You have to be careful when you thrash the natives

SiegeOfKrishnapurJ. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, winner of the 1973 Mann Booker Prize, is a historical novel, satirical, witty, tragic and often brutal.  It is a fictional re-telling of the siege of the British colonial garrison (The Residency) in the city of Lucknow, India, during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.  The book is based on the letters, diaries and eye-witness accounts of British civilians and soldiers crowded into the Residency, trapped, cut off from all relief, and fending off repeated Sepoy attacks for months.

While the novel is, above all, a condemnation of British rule of India, the story is told entirely from the British colonialists’ perspective, mainly because, as Pankaj Mishra suggests in his superb introduction, Farrell’s decision not to include fully developed Indian characters reflected his own experience in India:

The diaries he kept during his research trip to India in 1971 reveal that he was bewildered, even ‘defeated,’ by the strangeness of the people and the landscape. Rather than invent some implausible Indian characters, Farrell confined himself to describing the insular British and their claim to rule justly a country they, like Farrell, didn’t, or couldn’t, much understand.

Farrell’s story of the siege is sometimes comic, sometimes heartbreaking, often both.  In spite of their suffering, the British insisted on maintaining their social rituals and class demarcations to the point of absurdity.  In the end, Victorian manners and morality broke down in the face of starvation, the murderous heat, monsoon rains, plagues of insects, the outbreak of cholera, and the bloody Sepoy attacks.

Siege of Lucknow1
Ruins of the Lucknow Residency

I could not help admiring their courage, at the same time wondering at their lack of understanding or feeling for the people they ruled.  At one point in the book, before the Sepoy rebellion, young infantry ensign Harry Dunstaple explains to George Fleury, a young traveler just arrived from England, about the character of the natives, particularly the rich ones: “their sons were brought up in an effeminate, luxurious manner. Their health was ruined by eating sickly sweetmeats and indulging in other weakening behaviour. . . You have to be careful thrashing a Hindu, George, because they have very weak chests and you can kill them.”

Indeed, James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin, uncomfortably insightful for his time and reflecting on his own dubious actions in the service of Empire, wrote in his diary of the hundreds of native servants that waited upon him in his mansion in Calcutta:

One moves among them with perfect indifference, treating them not as dogs, because in that case one would whistle to them and pat them, but as machines with which one can have no communion or sympathy.  When the passions of fear and hatred are grafted on this indifference, the result is frightful; an absolute callousness as to the sufferings of the objects of those passions.

A frightful result.  The Siege of Krishnapur tells its fateful tale all too well right to the final, gripping scenes of the desperate last stand of the besieged.  I put the book down in wonder at Farrell’s creation, such a story of human grandeur and human folly ringing true on every page. Will we ever learn, will we ever change.

A curious coincidence – after reading The Siege of Krishnapur I came across a recent Washington Post editorial that reviewed and rebutted an article titled “The Case for Colonialism,” written by a political scientist at Portland State University and published in an academic journal.  “The Case for Colonialism” suggested that Western colonialism was not necessarily harmful to the people of colonized countries, but was “both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate” in many countries.  Apparently there was quite a backlash to the article, including “credible threats of violence” to the journal editor.   The article was removed from the journal’s website.  Perhaps I have my answer.