Mainstream, VOL 60 No 39-42 September 17 - October 8, 2022 - Bumper issue
The Empire Strikes Back | L K Sharma
Friday 16 September 2022#socialtags
by L K Sharma
India continues to loom large in British imagination. The national dish of Chicken Tikka Masala is an old story. This year, first came the unbearable Indian summer. Then in the prime-ministerial race, a politician of Indian origin reached the semi-final. And now comes the new King whose thoughts resonate with Indian traditions.
King Charles III has spiritual leanings. He has a philosophical bent of mind and a deep interest in nature, environment and organic food. In the wake of the pandemic, he again emphasised the need for protecting environment. He uses and commends alternative medicines. The green-fingered King is thoughtful and argumentative, traits appreciated in India’s intellectual ethos. Once, in the presence of his new bride Diana, a journalist told the happy couple: “You both look very much in love.” Prince Charles replied: “Whatever ‘in love’ means.”
As the Prince of Wales, the new King frequently made controversial remarks about modernist architecture, climate change and about his talking to plants and plants responding to his voice. Such traits are understood in India. The Prince had felt connected to India through uncle Lord Mountbatten. In the eighties and nineties, he valued the time spent with the eminent poet Kathleen Raine, who loved India and revered its spiritual heritage. The Prince patronised her Temenos Academy and entertained its members at his home.
Charles had wanted to be the defender of faith and not of the Faith. Such reformist and secular sentiments were not expected of a future King of a Christian country whose monarch is supposed to defend the faith. Her mother, during the 70 years of her rule, never ever made a single controversial remark. Prince Charles always ignored public criticism of his activism. He criticised the Royal Correspondents of British newspapers. The Prince constantly engaged himself with social issues and even lent a helping hand by setting up a trust. At times, he sounded like a NGO leader. To the concerned courtiers, the Prince of Wales had signalled that when the time comes, he would be more than an ornament on the throne.
A few weeks earlier, India got public attention when Brit-Indian named Rishi Sunak sought to occupy No.10. He lost the final round of the contest but not before drawing national attention to his Hindu faith in which cow is worshipped as mother. During the election campaign, he visited a Krishna temple and released his photograph worshipping a cow. His opponent, a white Christian, did not use the event to ridicule him. Nor did the media go after him. His posts energised British-Hindus and made more Britons aware of the charm of Lord Krishna and of cow’s status.
Rishi Sunak joined the electoral battle for No.10 when Britain was coping with Indian summer that caused disruption, destruction, and deaths. Indian summer is usually welcomed by the sun-starved Britons but this time, the people felt the heat. All-time temperature records were broken. The UK Health Security Agency issued a Level-4 heat-health alert and declared an emergency. The weather office issued the first-ever red extreme heat warning. Wildfires were reported from around the country. The fire services had to tackle fires across London. Buckled rails and melted airport runways caused chaos. Water supply companies warned of disruption because of a surge in demand.
As if the misery caused by the disruption of services and closure of schools was not bad enough, Britons were starved of chocolate because its deliveries were suspended. A trade union demanded relaxation in the dress code for employees. Can one wear flip-flops to work was a topic of animated discussion. In a country obsessed with a proper dress code, the people were notified that the killing heatwave did not mean that they start appearing in shorts or without socks.
Zoos were shut and pigs covered in sun cream at the UK’s biggest agricultural show. People were advised not to walk their dogs. Tips were circulated on how to keep pets, humans, and their houses cool. The people read official guidelines on how to protect oneself from the extreme heatwave. The National Health Service advised a cool bath before bedtime for children. It warned against exposing infants to sun rays. One guide gave tips on sleeping in hot weather. In a tropical country, common sense makes such guidebooks redundant.
While the Government seemed helpless against this natural calamity, a private company did its bit to protect a more vulnerable group of Britons – redheads. It offered them free tickets to its airconditioned cinema houses. Studies show that people with pale skin, freckles and red hair need to be sheltered from sun rays because their genes make them more susceptible to skin cancer.
Indian summer created mass anxiety in a country where weather is normally a pleasant talking point. The people grumbled about the collapsed infrastructure and houses without fans and air-conditioners. They struggled to open the windows which are mostly shut to keep the cold out. An American said Britons live in homes originally built for shivering chimney sweeps! Britons know how to keep the cold out but cannot keep the heat out.
This Indian summer put English character to the test. The people, who faced the German bombers heroically, whined about the rise in temperatures! That Great Generation had responded to the war-time call: Keep Calm and Carry On. While bombs fell, they carried on. Today, the poster with the slogan Keep Cool and Carry On causes amusement.
Britain is not what it was. Those with the memories of the Great Generation could not bear to see this nation of snowflakes who were afraid of melting. Some imagined Winston Churchill ignoring the Met Department’s warnings and sitting bare breasted on a beach, smoking a cigar. Once Churchill was gone, stoicism vanished.
Sir John Hays, a former Tory minister, diagnosed the malady of modern Britain. “This is not a brave new world but a cowardly new world where we are frightened of the heat.” He said old people knew how to survive the extreme heat because they lived through a World War. A follower of Sir John called the climate change activists a medieval ‘End of Days’ cult. On a right-wing news channel, a meteorologist was assailed for not seeming excited about the unprecedented heat and instead reporting on the likely excess deaths.
Summer-stricken Britons, on the other hand, called this Tory leader a climate-change sceptic enjoying a salary from an energy company. (He was the energy and climate change minister.) So, instead of battling the heat, Britons got engaged in a cultural war.
The history of the British Empire validates Sir John’s view. The Englishmen, who went to India on an imperial mission, demonstrated how brave they were compared to the fearful natives. Wearing a sola topee, they wandered in the burning midday sun, much to the amusement of the locals who would never venture out fearing a sunstroke.
This difference is recorded in folklore and a song praising the bravery of mad dogs and Englishmen. Noel Coward wrote that though the English are effete, they’re quite impervious to heat. “In Bengal, to move at all is seldom done, if ever done, but mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” Today’s Englishmen chose to hide from the midday sun.
This Indian summer exposed the decline of Englishness. Enoch Powell would have blamed the immigrants for infecting Britain. A former colony sent Indians who altered the ecology of British cities by paving the lawns in front of their houses. They showed Britons how to enter buses and trains without standing in a queue and how to jump the red light without paying fines. They demonstrated how not to waste time saying ‘thank you’ and how to respond through head movement.
Indians seduced the natives with their culinary art. Britons eat “Indian” meaning curry and speak “Indian” meaning Hindi. Indian entrepreneurs provide employment and give money for good causes in the country of the former coloniser. India is sure to offer help for drought relief because it has the expertise. India’s cultural influence increased with the Bollywood films, Bhangra beats and brass bands becoming popular. A visiting Indian feels at home when served tea in a cracked cup placed on a soiled tablecloth.
Political transformation has followed cultural and economic changes. The ruling Tory Party took a cue from India to run the dirtiest-ever political campaign to select its leader. For the first time, this race was joined by a Hindu! Till recent years, Britain jealously guarded the political space, keeping the immigrants and their sons and daughters away from positions of political power. Even the Labour Party, with a soft corner for the immigrants, used to grudgingly grant Indians tickets for a couple of unwinnable Parliamentary seats.
All that changed. Only a few die-hard old-school political leaders dream of neo-imperialism. Multiculturalism spread its influence. No longer do Indians keep their heads down and avoid politics. They ventured into this once-exclusive club and began to appear in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Even the Tory Prime Ministers found it politically wise to accommodate Brit-Indians in their Cabinets. One gave the Finance Ministry to Rishi Sunak instead of giving him the Bible! This Brit-Indian used the Gita instead of the Bible when he was sworn in as the Chancellor of Exchequer.
The growing Indian influence on British politics will surely popularise horse-trading of the M.P.s and the use of country mansions for housing dithering legislators during a political crisis. Boris Sirji would still be the Prime Minister had he consulted a top Indian political leader and directed his Government agencies to follow their Indian counterparts!
Indian expertise can still make Rishi Sunak Prime Minister with the support of defectors. An Indian social media post with an emoji announces Breaking News: “45 M.P.s supporting Liz Truss have left their homes and are currently in Guwahati. Amit Shah to visit them in the morning and they may switch to Rishi Sunak!” But Sunak may prefer a high-paying job with an American corporation to the Prime-Ministership of a little island. In that case, the Tory P.M. could use the Indian formula for forming the Government after losing the parliamentary elections! As Vishwa Guru, India believes that knowledge increases if shared.
Indian influence will reach beyond the political arena. Multiculturalism will be reflected in many items besides Chicken Tikka Masala. Britain will gradually turn into a Little India. Extreme heat, a regular visitor, will modify English manners and customs. Homes will not be castles. Family members will start dropping in without prior appointments. The upper lip will become less stiff. The exotic will appear less exotic. Indian summer will introduce insects and flies in a country that has been free of such creatures. Creepy-crawlies and tropical diseases will emerge everywhere.
In 1995, Britons watched the miracle of Hindu Gods in British temples drinking milk. The TV channels familiarised the viewers with the Godmen of India. Britons are ready to cheer an Indian Prime Minister who arrives bearing a gift of cows. A Brit-Indian popularising Indian performing arts and the Sanskrit language in London once commented on the growing Indian influence. He said the next incarnation of Lord Vishnu will appear in Britain! Disappointed with the loss of Englishness in his adopted land, Nirad C. Chaudhari, had forecast that the last Englishman will be found in India. What a fruitful outcome of the Indo-British encounter!
Crippled by nature’s onslaught, desperate Britons will beg for Divine protection. The Brit-Hindoos will spread the word that in their motherland, malnutrition is treated with the singing of devotional songs and a pandemic is warded off by clapping. They popularised in Britain Goddess Laxmi whose attributes are explained at Diwali time on radio and TV. They will now teach the natives to propitiate the Weather God, Lord Indra!