Monday, 28 January 2013

Review: The Ruling Caste by David Gilmour

Full title: The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj (non-fiction) 
Writer: David Gilmour
First published: 2005
Available: digitally on Amazon and possibly in a library near you (I used both options as the pictures and extremely helpful sketch over the organisation of the Indian administration wasn't included in the Kindle version)

Quote: "Their ethos is portrayed in Kipling's story 'The Head of the District' in the persons of Orde, who on his deathbed by the Indus remembers that four villages need a remission of rent because their crops have been poor, and of Tallantire, who defeats a tribal rebellion and brings order to the district after the Indian Civilian has run away."

The Ruling Caste is an ambitious book. Gilmour states in the preface that his aim is to show how the senior Civil servants of Victorian India lived from chota hazri to sundown and to portray not only their careers but their thoughts and beliefs and domestic arrangements. Somehow, he actually manages that rather well, which is a feat in only 300 pages. I have seen several reviews that complain that too many details make it a sluggish read, and certainly, there isn't a page that is not loaded with information, facts and footnotes. However, to me it read fairly easily all the same – I admit that I may not be the typical reader being both obscenely interested in the Victorian world and having a good deal of bureaucratic experience myself which probably made it easier for all those administrative proceedings to leap to life for me  – and the focus is always rather up-close and personal.

Gilmour uses a rather fixed set of characters as the focus of his narrative – we meet and get acquainted with Henry Cotton, Alfred Lyall, Henry Lawrence among others – and mixes personal accounts and letters with official accounts of the India Civil Service in the late 19th century. Therein lies one of my reservations against this book; reading it, as I was, for the express purpose of research, it was a little annoying to have the dates occasionally obfuscated, especially since Gilmour also points out that the organisation and attitudes of the ICS was not static but evolving over the period. Despite that, there are sections where accounts as far apart as 50 years are treated side-by-side and the time-gap is only visible if you actually check the footnotes. Also, you may quirk an eyebrow at finding quotes etc. from the teens and 20s in a book that has "Victorian" in the title, but seeing as I do the same thing here, I'm not really at liberty to criticise a slightly wider interpretation of the Victorian era.

It is a fascinating world Gilmour describes; utterly different from the modern bureaucracy and yet strangely familiar. His Civilians work, dream, win promotions and marry until, finally, most of them slip into oblivion as pensioners reminiscing about "the good old days" in a rather suburban atmosphere in South Kensington. The book is a treasure trove for a novelist, because it tells you so much about the mundane life and attitudes of the British Raj precisely because of it's obsessive unfolding of details, and David Gilmour's love for his subject shines through on every page. While making for an entertaining read, that fondness is also the reason for my second big reservation about this book – there is a strong bias pro-ICS/Britain that sometimes shines through. While mostly providing a rather sober look at the British Civilian, there are places when Gilmour leaps to the defence of the ICS in a rather jarring way (he clearly loathes A Passage To India, for example). It's a pity, because these almost chauvinistic little outbursts mar an otherwise brilliant and detailed study, and makes me question if there is an underlying bias that tilts the entire narrative. That nagging doubt makes me a little wary about trusting it too much, which detracts a little from its usefulness.

Nevertheless, it is still a fascinating read and recommended for anyone interested in the subject.

I gave it 4/5 on Goodreads.

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