On my seventh birthday, my grandfather sat me down on his knee and informed me that I was a truly lucky child. I assumed the subsequent unveiling of a truly spectacular present. But there was only a long pause.

He patted my head finally, and went on to explain that I was truly lucky, not because I was born in independent India (well, duh!) but because both my parents were also born in independent India. That made me a second-generation independent Indian, a clean-slate future-facing Indian, one whose responsibilities to the nation were untinged by shadows of slavery, the very long shadows that he, like other Indians his age, for instance, had inherited from his parents and grandparents, and subsequently wrestled to the ground.

It was the early nineties. India was stepping out of its heretofore familiar economic path and entering the (brave?) new world of liberalisation. I had no idea of all this, though. I was concerned about cake.

My grandfather looked out the window and fell silent.

I squinted in the sun, trying to imagine all these ancestors and the long fuzzy shadows of the past – and failed spectacularly.

This little episode had been tucked away in the old suitcase where I keep memories of my grandparents all mixed up with childhood diaries and the odd bit of tinsel or toy, and came tumbling out, a fully formed portrait of an afternoon in May, when I encountered these words in Shashi Tharoor’s Preface to his masterly An Era of Darkness:

“The British Raj is scarcely ancient history. It is part of the memories of people still alive. According to a recent UN Population Division report, the number of Indians over the age of eighty is six million: British rule was an inescapable part of their childhoods. If you add to their number, their first-generation descendants, Indians in their fifties and sixties, whose parents would have told them stories about their experiences of the Raj, the numbers with an intimate knowledge of the period would swell to over 100 million Indians...

Still, I write as an Indian of 2016 about the India of two centuries ago and less, animated by a sense of belonging morally and geographically to the land that was once so tragically oppressed by the Raj. India is my country, and in that sense my outrage is personal. But I seek nothing from history – only an account of itself.” 

My father’s father – sometime-freedom-fighter, sometime-vagrant, mining engineer, inventor of a new technique in controlled blasting in the deep interiors of Jharkhand well before it was demonstrated in the West, financial profligate, sufferer for decades from the horrifying lung disorder that affects all mining men – would have been ninety in 2017. As I read An Era of Darkness, feeling alternately hot and cold (for this is what the book will do to you), I could almost feel him, and my other grandparents, and their parents – whom I can now imagine better, a gallery of ancestors in fact – jostling in my head, poring over the pages along with me, though not all of them would have read in English, adding commentary and questions and an anecdote or two of their own.

The debate

While Tharoor has been a writer of both fiction and non-fiction over the years, winning both critical acclaim and popular success, the genesis of this book in particular is rather odd. You see, it all began with a speech.

In May 2015, Tharoor won the Oxford Union Debate for his side, on the proposition “Britain Owes Reparations to her Former Colonies”, with a characteristically impassioned and precisely argued speech. After that, he left England “pleased enough, but without giving the proceedings a second thought.” However, a couple of months later, once the speech was posted online, it took on an almost surreal afterlife, not only going viral across various social media platforms and causing many a storm in chai cups across the sub-continent and Britain, but also managed to unite, in India, the old and the young, the radical and the conservative, and most uniquely, the ever-estranged political left, right, and centre of our country in unequivocal approbation. Says Tharoor:

“Yet the fact that my speech struck such a chord with so many listeners suggested that what I considered basic was unfamiliar to many, perhaps most, educated Indians. They reacted as if I had opened their eyes, instead of merely reiterating what they had already known.

It was this realisation that prompted my friend and publisher, David Davidar, to insist I convert my speech into a short book – something that could be read and digested by a layman but also be a valuable source of reference to students and others looking for the basic facts about India’s experience with British colonialism. The moral urgency of explaining to today’s Indians – and Britons – why colonialism was the horror it turned out to be could not be put aside.”

And while the speech was necessarily limited by the proposition for the day, an expansion of the central thesis with detailed references have allowed for a far more nuanced approach.

Ergo, An Era of Darkness. Without a doubt the most important book of non-fiction I’ve read of late, and a fitting present to India, at the moment a country burgeoningly of the young, in its seventieth year of independence.

Deconstructing darkness

There are several things that make the book extraordinary. For one, it is not constructed as a chronological account of imperialism as it unfolded in India. Instead, its sections are crafted around specific themes – the utter amorality of the East India Company in its conduct in India, and how the rule by the first-ever MNC completely haemorrhaged Indian wealth, ruined indigenous knowhow and increased rural poverty; the myth of the British crafting political unity and creating the idea of India as it were; the peculiar construct of British-Indian laws (right up to their prevalence today when homosexuality remains a criminal offence); the strategic policy of “divide et impera”, popularly referred to as “divide and rule” in India, perhaps the most successful of all (nefarious) British policies, the ultimate price of which was Partition; the famines and other holocausts; a study of the role of the (vernacular) press in fomenting nationalism – and how the Indian press was systematically repressed over the years; and finally, a detailed examination of education, English and, of course, cricket.

By themselves, each of the issues has been given some prominence by academics. But when they appear together, argued so well, the story they present is far more powerful. There can be no doubt that the book’s great readability (despite its chilling content) also owes something to this non-chronological, cyclical format that does not remind one of droning history teachers of classrooms past who invariably equated history with dates.

For another, An Era of Darkness renders yeoman’s service to the entire subject of India’s colonial encounters by comprehensively rubbishing most of the arguments paraded in favour of the British Raj by diverse quarters (ranging from Anglophile historians like Niall Ferguson to Indian writers like Nirad C Chaudhuri) and putting them down, warts and all, in one place. While reasoned arguments have been proffered in the past by scholars, these have unwittingly remained limited to specific fields, which, in turn are as diverse as economics, mechanics of storage of food grains, or a history of textiles, ship-building and the railways.

This is where An Era of Darkness makes it simple for everyone. While the narrative is not studded with footnotes (the detailed references all appear at the end), there are crisp facts extricated from far-reaching sources and included to help one’s own statistics-obsessed generation who like their opinions number-crunched. Sample these:

  • In 1700, India’s GDP was 27%of the world GDP while in 1947, it had come down to 3 per cent. Just to put things in perspective, in 1600, Britain’s share of the global GDP was 1.8 per cent.
  • Between 30 million-35 million Indians died of starvation during the British Raj.
  • In the first decades of the twentieth century, 8,000 British officers in India earned £13,930,554 each year, while over the same time, 130,000 Indians in govt. service earned £3,284,163 pounds.

Finally – and most importantly – Tharoor has provided a context to understanding many of the troubles that underpin discourse in contemporary India, by providing an unflinching account of “divide et impera”, the policy of divide and rule that was so successfully implemented by the British in India in furtherance of the colonial project.

In literary theory classrooms, we were taught to map how, after Independence, post-colonial societies went quickly from novels celebrating the birth of the nation and critiquing colonialism in the golden afterglow of independence, to deepening dismay at the present and subsequent obsession with critiquing post-colonial failures of the new nation states – with one theme dominating all else: corruption, corruption and corruption. (This is reflected in attitudes across the “developing” or formerly colonised world.) This impulse, while natural perhaps, often led to an incomplete analysis of the deep damages of colonialism on various aspects of national life – and the need, perhaps, of the talking cure.

By turning our gaze again, firmly, to the horrors inflicted upon the sub-continent by the British Raj, the effects of which have not yet been completely ameliorated, Tharoor teaches the young Indian (who watches The Crown on Netflix without any trace of discomfort whatsoever) the importance of knowing the past and talking about it, if only to unpick its skein better – but to do it yet, with a sense of irony and wisdom.

The book that launched a thousand theses?

Ultimately, in An Era of Darkness, Shashi Tharoor has marshalled arguments and evidences from diverse sources to write a damning account of India’s colonial encounter, no holds barred. His considerable talents as a novelist have breathed life into his account of the past, his long tenure as a diplomat brings to the proceedings a geopolitical heft, and his current life as an Indian politician helps craft a robust argument for the India he believes in and works for. Of course it is a grand narrative. And like all successful grand narratives, it will naturally occasion a number of dissenters to come forth and raise specific points in disagreement and build alternative arguments. But the fact of this book as the leaping point of a thousand these is, in itself, a paradigm shift forward.

If I had my way, this book would be translated into all the Indian languages and taught in every school.


“Consider, for instance, the national anthem. The Czech anthem begins with a simple question: ‘Where is my homeland?’ The homeland is understood as a question. As an eternal uncertainty. Or consider the Polish national anthem, which begins with the words ‘Poland has not yet’. And now compare this with the national anthem of the Soviet Union: ‘The indissoluble union of three republics, has joined for ever by the Great Russia.’ Or the British ‘Victorious, happy, and glorious...’ These are the words of a great country’s anthem – glory, glorious, victorious, grandeur, pride, immortality – yes, immortality, because great nations think of themselves as immortal. You see, if you’re English, you never question the immortality of your nation because you’re English. Your Englishness will never be put in doubt. You may question England’s politics, but not its existence.”

— Milan Kundera to Ian McEwan

“The heart hoped that India would survive [as one country that is], but the head worried that it wouldn’t. The place was too complicated, too confusing – a nation, one might say, that was unnatural. In truth, ever since the country was formed there have also been many Indians who have seen the survival of India as being on the line, some (the patriots) speaking or writing in fear, others (the secessionists or revolutionaries) with anticipation. Like their foreign counterparts, they have come to believe that this place is far too diverse to persist as a nation, and much too poor to endure as a democracy.”

— Ramchandra Guha, “India After Gandhi”

“The British like to point out, in moments of self-justifying exculpation, that they deserve credit for the political unity of India – that the very idea of ‘India’ as one entity (now three, but one during the British Raj) instead of multiple warring principalities and statelets, is the unchallengeable contribution of British imperial rule.

It is difficult to refute that proposition except with a provable hypothesis: that throughout the history of the subcontinent, there has existed an impulsion for unity. This was manifest in the several kingdoms throughout Indian history that sought to extend their reach across all of the subcontinent: the Maurya (322 BCE-185 BCE), Gupta (at its peak, 320-550 CE), and Mughal (1526 to 1857 CE) empires, and to a lesser extent, the Vijayanagara kingdom in the Deccan (at its peak 1136-1565 CE) and the Maratha confederacy (1674 to 1818 CE). Every period of disorder throughout Indian history has been followed by a centralising impulse...

The same impulse is also manifest in Indians’ vision of their own nation, as in the ancient epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which reflect an ‘idea of India’ that twentieth century nationalists would have recognized. The epics have acted as strong, yet sophisticated, threads of Indian culture that have woven together tribes, languages, and peoples across the subcontinent, uniting them in their celebration of the same larger-than-life heroes and heroines, whose stories were told in dozens of translations and variations, but always in the same spirit and meaning.”

— Shashi Tharoor, "An Era of Darkness"

An Era of Darkness, Shashi Tharoor, Aleph Book Company.