Book: The Last Englishmen: Love, War and The End of Empire
Author: Deborah Baker
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: Rs 599
When Hillary and Tenzing hugged each other at the top of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953, it was a dream fulfilled — but, says Deborah Baker, the ‘Englishness’ of it was lost. Manhood, Nationhood and Empire had got ‘inextricably linked’ with the growing alpinism of that time. Climbing of Mount Everest is an ‘issue of national and imperial importance’, declared London’s Morning Post in October 1936. George Mallory died in 1924 just short of the summit; 12 years earlier, Robert Scott who wanted to ‘secure for the British Empire the honour’ of getting to the South Pole also died. A Norwegian got there first; neither Hillary nor Tenzing was English.
The Last Englishmen, however, is not only about England’s failure in the race to the top of Everest: It’s about the exciting discovery of the Thrust Fault between India and Nepal found through the mundane task of mapping the vast stretches of the Empire; it’s about future literary giants like W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Mulk Raj Anand, Christopher Isherwood, Ernest Hemingway and several others, and it’s about geologists and ICS Officers whose work may be gathering dust in some lonely record room; and it’s about freedom fighters and arm-chair critics. It’s about isms that rose and died between the two wars. It’s about Britain’s arrogance and, the swadeshi movement and the untold horrors of the Bengal famine and of the Partition. But most of all, it’s about the relationships among the very human characters — relationships that blossomed and wilted under trying circumstances. There is also humour, wry as it can be. For instance, when Linlithgow described the 2.5 million Indian soldiers who served in WWII as ‘the largest volunteer force in history’, Baker comments: as if they had all signed up in a burst of indignation at the trampled freedoms of the Poles!
Baker dwells at length on Bengalis, who, she says, were granted ‘a kind of imitative intelligence’ but were known ‘to lack the spirit, physique and sense of honour required of a ruling race’; she quotes another author saying that ‘the Bengali was thoroughly fitted by nature and by habit for a foreign yoke’. There is an interesting incident when an immigration officer at the Los Angeles airport asked Tagore if he could read!
The book reeks of oodles of research though — and an equal amount of imagination. She speaks of well-known facts and movements of well-known figures, and brings them to life by ascribing to them emotions, motives and dialogue. But what is really impressive about the book is the easy familiarity that she shows in dealing with the art scene in Europe or in describing the rock formation in the foothills of the Himalayas; she appears to be equally at home at the ‘adda’ in Calcutta as she is in the tension filled room analysing photographs of German-occupied Europe; she is comfortable in the multi-polar political discussions and the sensitive cultural issues. An enormous canvas by any standards. And the huge cast of characters makes the reader wonder if this is fiction or fact.
Churchill reportedly said that he would have done to India what he had done to Hamburg (destroyed by week-long carpet-bombing), if only the RAF could spare their bombers (painfully reminiscent of Gen Dyer’s regret at Jallianwala Bagh, over inadequate ammunition,) and Baker says: This was power in the shadow of its end. So, when one of the British characters prefers the ‘more daunting ambition of wanting to be a better man’ over the scaling of mountains — it seems a natural closure to ambitions of Empire.