27 April, 2015Issue 28.1HistoryPolitics & Society

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The Stuff Still Stirs

Nakul Krishna

The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905
By Ferdinand Mount
Simon and Schuster, 2015
784 pages
ISBN: 9781471129452

The first of many ambivalences in Ferdinand Mount’s monumental new book about the British in nineteenth-century India is to be found in the two halves of its title. The Tears of the Rajas reeks of the The Far Pavilions, ‘Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805–1905’ of some stolid doctoral dissertation. The book is neither as kitschy nor as dully worthy as its cover portends. In fact, the Janus-faced title turns out to give an entirely accurate impression of the book’s themes and its tender, mordant register.

Mount’s history gets its special interest from the fact that it is the history of a family: his own. He is not alone among the living descendants of the British colonials of the nineteenth century in having long ignored this history. In a country with a conspicuous fascination with genealogy, this widespread disregard comes in good part from a combination of embarrassment and anxiety about what a serious look through the family archives might throw up.

The stories the archives throw up give the lie to his naïve assessment of his ancestors, the Lows, as “rather dull.” In the course of this long book, the Low men and women run the gamut: now in Java, now in Afghanistan, caught up in a mutiny, and then in another, encountering boy-kings and queen-regents, surviving (or not surviving) the disease and debt that were the permanent conditions of life for so many Scots in India. Like other such Scots, they are the victims of atrocities, as well as—Mount does not let us forget it—perpetrators.

General John Low is the closest thing this chronicle has to a hero. An equable and prudent man with a gift for languages, John Low grows in this book from a promising junior officer to an elder statesmen possessed of a shrewd sense of political judgment. Low’s affection and regard for Indian rulers—at any rate the less dissolute among them—stands in honourable contrast to the attitude of the overweening Lord Dalhousie, whose time as Governor-General of India was marked by a policy of ruthless expansionism.

A character in V. S. Naipaul’s bleak African parable, A Bend in the River (1979), observed that the

Europeans wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else; but at the same time they wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves. Being an intelligent and energetic people, and at the peak of their powers, they could express both sides of their civilization; and they got both the slaves and the statues.

John Low seems to stand, in Mount’s imagination, for a vision of a nicer Empire, all statues and no slaves, but Mount does not dwell long on this fantasy. He is hard-nosed enough to see that it was gold and slaves, all the way down, and could not have been otherwise:

The British empire in India was the creation of merchants and it was still at heart a commercial enterprise, which had to operate at profit and respond to the ups and downs of the market. Behind the epaulettes and the jingle of harness, the levees and the balls at Government House, lay the hard calculus of the City of London.

This is family history as military, diplomatic and economic history all at once, animated by a fact-hungry, untheoretical intelligence. Mount has waded deep among the archives; his endnotes are compendious. The most important of his sources is a long-neglected book by his aunt, Ursula Low, Fifty Years with John Company (1936)—a sprightly, readable book that might be due a reissue. Ursula Low is commended for evoking “the rise, the heyday and the fading of a whole civilization”, one whose “proceedings were both civil and uncivil, being in parts greedy and brutal, in other parts decent and dedicated in an unobtrusive way.”

The adjectives of judgment here are precisely well chosen. They allay any fear that this is to be one of those no-nonsense histories where the facts are supposed to speak for themselves but end up speaking for the prejudices of the crypto-blimpish author instead. But Mount, long an articulate voice of Britain’s decent Right, was never likely to produce a tract of hysterical, and ahistorical, moralism. His protagonists are racked with doubt; much in their lives is banal, squalid, and mercenary—that is to say, all too human. Not all the fantasies of imperial grandeur ever exalted their quotidian concerns to nobility in their own minds.

The Lows, when their lives were at their lowest ebb, were as able as any infantryman in 1914 to see through the old lie. One can almost hear them intoning to themselves, as the soldiers did in the trenches, “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here…” Mount’s quotations, copious and always apposite, reveal an imperial rhetoric always verging on the incoherent. It shows, quite decisively, just how weak a sense there was among those who administered the Empire of what the whole caboodle “was for and how long it would last and whether it deserved to last.”

The Tears of the Rajas is not always so reflective; much of it is marked, rather, by a spirit of jouissance. Its narrative tone, perfectly poised between contempt and bemusement, censure and admiration, owes little to the thugs-and-cavalrymen romanticism of John Masters, or indeed to the tortured introspections of Paul Scott. Mount’s real literary precursor is George MacDonald Fraser, whose resourceful, amoral anti-hero Harry Flashman has the same knack as Mount’s Lows for turning up wherever the action is, simultaneously embodying and subverting the imperial ideal as he ad libs his way through the best and worst of the British Empire.

Midway through a dark chapter titled ‘Massacre in a Fives Court’, Mount is moved to quote at length from a ballad by that cut-price Kipling, Sir Henry Newbolt. “The stuff still stirs,” writes Mount, only half-apologetically. “I cannot resist reprinting some of it.” It is what you would expect—”Trumpeter, sound for the Light Dragoons, / Sound to saddle and spur,”—and more in that vein. Oh, it stirs indeed, and mortifies, and appals, and fascinates, like much else in this book.

Nakul Krishna has just completed a DPhil in Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford..