Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Macaulay: In the crossfire

The following is one of the forwards that are widely circulated among Indians on the net. I am sharing a mail trail it triggered, debating it's veracity, Macaulay and his motives.

My reply:

This is actually a reference to his Minute on Education in 1833.

In fact, Macaulay is the one who said ‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’! He is not alone in holding such views on Indian intellectual and literary history. There are two ways this ‘school of thought’ was interpreted.
On one hand, observers like Amartya Sen tell these views are aired to sell the idea to the west that Indians are indeed savages with absolutely no intellectual history and so they need to be governed by the British. Sen also pointed to evidence in such communication between the British and the fledgling USA in early part of 20 century too. These observers also say that Macaulay and the ilk knew the true intellectual heritage of India which was widely translated by the Iranians and Arabs to the west. I think the British just put a negative propaganda about Indians to gain support for their rule over them. It’s evident with the way they got Indian contributions to mathematics, astronomy and philosophy evaluated as junk by ‘intellects’ like John Mills who never visited India! They projected themselves as liberators just to legitimize their rule.

On the other hand, there are folks who believe Macaulay and the ilk did really think they are doing a favor to Indians by lifting them from ignorance and superstition. They were the liberators, they thought.

Whatever be the case out of these two, Macaulay didn’t have such an extraordinary opinion about India. This was apparently created by some nationalist.

Shekhar's reply:

Interesting article - definitely worth reading. Having said that, I am no historian and obviously cannot provide evidence of the statement attributed to Macaulay's (I will refer to this as M's statement from now on). But this article does not point to anything that contradicts M's statement. As my brother-in-law pointed out, all prejudice is economic and M's statement certainly clarifies that.

In the article below, the author states that M's intentions were benevolent but you know, this is what Western powers have used throughout history. There were many names for it: white-man's burden, manifest destiny, civilizing the natives, etc. All these on the surface are "benevolent" motives but in the end see the amount of injustice they have perpetrated on the world.

I am not well versed with the politics or philosophy of the Dalits but I do know this much - it seems to me some of them are throwing the baby out with the bath water. Instead of rejecting antiquated and pernicious ideas in Hinduism, they reject Hinduism altogether. The pretense that Western civilization is all correct and Hindu civilization is all wrong is just that and one who holds such beliefs has to have ulterior motives. I mean we don't need to look further than the institution of slavery to know that Western civilization has its share of evil and we need to look no further than the Nyaya system of Hindu philosophy to know that here is a sophisticated system of thought that is as good as any the West has ever produced.

Having said that, it is clear that most of the sentiments expressed in the statement in question were carried out quite nicely. Aside from looting India of its wealth - I don't have the proper figures in front of me but I have read estimates of some astronomical figures, the British destroyed indigenous systems of trade, industry, education, language, culture and thought even. The British certainly trained Indians (a few at first and an ever increasing number later) to become more English and certainly did some good in the process - but the two are not synonymous.

To me the distinction is one of tactics and strategies versus goals. May be M never said this statement but the sentiment in this statement is not far from what happened to India and Hinduism.

On the other hand if this statement is being used by Hindus for their own petty purposes, I think that is wrong as well - that would make them no different than the people who espoused the sentiments in M's statement.

In the end though, I agree with the Amar in principle - if M's statement is not true then it must not be attributed to him - nothing good comes out of falsehood but I am not sure I would go so far as to accept everything that Elst writes in his article - it is a very long article but it seems somewhat species to me to say that M had good intentions for India and Indians even though he did not value its culture - as Amar points out this was a view that was "held" by a lot of people but it is not clear to me that they really believed it - I mean anyone who visited India must have known that the natives needed no civilizing. Also I am not sure the civilizing idea was used to sell colonizing to the British masses - I mean the British masses needed no selling - even in Britain, only the upper classes had any power - the lower classes were either brutalized or ignored - look at the origins of Australia or the reception received by Gandhi when he visited the mill workers in Manchester and Leeds or read Dickens to know how the average British lived. So who were these customers that were buying this civilizing-natives idea? May be it was used to assuage the guilt of the upper classes who were exploiting or benefiting from the exploitation.

Not to close on a sour note, most of Elst's article reminds me of this quotation "Hell is paved with good intentions." This can certainly be applied to a lot of M's statements in Elst's article but with a slight twist - may be the intentions were not that good after all.
My Reply:

It goes without saying truth comes in different brands. The left, right, Dalit, liberal,conservative, Neocon and even the greens! Every camp thought it is valid to promote their cause by putting some spin on some facts and create their story, which at the surface looks authentic and draws tremendous support. I guess that is part of every campaign. While this Elst's article clearly shows where his heart belongs, It shouldn’t prejudice us from seeing the truth about Macaulay from factual information, that of his own comments and observations. These camps of Dalit and Hindu now clamoring with their versions didn’t even exist when Macaulay was administering the Indian enterprise, so let us not those versions cloud our perception of Macaulay, the person. Macaulay is clearly caught in the crossfire.

Firstly, about Shekhar's comments, I couldn’t help but notice how objectives of Macaulay of 1835 are equated to those of the British empire of the 20th century. Like Shekhar, I am no professional historian. But then who cares? In the times of Sen and Dalrymple, anyone can take the plunge. So here we go.

To answer the specific query 'who were these customers that were buying this civilizing-natives idea?’, let me share with you what I think was the feel of 1835.
200 years before, in early 1807 the House of Lords banned the slave trade, and then, on February 23 of that year, the House of Commons. It needed 20 years of campaigning by the likes of Thomas Clarkson. All through this period repeated attempts were made to pass the bill which failed as big businesses were involved. By 1792, more than 300,000 Britons were boycotting West Indian sugar, the principal product produced by slave labor, and nearly 400,000 had signed anti-slave trade petitions to Parliament. And when the moment finally came and when it was obvious the bill would pass, many M.P.’s hastily jumped to the winning side and the vote was a lopsided 283 to 16! That was the kind of groundswell of public support. Concerted campaigning continued till slavery is banned throughout the British Empire in all four continents in 1838. This pretty much figures where the upper and middle classes stand in 1835 and what they needed to be told to get their support for ruling India among others.

Coming to the middle class, Macaulay’s own words explains
"..It would be, on the most selfish view of the case, far better for us that the people of India were well governed and independent of us, than ill governed and subject to us; that they were ruled by their own kings, but wearing our broadcloth, and working with our cutlery, than that they were performing their salaams to English collectors and English magistrates, but were too ignorant to value, or too poor to buy, English manufactures. To trade with civilized men is
infinitely more profitable than to govern savages. That would, indeed, be a doting wisdom, which, in order that India might remain a dependency, would make it a useless and costly dependency, which would keep a hundred millions of men from being our customers in order that they might continue to be our slaves." July 10, 1833.
Candid talk, Isn’t it? The labor of Manchester had everything to gain from the new colony (market). They keep their jobs as long as the mills keep working. And working they were, doing great. They get the raw material from India and sell the finished products. It was a Win-Win for Britain. Talking about Gandhi's trip to Manchester, was it not in his agenda then to quell its fears on his swadeshi!?

Amidst all this, let us see Macaulay for what he was, a member of the governing council of the East India Company. Nothing more, Nothing less. He was no saint to think about uplifting India (which I think the India of 1835 did need), nor was he evil. He was just doing his duty in promoting the prospects of his company by creating a native English Beauracracy that governs and creates a market in India at the same time. These were the motives. His intentions were not bad either. His onus was on creating a working class in administration even as bringing scientific approach into our vernaculars. Look, he didn’t speak about replacing them; he was talking about enriching them. I am not sure how many leaders are as wise in today's India. Which invisible 'cultural bonding' was he trying to break in a divided India of numerous princely states? Here, I entirely agree with Smitha.

Macaulay was the architect of the Indian Penal Code. He wrote that the penal code "should be framed on two great principles, -- the principle of suppressing crime with the smallest possible amount of suffering, and the principle of ascertaining truth at the smallest possible cost of time and money"

Macaulay was indeed trying to establish 'rule of law'. Why should he do that if not for honest intentions?
He wrote to a friend of his on December 18, 1837, "Our Penal code is to be published next week. It has cost me very intense labor; and, whatever its faults may be, it is certainly not a slovenly performance. Whether the work proves useful to India or not, it has been of great use, I feel
and know, to my own mind". Honest intentions, I feel.

How his intentions transformed India and how we view it, of course is subjective. I personally see English bringing back science and reason into general public domain after generations of disconnect with our own past in sciences. It put us at least in loop with what’s happening across the world. When we Indians expected people to carry pots hanging from their neck, to spit only in it, whenever they needed to, just because they were born in some supposedly untouchable caste, we did need some civilizing. We need objectivity, at least now. If some see cultural destruction through this, so be it. But what can’t live will die anyway, Macaulay or not.

These are Macaulay's views on how the Raj could be run positively and profitably. Beyond Macaulay, ofcourse the empire had its objectives. They became all the more evident when the control of whole of India went to the queen after the sepoy mutiny in 1857. Needless, to say the earlier foresight of the likes of Macaulay then gave way for aggression into the enterprise. The taxes needed to come and so they had their land policies that are the reason for today’s diabolical feudal lords. Andaman's Kaalapani was sort of today's Guantanamo Bay!

As Shekhar pointed out, the white man's burden, manifest destiny was indeed big propaganda, but that aggression came into picture much later towards the end of the century. But talking about these in the same breath as we talk about Lord Macaulay (1800-1859) who left India in 1837 is not justifiable.

This discussion is indeed very stimulating. I hope the arguments keep going, as nearer to truth as possible.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Sidney Sheldon is no more

The guy who fed us popcorn all through our teenage died today. His books are read so widely all around the world that I wonder they must be as powerful as Hollywood movies in presenting America to the world. A glamorized version though. He was sort of an ambassador selling the American Dream. I personally think ‘Master of the Game’ and ‘If tomorrow comes’ to be his best works. Whenever I tried reading anything else from him, it was Déjà vu.

GURU and Maniratnam's second innings

Having grown up as an ardent fan of Mani’s movies, its natural I have so many so many folks around asking me how his latest offering is. I myself thought Mani is at crossroads of his career even as I was awaiting GURU. That is because the times when he had his greatest hits were drastically different than today’s times. His releases were talked about due to his high dramatic themes and excellent technical values. Mani’s themes and characters are rooted in reality. I am talking about the days of Roja, Bombay, Iruvar, Dilse. They surely made news because it was like selling hot political themes, partly or fully controversial. At the box office, that was his USP. His superb taking of course is unmatched even today. But with so much of television and controversies around I was not sure he still retained his USP. The technical values his movies were high on are no more his lone Preserve. Even flops in Tamil have superb technical values these days, thanks to pioneers like Mani. So what is Mani's movies' USP now?

I think Mani’s career turning point was with Iruvar and Dilse. By this time, Mani had significant success at BO and he must be thinking about new challenges in terms of wider audience and universal content. Till then he skillfully made a career out of explosive (Nayagan, Roja, Bombay) and mythological (Mahabharata-like Dalapati, Savitri-like Roja, Karna-like Agni Nakshatram). He tapped the emotions of the audience successfully. But an MBA guy like him who reads heavily, following world cinema closely surely must be ambitious and he was. His movies show his thirst for excellence and his attempt like Thiruda Thiruda after a phenomenal success with Roja only shows his ambition to break out his comfort zone and get critical and commercial success. After all, despite commercial success, his movies doesn't really have the deep insights. Roja and Bombay were like news in a daily but were not really social or political commentaries. I mean a Bombay pales in front of something like Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer. Mani himself declared he is a pucca commercial filmmaker. And of course he want to be one, Spielberg, who can make a Jurassic Park as well as Schindler’s List. Universal themes they were and Mani had his plans and dreams. But Alas, Fate has different plans. With an ambitious Iruvar (which I think is his boldest attempt till date) failing at BO, Mani, I think, went on the backfoot. Dilse too wasn’t up to his writing standards and its failure too drove him back to Tamil right into his safe haven of ‘love stories’/ inter-personal relations in form of Alaipayuthey. Calling this safe may look far-fetched but I have a gut feeling that he can easily make great love stories although he didn’t do many apart from Mouna Ragam and Geetanjali. For such a great artist, its natural to have a keen eye on relations.

Alaipayuthey’s success financially must have consoled him as Tamil yet again proved safe zone. So he starts his second innings and makes a Kannathil Muthamittal to cross over into critical acclaim. It was a real serious effort. We even heard he was making it without songs. But Mani’s movies seem to be so dependent on AR Rahman. (Even a flop like Dilse is unthinkable without ARR.) So Kannathil..gets songs and we get a not-so-great script. It was a good attempt but a lot more is desired to take him to world stage with strong BO collections. Mani seemed to be improvising and he seems to have made up his mind to get into the depths of issues rather than making superficial stuff. Kannathil Muthamittal proved that. So did Aayitha Ezhuthu. Yet again he took an off-beat theme and which is very close to Indian psyche. There sure were comparisons with Spanish film Amores Perros in terms of structure. And that point must be noted. Ofcourse, Mani has his eyes on critical acclaim in world cinema. However, once again, the script wasn’t up to the mark in Aayitha Ezhuthu. In fact the Hindi version is his worst film ever, in other words, its his only ‘bad film’. Everything went wrong in that movie. So, Mani’s second innings that started with Kannathil.. where content takes the centrestage in his movies and all else, including music, takes backstage. Kannathil ..showed blood relations in an environment of ethnic and political strife. Aayitha Ezhuthu showed different strata of a vast society. Both were moderate successes and so Mani now again thinks about Hindi to break onto the big stage. To try again what he missed with Dilse. Hopefully, he must be more prepared now in content as well as language! He was aiming at younger audience with Yuva and here again he chooses a subject (Guru) that aims at the same niche audience. Understandable how bad a break he needs to stick to the path he chose and still get the eluding commercial success. In this scenario comes Guru which will dictate his path henceforth. Guru should be showing how Mani evolved and how he can connect to the new generation.


There is something about backdrop and milieu in movie content. I mean what can be more appealing than a story of a business czar in the changing times of license-permit raj and his humble beginnings in a dusty Gujarat village. When I first heard about Guru, I thought Mani is making a movie that reflected India’s changing times of 80s and 90s. The Gujarati angle adds the flavor to it just as the Italian backdrop adds to Godfather. When I first heard about RGV Sarcar, I imagined it would be setup in the Hindi heartland with all the raw look. Alas, RGV was not that imaginative! Vishal Bhardwaj tapped the same so skillfully in Omkara. Coming back to Guru, despite the excitement of the challenging content, It was clear all along that with such content, Guru’s fate would firmly and completely depend on the younger audience. It never crossed my mind that he would make something like Citizen Kane as he never inclined to make such things before. And true to my guess he didn’t. But even my guess wasn’t right. Guru is no Citizen Kane but it didn’t even reflect the changing times of 80s. I am not one of those who keep proposing that Mani made a career out of sensationalism in his movies. Even when it was clear, Guru has its inspiration in Ambani, I felt it is incidental. When he need to show the businesses of 80s, its natural for him to show the tactics of the most successful guy of that time. I thought the media was rather being sensationalistic! After seeing Guru, I really wondered Mani is up to. The film almost ended up a biopic, and a bad one at that. Complete with the DuPont machinery in Shakti Industries! It is neither the story of an individual’s struggle nor is it about India’s most important economic era that gave birth to free enterprise. Abhishek just does a mini Kamal Hassan and in these days of Bollywood movies, that is stupendous acting! I am not saying Abhishek didn’t perform. He did but its definitely not over-the-top performance, what with such a nice author-backed protected role which is not exposed too much. And the fact that the movie is talked about only for Abhishek’s performance shows the failure of the focus in content. Guru should have stressed more on the times it was set in. It took for granted the audience knows all about license raj and how it was obstructing free enterprise. The result: Many in audience wondered what the film is all about. After all, if at all they saw economic ideologies in movies, it was only the glorification of socialism in good old days. For a brief minute in the climax, I wished Gurubhai will (at least) break into a lengthy monologue ala Howard Roark in Fountainhead. Its well known Mani is influenced by Ayn Rand. But even that was not to be! So Guru ends up a focus-less superficial movie glossed over with a star couple and some great music and background score and Mani seems to be back on the Bombay path. The gumption he showed in content of two of his earlier movies is missing. Pucca commercial (that’s what he called himself in an interview). What a movie it would have been, if he went the extra mile. Pity, he missed out tapping the great theme. So, we have to wait for Mani to get that great theme and make his magnum opus, our Crouching Tiger, Hidden dragon. The problem is, at 51 he is not getting any younger. The irony is, this is still the best Bollywood can offer. Even more ironic is I came out of theatre (first day, first show) smiling! After all, Mani is back on the big stage with this commercial success and now with the new-found security, he may again resume his second innings with his next film. Eternal optimist, I am.