Thinking Aloud – Malathy Sitaram

This is a new column which I hope will interest readers of Confluence. In it I will muse about ideas, happenings, politics and people which I hope may amuse, inspire or even irritate! I hope it may lead some of you to write letters to the Editor.



At the end of February, I returned from a fortnight in India, when I visited relatives in Calcutta and Bombay. Having spent my childhood and youth in Bombay, I find it hard to use its current name. Apparently some Indian politicians would remark that I am obviously in the ’India’ camp and not the ‘Bharat’ one. I find this interesting because there is actually a great deal of baggage behind this view. As long as I am not perceived as somehow less Indian or less pro-India, I can let this pass. I will confess to a very anglicized schooling in South Bombay in the course of which we spoke only English which eventually displaced Tamil, my mother tongue. Perhaps this happened more quickly because my mother was proficient in English and read English novels like her daughters did.



In school in Bombay in the 50s, our history books presented the subject from a Western perspective, thus filling our receptive minds with the notion that Empire was a good thing and that the British were essentially benevolent rulers. This did not prevent me from supporting Gandhi and Nehru’s demands for independence. My parents were ardent supporters of Gandhi and on the day that he was killed in Delhi in 1948, we were in deep mourning just as millions of others were. It is most fitting that his statue should be erected in the political heart of London. Opposition to the erection of the statue came from the most unlikely quarter: Some Sikhs based here. A letter was written to The Times stating Gandhi was not worthy of this gesture as not only was he a “sexual pervert” but also a “racist”! This raised some correspondence in the Times Letters column and I was very glad that my letter opposing such calumny was printed and of course the statue was placed at Westminster ceremonially in the presence of the Indian High Commissioner and many other Indian onlookers.



I have just read in The Times (London) this morning (March 11th), something so farfetched, so absurd that it is hard to believe that the absurdity is an utterance in a personal blog by a judge in the Indian Supreme Court. Judge Katju’s thesis is that Gandhiji was a British agent helping them to divide and rule India! Why does he think this? Apparently because Gandhi was prone to pepper his speeches with Hindu religious phrases, Muslims were driven to demand their own state. A brilliant plot devised by the British and their stooge, Gandhi. This idea would make wonderfully comic material for a film in which actor/comedians such as John Cleese and Peter Sellars (deceased) would have a field day. And all this just before the unveiling of the Gandhi statue in Parliament Square. It seems the Hindu right-wing in India now feels emboldened enough to air crazy notions such as putting up a statue of Godse, Gandhi’s murderer, banning the consumption of beef in Maharashtra and organising mass re-conversions to Hinduism. Is it not actions such as these that will antagonize followers of other religions? Let us not ever forget that our hardwon constitution hails the birth of India as a self-governing, secular nation.



Being an avid reader, my favourite weekend reading is the Weekend FT which in my view has the best coverage of new books and the Arts. Last weekend I was delighted to read that the third book of Amitav Ghosh’s trilogy about the lucrative opium trade plied by the British in India in the 19th century will be published in May. In the last book, The Sea of Poppies, I was moved to tears when reading about the effect of this poison on the Chinese nation, making its consumers into the living dead and forcing the Chinese emperor to beseech Queen Victoria in a most moving letter to stop this evil trade that was filling British coffers whilst killing opium addicts. The British sent gunboats to Hong Kong to maintain this trade by force, knowing full well the effects of the drug. Certainly one would not find this information in school textbooks. One would have to be at the Ph.D. level to discover this. I often muse about how little is revealed in different countries in their history textbooks about shameful deeds perpetrated in the past. Germany has not shirked the difficult and sensitive task of informing its pupils about the horrors of what the Nazis did. No incident is omitted. One cannot say the same about other countries. Do American textbooks cover the genocidal attacks against the indigenous population of America in the early days of settlement, in school text books? Or does Japan explain its actions in the Second World War? This is obviously a very sensitive subject. How History should be taught becomes a philosophical problem.



I often wonder how a tiny island country such as Britain subjugated so many countries, creating a vast empire. From the 18th century onwards, the battle in Europe for supremacy over the oceans was won by Britain. The thirst for adventure along with the allure of vast treasure troves must have been a magnet for hard-bitten men to cross the seas in search of wealth beyond their wildest dreams. These mariners were little better than pirates. Sir Walter Raleigh was sent across the world by Elizabeth1 to bring back gold by whatever means. He was knighted for doing so. Robert Clive brought back several hundred chests full of gold coins, gems and other treasure. Margaret Thatcher was proud of Empire and thought it a great achievement. Today, people would be more cautious in saying so as they are more aware that it was created through the use of force, guile and treachery and that racism was rampant. The cupidity, stupidity and debauchery of our Maharajas made it easy for the East India Company to rule the country.



What will history books many years from now have to say about the ultra-sensitive subject of the horrific rape and murder of the medical student, Jyoti Singh, a year ago in Delhi? On March 7th, the BBC broadcast its first television screening of the story. The coverage was in the best tradition of BBC documentaries, thorough, sympathetic and illuminating. For some inexplicable reason the film has been banned in India. But why? We had already seen massive coverage last year shortly after the crime was committed. There is nothing in this film that defames India in any way or exaggerates or distorts the facts. Denying Indians the right to watch this documentary is an ill-judged and short-sighted decision. In the film one of the rapists is interviewed and his lack of remorse and justification of the rape is enraging and frustrating but that does not mean that this should be concealed. We hear about Indian values spoken by some men in the film. What are these values? It seems some politicians and others believe that basically a woman is not the equal of a man. She should not go out in the hours of darkness unless accompanied by her grandparents or a brother and should not dress or behave in Western fashion as that is likely to excite would-be rapists. Are women now to cover up in the same way as Saudis? Are we going to have police on the streets engaged in monitoring what women wear? And, above all is a rapist excused because he was turned on by a woman’s choice of dress and freedom of movement? This is deeply embarrassing and even shocking to hear in the 21st century. We now have female astronauts, pilots, chief executives, soldiers, doctors, sportswomen, actresses etc. etc. Let us not go back into the Dark Ages and let not men only be the ones who decide on such matters.



It is paradoxical that in the country which produced the Kama Sutra in ancient times, we have always had censorship of lovemaking scenes in Indian films though sexy dancing in nightclubs is standard fare in most films. Apparently the ban on kissing in films has recently been lifted! That is progress! Most people living in India must have seen the near-pornographic carvings in temples all over the country in which nothing is left to the imagination. Indian values must certainly have been very different 2000 years ago.



Malathy Sitaram was the first Asian teacher of English in Wiltshire schools. Also she was the first AsianUntitled-1 copy to be appointed to the Swindon Bench of Justices of the Peace.