A friend in India has shared this notice on Facebook: ‘The British people are finally experiencing what’s it like to have the British rule your country.’ During the past ten weeks I have spent my mornings writing about my great-grandfather, the last Nawab of Bengal, and the confinement– albeit luxurious–he experienced under British rule. Lest he become politically contaminated he was allowed to travel no more than 10 miles from his palace unless accompanied by a British official. Nor could he have European visitors not previously approved by the British Agent.
Many have reacted to the distress caused by the Pandemic and the political derelictions of Boris Johnson’s government by turning to Camus’ The Plague or Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. My own current reading is Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, the first novel of which depicts in compelling and compassionate detail the physical and psychological lockdown endured by the women in a family dominated by a despotic Egyptian merchant during World War 1. Outside the house his sons try to ignore the racist and boisterous behaviour of Australian soldiers stationed near Cairo.
Other readers seek out fiction and poetry which takes them to freer and happier worlds. Wordsworth has found a new audience, and sales of P.G.Wodehouse have increased. One of my favourite bloggers advocates Kipling’s Kim where one can ‘rove through his land’ and enjoy ‘adventure, plenitude, freedom, wide wandering–everything in fact that is the opposite of lockdown.’ There we can join Kim and his companions on the Grand Trunk Road ‘bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles— such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world.’ Kim represents for this blogger ‘the power of reading to allow us to escape into another world entirely different from the one we inhabit.’
Narendra Modi ordered lockdown for all of India–except for essential workers–on March 24, following a curfew during which everyone was encouraged to step outside at 5 pm and clap or bang drums in praise of health workers. Millions of migrant workers in city factories and workplaces were left stranded without any means of survival. Thousands set off to walk across India in an attempt to reach their families and villages, and many were arrested for violating the lockdown, turned back at state borders, or simply died from exhaustion and starvation. Meanwhile Islamaphobia, already rampant among Modi’s supporters, intensified, and rumours of a Corona-jihad conspiracy spread. Muslims suspected of plotting to spread the virus among Hindus were beaten, arrested, and murdered..
Kim’s vision of India as an ideal multicultural community, a world of freedom and adventure, its roads ‘bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles’, seems now to have little correspondence with contemporary India. Nor did it exist under British Rule. And yet, perhaps Kim’s evocation of an ideal India is something to be valued and held onto, especially now.
Like Narendra Modi, Boris Johnson encourages his country’s citizens to applaud ‘heroic’ nurses and doctors. My street is predominantly Tory, and every Thursday evening at 8 pm, an elderly resident blows a trumpet for all to step outside to clap for the NHS and to be seen to be clapping. On an unusually sunny Sunday in April I passed the trumpet blower on my walk. ‘Wonderful weather’, he said, ‘that’s because of Boris. He’s coming out of hospital tomorrow.’ I refrained from noting that rain was predicted for the rest of the week.
Each day as I take my daily permitted walk along a path through fields I feel like V.S. Naipaul’s narrator in Enigma of Arrival doggedly tracing and retracing the path that leads from his Wiltshire cottage retreat. For him the black and white Friesian cows grazing on the hillside become a vivid reminder of the labels on the tins of condensed milk his family consumed back in Trinidad.
For those of us from a different side of the world, encountering the English countryside is a constant affirmation of the English culture and the literature that formed our childhood. But it is also a reminder that we are ‘out of place’ (as Edward Said titled his autobiography). For Britons their literature is an affirmation of the world they have always inhabited. For me the ‘wandering voice’ of the cuckoo and the daffodils inevitably summon memories of reading Wordsworth in Australia and acknowledging that they existed in a world that was other than my own.
Reminders of ‘home’ also work by contrast: the tuneless chatter of English magpies recalls Australian magpies with their full-throated warble. The brilliant green of English fields and trees now in full leaf summon memories of the sunburnt fields and muted dark green and blue grey forests of Australia. Such reminders bring traces of nostalgia, but also pleasure in the complexity of this double vision, just one consequence of the British Rule which brought some of my ancestors from India to Britain and Australia.