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May 4th 2015

British Empire in Literature

It was the East India Company that started the British rule in India. The firm accounted for half of the world's trade during the 17th century, exchanging goods with the Indian kingdoms and China's Emperor Qing. Cotton, salt, silk, tea, and opium were much sought in Britain and some parts of Europe, and this would one be the reasons why the company built private armies to protect its interests. A mutiny took place on May 10, 1857, marking the first Indian revolt against British rule. The Government Act of India 1858 led to the transfer of rule from East India to the British monarch. The Crown had indirect control over the company, but it wasn't the uprising that led to its dissolution. The final years revealed crumbling finances, but this would be another matter.

Many literary works set during the British Empire were not easy to read. Authors examined the role of colonizers, and in the process, confronted the values they learned during the period. "Heart of Darkness" depicted the savage (British) empire, a significant piece of writing in Modernist Literature. Don't be surprised if Joseph Conrad received hostile reaction after its initial publication. On the other hand, some may find it hard to believe that "Around the World in Eighty Days" was a travelogue on the British Empire. Doubters would have insisted that Jules Verne thought about an exciting era, when young travelers would embrace the nomadic lifestyle. But the Frenchman might be looking at the positive side of things.

There have been many works set in British India, written during and after the period. A few would stand out not only for its prose, but also for its message. It's not one and the same, as you first think. Let's take a look:

Bhowani Junction (1952) by John Masters. Set during the years leading to the independence, this was a powerful tale of Anglo-Indians torn between the departing Britons and their homeland. Some would be reminded of writers like Kenan Malik, but let's not be carried away.

Heat and Dust (1975) by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Two young women travel to India, not knowing the social restrictions on womenfolk. Same setting, two different periods. Both women are related to each other. They experienced the same fate, which offered hint of the bond between Britain and India. It would go deep, but there's an irony behind it.

Cracking India (1992) by Bapsi Sidhwa. The partition of India would have a painful, if not violent, effect on the inhabitants. Lenny, who lived in present-day Lahore, witnessed the dramatic unfolding of events as a young girl. This was a first novel from a female Pakistani writer, a searing tale that would haunt readers. Some saw rebellion unchecked, while others thought the empire must be blamed for it. Whatever.

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