Wednesday, November 23, 2005

of legacy and life....

I have met many people who think their greatest accomplishment is a list of their achievements. I have met some who desire to leave behind a legacy that future generations will swear by. I sometimes sit and ponder about what makes us think of the Great British Empire and the Splendor that was Rome with such awe that it overshadows everything else. I wonder what would have driven an obscure Yorkshire lad to scale the Himalayas and to cross the mighty Sahara in North Africa. Was it money? Was it fame?

Its a pity that the Cold War destroyed many instincts that we humans would have cherished. Instincts like Honor, Pride, Inspiration, just to name a few. Just because some madmen drummed these ideas into the heads of millions to satisfy their own cause, we try not to venture thinking of these ideas independently without them being subservient to anything that drives consumerism. Consumerism is now the new validation point in defining humans.

Every other idealogy now seems evil in its own right that we no longer want to be identified with any of them unless we belong to the " to die for" groups.

I read this article in the Telegraph about the British Empire that said it all,

The British Empire: A Telegraph Publication

IT was the Empire on which the sun never set. Then the shadows began to lengthen. Suddenly it had gone altogether. To those who grew up in what still seemed to be its noontide, nothing about the British Empire astonishes as much as the rapidity of its disappearance.

One does not have to be very old to remember it at its greatest extent. People of 60 in Britain today jingled 1947 pocket-money pennies struck with the image of George VI as Emperor of India. He was also king of all the dominions, as Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, South Africa and New Zealand were then called, and ruler of Ceylon, Burma and what is now Malaysia, which then included Singapore.

In Africa, his colonial civil servants administered Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone, the Gambia, Swaziland and the territories now known as Ghana, Malawi, Botswana, Tanzania, Lesotho and Zambia. Zimbabwe was the self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia. The West Indies were colonies, as were the nearby Central and South American territories of British Guiana and British Honduras, now Guyana and Belize. Sudan was a nominal Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, but effectively an imperial territory, together with neighbouring British Somaliland. Across the Red Sea, Aden was a protectorate under British rule, and what are now called the Gulf States, from Oman to Kuwait, lay under the supervision of George VI's Viceroy in New Delhi. Palestine, though most of it was soon to be Israel, was still administered under a British Mandate, while Cyprus and Malta were as British as Gibraltar remains.

Not one of the five continents was untouched by Britain's Empire, nor any of the seven seas. The British Antarctic Territories extended to the South Pole, as Hudson Bay Territory did towards the North, while there were protectorates or colonies in the islands of all the oceans, from the Maldives to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, Bermuda to Tristan da Cunha in the Atlantic and Fiji to Pitcairn in the Pacific.

Tiny bits of the 20th-century Empire had fallen away by 1947. The little enclave of Weihaiwei had been returned to China after the First World War, the extraterritorial settlements in Shanghai and the other great Chinese trading cities had been surrendered in 1943. In the Middle East, the Mandates over Iraq and Transjordan had been given up, while the British Agent was no longer the authority in Egypt. The Suez Canal Zone, nevertheless, was under British military occupation and the King of Libya was a British client. The bounds of George VI's realms, however measured, were set wider than his great-grandmother Victoria's had ever been. Land of Hope and Glory could be sung in my childhood not in a mood of sentimentality but as something close to a statement of fact.

Now, exactly 50 years later, the Empire has almost gone. India, the jewel in the crown, became independent on August 15, 1947. On June 30, at midnight, Hong Kong, the last overseas possession of sizeable population, will pass from British rule and all that will be left is a scattering of tiny and distant territories too small to stand alone. It has happened before, of course. In 1781, at Yorktown in Virginia, Britain lost the war to retain its first Empire and departed, humbled, from what was to become the United States. The story of how its second Empire was won became the proud epic of my childhood schooldays. It will not be repeated. A war to retain the Empire was not repeated either. That may be seen as a cause for pride as well.

Nothing became the British as a people of Empire like their leaving it. The French fought for their colonies, in Vietnam and Algeria, and brought down the Fourth Republic as a result. The Portuguese fought also. Both those ex-empires are abodes of darkness, riven by warlordism, civil war, ideological terror and dreadful human suffering. There are dark spots on our old imperial map, too, but they are the exception. Over its wider area, the old British Empire is a region of prosperous and peaceful states, ruled by legitimate governments. India is the largest democracy in the world, South Africa the largest democracy on the continent. Singapore is the seat of one the world's most dynamic economies and Malaysia, in 1947 simply a source of tin and rubber for overseas investment companies, would now qualify to join the European Union.
Zimbabwe and Kenya are among the richest states in Africa, where blacks and whites have achieved a profitable accommodation. Nigeria is a functioning confederation of disparate peoples. The ex-British Empire is a success.

Much of that success is due to Britain's decision not to resist her imperial subjects' desire for independence but to sponsor and foster it. That was in the spirit of the Empire as it had come to be in 1947, an Empire not of domination but of altruistic guardianship. It had not begun so. Empire in the beginning was at best a commercial enterprise, at worst - in the slave colonies of the West Indies - a ruthless exploitation. Later, in a second stage, it became an Empire of settlement, in the apparently empty Americas. Settlement as a purpose of Empire continued after America was lost, in Canada, South Africa and particularly Australia. By the mid-19th century, however, a new, high-minded servant of Empire was discovering a different cause.

He saw himself as the protector of his sovereign's overseas subjects, with a mission to educate, to heal and to bring justice. The imperial guardian of the last stage appeared in many forms. He might be a member of the Indian Civil Service, one of the "twice born" who advised the Viceroy with scrupulous impartiality in the disputes between the Hindus and Muslims of the Raj. He might be an overworked district officer upriver in a fever-ridden West African colony, organising fair markets for cocoa farmers and bringing clean water to villages. He might be a harassed police officer, running down cattle thieves in a nomadic tribal area. He might be the commander of a famous Frontier Force regiment, protecting refugees from religious fanatics with the help of his Indian or Pakistani successor. He might be a locust control officer, a high school headmaster, a surveyor of antiquities, a judge, a doctor, an agronomist. He might, most characteristically, be a civil engineer, building bridges, driving roads, or digging irrigation canals to open up an unwatered region for the Green Revolution that has transformed agriculture throughout the former Empire's infertile zones. Whoever they were, whatever their background - and not all were public schoolboys or graduates of the ancient universities - they were united in the mission of transferring the power they had inherited from their predecessors, power won by conquest or annexation, to the people that they ruled. That was the Oxbridge and public school ethic of the Empire's last years. We may mock it now. Kipling's William the Conqueror - the memsahib who nearly dies on famine relief - and Newbolt's subaltern whose "frontier grave is far away" may seem to us people as distant as the Normans who came to conquer the English a thousand years ago. What the servants of Empire did, nevertheless, was a great thing and, if we do not appreciate it, those to whom they made their farewells in 1947 and the years that followed think differently. The test of the greatness of the British Empire is that its former subjects treat its surviving servants as friends, and not only them but the British as a people also.

Of what other empire is that true? The French dare not go to Algeria. The Habsburg Empire has left little but unsolved ethnic hatreds. The Russians are at war with their ex-imperial provinces. The Ottoman Turks are unloved by the Arab successor states. Latin America is another world from Spain.

By contrast the British, as they wander backpacking about Rajasthan or in the Himalayas, are welcomed as old familiars. West Indian lawyers faithfully reproduce the customs of the Inner Temple. Indian generals sentimentalise about Sandhurst. Calcutta historians make pilgrimages to Balliol. Malaysian academics invite their British professors to conferences. Hong Kong novelists hope for the Booker Prize. African churchmen intone from the Book of Common Prayer. Small boys in Peshawar shout "Howzat?" and dream of playing at Lord's. These are not post-imperial dreams, but the common experience of our own time. Whatever the Empire's early crimes, and they were many, the British succeeded before the Empire's demise in atoning for most of them and transforming the institution into what it became: a Commonwealth for the common wealth. In the strict sense of wealth, it has achieved less than it might or probably should have done. The latter-day dream of the Empire as a common market never flourished and has now withered, though its economic links remain stronger than is often recognised. As a commonwealth of laws, of language, of practice, of standards and above all of ideals, it persists in remarkable vigour.

Should the British be proud of the Empire they left behind? Of course they should. Should they be proud of their history as an imperial people? Of course they should. In my childhood, the British Empire was commonly compared in importance to the empire of Rome. That may prove an exaggeration. Rome inspired an awe that persists throughout its former imperium to this day. On the other hand, Rome was not loved. There is a sort of love for the old British Empire that remains warm among most of those who belonged to it, and that is its greatest monument.


A lot of people often discuss why cricket is a game that takes so long, of how someone can play for five days and walk off without any result. How can anyone play and appreciate such a game?

Well I think the answer to that lies in the way the game allows for both individual and team brilliance to take center stage, giving both of them their dues. Which other sport allows you to play as long as you are physically able to, and at the same time fight for the cause of the team?

Look at American sports and you can see only one of the two, individuals are celebrated in individual sports like Tennis and Golf, and teams are celebrated in sports like Football and Basketball. And what sucks even more about American sports is the franchise concept. Everything is business, there seems to be no loyalty, no honor, no celebration of triumph for the players ( apart from the multi million dollar contracts) Nothing makes it more evident than the Superbowl where the franchise owner gets the trophy and the mike, while the players fade away into the background.

I hate that aspect of sports in America. Because although I understand that its money that drives the whole concept, what you show on the field should be the club, the team, the skills and thats what needs to be celebrated. Not the deals, not the transfers, not the PR stunts.

Well thats just my opinion.

Seeya all later.


Blogger Ramesh said...

strange that you should write about this. i am reading discovery of india right now :)

11:10 PM  

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