28 Oct, 2018


J.B Auden, whose papers form the basis of the book and his compatriot and romantic rival Michael Spender | Photos courtesy
J.B Auden, whose papers form the basis of the book and his compatriot and romantic rival Michael Spender | Photos courtesy

An amazing chronology of how the Second World War and its preceding decade was looked at by those in the subcontinent, and for whom it stood as a means of throwing off the British yoke, Deborah Baker’s The Last Englishmen: Love, War and the End of Empire has a curious backstory. While looking around for a way to write about India during the Second World War, the author came across the papers of explorer and geologist John Bicknell Auden, who spent many years living and working in the subcontinent. Very few books had ever looked at the ordinary Indian and British people who were not directly concerned with governance but who, through their lives and loves, were unconsciously shaping the form of things to come. These men and women, Baker contends, whether Indian or British, were the “Last Englishmen”: people who revelled in the Raj and lived its culture, yet were poised for freedom from the colonialists.

As Baker investigated the Auden papers, she found laid out before her an immense wealth of information, courtesy the Englishman’s tenure as a geologist with the Geological Survey of India between 1926 and 1953. The papers included letters from Auden’s circle of Bengali friends as well as his fellow Himalayan explorers and his brother, the poet W.H. Auden. Concurrent and intertwined with Auden’s side of the tale is the Spender legacy, for the two Spender brothers —Stephen the poet and Michael, who became the first man to map the north face of Mount Everest — had deep connections with the India of the day.

The Last Englishmen does not merely imagine, but draws a vivid picture of the views and lives of these aforementioned colonial subjects. Although they struggled with some of the same questions of political allegiance, manliness and Englishness as their London-based “cohorts”, they had a different take on the politics of the day and how they experienced the war when it arrived in Calcutta. Laboriously researched — this has to be a labour of intense love for the land — the book has a lengthy cast of characters. They were not part of the government nor involved in making policies and, despite many of them being British, they understood the downside of the Raj and its effect on the local landscape. Yet, at the same time they were drawn to the literature, dress and culture of the Raj masters. Meandering through the names — both Indian and British — that act out this drama of intrigue, love and war down to the sounding of the death knell for British imperialism, we come across “writers, poets, artists, explorers, communist spies, imperial diehards, Indian nationalists, politicians and police informers.” A lot of them were people whose way of life would be torn asunder as the Great War spread its tentacles eastwards.

Thoroughly researched history told with the intimacy of fiction captures an era of great upheaval in the subcontinent

In between, but occupying a significant chunk of the book, Baker weaves in facts about Everest and attempts to conquer it, given that the peak was a “metaphor” for the British rule of India. Artistically sculpted in fictional tones, details of an Everest expedition read powerfully into the local psyche of the era even when it involved the lower social tiers, such as the Balti porters on whose lives the empire’s biggest impression was that the postage stamps carried images of the British king. For these colonised people, the Raj could stay or go for all they cared; it made no difference to them.

The thought-provoking cultural debates and power games of a world poised at the edge of a “new world order” — with special reference to a subcontinent rising from centuries of deep slumber — were destined to be carried over to our own day. They almost seem like premonitions of the travails to come. Intense political conversations, shared experiences, rejected loves and forlorn lovers vie with Nazi-leaning officers of the Indian Civil Service to make this book a riveting read.

Baker’s remarkable efforts at researching these lives and their individual perspectives are as praiseworthy as her creativity in making a story out of it; even all the factual details put together cannot play down the lively tenor of a book that has to be read essentially like a novel. Against the background of intense academic debates about collapsing British and German economies — even as Nazi forces marched ruthlessly across Europe — the snippets of personal conversations and the personal emotions shaping them bring in verve and add to the delight of a good, solid read. Mentionable in this context is the romantic drama surrounding the painter Nancy Sharp, an important figure in the London art scene, who was caught in a love triangle with the explorers Auden and Spender.

Admittedly, the cast of actors in The Last Englishmen is lengthy to the extent of being confusing, but Baker’s assignment is too complex a subject as well. It cannot be limited to a few characters, since every person adds something to the weaving of this vast human tapestry. Baker, whose previous books include A Blue Hand: The Beats in India (about poet and writer Allen Ginsberg’s sojourn into India in the 1960s), writes in classic, engrossing prose which at times borders on the scholarly, yet retains a lively, lovable style — perhaps the goal of any writer of fiction.

Indeed, it is difficult to decide whether to classify her book as a piece of fictional art or as a historical treatise; there are strong arguments for both contenders. But either way, it is a winner all the way, especially with the author’s rounding-off postscript in which she presents an “obituary” of the Last Englishmen and the routes their lives took as the empire ended. This “obituary” is as pertinent as the quote by Jawaharlal Nehru inside the covers: “I am the last Englishman to rule in India.”

Perhaps he was.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and report writer with a special interest in stories of creative development

The Last Englishmen:
Love, War and
the End of Empire
By Deborah Baker
Penguin, India
ISBN: 978-0670091577

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 28th, 2018

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