Empire in the mind

It only came to me slowly, through a confusing mist of ideas: That I really never escaped the empire.

I live in history. My mind is trained to see things with its submerged past, with its layered stories. The blue plaques of London - like the one on the flat near St Pancras where Shelley lived with Mary when she ran away with him - take me back in time often. But I missed the most obvious place where I should have looked for history - my mind in itself.

It's hard to explain why I came to London. I did not exactly come looking for money: I left a great job and prospects of a career rather. I had no job offers in hand. I came to learn but didn't enrol in a university until several years later. I dearly loved my life in India and never gave up the plan to return. And, yet, I came. It may seem unsound but I came to see, not as a modern tourist who moves sight to sight and takes a country as a package, but rather as an ancient one who comes to wonder, to observe and to return. The word is out of fashion, but I was, in that sense, on a mission.

If one feeling from those initial few days in London stayed with me is that of wonder. I wondered at the richness of architecture, politeness of the people, collections at the museums and the sheer variety of the connections I made. I had the feeling of being at the centre of the world and it seemed everyone came here to meet, a far cry from my marginal and provincial life. I didn't feel inferior though: I compared myself with those sixteenth-century British travellers to India who marvelled at pretty much the same things - the richness of the place and the civilisation of the people - and believed that the power remains with the curious. And, I wanted to absorb all the lessons I could and return to the place I call mine.

That was, it now seems, another lifetime. In the intervening 15 years, middle-classness crept on me. Mission-drift invaded the mission and what all this is for become obscure in the middle of ups and downs. The wonder wore away, smugness settled in. The hopeful India that I left turned into a hateful one. The promise of prosperity and democracy was subsumed into a populist authoritarian caricature, the republican spirit degenerated into a neoliberal monstrosity. The Bengali intelligentsia, who I supposedly missed, bared their partisan tooth and claw and morphed into a hateful avatar I could barely recognise. My thesis that it's India's turn to be curious and accumulate civilisational advantage crumbled into dust as my countrymen embraced the comforting delusion of ever-lasting greatness, rather than humility and hunger to embrace the world. 

My despair, at being torn between my desire to return and the disappointment at India's illiberal turn, was, however, a gift and I have started recognising it only recently. The recent events helped peel off the illusions I grew up with, all those hidden assumptions that intellectual engagement with the world makes one tolerant and all-embracing. Rather, as I started to see, the education I made so much of is really a barrier, one that made me a part of the 'Empire', which, long after it ceased being a political fact, remains alive and well as a cognitive framework, a way of seeing the world.

The demise of the post-independence India that I grew up in - and I must call it demise in this season of unfounding - exposed the colonial in me. With the framework that made me think the way I think dissolved, all my quest to engage with the world was perhaps a mere get-away, a self-centred comfort-seeking exercise. Without India I knew, I could no longer be the Indian in the world. My wonder is perhaps my coloniality; my journey is one of self-inflicted alienation. Deep in me is that 'Macaulay's Child', the apologist of the foreignness, my reflections are perhaps really self-hate and markers of subjugation.

But this penny-dropping moment is also one of deliverance. The India I grew up in had, at its core, a faith in British institutions and British values; its inheritance bounded me to a certain way of appreciation of the world. For example, I came to see museums as showcases of civilisation, rather than one of repressive acquisition, a reductionist view of history as material culture, an imperial way of curating culture without its accompanying people. I accepted, unquestioningly, the universities as learned communities, ignoring its signalling role in arranging knowledge and society. I embraced the role of the cities as civilisational melting pots, obscuring the innate violence of its making. The paintings hung on gallery walls, printed books on the shelves, neat maps and road signs - I didn't see them as influences of Leadenhall capitalists but rather as familiar conveniences. 

Indeed, no one in new India is speaking in these terms. The Hindu reinvention of India is not one about invoking the philosophy of Vedanta, but rather an European-style nation-making, being eager for nuggets of foreign praise and bristling at mere suggestions of foreign disapproval. It's not about examining the institutions that shape Indian life, but rather unleashing a new imperial state to inflict violences on people's ways of life. What's happening in India is not about de-imperialisation, but rather remaking the country as an empire.

And, this is why I feel free: I can see the colonial in me and therefore, can deny him his sustenance. The India of my childhood may be gone irretrievably, but I have no intention to replace it with a muscular mini-empire. Rather, it provides me an opportunity to be a traveller again, and to go on journeys to lands where I am no longer a colonial - not bound by civilisational inferiority of the historical kind - and to times when the empire was real. It's my own commitment to de-imperialise my mind, and my quest to humanise the colonial.


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