As the Indian soldiers march past at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi, will the broadcasters recall their feats of arms at Gallipoli and the Western Front, in North Africa and Italy, Malaya and Singapore?
It’s almost 100 years since the start of First World War, more than 70 years since the end of the Second. In place of the King Emperor and his son, for whom thousands of Indian soldiers died in the two world wars, reigns Elizabeth II, daughter of George VI, grand-daughter of George V. Only 26 years old when she lost her father, the queen – who will be 85 on April 21 this year – has reigned longer than anyone else today except King Bhumibol of Thailand. She is only a year away from celebrating the diamond jubilee of her reign like her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.
Her diamond jubilee was, of course, a grand affair, at the height of British power, celebrated across every continent, in 1897.
Significantly, however, Kipling marked the occasion with the sombre Recessional, about the passing of empires. His fears proved prophetic:
Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
The empire is gone. India became a republic three years after independence. Singapore followed suit, as did other former colonies. Still, Elizabeth is queen not only of the United Kingdom but also of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and scattered islands from the Caribbean (Jamaica, Barbados, Bahamas) to the Pacific (Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands,Tuvalu). She still has the far-flung Commonwealth, whose more than 50 member-states girdle the globe, from North America to Australia, Atlantic to the Pacific.
But the Commonwealth seems to matter less to Britain today than the European Union (EU). Britain today trades more with the EU, America and China than with any Commonwealth country, according to the World Trade Organization. Although concerned about the influx of foreigners, prime minister David Cameron can cap only the number of immigrants from outside the EU.
This is bound to affect India. According to a report last week, India sent over 47,000 people to Britain in 2008 – more than any other country outside the EU. The cap matters less in Singapore, as Singaporeans are more likely to settle in Australia. In this, they are more like the Britons. Australia is the top destination of British immigrants, according to the Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011 by the World Bank.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that Britons today want to settle in a country where their ancestors were once sent as a punishment? Such is history, full of irony and reversals.
Kipling wrote The White Man’s Burden less than a century after Englishmen employed by the East India Company were encouraged to go native. In the 18th and early 19th century, there were Englishmen with Indian wives – men like James Skinner, of Skinner’s Horse, and David Ochterlony, the general in whose honour the Shahid Minar (originally the Ochterlony Monument) was built in Kolkata.
The ethos changed in the 19th century, when mixed marriages came to be frowned upon. That persisted into the 20th century, when the song, Rose, Rose, I love you, expressed a British soldier’s longings for an Oriental girl in what’s now Malaysia:
Rose, Rose I love you with an aching heart
What is your future?, now we have to part
Standing on the jetty as the steamer moves away
Flower of Malaya, I cannot stay.
The relationship is no different from the love affair celebrated in Kipling’s famous poem, Mandalay:
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
Why couldn’t the soldiers stay with the girls if they loved them so? Because such was life in the later period of the British empire. Even Eurasians or Anglo-Indians married to Englishmen were rebuffed by society, as English (honours) students in Kolkata will know from their encounter with Mrs Mainwaring in Mulk Raj Anand’s Coolie. It was no different in Singapore, if you read JG Farrell’s The Singapore Grip.
Yet, despite the race barrier, affinities did develop between rulers and the ruled. Singapore’s minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who campaigned against British rule, has written fondly of his dealings with several former British prime ministers, including Margaret Thatcher, Harold Wilson and Edward Heath. Jawaharlal Nehru got along famously with the Mountbattens. Indira Gandhi wanted to live in Britain.
They could have so easily felt let down by Britain. Lee Kuan Yew described his shock when Harold Wilson announced in 1968 that Britain would pull out of Singapore in three years. The British naval base was then one of the main sources of jobs and revenue for the newly independent nation.
Philip Larkin in Homage to a Government mourned the pullout from former colonies. He lamented:
Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money….
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.
But isn’t this better than the clash of arms that sometimes broke the Pax Britanicca? People remember Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose raised the Indian National Army in Japanese-occupied Singapore during the Second World War, but there was an earlier sepoy mutiny on the island – during the First World War. About 850 Indian soldiers, mostly Muslims, from the 5th Light Infantry Battalion, revolted following rumours they would be sent to fight against Turkey. The mutiny, during the Chinese New Year celebrations in February 1915, lasted seven days before it was put down by the British with the help of soldiers from Japanese, French and Russian warships.
All that bloodshed has been effaced by time. Singaporeans like Indians today are more likely to be interested in English football clubs, British bands and British writers. We loved the Beatles; now there’s Coldplay. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Ian Rankin have supplanted Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis and Agatha Christie.
And thank goodness for the BBC and the Guardian and their worldwide audience. English is now a global language. It may not read or sound quite like the language of Orwell or Wodehouse, but isn’t it a good thing that English fiction today spans the whole world from RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days to Monica Ali’s Brick Lane? The future of English seems assured no matter what happens to Britain and the Commonwealth.