Maharaja Dalip Singh by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1854 Oil on canvas, 2038 x 1095mm Lent by Her Majesty the Queen, National Portrait Gallery, London
The last Sikh ruler of the Punjab, Dalip Singh was only five years old when he inherited the throne. The British government claimed his kingdom in 1846, and the young king relinquished his title and property, converted to Christianity and surrendered the famous Koh-i-noor diamond to Queen Victoria. In return, he was given a pension on condition that he remained obedient to the British government.
School would be out at 1:35pm in Karachi and by about 2pm I would wearily clamber out of the car with my book bag and trudge up to Aunty Parveen Maneckjee’s flat in Bath Island for tuitions. Her third-floor prison would hold me till 5pm. Aunty Parveen, a Parsi (Zoroastrian) lady, taught at the Convent of Jesus and Mary and was a childhood friend of my father’s from his days in Keamari, a small neighbourhood near the harbour. I would be entrusted in her care until my mother could pick me and take me home after work.
As Aunty Parveen was a primary school teacher and I was a grade 6 student, she would not actively tutor me as such. She would just make me learn up my coursework by heart while she tended to the younger group at the main dining table through the afternoon. I would be relegated to one of her sofas in the quiet parlour where I would start off by staring at the portraits of her dead relatives for about 10 minutes, imagine smashing all the porcelain figurines of dancing Jane Austen characters for another ten and then my eyelids would start to droop. From time to time she would call out sharply to ask if I was finished, and I would start and try to sober up. I tried everything, from pinching myself, to biting the side of my lip to stay awake.
What stands out in causing me the most misery was the course of ‘Pakistan Studies’, a sadistic combination of history and geography for high school students written in prose dry as styrofoam. The official timeline for Pakistan began, oddly enough around 700AD when a 17-year-old Arab solider, Mohammad bin Qasim, arrived at Debal, a port in Sindh (a southern province) of what was then India. As the textbook’s author led me to believe, the teenage conqueror so impressed the local Hindus, that they all converted to Islam and thus began a new chapter in history that would eventually come full circle with the exit of the British in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan – a state where Muslims would be able to practise their religion freely and not be oppressed by the wily Hindus.
It was only years later that I slowly began to learn that so much was left out – not just because high school students had to learn a glorified version of the Pakistani/Muslim history shot through with liberal amounts of rabid Nationalist sentiment but also because we had so many blind spots. Our levels of introspection seem to be inversely proportionate, I believe, to the degrees of failure of our Nation State. Indeed, commentators (the Samuel Huntington type) never hesitate to describe the Pakistan of today as a “failed state”.
They failed to mention, for example, how come a handful of British men managed to take over the sub-continent? At any given time there could not have been more than a few thousand Firangi (foreigners) in the country. Writing for the BBC, Chandrika Kaul, a lecturer in Modern History at the University of St Andrews, put the number of civil servants at 1,200. For argument’s sake, let’s put the number at a cautionary one million British officers in India at the peak of the Raj. That would still not explain how our colonial masters ruled 300 million people. Admittedly, history is far more complicated than just that. But experts such as well respected historian Ian Talbot will tell you, the Raj was made in part possible by the “natives” who collaborated with the British. (For more details see ‘Punjab and the Raj’ by Talbot).
But no one talks about this phenomenon. It is one of our blind spots. We tend not to be honest about our dirty business and prefer instead to focus on the perceived ‘enemy’ - or as Karachi protests will exemplify, the flavour of the month. (Last month it was Israel with the flotilla fiasco).
I was thinking about our blind spots for two reasons: over the last week or so, there was a slew of sectarian drive-by target killings in Karachi and; (at the same time) I was in London on vacation where I visited an exhibition ‘The Indian Portrait’ at the National Portrait Gallery.
BLIND TO MUSLIM-ON-MUSLIM VIOLENCE
Muslims are divided into several sects with Sunni and Shia being the two major ones (kind of like Baptists, Evangelicals, Lutheran etc.) Shias are a minority in Pakistan and have long been targeted by Sunni outfits. In the 1990s, many doctors fled Karachi after Shia doctors were being gunned down in the parking lots of government hospitals. Last week, the same violence reared its head and less than a month ago, different ethnic groups were clashing as well with Mohajirs killing Pathans and vice versa. But despite this blatant bloodshed, those Pakistanis who are angry with Western ‘imperial’ powers rate them as a bigger threat while they ignore the fact that Muslims kill Muslims just as much if not more. We choose not to admit to this dirty business in our own back yard. We too are complicit at some level. We too are ‘collaborators’ at some level.
UNTAINTED AND UNTOUCHED
I was thinking about this when I went to the National Portrait Gallery to visit the ‘Indian Portrait 1560-1860) exhibition of 60 works of mostly miniature paintings from the Mughal or pre-British era. The curators had chosen well and for the first time I learnt of how the court artists of the Mughal kings of Delhi began to pick up European techniques. For example, the Indian miniature subject’s face was traditionally in strict profile. It was only with the exposure to and influence of ‘White’ artists that the Indian masters began rendering their royal subjects in what I can only crudely describe as a two-thirds pose, or with the face at a different angle. This may be a small point, but as I moved along the walls and eventually saw how the Indian artists later experimented with larger, nearly full-length portraits, I began to think about how the lines begin to blur when the coloniser and colonised inhabit the same space. Towards the end of the exhibition there were some excellent examples of British officers who commissioned their own portraits in the local dress. Even more interesting were the works in which the British memsahib or lady of the house was captured by native artists. The exchange, the seepage, starts taking place at some point.
I may be wrong about these historical oddities and may have all my facts wrong or my arguments may be completely open to debate, but it does not seem logically possible to me that any country (nation/state) can ignore the crimes that its own people commit against each other and entirely blame the state they are in on someone else (the Other). But it is also perhaps fallacious to believe that violence or hatred directed at someone else (or oppressive action) will not affect us as well. As I was walking down Oxford Street in London, today, I laughed to myself as I saw all the brown faces pass by. I laughed because I’ll bet that the British never thought that once they left India that would be the last they saw of us. Sometimes I see it as a big inky stain, the kind they show in the movies to indicate the spread of an empire’s conquests. It seeps out of India and pools towards England just like when your watercolours don’t behave.