England's Heroes

That's one of our heroes, said Susan as she showed me the sights of London. I was relatively new to London, and we were walking around Trafalgar Square, a famous tourist spot where Nelson's column resides, along with hordes of pigeons.

I stepped closer to the statue of this great hero. But instead of a hero, all I could see was a villain. Because underneath his statue, the writing said that he was a hero for his activities in colonial India. In short, a hero because he helped repress the Indians in the days of the Empire.

If you visit London, you will see that many tourist sights, such as Westminster Abbey, have statues and photos of British heroes - who would all be the biggest of criminals in our eyes. It is an eerie feeling to go around and look at these sights - of people who have been idolised in their home country for killing masses of Indians.

So I mentioned this to Susan, who instantly started apologising. It was so ingrained into them at school that Britain was great especially because of its Empire. She was startled when I said I didn't feel so good about this so-called hero. She had been taught that the good guys were those who helped build the Empire, and this Empire-buildling process was clean - in that no one got hurt and after all, the Natives were being civilised.

Not that it was her fault. There were many good Brits too who helped India in her fight for independence....  Still, it was ironic. Susan is English. I am Indian. We were two friends happily chatting away until this statue came upon us. Suddenly, we were two people from different parts of the world with the gulf of history between us. Me, part of the victims. She, part of the oppressors.

I am really sorry about this, she said apologetically. I didn't mean to offend you. Of course, I wasn't offended by her at all. But it was difficult to stay totally calm and objective, when seeing the killers of India's freedom fighters idolised in such a way. On the other hand, to British eyes, the Indians were all seditious terrorists! But as the saying goes, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

So the moral of the story is: if you visit London, be prepared to see people like Robert Clive and General Dyer praised in various forms. And remember: don't take your anger out on the closest Brit! I say this because a friend of mine, Lakshmi, visited the Army museum in London recently, and saw a picture of an Indian peasant placed in front of a cannon, which was ready to be fired. The caption said that once the cannon was fired, the peasant's body parts would splatter on those around him, and this was meant to be a lesson to the other Indians who were planning to fight.

Lakshmi went livid on seeing this. She, a PhD from the US and a totally cool customer usually, almost screamed at the friendly security guard who was walking around, and I had to drag her off. Well, sitting in front of your computer you might feel that you would not do something so stupid as to take your anger out on the nearest Brit. Please visit London and see how you react!!

PS: Some time back, Britain's World War II veterans demanded compensation from the Japanese government for War Crimes in that war. In the next day's papers, a letter from an anonymous Indian demanded compensation from Britain for Colonial crimes!

Names have been changed to protect the identity of the people involved
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- Abraham Verghese
  1999

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The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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