The individual and institution

The Hindu

25th August, 2015 09:28:37 printer

The individual and institution

BENGALURU: At a debate held at Oxford, MP Shashi Tharoor made a case for Britain to provide repatriation to India for more than 200 years of colonial rule. The speech won great acclaim in India. British rule in India is hardly remembered with any fondness. No one likes being colonised and India was no exception to the rule. However, in all the condemnation we tend to forget the contributions of certain British nationals, who came to India, mostly as part of the colonial project, fell in love with the country and went beyond their official duties to make life easier for Indians.


Beyond the Call of Duty (HarperCollins, Rs. 299), by V. Raghunathan and Veena Prasad, profiles these individuals. At the launch at Sapna Book House, Raghunathan said, “The idea came to me during a lunch conversation with an old friend. We began to talk about colonial rule and its ramifications. It was in the course of this discussion that I realized that there were some British nationals who came to India, fell in love with the country and the people and tried to bring about tangible change, despite facing censure from the British authorities. I decided to profile those people who went beyond their regular jobs and to create institutions or massive engineering feats. The idea was to find out what inspired these individuals to set up institutions such as the Asiatic society, find a cure for malaria or make a pitch for a country wide river linking project.”


He adds, “I was caught up with work and research for a couple of other books that were released during this period. It was only after the friend, who had suggested the idea suddenly passed away that I decided to return to this project. I was initially a bit wary of profiling these individuals on my own. That was when I came into contact with Veena and we decided to work together. We decided to profile five individuals each. It was a blessing to have her as a co-author.” Most of the research for the book, the authors say came from sources online.


“We found that old citations, acts of the British Parliament, books from that era were available online. Once we started, we got more and more information and learnt about more characters. We did not have a list of names when we started out, but one person often lead to the other. We did make an attempt to ensure that we profile individuals whose influence has been at a national level.”


For both the authors, Call of Duty was a different book. Raghu says, “I move on from one topic to another quickly after finishing a book. All my books are very different from each other. I do not follow a pattern as such and like starting afresh in a new book. I am not much of a fan of sequels.”


Veena says, “My debut novel was about my cousin who was martyred in Kashmir a couple of years ago. This is a project that is very different from what I have done so far. I have enjoyed working on this book.”


The duo feels that method of teaching history in India is very outdated. Veena argues, “Narrating stories is the best way to generate interest. We need a complete overhaul and make characters come alive. If you manage to create relatable characters, students will care more about them and become hooked.”


Raghu agrees, “I think that students must be asked to research about their own families and cities/towns. It will make them appreciate painstaking historical research more.”


The authors point out that most of these individuals did have their faults. “Most of them have been accused of being racist and considering themselves superior to Indians by contemporary historians. However, many of them changed during their stint in India. Some like Mountstart Elphinstone wanted to gear up for a civil system that would help Indians govern themselves and wanted Indians to be educated in the local languages. These were ideas way ahead of the times they stayed in.”


As far as British colonialism drawing bad press among the multitudes that have invaded the country, Raghu says, “The British were always separate and did not make many attempts to assimilate with Indian society. India was always ruled by the gun. That was not the case with the earlier invaders who made India their home and it became part of their culture and traditions.”


He adds, “In this book, I also wanted to point out how individuals are not the same as institutions. This book is not meant to be an apology for the Raj. It is a tale of individuals who may have worked for the British and institutions like the East India Company, but made an attempt to change the lives of the people in this strange land, far away from home.”


Bengaluru was an important cantonment town and finds multiple mentions in the book. Raghu says, “With its salubrious weather, many British officers made the city home and undertook a lot of projects, including creating many lakes and the Lalbagh botanical garden. Francis Cunnigham and Lord Cubbon played a very important role in Bengaluru.”