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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 19

Metaphor of the Centaur

Sunday 27 April 2008, by Rakesh Gupta



The Raj Syndrome by Suhas Chakravarty; Rupa & Co, New Delhi; 2007; pages: 401; price: Rs 395.

As one proceeded to read the book, a metaphor materialised to understand the layers of reality behind the flourish of literary cuisine this work is on British imperial sensibility and Indian detachments. The metaphor is that of the Centaur. It is not because of the grand monumental floor-to-ceiling sight of it at the ground floor of the British Museum or even the Machiavellian description of politics as half-human and half- animal but because the reading of the book allows for the shuffling of the body of the Centaur, as Dali did in his painting on Hitler: a pulp-muscular depiction of the Hitlerite body representing the solidity of German Nazism in less than manly terms. In totality human and beastly energy is represented by the metaphor of the Centaur. It is suggested to the reader to find out—what is the human and the inhuman? Which part of the flourish is Chakravarty’s style and sarcasm hinting at? This is more so since the ‘The Hairy Ape’ (The Human) of the O’ Neil play by that name, is done by the actual ape to death. For this reason alone one needs to look at this difficult book. Unfathom its scalpel’s drive. It hits one and all in the British imperial imagination. Or, does it not!

Who is the beast here? Is the flirtatious memsahib, the hero on the NWFP, the sepoy, the Curzons, Ramsay Macdonalds, Cripps, Gandhi, Nehru, Sapru—who? (p. 158) Is the energy of expansion or revolt the beast? Your answers to these will make parts of the Centaur beautiful. Chakravarty must have enjoyed writing this book thoroughly not just for its dealing of historicity but for giving galloping energy to the imagination of English prosody and poetry. He makes wonderful use of it. When it comes to historicity, Barrachlough is genuinely quoted to say in Suhas’ less literary and more straightforward way:

…the political, economic, and strategic dimensions of the route to India formed a seamless whole and the recognition of this fact is essential for understanding British in India as much as in Africa. (p. 49)

When India began to revolt (beast or human?) Suhas quotes E. Brut Mitford to show how it had to be dealt with thus:

In such a country as India agitation feeds on weakness.

So he argued:

The Raj must govern or get out. (p. 56)

THIS basic position gets elaborated in subsequent chapters in terms of British sensibility and perceived Indian savagery. Right in the beginning Suhas talks about perceptions. The reader needs to exercise his own vantage point to look at perceptions in the book. If this is accepted then Forster cannot be understood, says the author. His liberalism is wasted to the dominant view. (p. 147) Even a liberal Thompson gave up his liberal view of the Indian situation in 1930-31. (p. 151) He had vituperation for Gandhi. Nehru was no hope either for him. The Congress was described as fascist. (p. 195)

The book shows up the alleged beastly features of the Indian communities. The way the Maratha was described by them is just ghastly. Read the way Laski rejected Gandhi as the spokesman of the younger generation. (p. 224) The Concilitation groups did not find Indians congenial to imperial interests either. (p. 246) Almost all across the English political fissures the idea of independent India was dropped. Educating an Indian was a dream now. The reviewer feels Burke had not even entertained such a hope. Liberals had initially, but abandoned their positions. One feels Burke was consistent with his conservatism. Burke does not find much place in this narrative. He has been an anathema for many. It is true that the liberals and Leftists are not consistent with their beliefs. Do read the last lines on page 259 to determine the initial exercise of shuffling the various parts of the metaphor of the Centaur. Did the body have any divisive faultlines or were the imperial consensus part of the same body? Where would the Indian revolt fit in? May be the issue is beyond the scope of the book because the metaphor may apply only to the British sensibility of the Imperium and not to the Indian revolt against it. For, after all, Chakravarty says ‘it was the barometer of British imperial sensibility’. (p. 281) May be the metaphor is misplaced since the book deals with the beast of British sensibility portrayed in civilisational zeal. Even then it may not be inappropriate. Take a sip and cheers to Chakravarty.

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