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An Era of Darkness by Shashi Tharoor Book Review

Doubtlessly, it is always very difficult to makea history book interesting and engaging without deviating substantially from facts. On top of it, plain facts andfigures just kill the interest and of course makes it difficult to remember leave alone fathom their impact or consequences. Here the narrating skills of Shashi Tharoor worked and it worked so well that the book ‘An Era of Darkness’ could be considered not just a concise history of British Occupation of India but themeans to awaken the spirit of the people in the Indian subcontinent. Without the dexterity to knit over 250 references, painstakingly gathered by him and his team,through an exceptional narration, the book would have turned a stale and docile docket. Simply speaking, he found a novel way to make the book engaging as well as turning it a rich repository. In essence, he attempted and succeeded to a great extent in invoking the human sensitivities and conscience to make the book appealing and mind it, not just for the Indians but whoever lays his/her hand on the book will pause and ponder on human miserythrust upon by the Colonial Masters. Besides, he has effectively and lucidly employed the tools of logic and reason and that makes it very difficult to refute the arguments presented by him. Arguably, a précis of the book be prescribed as part of the Indian High School Curriculum.

Call it a sequel or a talk in detail on the issue which he debated in the Oxford Union so well and which was lauded inside and outside the country, the book undoubtedly provides a deeper insight and dissects the evils of the British Empire from different perspectives.

Though, the book divides the history of British Occupation in eight distinct chapters, yet it keeps the reader entrenched to the central theme of the Colonial loot, (the Hindi word he asserts found its way without any change into the English dictionary) and the cruel oppression throughout the occupation by the people whom Hyder Ali had referred as the most faithless and usurping of mankind. Most of us were taught in the history classes more about the aggression of the British and our history books focused on the Freedom Movement, both of which are, no doubt, important for us to know, yet, not much of attention was paid as to how the British looted and plundered the nation before using all types of resources for their own growth, prosperity and hegemony.

The book presents not just the figures of that time, but turns them in today’s denomination for the readers to assert the extent of plunder and damage done to the nation. The economy whose share was a whopping 23 percent in the world’s economy when the English started taking control of India, albeit four percent less than what it was during the peak of the Moghul Empire, was returned to the real owners in 1947 when it had turned to be a destitute having a paltry share of 4 percent. From another statistical analytical view point, while the GDP of Britain rose by 347 percent between 1757 to 1900, the growth was a mere 14% for India. In the era of the first half of the twentieth century, when the British were being forced to consider relinquishing the jewel, the rate of growth of the Indian economy was below 1 percent while the population grew steadily by over 3.5 percent, leavened only by high rate of child mortality that made the ratio equal to the economic growth.

One whole chapter of the book focuses on the manner in which the East India Company officials in the beginning and the governor generals of the British Empire later squeezed the last drops of sweat and blood of the Indian masses through different means to fill in their personal coffers in England. The book could and should open the eyes and minds of not only the Indians but also the British people to see as to how the officers amassed personal wealth by robbing the Indians. Robert Clive, who was not alone though, made a fortune which in today’s value would have equaled to over 63 Million pounds. Of course, that was only the amassing of personal wealth and what went to the Empire’s Exchequer was in hundreds of multiples.

A few know that the Indian cotton was a luxury in the West and by deliberately decimating the handloom industry to promote the cotton being churned out in huge quantities by the British mills, they not only pushed millions of houses into penury but they also killed their industrious sprit and demeanor.Similar was the fate of steel, ship building and other industries thereby deliberately turning the middle class to be a service class so that they could make them serve the English imperialists.

The hair raising tales of oppression and atrocities that were let loose on the Indian masses by the ever arrogant British generals and their henchmen create sadness and anger against the Colonial masters. The Jallianwala Bagh tragedy could just be considered iconic as mini Jallianwala Bagh happened quite frequently in different parts during the occupation.

One chapter refutes and refutes convincingly the talk of the British role in unifying the country; post Moghul fragmentation cannot be considered as the norm since India existed as a distinct nation spread from the Hindu Kush Mountains to Bengal for centuries. The reverse was true as the book establishes the way in which the British helped in partitioning the country by promoting Muslim League and applying the divide and rule policy in all possible manners.

The book took by the horns the illusions which some of the English historians put forth to applaud the British rule in laying the foundation of democracy or propagating the principles of justice, equity and the rule of law. Citing instances after instances, it establishes how the courts dealt the cases while prosecuting the English soldiers and civilians on charges of homicide and how they were either scot free or given light sentences.

The namesake democracy which appeared in the wake of the Minto Morley Reform was never meant to allow people’s rule and how could that be even imagined in the absence of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, which was curtailed by all means and that included impositions even on the English press.

The handling of drought and famine in different parts of the country and the use of scant resources for the benefit of the white men inside and outside the country and allocation of those resources for the British soldiers fighting for the Allies in the World War Two and forcing the Indian personnel to join the war create a sense of hatred in the minds of the readers. Death of over 60 million people during the Colonial era due to famine and the figure of 35 million death in just the first half of the twentieth century and that includes the notorious Bengal famine of 1943-44; the time when the food was being directed to the soldiers fighting outside India, all that occurred due to total detachment and lack of feelings for the subjects. Again for the sake of comparative analysis, the estimate of people who died in wars all over the world in the nineteenth century was reported to be 5 million. No wonder, by the time the British ultimately left, they had turned the nation to be a poster child of poverty and famine.

One could hope that the book would create a sense of remorse in the minds of the British public in general. Who knows, it might also influence those at the helm to seriously consider the demand of the author for public apology on the wrong doings of two centuries and year 2019, which is far though, when India will observe the centenary of Jallianwala Bagh massacre could be the apt occasion. Yes, it would be difficult to repay India what the British took away during the 200 years of occupation and the token one pound annual payment towards reparation as suggested by Shashi Tharoor could be acceptable; I would say, why not also demand at least the Kohinoor diamond over which India and only India has real and undeniable right.

Safi H. Jannaty
Dammam