Susheila Nasta (ed.), India in Britain: South Asian Networks and Connections, 1858-1950.
Edited essay collections that originate in conference proceedings are often devalued by association. Happily, in this instance, Susheila Nasta has produced a coherent assemblage, which offers complex and often intriguing insights into the world of South Asian, especially Indian, 'networks and connections' in the UK. The thematic approach of the book is, however, rather eclectic and it is not the comprehensive survey that the title might lead one to expect of 'India in Britain' from 1858 to 1950. In the introduction, Nasta claims that the book 'traces the transverse lines of connection' between India and Britain, which took place 'on British soil' and 'highlights the significance of the many networks that Indians themselves established in their dual and often conflicted roles as British subjects and colonial citizens of empire' (p. 2). The contributors come from a variety of disciplines including English, History, Drama and Art History.
The scene is set by an evocative Foreword by Nayantara Sahgal, the noted author and niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, who writes about 'the lived experience' of her own family (p. xviii), beginning with the life and times of her maternal grandfather, Motilal Nehru. She argues that 'Inheritance is many-sided and takes many forms' (p. xxiii), describing her upbringing as a complex interplay of divergent and seemingly contradictory influences: 'The family I grew up in was committed to overthrow British rule but there was no such commitment to overthrow Winnie the Pooh, Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse, or the classics of English literature, and nothing against eating shepherd's pie or custard pudding for dinner' (pp. xxii-xxiii). Her uncle, Jawaharlal, Sahgal claims, 'never had the categorical one-dimensional approach to England that Churchill had to India'. The result was evident after Independence, when 'instead of tearing the past out by the roots and throwing it away, India gave this embattled relationship yet another turn by opting to build on what she chose to retain of the British connection: a commitment to parliamentary democracy and related institutions' (p. xxiv).
Rich in examples, the chapters in the book can be divided into sub-groups, one of the largest of which focusses upon prominent personalities and their sojourns within Britain. Thus we have case studies whose protagonists include such familiar figures as Mohandas Gandhi, Swami Vivekenanda, Sarojini Naidu, Cornelia Sorabji, Rabindranath Tagore and Rudyard Kipling, with both Tagore and Kipling featuring in multiple essays. This selection has led to some familiar ground being traversed. For instance, British press coverage of Tagore in the piece by Madhumita Lahiri is an area that has been previously brought to our notice by Kalyan Kundu; the testimonies of Indian soldiers during the Great War featuring in Santanu Das's essay have been explored prominently by Rozina Visram and David Omissi; and Siobhan Lambert-Hurley's piece is essentially a chapter from her previously published book. In another group, the book features individuals not as well known to mainstream readers yet whose experiences provide us with much food for thought, including Mohini Chatterjee, Manmohan Ghose (older brother of Sri Aurobindo), Toru Dutt, G.V. Desani and Kedar Nath Das Gupta.
Another section focusses on iconic events, principally the First World War, as well as the impact of institutional developments, for instance, the activities of The India Society, the productions of Indian theatre--both during the early twentieth century--and the creation of Muslim space through the construction of 'A Mosque in London worthy of the tradition of Islam and worthy of the capital of the British empire' (p. 80). Referring to these Indo-British encounters as both 'zigzag andfuzzy, Elleke Boehmer reiterates how creating a comprehensive picture of this process 'entails an important task of historical decoding' (p. 12). The Indians she examines were all high caste Bengali Brahmins--Chatterjee, Ghose and Dutt--members of the cultural elite, for whom distinctions of race or ethnicity were mediated in late nineteenth-century London 'and to an extent suspended within a more dominant hierarchy of class'--an argument that serves to corroborate the thesis put forward by A. Martin Wainwright and David Cannadine (p. 14). This theme also underpins another essay by Alexander Bubb, examining the sojourn of three rather better known individuals --Gandhi, Kipling and Vivekananda--with the author contending that overall their experience though 'passionate' was also 'confused'--a feeling encapsulated by Vivekananda's lament to an English friend: 'What am I? Asiatic, European, or American? I feel a curious medley of personalities in me' (p. 59).
Chandani Lokuge discusses Naidu's literary and political rhetoric, which 'entangled eastern and western traditions, lofty idealism, deep subjectivity and subtle expediency' (p. 115). Naidu's upper-middle-class privileged upbringing exposed her to multiple influences that inculcated in her 'a love of "world-citizenship"' (p. 116). She spent four momentous years studying in England and published four volumes of poetry, largely through the auspices of her mentors, Arthur Symons and Edmund Gosse, the latter encouraging her to draw greater inspiration from her Indian roots (pp. 117-18). Her later involvement with nationalism resulted in poetry being set aside in favour of political participation in the struggle for independence.
Exploring a completely different media genre, Jacqueline Gold examines the life of Sabu, a poor orphan boy plucked from obscurity to become one of the biggest stars of Korda's London Film Studios during the 1930s and 1940s. Sabu proved the perfect acolyte, 'an identifiable representative of the loyal Indians Movietone' (p. 183). The 'invention' of Sabu 'presented the possibility of a new version of ... imperial fictions, one where Indians might become assimilated Indian settlers in Britain' (p. 186). However, these developments also served to deflect attention away from the 'realities of economics', Sabu's 'dependency' and Korda's 'exploitation' (p. 184).
Humayun Ansari's excellent essay describes the convoluted process of negotiations between competing domestic and transnational interests in London between 1910 and 1944 to create what eventually became the London Central Mosque and the Islamic cultural centre (p. 91). Das, examining literature and memorialisation of the Great War, argues that Kipling's poem 'The Eyes of Asia' ought not to be dismissed as simply 'jingoistic and propagandist' (p. 38). Instead, it reveals his 'complex emotional history', an intense grief at the death of his only son in the conflict and the 'desolation of the child arising from the dislocations of war and colonialism' (p. 38). He contends that it is critical to accept that there are 'multiple intensities of meaning' that course through imperial texts (p. 38).
Two criticisms of the book are likely to be levelled from some quarters: the first is that it is uneven in coverage; the second is that some of the authors could have displayed a greater critical awareness of the wider historiographical traditions--for instance, of the British press within which they are seeking to situate their case studies. The first charge would demand no less than an entirely different book for the field is rich in potential and capable of supporting several such collections. The second charge is not entirely without merit. Nevertheless, this is an ambitious and often insightful survey, which should appeal to a wide readership and provide fruitful ideas for new projects.
University of St Andrews
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|Publication:||Literature & History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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