Book Review: An Era of Darkness by Shashi Tharoor

An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in IndiaAn Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India by Shashi Tharoor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“When Willy Brandt was chancellor of Germany, he sank to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970 to apologize to Polish Jews for the Holocaust.”

This ain’t never happening in India.

In this utterly brilliant book, Shashi Tharoor pretty much takes the cane to Britain’s bottom for its rapacious, plunderous loot of India. A finely oiled machine of colonialism the East India
Company’ extracted resources, raw materials, jewels, precious metals, imperial treasures, and the blood-sweat-tears of Indians. A slow bleeding drain of India that makes Nadir Shah’s sack of Delhi and Khilji’s repeated plunder of Somnath look like playground trifles.

He writes: “The British conquest of India was the invasion and destruction of a high civilization by a trading company [the British East India Company] utterly without scruple or principle, careless of art and greedy of gain, over-running with fire and sword a country temporarily disordered and helpless, bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing, and beginning that career of illegal and ‘legal’ plunder which has now [1930] gone on ruthlessly for one hundred and seventy-three years.”

Tharoor puts forward the idea, nay, the insistence of reparation, failing which, at least an apology for damage caused – both mind, body, soul, and psyche. Incidentally, the amount he asks for is a laughable one pound a year. Discounted enormously because poor Britain could not afford to pay reparations on actual monetary terms. We are talking in the trillions.

“British aid amounts to less than 0.02 per cent of India’s GDP, and somewhat less than the Government of India spends on fertilizer subsidies—an appropriate metaphor, perhaps, for the aid argument.”

Tharoor – 1, Britain – 0

He makes key arguments not only on the deleterious nature of colonial practises but highlights how Britain in particular engaged a form of overlordship that reduced the colonised into second or third class citizens. No better than dogs. This says a lot about the psychological machinations of the British Raj. What began as a trading outfit, slowly and insidiously transformed into a power-starved monster that sought to strip India bare and send home monies rather than pump it back into the system for a sustainable future for the country. Because that was never the aim. Britain had no plans to look after India. They came with the express purpose to take and then to leave.

Tharoor makes an observation: India was governed for the benefit of Britain. “The French ruled foreign territories and made them French… the Portuguese settled in their colonies and intermarried with the locals; but the British always stayed apart and aloof, a foreign presence, with foreign interests and foreign loyalties.”

India has always been viewed as a poor country. But it has only been the case during the time of the Raj. “By the end of the nineteenth century, India was Britain’s biggest source of revenue, the world’s biggest purchaser of British exports and the source of highly paid employment for British civil servants and soldiers all at India’s own expense. We literally paid for our own oppression.”

Shashi Tharoor makes some ridiculously compelling arguments. His facts are at hand and his readings are astute. He hasn’t missed a trick. With the skills of a superior debater without being vituperative, he has written a book that has the ability to rile you up and yank your chain. Deep injustices feel all the more poignant when you know the historical accuracies that support them.

Nehru, who spent close to 10 years of his life in British jails, was asked by Churchill how he felt so little rancor for his jailers and tormentors. ‘I was taught by a great man,’ Nehru was said to have replied, in a reference to Gandhi, ‘never to hate—and never to fear.’

What a splendid book to get pissed off about and then experience the full-stomach satiety of vindication.

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