Magazine article The Spectator

Staying on to Good Purpose

Magazine article The Spectator

Staying on to Good Purpose

Article excerpt

SAVAGING THE CIVILIZED: VERRIER ELWIN, HIS TRIBALS AND INDIA

by Ramachandra Guha

University of Chicago Press, 22.50, pp. 336

No one resembling Verrier Elwin appeared among the characters of A Passage to India, nor was he himself portrayed in Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi, although the Mahatma accepted him as a disciple and regarded him as a son. Elwin was too complicated a figure to fit into the stereotypes which even perceptive people were unable to resist when trying to depict British India.

He did not have a moustache and a red face or a memsahib brimming with rectitude and disdain for Indians, nor did he sit in the Club pontificating about Hindus or applauding the Amritsar massacre. Elwin was a real person, with more than two dimensions, someone who 'evolved' and changed his mind, an enthusiast for different causes, a man who journeyed from priestly austerity to anthropological promiscuity without cutting the essential and connecting threads of his life.

Son of the British Bishop of Sierra Leone, Elwin gained a first in Theology at Oxford before joining a Christian mission in Poona. Although the mission's spirit was neither bigoted nor over-zealous, he soon found it difficult to combine his work there with his growing receptivity to Gandhian teaching, especially the idea that all religions were equally true or equally false. A week spent in the Mahatma's ashram at Sabarmati turned him into an `ardent disciple' of the Indian national movement, a worshipper who regarded Gandhi as the `most sublime and Christ-like figure now living on the planet'. In 1930, when his hero defied the government by marching to the sea to make salt, he openly supported him. The following year he left the mission and, in due course, the priesthood and the Church.

Elwin's adherence to Gandhi was both personal and political, but he was reluctant to accept much of the social teaching. As a natural epicurean, he could not see the point of temperance or chastity or eating awful food, nor was he convinced that Gandhi was right to dissuade him from marrying a high-minded Englishwoman.

With the Mahatma's support, he set up an ashram for the Gonds of central India, but he soon questioned the applicability of Gandhian tenets to hill tribes. How relevant was cotton-spinning to people who lived in forests? Why should it be important to preach abstinence and celibacy to tribals who derived much harmless pleasure from mahua alcohol and an uninhibited sex life?

After the rigours of his Evangelical upbringing, Elwin revelled in living among women who, as his assistant put it, `used to change husbands as we change socks and forget about it'. …

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