The Jewel in the Cobra's Mouth

By Ormsby, Eric | New Criterion, May 2005 | Go to article overview

The Jewel in the Cobra's Mouth


Ormsby, Eric, New Criterion


In 1843, Sir Charles Napier conquered Sind: and a year later Punch carried a cartoon of the victorious general with the caption "Peccavi," that is, "I have sinned" The Latin pun is often attributed to Napier and could have been his, given his wit and dash. And perhaps he did feel a bit sinful. Two years earlier, while at Poona, he had remarked, "Our object in conquering India, the object of all our cruelties, was money. Every shilling of this has been picked out of blood, wiped and put into the murderer's pocket."

Still, Napier was a savage and ruthless commander and it would be anachronistic, as well as plain wrong, to read simmering anti-colonialist sentiments into these words. Napier felt contempt for British administration and colonial hierarchy not for their mercenary motives, which he bluntly acknowledged, but for their hypocrisy and sheer incompetence. As the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography reveals in its article on him, Napier went so far as to scribble in the margins of Vincent Eyre's puffed-up book on the Anglo-Afghan war, "You were all a set of sons of bitches" in reference to the officers of that ill-fated campaign. The casual amnesia of posterity can be cruel; when recently it was proposed to erect a statue of Napier in Trafalgar Square, Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, asked who Napier might be. Sic transit gloria mundi!

General Napier "had" Sind, and the British held on for over a century. But can anyone really be said to "have" Sind, or indeed, the least part of India, in any permanent sense? Sometimes that vast subcontinent with its teeming populace, its panoply of cultures and customs, its varied religions and hundreds of languages, seems a phantasmagoric region of the imagination rather than an actual nation. My own idea of India was formed in childhood, largely through reading Kipling (his Kim still strikes me as an indispensable masterpiece). Later fervent immersions in such translated classics as the Upanishads or the Bhagavad-Gita or The Ocean of Story or--yes, I admit it!--the Kama Sutra, complicated and, so to speak, deepened my fantasies, and these in turn were nuanced by such modern Indian authors as Tagore, Narayan, Nirad Chaudhuri, and others. Add E. M. Forster, Paul Scott, and the irresistibly readable John Masters (not forgetting the film version of Bhowani Junction with the luscious young Ava Gardner!) and you have a potent, if indigestible, mix. I struggled with Sanskrit over a period of years and haven't yet admitted final defeat. Later I became fascinated by the Mutiny of 1857, and, for a time, a colleague and I used to send each other chapattis--the signal for revolt-through campus mail when confronted with yet another administrative imbecility at the university where we then worked.

The fascination of India is that of a world larger than our imaginations can contain, however we may stretch them. Napier, for all his bloodiness, felt this, as did Sir William Jones, that eighteenth-century English polymath to whom we owe the scientific study of Sanskrit and the beginnings of Indo-European philology. As the English learned, to invade India is to become invaded oneself, a lesson that earlier conquerors, from the Greeks to the Mughals, had long since learned, often at bitter cost. Can we now imagine the English language without such infiltrated words as curry, bungalow, pundit, nabob, sherbet, mango, or guru? The merest glance at the madly erudite nineteenth-century dictionary Hobson-Jobson with its swarming inventory of "Anglo-Indian" locutions reveals our lexical indebtedness on every page.

Indian art from Mohenjo-Daro onwards, Indian music and mathematics, the rich and subtle cuisine, not to mention the profound religious and philosophical traditions of every variety--all this, and more, informs our mental India. But the most crucial aspect of Indian culture, the immense and ancient corpus of literature written in Sanskrit, has received spottier recognition, largely for lack not only of good, but of consistent, translations into English.

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