Some time back, a friend of mine, a European, remarked that one of the few places in India she’d been to was Goa. "But that’s not India, really," she said. "It’s very different from what one always thinks India is like." And that, of course, set me thinking.
I guess if cows on the streets and temples at every corner, saffron-clad sadhus, chaotic traffic jams, spice, and medieval palaces are all that you equate India with, it may be a bit disappointing to discover that India can often not be as exotic as it’s made out to be. Bread and butter at breakfast, invariably with omelettes (though spiced up with chopped onions and green chillies!); a plethora of daily newspapers in English; street signs in English; urchins who yell out, "Hi! How are you?"; and municipal divisions that are called wards or boroughs - yes, it’s still all India.
And we have the English to thank for it all. The English arrived in India in a big way towards the end of the 18th century (when the East India Company began pushing westwards from Calcutta, literally gaining ground as it defeated one weakening principality after the other). Over the next nearly 200 years, the English set up shop in India and took over commerce, administration, and a lot more pretty much fully into their own hands.
The obvious response to colonialism, that of rebellion, took nearly a century to erupt into the Mutiny of 1857, and it was another 90 years before India finally became independent. But by then the damage (if you could call it that) had been done. The English had been in India for so long that, when they eventually left, they left a part of themselves behind.
They left behind, for instance, their language. English is used widely across India, and in a country that has an official list of at least 1,500 dialects, it acts as an excellent means of communication between people who can’t make head or tail of each other’s languages. (Interestingly enough, English is preferred in this case over Hindi, which is the national language.) Except in very out-of-the-way places, there will be signs in English, people who will understand basic English, and perhaps even newspapers in English.
And, other than the language itself, there are hundreds of other interesting relics of the Raj, as British colonial rule in India is referred to, across the country. There are lovely, old churches, from the famous All Saints’ at Allahabad, with its beautiful stained-glass windows, to St John’s in Meerut, where the outbreak of the Mutiny of 1857 lives on in dozens of marble plaques, pews with slots for rifles, and a clock tower where the clock’s hands remain stopped by a stray bullet 150 years old. There are memorials, from the nearly forgotten obelisk-like red sandstone Mutiny Memorial honouring the dead of the Mutiny at Delhi (which, in a neat show of enterprise, the Indian government has interpreted as the dead Indian mutineers) to the imposing white bulk of Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial. There are entire areas, like Lutyens’ Delhi and Fort St George in Chennai, that are very distinctly English. There is Wellington, there is Coonnoor with its tea gardens and red-roofed houses, and there is Ooty with its botanical gardens.
There is the fact that every time a friend or relative goes to Pune, we ask them to get us a pack of Shrewsbury biscuits, very buttery and very English. There is the tradition, even in fairly remote places, of teatime. Of bread and butter, toast, and jam, even when you’re speaking in Hindi, which has a vast number of words for almost anything you could think of to say: the time, minute, hello, phone, plane, road... Of being proud, also, that English would not include words like jungle, pantaloon, calico, cashmere, kedgeree, bazaar, and verandah if it had not been for India.
Yes, the English may have left India, but somewhere, India hasn’t let the past go. It remains a part of us, something that’s as Indian now as the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort (both of which, by the way, were built also by colonists - the Mughals were no more Indian-born than the British).