Day 6 India

Wednesday, 28 December

I start the day by coming to terms with the cold-water washing machine. Before coming to India, I would have doubted its existence as this is not a machine dedicated to familiar 30 and 40 but actually cold water with special washing powder. My laundry session passes without incident apart from my emptying the machine when it had only paused to think about its next step. Any person with a normal relationship to the physical world would have stayed their hand on seeing that the machine was still half filled with water. Yours truly empties the machine and spends a soggy half hour rinsing and squeezing. But the crisis passes and my sticker certifying that this house has been trashed by David Kendall remains in my pocket for another day.

After my regular hour of Bengali, I make a start on Piers Breedon’s “The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997”. One of my aims this trip is to learn more about how the British controlled the Indian economy in their interests and how that control weakened. Breedon is not so useful as India is only part of his study and much of it focuses on political rather than economic developments (and there is rather too much chit chat about the vagaries of the leading figures for my taste). However, there are a couple of points that interested me. He tells us (writing about the 1930s on p. 385) that “the economic ties between the two countries were unravelling. Indian business was developing independently of Britain…Between the wars, it became clear to the British that, despite fluctuations in benefits conferred and costs incurred, India was a declining asset. In particular, the subcontinent was manufacturing its own cotton goods as well as importing cheap fabrics from Japan and it no longer provided a large captive market for the products of Lancashire. Moreover, threatened with resignations from the Viceroy’s Executive Council, Britain could not even prevent India from imposing a protective tariff on English textiles”. I’d assumed before that independence was key for the loosening of British control but here it seems that it was a longer process. There was also a reference to B.R. Tomlinson’s “The Political Economy of the Raj 1914-1947” which looks as if it could be seriously useful. Not much time will pass before Amazon India’s motorcycle makes its hopefully careful way up our country path…

The other point, not directly related to my focus but still of general interest consisted of comments about the Labour Party’s take on independence in the years before 1947. According to Brendon (p. 401), “Paradoxically [hmm], Nehru had more respect for Churchill, whom he considered an honourable foe, than for the ‘humbugs of the British Labour Party’. Many of them were humbugs. They were staunch enemies of imperialism yet (in Herbert Morrison’s classic phrase) ‘great friends with the jolly old Empire’. They were committed to Indian self-government but vague about how and when it would be achieved. Yet if Labour politicians were more apt to prate about principles than the Tories, they scarcely differed from them in practice. Socialists were unwilling to sacrifice Britain’s global position to anti-colonial dogma. In the words of Ernest Bevin, the hard-boiled Foreign Secretary, ‘if the British Empire fell, the greatest collection of free nations would go into the limbo of the past’. Bevin actually wanted to stand firm and draft in younger men to hold India¨. And elsewhere on p,400, Attlee’s comment in response to an initiative by Viceroy Wavell that he was ‘frankly horrified by the prospect of ceding power to a ‘brown oligarchy’. Not exactly staunch anti-imperialists.

Otherwise, I made some progress on my interpretation of my photo of a shrine (see Facebook). Google’s attribution to Lord Shiva was, as I suspected, inaccurate. It was in fact the divine carpenter, god of construction and engineering Vishvakarman, whom I’d never heard of, revered by craftspeople and appropriate for these parts where there are many small enterprises producing, for example, surgical instruments. Perhaps a god for my family where there are carpenters and wheelwrights on my father’s side, who himself engaged in small-scale woodwork. But not for me as, while the carpentry gene is present among some of my children, my memories of carpentry lessons at school are not happy ones and my current relationship to woodwork is extremely chaste. CORRECTION I was wrong about the identification of the shrine with Vishvarkarman. It is in fact Kartikeya, the Hindu God of War. Vishvarkarman is popular around these parts but this is not He.

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