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regular-article-logo Wednesday, 21 February 2024

In restoring an heirloom, gentleness and respect for a minority religion

EYE ON ENGLAND: Why Tariq Ali’s book on Winston Churchill won't be a hagiography; and in Britain, no one objects when Tagore’s poem, 'Farewell my friends' is routinely read at Christian funerals

Amit Roy Published 05.02.22, 12:09 AM
The Repair Shop

The Repair Shop [BBC/Twitter]

Treasured heirloom

The Repair Shop is a programme on BBC that restores family heirlooms. It has done just that with a painting of the Jain preacher, Rishabhadeva. The artwork had belonged to Mukta Shah, who had brought it from Uganda rolled in her sari when Idi Amin expelled Indians in 1972. The painting, which had been removed from its frame, was badly creased in the process. It had been bought for Mukta by her father during a pilgrimage to Palitana in Gujarat in 1959 and gave her great comfort over the years.

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Mukta died in 2015 but the painting was delivered to the BBC by her schoolteacher daughter, Jaishmin, who was very emotional when she saw how lovingly it had been restored by Louise Drover, a paper conservator. Drover emphasized: “I quite often use a gelatine to consolidate gold. But to respect Jainism, no animal products should be near it. So I’m actually going to use a seaweed product... All these pigments I’m using are plant based just to respect the philosophy of Jainism.”

Such gentleness and respect shown for minority religions make me think that Britain, for all its faults, is the fairest and most civilized country in the world. “I feel like my Mum’s here,” said Jaishmin through her tears.

Chequered past

Tariq Ali’s forthcoming book on Winston Churchill clearly isn’t going to be a hagiography. The publisher, Verso, which is bringing out Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes in May, says that “Tariq Ali challenges Churchill’s vaulted record.” The book will say that “throughout his life, Churchill never bothered to conceal his White supremacist views or his passionate defence of the British Empire.” According to the author, who was once a fiery student leader, “Churchill’s crimes abroad include the brutal assault on the Greek Resistance during the last years of the war (‘Treat Athens as a colonial city’), the Bengal Famine that cost over three million Indian lives, the insistence on using nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (for which he was subjected to a mock war crimes trial in the Truman White House) and his staunch support in 1953 for the CIA/MI6 coup that toppled the democratic Mossadegh government in Iran.”

Churchill is understandably worshipped in Britain as a great wartime leader. But his statue was dubbed “racist” during the Black Lives Matter protests in London in 2020, after which Churchill College, Cambridge, held “[a] year-long programme of events to engage with the facts surrounding Sir Winston Churchill’s words, views and actions relating to empire and race”. And last year, the British journalist, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, also questioned the British prime minister’s legacy in his book, Churchill’s Shadow: An Astonishing Life and a Dangerous Legacy.

Old ties

Dinesh Dhamija, a well-known Indian entrepreneur in Britain, has just gifted £1 million to his alma mater — Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where he was an undergraduate student from 1971-74 — for computer sciences research. Dinesh set up ebookers, one of Europe’s first online travel firms, in 1999, and sold it for $471m in 2004. I asked him whether, during his Cambridge days, he knew that Subhas Chandra Bose had also been a student at Fitzwilliam. He had not.

Dinesh, who is due to be installed as a ‘Benefactor Fellow’ of Fitzwilliam on March 2, tells me: “The Indian government should fund a chair in Netaji’s name at Fitzwilliam.” He adds that in the college archives there exists a signature of Netaji from when he first joined as a student. The future freedom fighter was at Cambridge from 1919 to 1921 and studied Mental and Moral Sciences Tripos. He appears to have had a happy time on the whole at university.

Memorable walk

Corinne Fowler, a professor of postcolonial literature at Leicester University, has come up with a simple but very clever idea. She is walking and talking with experts who know about an area and writing a book, The Countryside: Ten Walks Through Colonial Britain. This is a major work which will be published by Penguin in the UK and across the Commonwealth and in America by Scribner, now part of Simon & Schuster.

She will learn about the politics of cotton by walking in Lancashire with the artist, Bharti Parmar, who reminds me that Gandhi visited millworkers in the area in 1931. Gandhi was invited by mill owners who hoped he would end his boycott of cotton fabric exports from the UK after witnessing how it was punishing ordinary British workers. Instead, the workers cheered Gandhi once he had explained that Indian poverty was a great deal worse than theirs. To the Lancashire millworkers, said Corinne, “Gandhi became a hero.” She is walking in Berkshire with Sathnam Sanghera, author of Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain. She has already done so in the Cotswolds with the historian and curator, Raj Pal. Corinne, who has discovered Indian connections everywhere, explains: “This book continues my mission to connect colonial experience with British rural life.”

Footnote

In reporting the dropping of “Abide with me”, the BBC quoted Kanchan Gupta, senior adviser to the information and broadcasting ministry: “There is really no reason why... we should still have our military bands playing tunes... introduced by the British.” In Britain, though, no one objects when Tagore’s poem, “Farewell my friends”, is routinely read at Christian funerals — as it was when Mark Shand, brother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, was laid to rest.

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