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September 15, 1997


Farzana Versey

The Christian Raj

Dominic Xavier's illustration Of the diverse occupations that the sahibs indulged in during their time under the not-yet-ready-to-set British sun, the more enthralling were not the attempts at combating curry stains or conniving with those currying favours, but the rather obfuscating task of assembling together a people they did not think too well of. Christian charity remained a distant and anachronistic dream.

Yet it was Christianity that both spurred and spurned the many efforts of the raj to become a nuisance. The empire, in its almost Vatican-like hold on the people, justified the iron glove with its supposedly velvet-fisted need for smooth functioning. A 'taming of the shrew' act with all the divine munificence that could be mustered. Akin to a religion, with the devotees moving the positions of new acquisitions on the map as they would prayer beads -- monotonously, but with implicit submission to a power greater than them (though its very survival depended on them).

The role of the missionary in this scheme of things was as much sanctimonious as it was sacred. Faced with fatalism, maya (illusion) and the obsession of the vast populace, the Englishman felt obliged to look after the needs of the lonely Hindu soul.

The empire became a battleground for good versus evil; only the ayahs (nannies) singing a bastardised version of the nursery rhyme, Umti Dumpti gir gaya phut (Humpty Dumpty had a great fall), kept the suspense delightfully blurred as to who was more deserving of the great fall.

There may have been sympathisers on the imperial side, but they too revealed their true colours, as George Orwell did: "I am struck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part, I thought of the British raj as an unbreakable tyranny... With another part, I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts."

The inexorable logic was probably Christianity. Even Katherine Mayo gave literature a peculiar look by denying Hindu customs with such gaudy colours of rituals that they took on the shade of a 'unique spiritual inhumanity'. One would be quite right to wonder what happened to the humanising of the Christian in the circumstances? There seemed to be virtually no contact between the rulers and the ruled at the level of basic human understanding. Like religion, imperialism's appeal, it if can be so called, lay in it being imposed.

However, like all faiths, its identity got more leverage with expansion. Englishmen who were nobodies back home appeared in the guise of prophets and seers in the East. So seriously did they take to their tasks, bundling off to hill stations for their mandatory 'retreat' and retribution, that often this fame by default imbued them with a certain ridiculousness.

The imperialists were convinced that, since God had made them the superior race, it was their business to work for the welfare of those inferior to them. Shorn of its mask, this is the real face of all charity. It is based entirely on the distribution of largesse, with no thought given to the elevation of those lower down. This is what Kipling did with Mowgli and Gunga Din.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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Farzana Versey