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MOTHER COUNTRY

A man I know in Mumbai who writes online for the Daily Beast much disapproves of nationalism. I’m just the opposite. The day before you read this — or quite possibly two days before — I expect England’s cricketers to have been ground into the dust by the Aussies, for the third Test match running. And it’ll hurt me.

It’s easy to dislike nationalism, given the horrors it has led to. And I abhor the century-old hymn, still used on solemn, drum-beating British occasions, that ludicrously avers I vow to thee my country, all earthly things above, entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love. Yet my country remains mine, whatever its weaknesses, faults, errors and at times sheer wickedness. Cause of pride or of shame, my country it is.

The vocabulary of nationalism is burned into the English language. I’ve remembered for 70 years a half-verse from Thomas Macaulay’s (invented) “Lays of Ancient Rome”: And how can man die better/ than facing fearful odds/ for the ashes of his fathers/ and the temples of his gods? This was the Macaulay who derided Hinduism, and thought it more than time that Indians should learn English. Yet he also wrote those lines — and looked forward to the day when India would tell the British to go home. Churchill’s nationalistic rallying-cries in 1940 gave English never have so many owed so much to so few, and several other phrases (eg, blood, toil, tears and sweat) that still echo in British English: even today the Few is common shorthand for the airmen who fought the Battle of Britain that year.

Britain’s national anthem, in contrast, is a drear thing, not saved by the phrase God save the king (or queen). And the word motherland, so popular in today’s Indian English, thanks to the sort of sentiments embodied in “Bande Mataram”, was always rare in Britain, and is now almost dead. The concept was not so rare. Britain figures as mother of the free in “Land of Hope and Glory”, another century-old hyperpatriotic song that even now is used (albeit tongue-in-cheek) to close London’s annual season of ‘promenade concerts’. And mother country survived long after Australians, Canadians, and the like had ceased to think of Britain that way.

Pride of empire produced many memorable phrases, notably from Rudyard Kipling. It produced follies too, such as the prom-goers’ wider still and wider/shall thy bounds be set. I recently came upon another, slightly earlier, folly from a rightly forgotten poet, Henry Newbolt. Brigadier John Nicholson, he of ‘Indian Mutiny’ fame (or infamy), is rebuking a Sikh notable: Have ye served us for a hundred years/ and yet ye know not why?/ We brook no doubt of our mastery,/ we rule until we die. The poem too is rightly forgotten. But its absurdity — it was nonsense within barely 40 years — almost entitles it to live on.

Puffing one’s own nation leads easily to jeering at others. Racial epithets apart — Paki long ago lost any simply national sense — Britons can call up insults for many of their European neighbours: frogs, dagos, wops (or Eyeties), krauts. And, since the 1982 Falklands war, Argies. Even the American troops arriving in Britain in 1943-45 to attack Nazi-occupied Europe faced a nasty sneer: overpaid, oversexed and over here. In return, Britons have to endure limeys and poms, and from Irish republicans the Brits, though that’s polite enough when others use it, as British journalists now do themselves. And the last laugh is with the Americans; to be exact, with their splendid boo-to-the-Brits national anthem. Though decreed official only in 1931, this was written during a war of 1812-15, by an American truce envoy briefly detained on a British warship (built, as it happens, by the Wadia family in Mumbai). It has given English a phrase, which like the flag it describes, has gone, and stayed, worldwide: the stars and stripes.