangement wasn't accompanied by an enduring hatred and bitterness. There were a lot of things Indians disliked about the Raj but in the six decades of Independence these have been overshadowed by the inheritance we cherish. We may have changed the names of roads and public buildings and banished the imposing bronzes of imperial rulers to obscure venues but the relationship of India and Britain remains "a shared hallucination" (Enoch Powell's telling description).

Those with an interest in the past should research the exhaustive coverage in India of the death and funeral of Sir Winston Churchill—a man who, in his lifetime, was loathed by Indian nationalists for his unwavering defence of the Empire. The posthumous respect showered on Churchill or, for that matter, Lord Mountbatten, suggests a large-heartedness that narrow nationalism has always failed to appreciate. One day, India will also have the decency to relocate one of the discarded bronzes of Lord Curzon to a site overlooking the either the Archaeological Survey of India or the new building of the Ministry of External Affairs. Curzon, after all, began the process of preserving India's inheritance for India and putting the mark of India on a foreign policy that was independent of Whitehall.

In this infuriatingly complex "shared hallucination", the House of Windsor occupies a special place. Why are the Indian immigrants to Britain so categorically royalist? Why do they crave for that invitation to one of the garden parties at Buckingham Palace or even a chance to donate generously to a charity endorsed by the Prince of Wales? No amount of radical multiculturalism has been able to prevent British Indians from adoring the monarchy. This is not merely because Indians (and particularly Hindus) love to adapt; the sentiments are more heartfelt.

Nor does the belief that monarchy is the natural order in Britain stop at the Indian diaspora. I have always been amused that the persistence of Guardian-loving editors here to have the British monarch described as Queen Elizabeth II—much like the ship—has been scuttled by popular usage. For English-speaking India, the old lady with the handbag and the slightly batty husband is still 'the Queen'; there is no other. At the same time, India is a proud Republic.

This peculiar schizophrenia may a source of bewilderment to sociologists but it is nevertheless real. The Royal Wedding proved immensely popular with Indians because it epitomised many of the institutions we hold dear.

The first was the sheer pageantry. It is worth exploring whether the splendour of the occasion was something they learnt from us or we preserved because of them. But the coming together of ceremony, tradition, family and patriotism was something Indians have instinctively celebrated and which the country's new-found prosperity has allowed us to rediscover. We have even recognised its tourism potential, just as Britain has.

Many Indians may not have appreciated all the finer details of the very English, Christian service that solemnised the marriage. They may not have grasped the political significance within England of the singing of William Parry's 'Jerusalem' and the choice of Sir Edward Elgar's 'Crown Imperial' that accompanied the procession of the bride and groom from the altar. But what may have impressed Indians was the fact that the Englishness of the occasion wasn't distorted by some contrived multi-faith or secular improvisation.

I loved the flag-waving on the streets, the street-parties for the kids, the merry-making in the pubs and the overall message of a nation united. And I particularly loved the Bishop of London for quoting the lesser-known St Catherine of Siena to put it all into context: "Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire". That's something we should never forget.

[This article is dedicated to raising the hackles of the grim, the sanctimonious and those who lack the ability to laugh at themselves.]

Sunday Pioneer, May 1, 2011



No Mist said...

i am sorry, i did not notice many indians being enthused by the wedding. maybe it is the social circle I am in (or probably lack of social circle) ... but i perceived an grand indifference as to who married whom ... royal or no royal ...

but on the whole your deductions are correct even though I feel your premises are wrong. royal wedding may not interest Indians but britain surely does. and if ever there has been a case of an independent nation having no bitterness towards its erstwhile ruler, it is surely India and Britain ... even US had a lot of bitterness till about 100 years of independence and they are essentially the same stock ...

we love and admire UK universities above all ... i wish there was a Cambridge/Oxford in India ... sigh !

Anonymous said...

Very well said Sir----"It is worth exploring whether the splendor of the occasion was something they learnt from us or we preserved because of them"

Anonymous said...

Sir...Aapne nas pakdli iNDIAN minds ki....aap se behtar to koi is event ka analysis nahi kar sakta tha...truly british style critiq to Indian...dil khush ho gaya....

Anonymous said...

uh oh...just pray that the RSS isn't reading this. you will be ostracised from the saffron camp forever.

On another note, I agree with the comment that there was little enthusiasm regarding the wedding in India. Indians are an insular lot who don't follow world news. The Indian media is to blame. These days I only read UK newspapers. They actually have more interesting articles about India than our own papers.

Padmakumar G Nair said...

Shame that a large section of the society stil likes to shower praises on the imperial power who once crushed our nation under their boots. Anyhing good and our stupid folks associate it with the british and anything gone bad, simply blame it as typically Indian.

Macaulau designed curriculum had really thrust its stamp on an Indian mindset. We are still suffering from a sort of mental slavery.

We can improve as a nation only when we feel proud to accept India as it is.

To hell with the british royal wedding. Who cares... which ass married which bitch. The best thing we can do is to IGNORE anything that is british.

Bharat Mata ki Jai.