Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Is this dead tiger our new Confederate flag?

By Sandy Garossino in Opinion | January 19th 2016

 Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, with his wife in Bengal, 1903

The Bengal Lounge is a genteel cousin of the Confederate Flag

A tempest is brewing at High Tea on Canada's southwestern tip, at the edge of the wide Pacific Ocean (next stop, Japan). A Vancouver real estate czar wants to close a bar and there’s a ferocious hullabaloo about it, with petitions and the whole nine yards.

All of this is happening in Victoria, B.C, the provincial capital named for the empire’s 19th century regent. The smallish city has two primary functions: to be the seat of government and attract tourists as a kind of "Ye Olde Victorian Theme Parke.” Which works like a charm. Gently nestled in the calm protected harbour lies the jewel in the city's crown; the storied Empress Hotel, built in 1908 and named for the monarch’s title as Empress of India.

And inside the Empress Hotel sits the Bengal Lounge, a mock-Churchillian mens-clubby watering hole romanticizing a mythical British Raj that never was. It's a version that Queen Victoria herself would probably have trouble with. Even the legendary Bengal tiger skin mounted above the crackling hearth is a counterfeit. That Thailand tiger didn't spend a minute of its abruptly foreshortened life under the Raj.

While the name sounds grand, the Bengal Lounge isn't "olde" at all, but was introduced during a 1960’s update to its previous incarnation as the Coronet Room, long after Indian independence.

Yet peel back local nostalgia, and the Bengal Lounge isn't just an innocent throwback to a bygone age, but a genteel cousin of the Confederate flag, the Washington Redskins and the Whitesboro town seal. Except it’s not even our past.

British Columbians in the 1960's, who lived about as far away from India as it's possible to get, might be forgiven for spicing up their local scene with some exotic flavour. But time marches on, and to anyone familiar with British India, the name 'Bengal' in that context is virtually synonymous with ghastly war atrocity and plunder so obscene that it hastened the end of the Raj itself.

"If food is so scarce, why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”

"If food is so scarce, why hasn't Gandhi died yet?" countered Winston Churchill to the desperate pleas of India’s Viceroy as the catastrophic 1943-44 Bengal Famine unfolded. Killing over 3 million, the famine was induced by Churchill's diversion and stockpiling of Indian grains to wartime England and Europe.

The prime minister knew full well why the "nauseating... half-naked fakir" Gandhi hadn't died, because he'd had him locked up for two years.


Millions of others weren’t so lucky. The Bengal Famine was no accidental mismanagement, but an indefensible choice. Knowing that untold numbers were starving in Bengal, Churchill continued to insist that India export rice to Europe for the war effort, and even blocked efforts by the international community to send aid.

Leopold Avery, his secretary of state for India wrote of the disaster, "Winston may be right in saying that the starvation of anyhow under-fed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks, but he makes no sufficient allowance for the sense of Empire responsibility in this country."

In Churchill’s Secret War, which documents the famine, journalist Madhusree Mukerjee describes Bengal's agony:

    “Parents dumped their starving children into rivers and wells. Many took their lives by throwing themselves in front of trains. People were too weak even to cremate their loved ones.”

    “No one had the strength to perform rites… Dogs and jackals feasted on piles of dead bodies in Bengal’s villages… Mothers had turned into murderers, village belles into whores, fathers into traffickers of daughters,”

Churchill steeled himself to withstand the suffering of Indians by despising them at a distance: “I hate Indians,” he said. "They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” As for Bengalis, he said, "The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”

 Child victim of the Bengal famine.

Despite his contempt, Churchill wasn’t too proud to send for some 2.6 million Indian soldiers to defend the Empire, just as over a million had served in World War I. Almost 150,000 were killed in both conflicts. Forgotten by history, some 10,000 Indian lads lie beneath the poppies in Flanders Fields. More than Canadians.

British Indian Army soldiers in World War 2

The sight of well-fed British troops in India during the Bengal Famine was too much for Jawaharlal Nehru, the man destined to become the nation's first prime minister. The Bengal Famine, he said, was “the final judgment on British rule in India.”

Three years later, the English would be gone.
Indian Muslim was Queen Victoria's closest confidante

As for Queen Victoria, in whose honour the Bengal Room purportedly stands, she never set foot in the country, but instead brought it to England. While Winston Churchill was still in short pants, Victoria loved India as passionately as she defied the British racism and caste system he came to represent. Victoria spoke and wrote Hindi and Urdu. As the writer Shrabani Basu documents in her meticulously researched book, Victoria and Abdul, the queen was tutored daily by her private secretary and closest confidante, an Indian Muslim named Abdul Karim.

Victoria built him a cottage at Balmoral that you can rent today. She showered him with medals and honours, introduced curries and Indian customs to the court, and filled her residences with Indian and Muslim servants and soldiers. Indian and Middle-Eastern themed theatricals were regularly performed by members of the household staff, outfitted in full traditional garb.

 Victoria with her Indian honour guard left, and private secretary Abdul Karim, right.

Naturally, all this drove the court and royal family nuts. Seething with resentment, they figured the queen was off her rocker, manipulated by a scheming foreign low-life. For her part, Victoria wasn’t having any of it. She’d taken enough of their chin-wagging over her love for the working class Scottish servant John Brown, whose ring she wore to her grave. She wasn’t going to take it over Karim.

The household might have tolerated Abdul Karim's presence had he been a prince or maharajah rather than what he was: a low-born clerk from Agra.

In the end, Karim's class was his greatest offence against decency. Hours after Victoria's funeral, the new King Edward VII ordered his home raided and all her letters and photographs burnt in a bonfire. Karim was summarily dismissed, and he and his family were expelled from England for the remainder of their lives.

Yet in her private life Victoria exuded an egalitarian sensibility that's the antithesis of the disastrous Churchillian values embodied by the Bengal Lounge. If the former Empress of India were alive today, she would probably ask the good people of Victoria to let the place sail into the history books like the Raj itself.

On a summer’s evening, the Empress Hotel is a glorious place to watch the sun set.



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