Engaging study of the intersection of British and Indian lifeways during the long history of the Raj.
Who changed the most, the British who came to India and ruled for 350 years or the Indians who encountered and accommodated the British? Historian and biographer Gilmour (The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples, 2011, etc.), who writes here of Britons who “lived in India from shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth I until well into the reign of Queen Elizabeth II,” offers countless examples of an interchange that altered both. Some Britons found themselves in a kind of sexual Shangri-La; some devoted themselves to trying to win the people to Christianity, causing Queen Victoria to sigh that she “wished the Mohammedans could be let alone by missionaries.” Some arrived wanting to learn, some with an eye to having it their way. The author writes spryly of the eccentrics among the British contingent who are remembered in the phrase “going native,” including the explorer Richard Francis Burton, “whose research into the homosexual brothels of Karachi had been deemed too diligent for an officer of the Indian Army.” As Gilmour makes clear, many of the Britons were there by accident: soldiers who, having enlisted, found themselves posted to the Raj; or the children of mixed marriages left behind in hilltop orphanages; or more fortunate children, such as the actress Joanna Lumley, who carried happy memories of the place, and Norman Wisdom, who shipped off to India to escape an abusive father and found himself in an army band, where he found he had the aptitude for music and showmanship that would later make him famous. As for the Indians: Their encounters were sometimes accidental, too; though, as the author acknowledges, the imperial exchange was not always respectful or friendly, it endowed India with institutions that, as one Indian economist opined, “have served our country exceedingly well.”
A solid work of social history, full of insight into how empire shaped Anglo-Indian culture.