Drat! Had I arrived but one day earlier I could have heard both the ubiquitous Stephen Fry and superstar French economist Thomas Piketty. But they had already jetted out by the time I arrived, post-haste from my tour of Rajasthan. What’s more, there I was all geared up to hear Niall Ferguson this morning, when William Dalrymple announced that he was unable to attend. Apparently he didn’t get a visa in time. (Either there is something political of a spicy Indian flavour is going on, or a personal assistant has made a monumental booboo.)
Niall Ferguson, you see, the Glasgow-born Oxfordian who is now Professor of History at Harvard, is the author of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, and The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World and Civilization. He is one of the few contemporary historians who believe that we (British) should not feel compelled to flagellate ourselves daily to expiate the crimes of our past. Actually, he believes (as I do) that empires are good things as they create spaces for plurality, great art and good living. Whereas small states tend to be fractious and tiny-minded. (Would you really like to live in Montenegro or in a separationist Scotland?)
Anyway, Niall was supposed to go head-to-head with Indian historical hothead Shashi Tharoor this morning. You may or may not know that Shashi, a Congress Party MP for Thiruvananthapuram (or Trivandrum as most Westerners know it), recently caused a stir at the Oxford Union by saying that the UK should pay reparations to India for two centuries of butchery and pillage. (A fellow Congress-supporting economist has estimated the total damages at around £3.5 trillion – about twice the size of current UK GDP). He believes that India only ever got two things out of British rule – the English language and cricket. (Mind you, they must be worth a couple of trillion over the long term.)
Well guess whom Dalrymple recruited last-minute-like to stand in for Ferguson? None other than Tristram Hunt, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent, whom I had seen on a panel the day before with Victoria Glendinning and other luminaries talking about the art of biography. (Tristram has recently published a biography of Friedrich Engels – sales figures are not known. I suppose that’s the sort of thing one does if one isn’t speaking to Jeremy Corbyn.)
Tristram listened intently with one of those young Tony Blair pained smiles (sort of I can’t believe I’m hearing this), as Shashi, who is highly articulate and witheringly ironic, laid into the legacy of the British Raj, before an overwhelmingly Indian audience. I didn’t envy Tristram’s task. (Thanks, Dalrymple, his eyes seemed to say). But actually, he didn’t do badly. What did Britain do for India? Erm…well, you know, like the rule of law, democracy, a legal system, national institutions, roads and bridges, railways, irrigation, education, toilets… the gorgeous Indo-Sarcenic skyline of old Mumbai…
What was really interesting from my point of view was the reaction of the Indian audience. While Shashi had some strident supporters, several questioners wondered whether India would actually exist as a political entity without the British intervention. One questioner drew huge applause when he said that Shashi should spend more time worrying about corruption in India. Several thought that India should be a forward-looking, not a backward-looking country. Ah, replied Shashi – one can never escape one’s history.
We are likely to hear much more of Shashi. He says India accounted for over twenty percent of global GDP before the British arrived and just four percent by the time they left. Actually, you can say something similar about China over the same historical period, even though it was not formally colonised by European powers. One major theme in world politics right now is that both India and China are resuming the relative global importance they enjoyed before the industrial revolution in Europe.
I even managed to miss Colm Tóibín and Armistead Maupin on Coming Out (this is racy stuff in India, you know), Margaret Atwood on love, Esther Freud on how writers write, Meera Syal on what makes Asians laugh, and much more. But let me tell you the writers I did see… like Helen Macdonald unpacking H is for Hawk, Anthony Sattin talking about Young Lawrence, Gerard Russell talking about the lost religions of the Middle East, Jean Findlay on translating Proust…
But on second thoughts though, no, I shan’t. You have work to do, money to make, and you can’t be wasting your trading time with a bunch of writers talking confessionally with other writers about writing.
So I’ll just tell you about Peter Francopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World which was nominated by The Daily Telegraph as 2015 History Book of the Year. Francopan is an expert in Byzantine history at Oxford and has set out to write a history of the world from an Asian perspective. European historians, he says, have always regarded Europe as the centre of the world. (The word “Mediterranean” means centre of the Earth; but then China in classical times called itself The Middle Kingdom). But, actually, for much of world history, Europe has been peripheral. Now the centres of global power are inexorably moving back towards Asia – down the Silk Roads which are the fundamental constant of world history. Technology (gunpowder, map grids, printing) and religions (not least Christianity) have both been transmitted down these historic corridors. Peter talks about the ancient China-Persia axis; and, as if by fate, on the very day that I heard this talk, President Xi Jinping arrived in Tehran for talks with President Rouhani.
Francopan was introduced by Colin Thubron. Colin, as travel writing enthusiasts will know, has been shinning up mountains and glaciers, living amongst Bedouin and swanning around Tibet and Siberia for the last half century. He is a travel writer’s travel writer. Now in his seventies, lanky and with a shock of grey hair, he still looks like a sun-tanned 1930s matinee idol, and speaks with a delightfully old-fashioned upper class lisp. Colin latched onto one of Peter’s themes: how European colonists had been pathologically vicious to their subject peoples. And duplicitous – a theme reinforced by the revelations of WikiLeaks’ Edward Snowden.
I was desperate to ask: would a world dominated by China and India be a less vicious, more just and less duplicitous world? Alas, I was not called.
A discussion entitled After the Arab Spring was conducted by a panel of peeved-looking Arab academics who inevitably blamed everything that has gone wrong on the USA and its side-kick, Britain. Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian-American feminist (author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (in your dreams, lady)) drew resounding cheers when she called Donald Trump a bigoted fascist f**k. Donald, if your ears are ringing, it’s because India’s liberal middle class disapprove of you. You’ll probably get over it.
For sheer intellectual hedonism, the event I shall remember best was James Shapiro in conversation with Margreta de Grazia, discussing Shapiro’s acclaimed 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear. Shapiro (University of Columbia, NYC) and de Grazia (University of Pennsylvania) are amongst the world’s leading Shakespearian scholars. 1606 was a good year for Shakespeare, though a bad year for England. King James I was meeting stubborn resistance in his efforts to unite his two kingdoms (England and Scotland); and the country was still in shock after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – what we would call a failed terrorist outrage by religious (in this case, Catholic) fundamentalists. Whereas under Elizabeth I Shakespeare wrote endlessly on the theme of legitimacy and succession, he now turns to other matters. Anthony & Cleopatra is a nostalgic lament for Good Queen Bess, the Virgin Queen. Macbeth explores the legends of the northern kingdom whose king now sits upon the English throne. King Lear looks back to a prehistoric pagan Britain: and yet its original ending (there are at least two versions of the play) is unremittingly tragic. Shakespeare, argues Shapiro, is the first modern writer in that, a businessman and impresario, he does not have to dance to the tune of an aristocratic patron and explores precisely the themes that are on people’s minds. (Three thousand people a day flocked to see Lear at the Globe Theatre). The upshot of religious terrorism is an atmosphere of profound suspicion and anxiety on the part of the general public for one section of the community. The nagging question is: how do you deal with one section of the community that wants to destroy you? Does that sound familiar?
Shakespeare, these scholars remind us, is a writer of his own time; and yet his universality transcends the England of the early 17th century and belongs to all humanity for all time. He has joined the immortals. Indians love Shakespeare and continue to watch and adapt his plays on stage and on screen, almost as much as they reinterpret the Ramayana. One final thought on this amazing festival. The writers are top-rank; but the audiences are stunning.
Tuesday, 26 January 2016, Seriska Tiger Reserve, India
Felicitations to all Indian citizens on the occasion of Republic Day! Last year the guest of honour at the military parade in New Delhi was President Obama; this year it’s President Hollande. Over the last forty eight hours it has been impossible to switch on a television without seeing Prime Minister Modi and President Hollande kissing and cuddling one another. This morning we learn that the French have sold 36 Rafale fighters to the Indian Air Force. This is bad news for British Aerospace (LON:BA), but good news for François; and he needs a break. (Actually, it was to have been 126 jets, according to the Hindustan Times, so something seems to have gone wrong for the French. Look out for an upcoming piece on India’s rise as a military power.)
The roads are quiet today and houses in the countryside of northern Rajasthan are decked in flowers.
Excuse me for now, but something large is stirring in the foliage, as if about to pounce… Better get back to the Land Rover. Yikes!