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‘Empireland’ is an honest account that is neither apologetic nor gloating

Why Sathnam Sanghera's book will help Anglophiles and Anglophobes fathom the little island around which the world once functioned

New Delhi |
March 28, 2021 6:45:45 am
books, Empireland, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express, indian express newsEmpireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain

Author: Sathnam Sanghera
Publisher: Viking
Pages: 320
Price: Rs 999

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By Rai Mahimapat Ray

I happened to have picked up the recommendation of this book from a thinking celeb’s Twitter handle and, on a quirk, decided that this would be my weekend read, providing me solace in a crazy wedding. A book written by an acclaimed columnist always promises to be a breezy read, yet how far would it keep the interest of a student of History alive would be its Waterloo. Surprisingly, the book keeps up the historical nuggets that would enlighten any conversation in a history society gala — like William Pitt, the 18th-century British PM, was the grandson of the Madras governor and a direct result of the money made in the Coromandel Coast, thus explaining his governments’ expansion in the area.

Each of the chapters is perceptive and helps Sanghera connect the dots in the way free-trade movement had pervaded British imperialism through the ages, linking it to the victory of the Brexit movement or how the craze for gin today in London Bars has its roots in malaria. In doing so, the author is able to keep history relevant, by no means a small feat in this age of instant gratification.

The question of colonialism remains often a polarising one with literature either being written as an apology or as glorifying it. Yet Sanghera manages a nuanced view, proving, above all, that statue removals don’t necessarily mean the right way forward. His insights into modern-day Britain, especially given his own upbringing as the son of immigrants trying to gain a foothold in their adopted land while braving overt racism of football hooligans and the covert racism of the job market, allow the reader to have an immersive experience. The writing is never empirical enough to become a book for students, yet at no point does the author claim he is trying to do that. Rather, he gives voluminous references in case a reader wants a pointer to deepen his knowledge. Each of the chapters is an article flowing freely yet standing separately from the last. The tongue-in-cheek writing helps one engage with a book that draws out skeletons from the closet — like the Colonel Young expedition to Tibet — without leaving you with a sense of moroseness. It is an honest account that is neither apologetic nor gloating. This is the key why Anglophiles and Anglophobes alike will find it worth their time to read the book. It will help them fathom the unique ways of the little island that once was a pivot around which the world functioned.

(Rai Mahimapat Ray is a bibliophile IAS officer whose idea of peace is to be with a book in solitude)

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