The historiography of British bureaucracy in India, more particularly of the Indian Civil Service, has been over-saturated by an aura of romantic mythology. This slender volume is a refreshing contrast making fun of the traditional make believe. It is admittedly a personal recollection of ‘anecdotes and descriptions’ of the author’s ‘experience as a Government officer in India during the decade before World War II to review the process by which in the space of few years’ he developed ‘from an ultra naive public school boy with a veneer of Oxbridge sophistication, classical scholar¬ship and a mind full of conventional prejudices into a starry-eyed activist in the Indian Independence movement and in particular, its communist led trade union and peasant committees.’ The transformation was by no means unusual among several Indians educated in Great Britain during the thirties, even if some of them had meanwhile become members of the ICS. But when it happens to a British entrant to the ranks of the ‘heaven born’, the story acquires exceptional interest.
Michael Carritt was a typical example of the academic intelligentsia. His father was a distinguished lecturer in the Oxford university, respected for his books on Aesthetics and Ethics. The family was large, five brothers and two sisters. But as it behoved the elite, Michael went to a public school in the north of England and won a classical scholarship at Queens College.
The stay in Oxford was not however distinguished and he had to be content with ‘a reasonable good second class’ which was not enough to burrow back into the womb of university teaching or research. The conclusion followed that ‘service in the administration of India and Burma or the colonies gave the best prospect of satisfying elitist requirements’. Success was rendered easier with ‘teach yourselves’ keys, ‘cramming’ school, a favourable interview and some proficiency in riding.
Having joined the ‘guardians’ a minor disappointment awaited Michael. He was allotted to Bengal, which in the late twenties had become the ‘Trash Bin’. Gone indeed were the days when civilians of Bengal ruled the roost and Calcutta was the political and social capital of British India. Instead Bengal was then the most troubled province, with in current parlance ‘extremism’ of every kind finding fertile soil.
The author’s experience of a probationary officer under training in a district, a practice, which survives intact till today, was disillusioning as well as intense. He was posted for training to Midnapore, then the ‘most troublesome and violently nationalistic district in Bengal’. In the temporary absence of the district officer, the collector, he was received at the railway station by the District and Sessions Judge’ ‘an elegant and somewhat willowy man of middle age, dressed like a boy scout, bald and with a merry twinkle in his eyes’ and ‘a limp hand to shake’. The gesture should have been genuinely welcome to any callow youth stepping out of his familiar environs for the first time. But the older man’s demeanour and poses were intriguing and the author did not take long to place him as an aesthete of Oscar Wilde’s preferences. But more than his sexual preferences, and probably on account of it, he had developed a ‘compulsive need to prove himself to be a manly man’ and ‘was permanently on the defensive and like a prima donna would ‘ throw vicious tantrums, spread gossip with cynical and bitter malice’. His ‘cruelty found its most unpleasant expression in an almost pathological contempt for Indians in general and a desire to make them suffer.’ His judicial sentences in consequence were ‘notoriously severe’. The author’s first exposure to a colleague in service was to ‘a lonely and disjointed man behind prison bars buit up by himself’.
During the year the author was in Midnapore, he came across in unusual rather tragic circumstances three District Officers in quick succession; the first two were assassinated one after another and the third ‘cautiously decided after two months of non work’ to resign. From the first the author learnt ‘whatever there was of goodness and sincere service to India but from the others (he) learned in full measure much that was unacceptable and that finally contributed to (his) parting company with the ICS.’ But even the best among them, the first was ‘a man with little education, no cultural interests and a contempt for anything intellectual, ‘with a ruthless law and order mentality especially directed against the nationalists’. The second victim to the bullet ‘was in an advanced state of alcholism… a poor, inadequate and hopeless man, one of life’s rejects..’, never leaving his bungalow and signing ‘papers put before him without even reading them.’ The third who escaped by premature retirement was ‘too far gone in fat and laziness’ — an odd individual, ‘from the service point of view he was a nonentity, a washout’ but ‘had developed a commanding interest in ancient Indian culture, the Vedas and the Sanskrit’. During the short time he was in Midnapore he sought refuge in an out of the way rest house, guarded by a posse of police patrol and ‘his signature was all the work he ever did’.
If the year under training exposed the pretensions, inadequacies and loneliness of the District Officers the author came into contact with the next few years, in the countryside as well as a short spell in Calcutta revealed the exploitation, hypocrisy and the snobbery behind the facade of the white man’s burden. The locations were as scattered as Rangpur in North Bengal on settlement training, Asansol in Burdwan district, the western frontier of Bengal, Tangail in Mymensingh District (now in Bangladesh) in the riverine Bengal plains, the last two as the sub-divisional officer and in Calcutta, as a special officer for a few months in charge of detention camp.
The exposure to settlement work provided brief moments of temptation to opt for the ‘out door life, generally on horse back: the mixing on friendly, even festive terms with the. unsophisticated Indian peasants; the absence of political anxieties or shocks to (his) liberalism; and sweat and corruption.’ For ‘given the fundamental iniquity of the permanent settlement system of land tenure and revenue collection, the function of the settlement officers was essentially a beneficial one … so far as it went, it was a brake upon land lord rapacity’. But motivated simply by an ambition to compete in the mainstream of political administration for the big rewards of promotion, power and honours, the author sacrificed ‘what seemed to be a good life for possible rewards of a career’.
The next three postings strengthened the incohate misgivings and completed the disillusionment. Identifiable episodes were probably not significant, though the notorious governor of Bengal, Sir John Anderson’s ‘words of praise for the law and order policies of Hitler’ left the author wondering how best he could dissociate himself from those aspects of British rule in India which he found repulsive. These postings created a deep ‘awareness of the shoddiness of the whole system and the gap between the professed benefits of civilized rule and the administration’s outspoken respect for Hitler and his new order which undermined’ the author’s willingness to continue as before. A spell of long leave in England provided opportunities to fill the gaps in political education and to establish the necessary contacts to embark on a course that would inevitably expose the author to a schizophrenic thirty or more months in Calcutta,
That is the story of the mole in the crown. He was however a rather innocuous mole. A courier to-start with, rebuffed out of timidity by Mirajkar, befriended by Michael Scott in his sullen way and happy to be rid of the contraband literature, which was freely available in Britain and a small sum of money from the Communist Party of Great Britain to Indian Communists. Contacts were however maintained and one comes across tantalizingly the names of the veteran Ajoy Ghosh, P.C. Joshi, Dange, Ghate and others. The author had to find shelter occasionally for the fugitives indefatigably keen on continuing with their mission. He participated as an onlooker and fraternal colleague in interminable discussions on the theory and practice of united front against fascism. He could keep his tracks well covered, for on return from England he was appointed as under secretary in the Political and Appointments Department, a vantage position indeed. But misgivings persisted that the fat may be in the fire and so, the author, as soon as he could, resigned and obtained his proportionate pension. He wisely commuted as much of it as he could and not long afterwards the balance left was withdrawn for behaviour (unspecified) not compatible with ‘approved service’.
Such a bald summary cannot do justice to an absorbing account. The book is replete with deep feeling, keen appreciation, warm understanding and restrained sensibility and in language always on the side of understatement. Some of the brief sketches of James Peddie, Seth and Edna, Rozy and Humer, Michael Scott, Humphrey House and particularly Jogen Babu are unforgettable. His descriptions of.the rural scene, court room or the governor’s ceremonial durbar are vivid and hilarious. A more delightful volume of memoirs has not come my way for a long time.
T.C.A. Srinivasa Raghavan is the member of the Indain Administrative Service.