Sunday, 18 November 2007

Farewell, crown jewel

My India visit is drawing to a close, I'm now just trying to kill time while I wait for my very long journey home. Overall it was an interesting and enjoyable trip but I'm eager to get home and be in my own bed. Interestingly, when I lived in New York I would dread going back after a trip, but now each time I go away reinforces how much I love living in London. It's funny, I moved there feeling fairly neutral about the city and have ended up - dare I say it - falling in love with London.

Bombay has been interesting, I definitely enjoyed it more than Delhi. It's so much easier to get a handle on, being as centralized and compact as it is. I’d say Bombay is like New York and Delhi is like DC, both in terms of their layout and their vibes.

Exploring all of the Victorian architecture here in Bombay is a real trip. It’s also nice the way it’s laid out all along the Arabian Sea. The air quality is still horribly bad, but at least in Bombay you get a breeze off the ocean, unlike in Delhi where the dirty air just seems to hang there. Either way I’m eager to get a gasp of fresh air once I get back to London.

Understanding Empire

One of the most interesting things about this city is how very British it is. South Mumbai is filled with Victorian architecture which looks almost identical to the buildings you find in London of the same era. The Victoria Terminus is particularly striking. It’s Bombay’s main train station and it’s absolutely massive. It was built by the same architect that designed St. Pancras station, just down the street from where I live in London. The similarities between the two buildings are striking. It’s like someone picked up St. Pancras and dropped it in a jungle.

In fact I’d say that’s what most of the buildings in South Mumbai look like, from the Prince of Wales Museum to the Town Hall on Horniman Circle. It looks like London would look like if jungle had suddenly grown around it in 1930 and it wasn’t taken care of for 70 years. What’s most striking is how the pollution has blackened all of these building facades and eaten away at the surfaces.

Interestingly I’d say this trip has helped me to understand the United Kingdom better as well as India. After all, India was the crown jewel in the British Empire and Bombay was the crown jewel of that crown jewel. It’s amazing the scale of the building campaign that was initiated by the British in the late 19th century right up to the 1930’s. You can’t help but chuckle to yourself at how amazingly short-sighted it all was. The British really thought they were going to be in India forever. In fact the massive Gateway of India, the defining landmark of Mumbai and the backdrop of countless Bollywood dance numbers, was built only in 1924 to commemorate the visit of King George V in 1911. Just 23 years later, the British would lose India. Oops! Similarly amusing is New Delhi itself, built by the British and completed in the 1930’s, the empire had it for barely a decade before it was handed over to a newly independent India.

That’s really the strange thing about this country. For most of its history the area has been occupied by foreign rulers. In Bombay, I spent most of my time going to Victorian buildings built by the Christian British, now occupied and embraced by Hindu Indians. When I was in Delhi, I spent most of my time visiting mosque complexes built by the Muslim Mughals, now taken over by the Hindu Indians. The Mughals, a central Asian offshoot of the Mongol horde that concurred a vast swathe of Asia from Korea to Iran in the 13th and 14th century, concurred Northern India in the 16th century and went on to control virtually the entire subcontinent until their decline in the 18th century. The Mughals were neither Hindu nor Indo-Aryan, but were rather Central Asian Muslims that ruled over the Hindu population. Virtually all of the historical monuments in the Delhi area, from the Taj Mahal to Qutub Minar, were built by the Mughals, and nearly all of them are Islamic holy sites.

The only site that I visited while in India that was built by the Hindu Indians themselves was the Elephanta Caves on an island off the coast of Bombay. Bombay itself was built by the British, as was Madras (Now Chennai), Calcutta (now Kolkata) and New Delhi. Old Delhi, on the other hand, was built by the Mughals, as was Agra and Lahore (in Pakistan). As far as I can tell, the only major city in India that was built by a Hindu state is Bangalore. Certainly, many Hindu states existed before the arrival of the Muslim and Christian conquerors, and some existed alongside them. But the modern state of India seems to be based off the skeleton of empires established by foreign conquerors.

Anomaly or Exaggeration?

The similarities between the Mughal and British occupations made me think a bit about the way we view the European colonial period today. It occurs to me that the period is often discussed today as some sort of historical anomaly, as if the peoples of the world were living in peaceful self-governing bliss before Europe conquered the world. But of course, rule by foreign powers has been the historical rule rather than the exception to it. There are many socio-political theories as to why centralized rule by foreigners can often end up being more stable and productive than local self-governing rule, but no matter why it occurs, it’s an interesting historical phenomenon. Of course the case of the colonization of Africa demonstrates that the system is often only productive for the occupier, but it is true that the colonial period in Africa was paradoxically more stable than the period before or after. Throughout human history, rule by a centralized foreign power (or ‘rule by strangers’ in modern socio-political parlance) has kept local in-fighting at bay and provided stability to conquered areas.

Really, the only unique thing about the European colonial period wasn’t the fact that it occurred at all, but rather the massive scale of it all. Compared with previous empires, the European empires of the 19th and 20th centuries were remarkably centralized, able to control vast areas of the earth from the home country. Compare this, for instance, with the empire of the Mongols (still the largest land empire in history), which was unable to exert central control and broke up into a conglomeration of loosely affiliated “Mongol states” (such as the Mughal Empire) that stretched from India to China to Russia. Previous invasions from foreigners, from the Arab conquest of the Middle East to the Anglo-Saxon and then Norman conquests of England, saw the invaders form a separate entity from the home base where they had come from. The only large, centralized, multi-ethnic empires that had ever existed successfully for a long period before the 16th century were that of the Romans and Chinese.

So why is the period of European colonial expansion treated so differently? Well for one thing, it was the most recent. People alive today actually lived through it. For another, it coincided with the industrial revolution, when production and communication made the world a much smaller place. It also directly preceded the rise of the nation-state, an ideology that persists to this day that says that the best form of rule is always that by democratically elected local rulers. Given that this ideology is, in theory, directly opposed to colonialism and empire, it is little wonder that the earth’s most recent experiences with foreign rule are judged the most harshly and as the most out-of-step with the natural order of things.

But being in India, a land that has continually been under the control of foreign invaders, one is reminded that the European colonialism of the 19th and 20th century was merely an exaggeration of a historical constant. In fact the only element of colonialism that was an anomaly in human history was the rapid technological revolution that accompanied it and enabled its scale.

Ah well my plane will leave shortly so I’ll finish opining on the historical precedent of foreign rule. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t consider myself an apologist for imperialism. But I think it’s unhelpful that as we enter the 21st century, we seem to approach the legacy of European colonialism with blindsides to the rest of human history. History does exist beyond what we choose to remember.

No comments: