Thursday, Dec 01, 2022

The New Indian Caste Taboo

It's a literary kala pani. What is depressing is that the old Indian cultural schizophrenia is still alive, more than five decades after Independence.

The New Indian Caste Taboo
illustration by Jayachandran
The New Indian Caste Taboo

I have always believed that if hypocrisy is an English disease, then jealousy must be Indian. I was fortified in my belief last week when Mark Tully endorsed my theme when he spoke at London's Nehru Centre. He described how at Hyderabad's Press Club the journalists had nothing but complaints about Chandrababu Naidu, forcing an exasperated Tully to ask: Is there nothing good about the man?

Later over dinner with Tully, I narrated the story of Indian crabs to him. It goes as follows. An Indian businessman who exported crabs to the US is visited by his American buyer. The American is mystified why the Indian sends him crabs in boxes that do not have lids. Surely the crabs could go missing? The Indian puts his mind at rest: "Don't worry, they are Indian crabs. If one tries to get out, the others will pull him back."

This jealousy applies even more to Indians abroad who may have done well. Now we are called the Indian Diaspora, with the government keen to court us. But not long after the great Indian Diaspora mela in Delhi earlier this year, I met a high government official at a conference in Copenhagen. His contempt for the achievements of the Indians in Britain made me realise this is just for public consumption.

Thirty years ago when I left India for England, the word diaspora did not apply to us. We were referred to as pardesis, a term that conveyed scorn and lust in almost equal measure. In India I have been alternatively seen as a well-off pardesi who can be sponged-off during a visit to London, or a traitor who has abandoned the sweet poverty of India for the riches of the west. I have long got used to this but now it seems we pardesi Indians face a new caste barrier. In a recent article in an Indian cricket magazine, Suresh Menon, a former sports editor, decided to list the most important books on Indian cricket but omitted my two books on the subject: A Maidan View and A History of Indian Cricket.

I wouldn't have minded if Menon had dismissed my books because he did not think they were worthwhile. In that case, I could have consoled myself saying that my books were pathbreakers and many Indian cricket lovers have them on their bookshelves. Before I published A Maidan View in 1986, nobody had ever thought of using cricket to examine contemporary Indian society and John Arlott, one of the greatest cricket writers reviewing it in Wisden, wrote: "It should be read by everybody concerned with the social setting of cricket wherever it is played." Extracts from the book have been part of cricket anthologies ever since.

My A History of Indian Cricket is the only book that provides a narrative history of cricket in India from the time in 1721 when some English sailors played the game on a beach near Cambay to the age of Tendulkar, complete with scorecards and statistics. There is no other book of its type, and people as diverse as Aamir Khan and John Wright have found it very useful. Khan had it in his dressing room during the making of Laagan. Wright read it before his interview with the Indian Board for the job of coach.

It is clear that Menon, in writing me off, is seeking to promote his mate, Ramachandra Guha. Last summer, as my History... was revised and updated. Guha published his A Corner of a Foreign Field. The book has all sorts of errors and omissions. But in my review of Guha's book, I concentrated on its claim to be a "comprehensive, pioneering social history of Indian cricket". Given that Guha devotes only 119 out of 496 pages to events from 1947 to date, this is a ridiculous claim. Guha has written comprehensively on Baloo, the untouchable cricketer. But even here he is not a pioneer. Baloo was mentioned in the Silver Jubilee Souvenir of Cricket Association of Bengal in 1954-55 and I dealt with him but unlike Guha did not make him the centre of my book.

Guha reacted as if I had offered him violence, accusing me of not reading his book. In fact, I had read it so well I had even read the footnote on page 449. This throws a very interesting light on Guha, the so-called pioneering social historian. Guha devoted a whole chapter to the fight between polo and cricket in Bombay around the last years of the 19th century. Guha says "this has escaped the notice of previous historians" and describes how at Lord's he found a book by the Parsee cricketer, Shapoorjee Sorabjee. But his footnote on page 449 destroys his argument. Here he acknowledges that I did mention the story. In fact, the Sorabjee book is mentioned in my history and since Guha reviewed my history twelve years before he published his own book, he must have read it first in my book. Or, is it possible that Guha had not read my book, a charge he makes against me?

Menon ignores these uncomfortable facts and disregards my books not on the grounds of quality but because he says I do not live and work in England. This is a new variation of that old caste barrier: kala pani. Mahatma Gandhi in his autobiography described how due to the old kala pani restrictions, his Modh bania community told him he could not go abroad. He was told: "In the opinion of the caste, your proposal to go to England isn't proper. Our religion forbids voyages abroad." Gandhi still sailed for England. And, as it happens, it was Gandhi's longer sojourn in South Africa that fashioned his satyagraha techniques.

If we accept Menon's remarkable literary kala pani, then most of modern English literature would have to be consigned to the dustbin. Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry and Amitav Ghosh, writers of Indian origin living outside India, but clearly the leading fiction writers in English today, would be out. But what is really depressing about this attitude is that the old Indian cultural schizophrenia is still alive and well more than fifty years after independence.

I was first made aware of this in 1977 when I was researching my biography of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. In Delhi's National Archives of India, the scholar I met looked at me scornfully when he heard I was a journalist and said, surely all I was interested in is whether Netaji Bose had died in that plane crash, in other words the sensational, tabloid stuff. More depressing was the attitude of Subhas Bose's nephew, Dr Sisir Bose who ran the Netaji Research Bhavan in Calcutta. A government-funded institute, its archives should be open to any bonafide researcher and much of the material had already been available to Leonard Gordon, the American scholar. I was initially shown some material but this was while Sisir Bose was away. When he came back and realised I was an overseas Indian and a journalist, he refused to let me see them, saying they had to be catalogued. When I mentioned that Gordon had seen them, Sisir Bose said he was an American scholar—implying this put him in a much higher caste bracket. Ironically, some of the material he was denying me was from the India Office Library in London where I easily got them and much more besides.

One of the historic problems with India is that for all its great accomplishments as a civilisation, it never developed a tradition of recording history as the Chinese did. China's history can be traced from about 1,400BC. In India it is impossible to have a complete list of kings. Often, as I found for my History of Indian Cricket, the best material can be found in England. This parochialism means that it is often people living outside India who initiate work on many wonderful subjects that India provides.

As I write this, I have in front of me two books by inquisitive English writers. Kevin Rushby's Children of Kali demolishes the myth of the thugees, which resulted, as Rushby says, in the British Raj demonising millions of Indians as hereditary criminals.The Great Hedge by Roy Moxham is also an investigation into another Raj creation which penalised Indians. Neither man is an academic historian but their books are properly researched and very readable. Philip Beale, an Englishman, is about to sail in a replica of an eighth century Indonesian craft following in the route of the ancient Indonesians who travelled to Ghana in West Africa via Maldives, Madagascar and Cape Town. In the eighth century, the British were not yet a sea faring nation and the fact that the Indonesians sailed such long distances has fascinated Beale and his friends.

But think: Indonesia was then a mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism, both of which came from India. Has anybody in India cared about how it got there? Or, tried to recreate the sea voyages of the ancient Indians? If not, why not? Fifty years after Independence, Indians still need foreigners to jolt them with historical facts about India. Is it any surprise that the only biography of Ramanujan is by an American? The best book on Calcutta is by an Englishman and an American is writing the first proper biography of Mumbai. Is it not astonishing that the only paperback, popular biography of Mahatma Gandhi was written by Louis Fisher, an American journalist, in 1951? I have got so frustrated trying to persuade publishers to commission a paperback biography of Gandhi that I have decided to write one myself.

It could be argued that this is because Indian writers are not interested in such subjects. I would blame it on Indian publishers. I have so far published 21 books, all of them in England and each of them was prompted by a publisher coming to me with the idea. India now has an economy which is powerful enough for the Indian Prime Minister to be invited to the G-8 meetings. It is time Indian publishers started taking some risk and showing some initiative. Let us not go for protectionism in ideas, let us not encourage a literary kala pani.

(Mihir Bose was brought up in Mumbai and has lived in England for more than 30 years. He has worked as a journalist for various British newspapers, including The Sunday Times and for the last 10 years has written for Daily Telegraph. He is currently working on a history of Bollywood.)

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