“We were worried there would be no one in the audience,” said Anil Dharker, director of Tata Literature Live!, as he addressed a full house at the lit fest’s inaugural session on Thursday.
There was hardly a free seat available, in fact, as lovers of literature and debate gathered at the NCPA’s Tata Theatre to hear author Amitav Ghosh and author-and-politician Shashi Tharoor discuss the legacy of the Raj at the release of Tharoor’s new book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India.
Two shadows loomed large, though they weren’t on stage — those of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his predecessor, Manmohan Singh. References to their diplomatic speeches and how they addressed the issue of India’s history with imperialism flew back and forth between the speakers, creating a merry political undercurrent through the session.
Did Singh really need to apologise, at one Oxford speech, for the end of British rule? Did Modi, in a more recent speech, unfairly sidestep Raj atrocities when he said he wanted to focus on the future?
In his book, Tharoor — also a former diplomat — argues that British Empire, today viewed in the UK as a kind of benign altruism or essential tool for modernity, was in reality a horrific, selfish assault on India.
Apologists for imperialism argue that the British gave India a legal system. “But what the British put in place was not a rule of law but a two-tier system of rules that applied differently to Indians and themselves, a system that prevails today, where some are still above the law,” Ghosh pointed out. “Only four cases exist of Englishmen convicted of murdering Indians and receiving serious punishment,” Tharoor added.
Tharoor also described as a “big colonial scam” the idea that the British gifted India a railway system. “[It was] established to more effectively move goods and minerals out of India to Britain. Indians, squeezed into third class, still paid the highest third-class train fares in the world at the time. Indian freight rates, in comparison, were some of the lowest,” he said.
He ended with a reminder that much of this comes as a surprise to today’s UK citizens, who’ve been raised on a very different version of their history.
For Richa Gulati, a media student who skipped class for the session, Tharoor’s talk put her in mind of Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. “Post-truth, which means we’ve stopped heeding fact and started making up our own truths, is exactly what this is,” she said. “Migrant violence in the UK comes from the same ignorance and misbelief. This is a legacy that should be reexamined.”
Anjali Pratap, a businesswoman who was also in the audience, pointed out that many questions posed by Ghosh about political repercussions of the Raj remained unanswered, “very diplomatically, as expected”.
The Literature Live! festival sessions run until Sunday, at the NCPA in Nariman Point and at Prithvi Theatre in Juhu.