The Tears of the Rajas book review: Out of the past

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Published: April 19, 2015 12:11:17 AM

The Tears of the Rajas is a shocking peek into our colonial past, its meandering pages making you wonder at the British Empire’s ‘terrible imperial thirst’ for goodies of the east

The Tears of the Rajas
Ferdinand Mount
Simon & Schuster
Pp 773

Bentinck Street, Minto Park, Wellesley Square, Victoria Memorial… Calcutta’s (now Kolkata) ties with its British past still live in its monuments and roads, its nooks and crannies, its history. So Ferdinand Mount’s exhaustive retelling of the British in India—covering a century, from 1805 up to 1905, and seen through the eyes of his ancestors, the Lows of Clatto, Scotland—takes us back to a time when Lord Bentinck, Lord Minto, Lord Wellesley et al were the masters.

The introduction of The Tears of the Rajas is a story in itself. Mount tells us that his great aunt Ursie had written a book (published in 1936) about the Lows in India called Fifty Years with John Company. The book was written from the letters of an officer in the East India Company, General Sir John Low of Clatto, Fife, 1822-1858. It remained unread on the family’s bookshelf primarily because, recalls Mount, the subject of the British Empire in India was unmentionable. “The memory of it was a huge embarrassment, a chapter in our island history we wanted to skip,” he writes.

But then in 2010, The Sunday Times published an article, tying the piece with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to India, saying the Prime Minister’s ancestors had helped put down the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Cameron and Mount are related, and Mount realised the source of the article was the book written by his great aunt Ursie. So Mount read the book and more, realising that almost two dozen members of his extended family, including the Lows, Shakespears and Thackerays (yes, the writer William Makepeace Thackeray), had worked for the British Empire in the Indian subcontinent for a century. Happily for us, Mount then wrote this sweeping saga of the Empire’s ambitions and how that affected one and all.

As Mount unravelled his own family’s past—for over 100 years, they “fought and collected taxes and dispensed justice and scolded maharajas and married and gave birth and died, from Madras and the Deccan in the south to the foothills of the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush, from the deserts of Rajasthan to the swamps of east Bengal”—he wove their stories into the East India Company and British history, giving us more than a glimpse of how the British actually came to rule over India.

Through the lives of the Lows, particularly John Low and his wife Augusta, and the others, we learn of the dramatic incidents that occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries: the massacre at Vellore, the conquest of Java, the incidents at Oudh, the troubles in Afghanistan and so forth. While in Lucknow as a Resident (highest-ranking British official), John Low wrote to Sir William Hay Macnaghten, secretary to Lord William Bentinck, saying, “if it shall become necessary to interfere at all in the interior management of Oudh, while the present King is on the throne, the interference must be far more complete.” Low argued that for more than 30 years, the reigning family of Oudh had given essential aid to Britain in times of need, and so if the British took the entire management in their hands, “the act will be generally considered… as nothing short of usurpation. Their natural hatred of us will be vastly increased not only in Oudh but also in some parts of our own provinces.” This was a ‘deep-felt’ warning and, as Mount writes, Low’s opinion not just about Oudh, but about the whole British situation in India. But then again, Low was a seasoned British soldier and this high ground would be abandoned. The boy-king deposed, leading to the Sepoy Mutiny.

Apart from showing us the strangeness of it all—the Lows’ life in the palaces and camps, the rides through the dust of the plains to a semblance of happiness in the cool hills—Mount also highlights some of the double standards at play. For instance, a mutiny—and there were plenty leading up to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857—by natives in 1806 was put down severely, while one by the British (yes, there was that too) in 1809 was handled much less harshly.

The Tears of the Rajas is a shocking peek into our colonial past. Even the meandering pages on the many battles the British fought in the subcontinent and beyond make you wonder at their ‘terrible imperial thirst’ for goodies of the east.

Sudipta Datta is a freelancer

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