Dead white masters

The Ruling Caste by David Gilmour

Now their stories are being told. Empire’s Children, about Britons who spent part of their childhood in the colonies, is being shown on Channel 4, I read in a newspaper. It interviewed actress Diana Rigg, who is part of the story. Her father was a railway official in an Indian princely state.

But does anyone outside Britain care for such stories? The book, Empire’s Children, has been lying on a Singapore library shelf for weeks now. I decided to leave it where it was after a quick browse but picked up a similar book from the same shelf — The Ruling Caste, about the Britons who ruled India.

British historians marvel that millions of Indians were kept under British rule by just a hundred thousand British soldiers and officials. But India was no Iraq or Afghanistan, which the British failed to subjugate even then. Unlike unruly Afghanistan, India after a failed uprising in 1857 was a pacified country ruled by civil servants. This is their story.

They changed with time. The Haileybury men sent out by the East India Company to manage its possessions gave way to the competitionwallahs, who entered the Indian Civil Service (ICS) formed after British rule was formally imposed on India after the war of 1857. The Haileybury men were more likely to go native and take Indian mistresses. They included men who spent their entire working lives in India and didn’t return to Britain until they finally retired from service more than 30 years later. The ICS officers went home every few years if they were Britons. A tiny minority were Indians. But they are not in the spotlight here. It’s the white man’s tale. And of white women too.

The author David Gilmour explores every aspect of the lives led by the civil servants and their wives: the job prospects, the increasing workload as the officers rose up the ranks, their trips to Britain when they wanted to get married or put their children in school, their social life in India. They were a privileged lot with vast retinues of servants and they entertained themselves, especially in the hill stations which reminded them of Britain. There were affairs and romances.

Some also dabbled in politics. A few were elected to the British parliament. The Congress party which led India to freedom was started by a Briton. There were others, too, who were sympathetic to Indians. Some even openly criticised the government. Usually the government took a lenient view, sacking officials only if there was a scandal. Generally, they could retire home on a pension.

The officials had power and perks. But it was a lonely life.The author writes about the small stations — small towns — where a judge and a district officer might be the only Britons. And the officer would have to go on tour when his wife would be left alone at home. The author describes the loneliness she must have felt. Yes, indeed. She could not have mixed with the Indians in town, of course. It’s just as well the empire is gone. No one should have to endure such apartheid.

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