From the Discomfort Zone: Colonial baggage

From the Discomfort Zone: Colonial baggage

Studies show that white skinned people have a better chance of employment.

A ticket to revisit India after 67 years was a birthday gift his son gave Paul.
A ticket to revisit India after 67 years was a birthday gift his son gave Paul.

An 86-year-old Englishman sitting adjacent to me on our flight to London last week, turned to me and said, “You are lucky you can travel with me today.” Seeing the perplexed expression on my face, he hurriedly elaborated, “In my younger days when I was living in Calcutta, you could never have done this, I would never have had occasion to meet you.”

Conversing with Paul Winslow on that flight opened up a whole new angle of our colonial past. “I’m not a racist, but racism was ingrained as a natural element in the coloniser’s mind.  It’s our colonial baggage,” he openly declared. He wistfully spoke about Calcutta then; the city was more British and a familiar home to him, much more than any city in England has been for him since. “Through the Second World War years, we were safe here. I could never believe we will not permanently stay in India.” He was 19 when they left Kolkata in 1947.

Paul’s father was working in a British multinational bank established in Kolkata, India’s most active port due to the prolific British Empire trade the East India Company carried out. He was a covenanted employee, meaning an Englishmen of a certain class who would come from England on contract to occupy a senior position and who was provided accommodation in a British community. Such colonies all over India hired hundreds of Indian servants to keep the parks and lawns free from weeds. These clubs had amenities for playing polo, tennis, golf and other games, Anglo-Indians and Indians were certainly not allowed in, and English women were barred from entering the bar and smoking room.

The senior expatriates were given large bungalows with expansive gardens in cantonments for those who came to join military service. Civil Lines were for important government officers and others who occupied positions critical to British domination of the country. Individual British families were served by Indian domestic help over whom they always maintained a social distance and superior attitude as was normal and customary then. So in his social interactions, Paul never did deal with brown-skinned people because Indians were barred from places he would frequent such as social clubs. Even during his travels, he’d use the compartments reserved for Anglo-Saxons only, so his exposure to the real India was minimal. He spoke about it all to me in a very candid way, not to provoke me in any way, just to explain how he lived.

A ticket to revisit India after 67 years was a birthday gift his son gave Paul. He was shocked to experience the non-British Kolkata, so full of so many people he could never have imagined before. Clubs he’d swung many a tennis stroke in were no longer an Englishman’s preserve, but totally changed. His fond memories became far-fetched, only physical British structures like Victoria Memorial, St Paul’s Cathedral, Monument and the High Court were glaringly reminiscent. The beautiful Hooghly riverbank he’d enjoyed walking along with his Scottish mother was unrecognisable. The city had become like the English cities he avoids nowadays because they are so full of immigrants. Even in his little village in the historic county of Yorkshire with Celtic traditions, “People are talking Russian on the streets, Portuguese in the pubs, the plumber you summon speaks Polish, farmhands look to be of Asian or African origin, and shops are selling foreign foods like black bread, samosas, pickled cucumbers or vodka,” he said. Then twirling his white, Dali-like moustache, he continued, “Mind you, I’m not racist, but when you are culturally disturbed, it seems like racism. I have a hard time identifying multi-cultural London as being part of my own country.”

Immigration seems to have become a concern for local inhabitants like Paul who speak in terms of losing national identity. The European Union free movement laws are allowing East European migrants to legally flood into the UK. They comprise over 700,000 today, even as further immigration from European Union countries continues unabated. Because the welfare system is so generous, Britain is becoming the most overcrowded nation in Europe. It is estimated that by 2015, Britain’s population density will be twice that of Germany, and four times that of France.

In addition, about 3 million Asians comprise almost 5 per cent of the population, half of whom are Indians, others from Pakistan, Bangladesh and from African countries too. “I find Indians are softer and more disciplined in India than in England,” Paul said, playfully adding, “Of course, it’s possible that because roads and things are so terrifically undisciplined in India that it all goes unnoticed!” When local residents feel like aliens in their own homes, ethnic minorities will face different challenges as cultures will always clash, believed Paul. The British Ministry of Internal Affairs has a historically high record of over half a million unaddressed cases related to immigrants. It seems it will take at least 37 years to process them.

Studies show that white skinned people have a better chance of employment. Unemployment rates among black Africans is 27 per cent, Bangladeshis 24 per cent, Indians only 12 per cent as most of them hold university degrees, while only 8 per cent of the white population is unemployed.

“When my grandchildren have birthday parties I feel amazed and lost seeing all the coloured faces of their friends,” he said. “Earlier people would come to England to learn English culture and way of living. Now we have to adjust and be sensitive to the ways of the immigrants and learn from them in our own land.” When I rebutted that we in India had to learn the English culture and language which was not our own, he quickly replied, “But you had no choice! Don’t forget we were the rulers!” Then with a twinkle in his eye he smiled, “But India will always thank us for that pressure we gave you of learning English. You are global citizens now, your country’s newspapers write impeccable English!”


Shombit Sengupta is an international creative  business strategy consultant to top management.

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