Thursday, 20 December 2012

Book Review: Macaulay – Pioneer of India’s Modernization, by Zareer Masani

Thomas Macaulay is famous (or infamous) throughout India for having introduced the English language to India. Giving Indians the opportunity to learn English changed the face of India’s education system as well as the profile and outlook of millions of Indians. Those who oppose the widespread use of English in India, especially in formal communications and its use in schools invoke Macaulay’s name. Those who support the use of English, especially its ability to link up diverse groups of Indians, look to Macaulay as a hero.

However, even though Macaulay’s name is very well-known in India, I doubt if many Indians know much about Macaulay the person. What was it that motivated this Whig politician to push for English medium education for Indians? Did Macaulay really like India and Indians or was he motivated by other concerns? Other than his involvement in India, what were his other achievements? If you ever had these thoughts in your head, Zareer Masani’s biography of Macaulay is the book for you. Having read the book, I can attest to the fact that it contains a number of interesting and quaint facts about Macaulay I had no clue about and changed my entire perception of Macaulay. Or rather, it gave me an idea about Macaulay the human being when, earlier, I had none.

Macaulay was a precocious child who was bad at everything except learning and books. As an youngster, he did not particularly improve his extra-curricular abilities. He did not have an ear for music and did not have many friends. He never married, but was very close to and emotionally attached to two of his sisters. Though his father was an evangelical Christian, Macaulay later turned out to be an agnostic. However, his father’s concern for the poor and downtrodden did rub off on Macaulay. Just as his father Zachary Macaulay fought for the abolition of the slave trade, Tom Macaulay practised and preached a liberal doctrine that respected the human rights of even non-Britons and promoted globalisation. Though he was called to the Bar, Macaulay was more interested in politics. As an active member of the Whig party, Macaulay was in a position to make a difference, and he did.

Indian readers will be more interested in Macaulay’s attitude towards India and Indians. Surprisingly, Macaulay did not particularly care for Indian culture or languages. Though fluent in a number of European languages, he did not even make an attempt to learn any Indian language. He did not like Indian food or even Indian fruits, having particular distaste towards mangoes and bananas. Macaulay’s move to India to join the Governor-General’s council as Law Member was as much on account of the generous salary it offered him as it was for the opportunity to make a difference.

Despite his contempt for many things Indian and his faith in the superiority of British culture (which was not so unusual for his time), Macaulay passionately believed that it would be better for not only Indians but even for Great Britain to elevate Indians to the same platform as the British. Maybe it was because he believed Indian languages and culture were inferior and because he was essentially a good man that he wanted Indians to learn English and better themselves. Macaulay’s attitude thus differed a lot from the Orientalists who believed that Indian culture was as good as British culture and that Indians ought to be encouraged to take pride in their culture.

While in India, Macaulay did not hesitate to carry out various other reforms, such as the judicial reform which allowed Britons to be tried by Indian judges, a move which he felt was necessary in the interest of fairness and which made him a much reviled figure within the British community in India. After Macaulay returned to English, he did not miss India an iota.

Zareer Masani writes very well, his language both simple as well as elegant, with an old world charm that befits a work on Macaulay. Definitely a must-read for all Indian history buffs and students of the British Empire.

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