The conversation between Indian Swaraj Snake and the British Snake Charmer - Snake: I had hoped for something more congenial from this new instrument. Secretary for India: The Instrument may be new but I don't propose to change the tune just yet. Meanwhile you've got to be charmed with it, wether you like it or not. Note: British cartoon from Punch magazine, featuring British Labour Government as a Snake Charmer, the snake is called Swaraj which was the India Home Rule movement. (Image source and courtesy - collectorsprints.com.).
Raj nostalgia among Indians
Many of the old Indian élite miss the British Raj. For its opulence, pomp, show and glitter. Forgetting, that the British Raj wasbuilt on groaningfamines and grinding poverty.
The writer Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, in his syndicated column remembers ‘a childhood spent in railway colonies’ when ‘trains were always on time’. This is not a fact and not even fiction.
So, where does Shri Datta-Ray gets his info from?
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray uses ‘instincts’ to illuminate us with his journalistic ‘revelations.’
Dens of iniquity
Indian railway systems of 20th century, during and after the British Raj, became increasingly notorious for accidents, lack of punctuality, high costs; and horribly elitist. This state of affairs continued for about four decades after Independence. It took LB Shastri’s resignation to bring home the fact that the responsibility for these accidents lay at the highest level – and not at at the end of rope.
While Sunanda K. Datta-Ray glorifies colonial railways (cocoons of permit and privilege) modern trains, faster and better, are dismissed as ‘upstarts of the railroad.’ Any which way, there is no satisfying Sunanda K Datta-Ray. He just cannot find anything good in modern India.
At least not in modern Indian railways.
In Britain, governing India was never seen as easy - and an intractable problem. (Churchill on the Problem Indian Elephant, with 'India Problem' across the elephants' forehead. Artist: Leonard Raven-Hill. Published in Punch Magazine - 8 March 1933. Source and courtesy - punchcartoons.com.). Click for source image.
While people like Sunanda K. Datta-Ray were put up at ‘a good restaurant withkhansamas in crisply beplumed turbans and gleaming brass medallions’, the paying underclass (like most of us), had to make do with Third Class ‘facilities’ – and treatment.
Dim lights, no fans, windows without safety grill, seats without even a cushion, dirty toilets and floors, corrupt TTEs, obsolete rolling stock, crumbling tracks, malfunctioning signal systems.
Strangely, Shri Datta-Ray thinks that the removal of the viceregal saloon means ‘trains have been downgraded,’ and it is ‘likely that so have the rails and supporting infrastructure.’ Maybe, Datta-Ray should look up the meaning of non-sequitur.
Viceregal saloons were removed from Indian trains, because the successor to the British Viceroy uses a jet aircraft.
Plus the egalitarian impulse asserting itself. Notice the steady increase in ‘General Compartments’? Add voter-orientation. Instead of catering to an odd full-fare passenger in luxury class, it is more profitable to look after millions of economy class passengers.
Surrounded by servants, positions acquired by loot, power by massacres, the surviving elite pine for the age gone by. (Image from “Curry & Rice” on Forty Plates: or the Ingredients of Social Life at “Our Station”; Published 1859; written by George Francklin Atkinson, a captain of the Bengal Engineers, image source and courtesy - allposters.com). Click for source image.
Clearly, the focus during the British Raj was more on the comforts of the extracting elites, rather than on the economically declining masses. No wonder, ‘the main platform at Howrah used to be ablaze with the movers and shakers of the world.’
Railway engines that Sunanda K.Datta-Ray so lovingly talks about, were decrepit steam engines that were left by the British Raj.
Only in India. Iron hulks that clanked and wheezed their way to oblivion. Elephants were used for ‘handshunting’ – as shunting engines were not available. Sometimes humans too. Ramshackle steam engines pulled collapsing bogies, over crumbling bridges, on tracks that needed replacement. All this on trains that were late – and engines of corruption.
Life of leisure, massacre, extortion, servants, luxury, it is not surprising that some are nostalgic for that exploitative past. ((Image from “Curry & Rice” on Forty Plates: or the Ingredients of Social Life at “Our Station”; Published 1859; written by George Francklin Atkinson, a captain of the Bengal Engineers. Image source and courtesy - collectorsprints.com). Click for source image.
Seen from below, the railway underbelly was quite unlike Sunanda’s rose-tinted view from railway colonies.
Old elites, shoved aside after undue ceremony, isolate and magnify ‘consequences of mismanagement’ in post-colonial India. Diluting achievements of post-colonial India, the old elites confuse the legacy of ‘a creaking bullock cart packed with diseased and malnourished people’ that modern India inherited from the British Raj. Reluctantly, they admit the reality, of ‘an India trundling to the moon.’
As if the preceding ‘management’ was superior. India’s new élite, powered by voter-pandering and industrial oligarchies, is the current flavor of ‘mismanagement.’ It has overseen India climb out of the hell-hole of British Raj.
Step-by-excruciating-step – an unparalleled feat in world history.
A British magistrate 'surrounded' by 'supplicant' natives. How the British Empire 'brought' civilization to India? (Image from “Curry & Rice” on Forty Plates: or the Ingredients of Social Life at “Our Station”; Published 1859; written by George Francklin Atkinson, a captain of the Bengal Engineers. Image source and courtesy - books.google.com). Click for source publication.
Old vs New
The previous ‘management’, made-up of British overlords and Indian ‘sepoys’, releases a steady drip of deprecatory commentary. Now stripped of privilege, preferences, privacies, built at the expense of cornered and huddled Indian masses, the Indo-British élite has seen itself decline into obscurity and inconsequential.
Left to maunder over their decline, the discarded élite fall back on evaporating nostalgia, using a ‘manufactured’ past, for running down a ‘better’ India. Taking aim at present pock-marked India, against a ‘doomsday’ tomorrow is always an easy shot.
As Hindu, Muslim and Sikh tigers tore each other, departing British rulers hoped that they will be called back soon - as 'Only The British' could 'rule' over India. (The Rope Trick. Artist: Leslie Illingworth. Published in Punch Magazine - 28 May 1947; Source and courtesy - punchcartoons.com). Click for image