The British Empire Library

South Asians and the shaping of Britain, 1870-1950

by Ruvani Ranasinha

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This is a curious book, and not quite what it seems at first, but is well worth reading. Selections of short pieces about, or by, people from the Indian sub-continent, some of whom lived in Britain before 1950 are preceded by modern essays. The title is misleading on two counts - there are no contributions by people other than Indians, nothing from Burma, or Malaya, for example, and no demonstration of how Britain might have been 'shaped' by the small number of immigrants during the period covered. The chapter on 'Britain's forgotten volunteers' for example, is very timely, showing the huge contribution made by Indian volunteer soldiers during the two world wars, but the majority of these brave men returned to their own homes in peacetime. One man who did settle here was the late Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Pujji, who joined the Royal Air Force in I940. He was interviewed by a cluster of academics in Gravesend shortly before his death in 2010. One can imagine the solemn faces around the old soldier, bracing themselves for stories of discrimination, racial prejudice and self-sacrifice for a foreign country. One can also imagine the enjoyment that Pujji took in confounding them. He joined up because he loved flying, it was as simple as that. It was expensive to fly in India, he said 'so I volunteered and twenty-four of us from all over India were selected'. On arrival in England, the group got VIP treatment and stayed in a five-star hotel. Pujji wrote to his father 'I'm having a wonderful time.' When he wanted to see the film Gone with the Wind, he joined the end of a very long queue outside the cinema, and 'as soon as the man in front of me saw my turban and uniform he said "Sir, you don't have to stand in the queue".... and he was ushered into the cinema and given a free ticket.

If you can get past the righ -on attitude s of the four main editors, who introduce the excerpts (described pedantically as 'source material ') there are some real treasures: 'A Lady's Day at the Glasgow Exhibition' published in I888 in the Indian Magazine; the narrative poem by General Sir James Willcocks, entitled Hurnam Singh' and written in 1917 as a tribute to his Indian troops ; an investigation into 'Conditions of the Coloured Population in a Stepney Area' by Phyllis Young (1944) and pieces by the Singalese poet M.J. Tambimuttu and Mulk Raj Anand. 'Textual Culture and Reception' one of four themes in the book includes lively descriptions of British life seen through Indian eyes. It is a pity that the illustrations are so poorly reproduced, because they cannot have been easy to find, and certainly deserve our attention. In particular there is an extraordinary photograph of Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of the last Sikh prince, selling The Sujjiagette newspaper outside Hampton Court Palace in 1913. (What a subject she would have made for an interview!) So there are nuggets to be found for anyone interested in the relationship between Indians and Britons before 1950, but you have to dig deep.

British Empire Book
Ruvani Ranasinha
Manchester University Press
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2013 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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