News & Politics

Rover 1, Beagle 0

As Tony Blair kowtows to George Bush and the U.S. Mars probe beats the Brits', it's clear that the sun has long set over the British Empire.
With the American Rover sending back spectacular pictures of Mars while the British Beagle lies woefully silent in some crevasse, I think it's time for me to finally bury some of my own ghosts. As an Indian, even one who grew up in post-independence India, the hangover of the Empire still clings to me, all the way from Calcutta to San Francisco. In choosing the glitter of the hi-tech New World as my destination of choice, I felt in some ways I was abandoning not just India but the rain-soaked, moldy island that had ruled it for two centuries.

As schoolchildren in Calcutta we learned by rote about the beauties of Wordsworth's daffodils, though we'd never seen one. Gracious country clubs still had British Christmas luncheons where Indian dress was discouraged, even forbidden. When the British bested Argentina in the Falklands War, the main English newspaper in Calcutta reported how one society matron shouted, "We won!"

When I announced I was going to America to pursue higher education, a relative sighed, "You'll soon spell colour as color." In fact, now I do. "Your accent is turning Yank," said one horrified friend back in India, completely unaware of the fact that his accent sounded pukka BBC British, though he'd never set foot outside India.

The preoccupation with things British probably stemmed from the fact that the upper crust of the colonizer was always the Holy Grail for the Indian middle and upper classes. But they never transferred their affections to America, because in the Cold War, relations with the United States were distinctly chilly. In a wave of nationalization New Delhi had booted the ultimate symbol of America, Coca Cola, from India.

Now with its markets opening up, India has embraced with giddy abandon Coke, Pepsi, Ford and whatever else America has to offer.

Still, it's hard to let go of old habits. "MIT and Berkeley are all fine," said an uncle. "But there is a certain prestige about Oxford and Cambridge." People came to America to be dazzled by big streets, huge shopping malls and bright lights, but kept it at arm's length -- the nouveaux riche on the block to be envied, but not embraced. Indians achieving lordships in England were feted and the talk of the society pages, while Indian-American business multimillionaires complained that India wanted their money but didn't offer much respect in return.

Those of us who left India for the glittery promise of America were in some unspoken way regarded as slightly vulgar. It was as if we had chosen a cheap, showy floozie over a refined, tea-sipping mistress. We had dollars but no class.

Of course, everyone knew the sun had long set over the British Empire, though it still gathered its former colonies into a moth-eaten Commonwealth Summit now and then, occasionally kicking countries out of the summit as if it were some elite old boys club. After 9/11, Tony Blair's strutting as President Bush's unofficial emissary, aka lapdog, confirmed who the big dogs really were. The Indian government started cozying up to Washington, even hiring a lobbying firm to manage its relationships on Capitol Hill. It was in some way a belated acknowledgment of the new Empire on the scene.

I had switched my loyalties a long time ago. America was brash, but didn't have the stuffiness that starched so much of the British upper class. Ben Kingsley apparently likes to be called Sir Ben. Bill Gates is happy being just Bill. America's royalty might come from the tawdry world of pop and Hollywood, but it didn't wear dowdy flowery dresses and carry outsize handbags like the Queen. America was insular. America was self-absorbed. But even after 9/11, U.S. politicians still play up their immigrant roots, knowing that America remembers it is a nation of immigrants. The British Home Secretary, on the other hand, talks about a test for Britishness. And everyone in Britain covets the American dollar even as they turn their noses up at American consumerism.

In a dog-eat-dog world, I chose the Rover over the Beagle. I am glad I did, for the only British dog with some bite these days appears to be Princess Anne's vicious bull terrier.

Sandip Roy ([email protected]) is host of Upfront, the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.
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