Blavatsky’s Russian Travel Writings on Racism and Colonialism in India, 1 of 3
FROM THE DURBAR IN LAHORE, CHAPTER I
H.P. Blavatsky gives her humane view of the realities of colonial India in The Durbar in Lahore. In Blavatsky’s Eloquent Anti Racist Colonialism Editorial 1/3, it says this editorial is from Chapter 3 of The Durbar in Lahore, which is planned for publication in the second volume of Blavatsky’s Russian Travel Writings by Boris de Zirkoff, but unfortunately was never published. It was originally serialized in a Russian publication in 1881, and later translated and serialized in The Theosophist in 1960-61.
Theosophists sought to improve Anglo-Indian relations (see Blavatsky News 2.0).
“Upon reaching this chapter, I find myself forced to break the continuity of my story for the sake of a brief explanation. To many a Russian India seems like the end of the earth, and, if I do not outline more clearly the mutual relations between conqueror and vanquished, and give a sketch of the country itself, much of the story of what I saw and heard at the wonderful Durbar in Lahore will remain both obscure and inexplicable…. Without claiming the slightest infallibility of opinion, especially where politics are concerned, I offer the following pages as mere personal observations, superficial, but on the whole truthful; that I can guarantee. Having listened to numerous discussions on India, as I had to in Simla, on the one hand, and to as many restrained complaints from the natives, on the other, and forming furthermore my conclusions without any prejudice whatsoever, on the events as they took place before my very eyes, I believe that my two years’ continuous residence in the country places me in a position to judge of it fairly accurately. Being but imperfectly initiated into the secret mysteries of the Calcutta cabinet, and still less interested in them, I nevertheless believe that something pure white cannot appear jet black to me, or vice versa; all the more so since it becomes obvious to any foreigner that the character of the relationship between rulers and subjects is very far from being normal. In the two preceding chapters, as in my earlier letters about India, and especially in my articles: “From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan” which were published in the Moscow Chronicle, I have often referred to this amazing and entirely unjustified relationship; one of utter contempt and arrogance on the part of the English, and on the part of the natives sometimes disgusting servility and cowardice.
Every time I express my honest opinion about the injustice and cruelty of the English towards the natives, when conversation turns to their mutual relationship, the former assure me that I am mistaken, since I know nothing about their subtle politics, and the latter, in answer to my pacificatory expressions and words of consolation, attempt to convince me that there is no single Englishman in India who wishes them well. Soon I came to the following conclusion: both sides exaggerate, the one its great virtues and merit, and the other its seemingly undeserved fate. The former, inspired, probably, by the wise proverb that “dogs go mad from over-eating,” [Russian proverb. – Translator.] seem to undergo a complete change, as it were, on their arrival in India from England. The latter, we will grant, have not individually deserved such a cruel fate, but India, as a whole, is carrying the heavy burden of her age-old sins: by her own past she has herself fashioned the misfortunes of the present, and her present position was inevitable. More remarkable still is the fact that absolutely nothing is known in England of the activities of the English in India or the true state of the natives under the English yoke.
How true this is may be inferred from the following: an educated Hindu goes to Europe, after having partially renounced his superstitious prejudices concerning both his country and his caste; he travels first class, no longer dressed as a sans-culotte but almost in European style; he wipes his nose with a handkerchief and not with the fork of Adam; his manners, like those of all natives, are quiet, even refined; even his education is by no means inferior and is sometimes considerably superior to that of most of his English traveling companions. In spite of this, his journey is divided into two phases: the first extends as far as Aden, and the second from Aden to London. From India to Aden, that is to the midpoint of his trip, the English will shrink from him; they will look upon him as a despicable creature belonging to a “lower race”; in other words they will ignore his presence, and he will rarely have the courage to assert his right of sitting with them at the common table. But beyond Aden, and before the steamer has lost sight of the shore, everything and everybody changes as if by the wielding of a magic wand!…. The Hindu is drawn into conversation. He is not avoided any longer; and if it should happen that some Indian official is on the ship on home-leave, even he will probably discuss politics with him, while the official’s wife will condescend to draw his attention to the weather. The same happens on the return journey. From England to Aden will be a paradise. But the steamer will barely have rounded the burning mounds of Arabia and reached Bab el Mandeb, when the stage-setting is again altered: the free British subject becomes the abject English slave of whom the people in England have no conception!…. This is no fiction but a fact confirmed every week.
Who, then, is to blame for this? Is it England with its laws and institutions which guarantee equality for all, or is it the English, namely, the English in India – quite a different thing?…. Of course we must blame the Anglo-Indians. They alone, during the last twenty years, have built up these prejudices, which feed their arrogance and conceit. In India, where everybody makes obeisance to them in serf-like fashion, these two vices are encouraged, in proportion to their climate infected livers; in England none of them would dare to admit the sheer Asiatic despotism and contempt with which they treat the Hindus, and not only in England but even here everyone of them, at any such hint, denies it and tries to refute any direct accusation. Peter blames Paul, but will never confess to sin himself. “Are you not ashamed to treat the poor Hindus like that…. as though they were dumb animals?” I asked a most amiable and kindly Briton in whose brother’s house I was staying at that time. The amiable Briton opened wide his blue eyes, and his pink face assumed an expression of astonishment. “Treat them how? Do I treat them badly?” “You do not exactly decorate them with medals, do you? When opportunity affords, you treat them as a Castilian driver treats an obstinate mule!….” “You must be mistaken. I cannot speak for others. There are, naturally, people in our colony (that is, the English) who are, perhaps, a bit too rough on the natives. But personally I am not one of them; you are really not being fair, you know!….” “Well, what about yesterday, when that old Rao Bahadur[ A high native title of nobility.] came to your study, and having entered in his stockings remained humbly standing at the door?…. You not only did not ask him to be seated, but did not let him come within ten steps of you.” “My dear friend! You reason like a woman!” exclaimed my friend. “The old man’s visit was an official one, and I have no right to depart for his sake from the wise policy of our administrators, which is to treat the natives with cold reserve. Otherwise they would have no respect for us. This is a policy of estrangement.” “It probably coincides with a policy of approach which is by no means ambiguous. Did you not, in my presence, push your gardener, who was peacefully occupied with his work in the flower-bed, merely because he happened to stand in your way when we walked along the path?” “That was unintentional,” said my friend a little abashed: “It is sometimes difficult to distinguish their dark skins from the earth.” “Is that so? Well, tell me then, this dark-complexioned gardener of yours, is he or is he not a British subject?” “W…. Well, of course he is!” admitted my companion somewhat unwillingly, sensing possible treachery in my unexpected question. “And he shares equal rights with an English gardener, for instance?” “Yes…. but what are you driving at? I don’t understand.” “Oh, nothing in particular, only the curiosity of a foreigner and a woman. I like to draw deductions from comparisons…. But what is your opinion? If you were to give an English gardener an undeserved, or, even a deserved slap in the face, would you not risk a return blow?…. Your gardener would have the law on his side, and you, as, instigator, would be fined. Well, supposing the Hindu in his turn, as a British subject, reciprocated similarly?” My friend fairly jumped. “I…. I would have beaten him to death! A Hindu may be a British subject, but he is not English!….” This exclamation contains a whole tome of admission. It places a seal, as it were, on the sentence pronounced on an entire nation and its present, if not its future destiny.
Everyone knows that England is a great and powerful nation; everyone knows also that England as a nation cannot help wishing India, as one of its best colonies, at least material success, if not ethical growth, if only to uphold the proverb that “No one sets fire to his own harvest.” And in this material respect England does indeed all she can do to help India, without sparing either labor or money. True, this labor is rewarded from India’s treasury. But the fact that England acts selfishly in this regard cannot alter the fact that she is preparing a magnificent future for India, if only the child can survive this period of stern education; a future in fact such as would have been unthinkable for this stagnant country during either the Mogul dynasties or its periods of autonomy, as prejudice and age-old customs have always hampered its progress. Much sorrow and suffering has the great Bharata experienced in her time, but this suffering has but the better prepared her for the complete renaissance that awaits her. Only twenty years ago the Hindu would have chosen a thousand deaths rather than accept a glass of water offered him by a European or in the latter’s house, and not only a European, but a Moslem, a Parsee, or a Hindu belonging to a different caste. To take liquid medicine prepared in a public drug-store – medicine compounded with water, was considered a mortal sin; to sit beside a compatriot of another caste was equal to being expelled from one’s own, and that meant everlasting dishonor. Ice and soda-water were looked upon with disgust, but nowadays medicine as well as ice and soda-water, and especially a network of railways, have accomplished their purpose. Under the influence of civilization, even though it has been forced upon the nation, those age-old prejudices that ruined India and made her such an easy prey to the first adventurers who desired to possess her, are beginning gradually to melt, like a frozen puddle beneath a sunbeam.
Without a doubt the English have conferred and continue to confer inestimable benefits on India; but, I repeat, for her future, but by no means for her present. Their boast is that even if they had given her nothing but their protection against Moslem invasion, and their help for the complete suppression of civil dissensions, they would still have done more for India than any other power, including the Hindus themselves, from the time of the first Mohammedan invasion. Possibly England has done even more than that. But then the present Anglo-Indian government is acting like a stepmother, who ill-treats her step-sons and starves them secretly behind her husband’s back, even though it strictly carries out in all other respects the programme submitted by the Home Government. Unfortunately for India, England is very distant, and the Anglo-Indian government is always at India’s throat with a whip in its hand. Naturally enough the natives cannot be content with this and are perpetually complaining…..
However, although most of their complaints are justified, they are themselves at fault in many things. Instead of gaining profit for the future from the lessons of the past, they act like ostriches, hiding their heads in the sand and giving way to bitterness in the present. If the English were to treat the natives humanely, their power would appear less despotic; the Indians would not tremble before them as they do, and that power would become more firmly rooted than is evident at present on Indian soil, through the love and gratitude of the people. Quiet and gentle, the majority of the natives are ready to lick any caressing hand, and to show gratitude for every bone thrown to them. If the English were less ferociously contemptuous towards the Hindus, and more kindly to the people, their prestige would possibly diminish, but their safety in the conquered country would become more firmly established in the future. But it is precisely this they do not wish or cannot understand. They seem completely to forget what every child knows, that their prestige is a sparkling soap-bubble, entirely dependent on external events beyond their control. Their power in India is well established, even with the present caste-system, merely because the natives have a superstitious idea about their invincibility, and find in it no trace of an Achilles’ heel; and also because, according to the teachings of Krishna, they dare not go against “the inevitable”. Being fatalists, they believe that they are living in the Kali-Yuga, “the black age,” and cannot expect anything favorable as long as this age lasts on earth. In these two superstitions, as if in two impregnable fortresses, lie concealed the power and safety of the English. But let the British army be badly beaten somewhere, and the soap bubble will burst, and the superstition will vanish from the minds of the Hindus, like the visions in a nightmare at the moment of waking.”