By Farouk Gulsara
Malaysia National Day Special
Like the Sword of Damocles, his domestic troubles hung over his head. There was nothing much he could do about it. It had gone on too long, too deep. He just had to live with it and move around it. He could not give up everything. There was a nagging heaviness in his temples. He knew things were going to take a nasty turn and it might get worse. He had created some arbitrary goals to improve his life, but this one had crashed it all. But still, life had to continue. As they say in showbiz, the show must go on.
He knew it was a bad idea. With all these problems plaguing him, he thought it was inappropriate for him to participate in this event. But then, it was also a lifetime achievement — a success hailed by his kinsmen as the epitome of his checkered life. Akin to a water lily, growing wild amongst the filth of marsh, stench and reptiles infested wetland to glorify the lotus feet of Buddha, it was an achievement enviable to some but yearned by all and privileged to only a few!
The problem, as he understood, was not something that developed overnight. Like a crystal, the lattice had developed over the years slowly but surely to its full wrathful glory. How could he be so dumb? Or was it beyond his control and was decided by the constellations and the genetic predisposition?
Here there is so much paranoia. They are angry and afraid that the colonial powers will keep coming and they will never stop. They say that the peninsula is just a puppet nation, run by the British imperialists and greedy conglomerates…In Sumatera, at least, I am far away from Jakarta. There the soldiers and the Islamists and the Communists are going to kill each other one day. But for now I am in Medan, where I can stay with people I trust.
Our ancestors came from here, they say. This is where all our stories began. The name ‘Melayu’ itself: In old dictionaries it meant ‘to flee’. In that sense we’ve always been wanderers, sojourners in the archipelago. But how much of that do we remember today? Does any of it still matter to us, in an age of atomic weapons and satellites?
How much I miss Malaya. I never saw much of it after I was taken to prison. Five years of prison, kept in filthy cells, where they beat us if we tried to talk to each other. Funny how many whispered stories still passed through the walls of Pudu, keeping us angry and alive. And then they told me that I had a choice of more years in prison, or I could go to Indonesia to join the rest of my people. How I laughed when they said that, how they forget that this region is a mixture of faces: There is the Malay, the Bugis, the Javanese, the Sulawesians, even the Chinese. In Medan I am close enough to home that on some days, when I drive to the coast, I imagine I can see the peninsula on the other side of the Strait. But I cannot cross it.
By Abhishek Sikhwal
I have been waiting for a book like An Era of Darkness for quite some time. While much has been written about the British empire and the brutality of colonization, none of those accounts came from an Indian perspective. African-Americans have been able to recount the horrors of slavery through books such as Inhuman Bondage and Many Thousands Gone, but Indians have only been served an ersatz history of the empire by apologists such as Niall Ferguson (Empire) and Lawrence James (The Rise and Fall of the British Empire). In reviewing this book, my slight bias, of which I’m forthcoming, arises squarely from the fact that there hasn’t been anything similar that singularly deals with the Indian experience of colonization.
Tharoor’s book, which took shape after his speech on the subject went viral last year, is an extensive examination of the economic and cultural damage wreaked upon India over the 200 years it was under British rule. In order to establish their dominion, the British dismantled the organic structure of the subcontinent which was always, as the historian Jon Wilson noted, “a society of little societies”.
Tharoor rubbishes the argument that the British were better than the native kings they were supplanting by citing the good governance in kingdoms such as Travancore, Mysore and Oudh. Even the Moghuls, who ruled India for over three centuries, assimilated themselves into the region and the capital extracted under their empire never left the country. The British, however, kept themselves aloof from the customs of the indigenous people and systematically siphoned off the country’s wealth to Britain. According to Tharoor, “By the early 1800s, India had been reduced from a land of artisans, traders, warriors and merchants, functioning in thriving and complex commercial networks, into an agrarian society of peasants and moneylenders”.
While some think that the British should be thanked for introducing the railways, press and parliamentary system into India, Tharoor argues that these were only introduced in order to accelerate the purloin of the country’s riches and to maintain control over the land. He also points out how India is still suffering under a system that was framed with Victorian values. Our bureaucracy, corruption and unfortunate laws pertaining to homosexuality and sedition can all be attributed to the archaic system set up by the British. Even the divide-and-rule policy initially used by the British to keep Indians quarrelling amongst themselves, created a gulf between communities that continues till today.