The Quiet People of India by Norvall Mitchell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“…you can both love something deeply and look down on it at the same time and this is all too easy for the foreigner in Asia.”
I have a great deal of sympathy and understanding for Norvall Mitchell despite the fact that this book made me cringe repeatedly and made me feel like apologising for this man who was 100% a product of his time.
The book, after quite some period of time looking at the author’s British childhood and upbringing in the early 20th century, details his life working for the Indian Political Services from 1930-1947 when India finally gained its independence. There is no doubt that this is a fascinating, though at times slow moving, look at life in the British Raj as the sun set on that period of history.
Mitchell clearly loved India and the people of that land and here he has my deepest understanding. I too adore the Indian subcontinent with my own family background being from the Raj and having lived, in more recent times, for many years with my family in what Mitchell would have known as ‘East Bengal’ (modern-day Bangladesh).
But his writings and memories are something of a mirror to hold up to my own soul and ask “am I avoiding the same prejudices and condescension?” As I was reminded recently, you can both love something deeply and look down on it at the same time and this is all too easy for the foreigner in Asia. In the 12 years I’ve been involved with Bangladesh, it has been a constant battle to check myself for prejudices we can all allow to creep in when dealing with cultures not our own. I’ve seen too much of the post-colonial chauvinism from people who, like Mitchell, have dedicated years or even decades of service to a people they also consider inferior or needing something only the West can bring.
Mitchell constantly betrays this often speaking of Indians as “primitive”, “needing development” and a range of other dismissive terms. Inevitably, whenever he meets and gets to know an Indian well he is impressed with their character and often goes on to consider them true friends – and this is laudable for a person of his time – but as a group or mass, he is entirely of his generation.
There’s no doubt he was a nice man, gentle in nature, with a good heart and a genuine love for people and deep desire to ensure their security and well-being. He’s also not afraid to be critical of the British and their administration (though of course that’s easier to do when writing your memoirs decades later and thousands of miles away). Yet he holds to the position that it was as absolutely right that the British ruled India (for the good of the people) as it was that they also departed in 1947.
And this is the heart of the matter for me and why I cannot rate this book more highly. The writing is a product of that former generation where there was nothing seen as wrong to look down on a people different to your own and consider them as something between children and pets. Mitchell has as much a preoccupation with arranging big game shooting as he does dealing with poverty and medical issues. More worryingly, his attitude towards ‘putting down revolts’, while gentle compared to some, was also alarming. Generally, he shows ghastly naivety about Indian society and culture and this colours the kind of decisions he made as administrator and magistrate.
For instance, at one point his troops enter a village where there has been trouble and reparations are expected to be paid. He finds that his soldiers, against orders, are ‘looting’ villagers and stealing their valuables. His answer is to arrange for the soldiers to secretly deposit all the goods anonymously and then to ‘whitewash’ the thefts as being on Government orders; the village could reclaim the goods on payment of the reparation fines. I find it hard to believe that where he describes soldiers as attacking women in their homes to steal loot that there were no rapes and molestations at the same time. I feel quite certain that Mitchell passes over this because he would have found it distasteful. Yet no soldier is disciplined in this story and I suspect that happened again and again. To an extent his administration (excellent though I think it probably was) was all about “anything for the quiet life”.
For me, this is what was so wrong with the British Empire. I do not agree with the many contemporary Asian historians who would have us believe the British raped and pillaged the land for nothing but selfish greed and callous disregard. That view is just as prejudiced and is more akin with how Asians did things then and still do to this day. But nor do I agree with the oft-quoted British idea that we brought civilization and order to a barbaric land. Instead, I would say that the British were guilty of selfishness (rather than greed) and superiority (rather than callous disregard) – and indeed these are still our national faults today. Mitchell is, despite being a truly lovely person in himself, the embodiment of these faults in the regime. It was ignorance which lost the British their ‘jewel in the crown’ and this author’s book is full of it.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page.
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org