The Last Englishmen: Love, War, and the End of Empire by Deborah Baker

The Last Englishmen: Love, War, and the End of Empire BY Deborah Baker. Graywolf Press. Hardcover, 352 pages. $28.
The cover of The Last Englishmen: Love, War, and the End of Empire

The acknowledgments to Deborah Baker’s crowded new book tell us how she came to write it. She had been looking for a way into a large subject, India and World War II. “Very few books had looked at the war and the decade that preceded it from the point of view of those for whom the Second World War meant finally getting out from under British rule.” A helpful librarian pointed her to the papers of John Bicknell Auden, elder brother of the poet Wystan Hugh and, as a distinguished geologist and cartographer, a figure of some interest in his own right.

Auden’s papers took Baker into a world of geology, Himalayan exploration, and upper-middle-class Indian intellectuals in colonial Calcutta. There was evidently a book to be made out of this material and this cast of characters, if a suitable form could be found. Baker settles on a group biography, with Auden the closest thing to a protagonist. His friend and occasional rival in love Michael Spender, elder brother of the poet Stephen and an intrepid high-altitude explorer himself, sometimes takes center stage. But Baker rightly sees that his inflated self-worth makes him a hard person to like—Spender seems to have been chosen for one of his expeditions so that the team’s shared loathing of him might give them something to bond over—and stops him dominating the story. In fact, Baker stays with no one for very long, cutting back and forth between her characters’ private lives and the public history of the war, her roving camera leaving her principals for extended periods to focus instead on some other minor figure lost to history.

The last days of the British Empire in India are not, as indeed she implies, a new subject for nonfiction. But Indian writers, until very recently, have had to struggle against the received, nationalist version of the story. In this telling, the Second World War has seemed the merest backdrop to the real story of anti-imperial struggle—this despite the legions of Indian soldiers who fought on the Allied side. British writers have had it worse. Even the most impeccably principled among them have found it hard to resist what the period so amply supplies: pomp, circumstance, and the clipped accents of the officers’ mess. In other words, the materials of a guilty nostalgia saleable wherever Britons, or Anglophiles, abound.

Anyone writing today has to avoid giving the impression that—as Salman Rushdie, in a pungent critique from the 1980s, put it—“the history of the end of the Raj was largely composed of the doings of the officer class and its wife,” with Indians as “bit-players in their own history.” Baker, who is American and has lived in India, comes to this history with less baggage than a British writer. She is not an academic historian, but she has written what is, despite the novelistic arrangement, a book that belongs on the same shelf as the many recent revisionist histories of India’s war. There is a quiet rage in her telling of the story of the British response to the Bengal famine of 1943, the better for coming mostly in the voices of her characters, who found themselves involved as officials, victims, or chroniclers.

John Auden arrives in India in the mid-1920s to work with the Geological Survey of India, half-reconciled to becoming another crass colonial. But he abandons his “preposterous” pith helmet, which strikes him as a prop “for a play whose run is long over,” and ignores his superiors’ instruction that he should “never befriend an Indian, give way to an Indian, or let any Indian imagine that he knows something about India.” Auden ends up drawn into the regular meetings of the “adda”—very roughly, an informal intellectual conversation group—that surrounded the poet Sudhin Dutta and his literary magazine, Parichay. Everything was up for debate: Marxism, literary modernism, even the nationalist movement. Baker’s accounts of those conversations, drawn from minutes still unpublished in English, give a vivid sense of what it was like in that dawn to be alive, young and open-minded, with the entirety of Asian and European thought to choose from.

Baker’s control over her material is not always secure. Even with her helpful list of dramatis personae and the full range of narrative devices to which she helps herself, the chapters not set in high mountains can feel a little overwhelming. Baker’s text is written in a pacey free indirect style that mimics the spoken and written voices of her principals. The results are mixed. All too often, her rendering of her characters’ voices reads uncomfortably like an American trying out a parody English accent: A good many “chaps” and “blokes” pepper the prose, as do sentences like “did Western civilization entail anything beyond these perpetual bloody wars over colonies?” Baker also has an unfortunate weakness for the one-sentence paragraph: “They knew better.” “He didn’t ask again.” “Christ, he thought.” This sort of thing belongs in a different, cruder book, but at least we are spared that other vulgarism: people who think in italics.

Baker’s most fluent prose comes when her characters are alone with their thoughts in the mountains, where they are afforded a vision of their concerns from the geologist’s point of view, one radically removed from the political anxieties of the moment. “Why climb the Himalaya if not for the view it afforded across time?” John Auden thinks at one point. His speculations about the natural history of the Himalayas, since vindicated by geologists who followed in his footsteps, are rendered with a simplicity that must have taken more research than is visible on the page. But even here, he, and Baker, manage not to forget that what to the climber is a thrilling adventure in the mountains is simply daily life to the people of the Himalayas: “Without benefit of ice ax, tricouni nails, and Player’s cigarettes brought up from the plains, they simply made their way from one high valley to another to graze their sheep.”

Nakul Krishna teaches philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His writing has appeared in n+1, The Point, and Literary Review.