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Dinner with BS: Zareer Masani, author

Macaulay's biographer rues the decline of English teaching in India

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

The biographer of the famous Raj public servant who shaped India's destiny with his Minute on Education rues the decline of English teaching in India

Asking guests to choose restaurants for this column is an exercise often fraught with dread for me. Most are so busy they rarely think beyond the nearest coffee shop. Luckily, Zareer Masani selected Dum Pukht, peerless purveyor of slow-cooked north Indian cuisine at ITC Maurya, and we’re here for dinner, the only meal for which it is open, writes Kanika Datta.

Masani is an interesting guest for reasons beyond the recent authorship of a splendid and long-overdue biography of Thomas Babington Macaulay, the law member of Governor General William Bentinck’s council, who played a seminal – if sometimes reluctantly acknowledged – role in modern Indian nation-building. A year before, Masani had written And All is Said: Memoir of a Home Divided, a startlingly honest autobiography of his parents’ tempestuous marriage.

Masani wrote the book as a sort of cathartic exercise but it is invaluable because it also provides a rare, first-hand view of a sparsely covered era in Indian politics, the rise of the Swatantra Party.

Co-founded by C Rajagopalachari, the Swatantra Party, based on liberal free-market principles light years ahead of its time in India, enjoyed a brief heyday in the sixties. Minoo Masani, an austere Parsi lawyer and one-time Nehru confidant, was a prominent founder-member. Married to the vivacious Shakuntala, daughter of a one-time vice-regal councillor during the Raj, the world views could not have been more polar. The strained relations that resulted spilled over into the public arena when Shakuntala and her son made headlines in 1970-71 when they joined the Congress.

“It was a very illusory moment in Indian politics,” Masani recalls wryly. When he wrote a sharply critical book about Indira Gandhi in 1975, he became as non grata with the regime as he had been grata before.

The younger Masani, now eight years into retirement, is a comfortable guest and so low-key that it is hard to remember that his family life was the subject of gossip in what went for the Page 3 circuit then. We choose Dum Pukht’s famed Habibia lamb chops for starters to which our server suggests we add large prawns (Jhinga Dum Nisha) and parantha. For the main course, it has to be Dum Pukht’s trademark biryani with Maash Qaliya; all this washed down with a Kingfisher Ultra Light beer for him and Norton Malbec for me, an Argentinean red that is slightly heavy but gels well with the food.

Undaunted by the hefty repast to come, we nibble spicy papad dipped in a pumpkin sauce as I switch on the tape for the “official” conversation to begin. Masani is very much one of Macaulay’s children, having worked in BBC’s Radio 4 for many years (he retired in 2004), speaking the clear, unaccented English seldom heard today, the trademark of a generation of Indians educated in good Indian schools (mostly Cathedral in his case) and a British university (Oxford).

Why Macaulay, I ask. It was a suggestion from his friend and colleague Mark Tully, the former BBC India correspondent. “Mark suggested it because he said there’s quite a lot of controversy about him — some people think he’s colonised Indian minds, and then you have the Dalits.” They have created a cult of Macaulay because they understand the value of an English-language education in their social progress.

When he got down to researching the subject, he discovered that the only account of the man – whose 1835 Minute on Education had a seminal influence on the destiny of modern India and who was famous in Britain in his day – was a lone hagiography by Macaulay’s sister’s son, Charles Trevelyan.

“Trevelyan had also censored a lot of Macaulay’s letters to cover up things that were a bit inconvenient — like his relationship with his sisters,” he adds. I comment that the passionate tenor of his letters to his sisters and the fact that he arranged things so that Hannah, Trevelyan’s mother, and her husband lived with him after she married, bordered on the incestuous. “There was something there,” he agrees, “the relationship may have been platonic but he was definitely in love with his sisters.”

Was that because he did not have much of a personal life — no romances or even marriage? “That was the thing about him that I found slightly disappointing,” he smiles, “No sex or violence, his life was all to do with politics, which made it a little dry.”

Macaulay, however, proved a prolific writer, and virtually all of his writings were published by the Cambridge University Press (Macaulay went to Trinity) in several volumes edited by two American academics. That saved Masani the drudgery of going through dusty archives. Besides, “Macaulay wrote beautifully, so it was pleasure to read him, not hard work”.

The Minute is the best-known aspect of Macaulay’s legacy, but as Masani’s book shows, he was, in his day, as popular as Charles Dickens in Britain because he “constructed the notion of British national identity, that they were destined to be the bastion of liberal democracy and the global superpower”.

The point, Masani explains, is that “Macaulay may no longer have been relevant once the Empire crumbled, but a lot of his thought still underpins western thinking about the world”. The ultimate neocon, I murmur, as the starters arrive, so succulent and huge that there are silences on the tape as we eat appreciatively.

Masani’s book also highlighted a key role he played in drafting the Indian Penal Code (which, incidentally, recognised legal redress for rape long before it did in Britain). That work was quite remarkable, I say, given the contempt he had for all things Indian.

“Macaulay had contempt for all things that were not British — he was equally contemptuous of the French and the Germans. It wasn’t based on colour but on his view that Britain was the greatest civilisation and everyone else had to learn from it,” Masani replies.

But Macaulay did foresee that this sort of model of English-based education would become the basis of a global system, he adds. And he wasn’t wrong, I say. Masani nods. “Most Germans speak English today, even the French make an effort and in Scandinavia, it is soon going to become the language of higher education.”

“The Chinese are making a big effort,” he continues. “In fact, Indians score higher than the Chinese in the league tables in understanding English but the Chinese score higher at reading and writing it — because it’s being much more professionally taught. In India the quality of English teaching is terrible.”

I warm to this comment, a pet peeve, and say it is strange that, given the centrality of English in India’s modernisation, the quality of teaching has deteriorated so dramatically. He agrees. “I found that my servants send their child to an English-medium private school but the quality of English taught is terrible; they just learn it parrot fashion and you wonder how they’re going to other acquire other subjects if they’re learning them in a language they don’t understand. But that’s the aspiration, and the child will come out with an English-medium label.”

He also sat in on an English literature class at a convent school in Mumbai for a Radio 4 documentary on English teaching in India. “All it consisted of was one student after another reading from some Mills and Boon-type romance written by an Indian — you know, Sujata romances with someone or the other. Basically, it was just a romantic story set in Bombay, not a work of literature, and why they should be reading from this, I don’t know. Maybe the teacher was enjoying it!”

The biryani is served and smells so divine that the heaviness of the starters is forgotten. As we dig in, I ask whether his open admission to being gay in And All is Said was an issue for him in India.

“No”, he replies matter-of-factly, “but then, I’ve reached the stage in life when I don’t really care what people say or think.” He adds ruminatively, “Of course, I don’t go around talking about it or make public statements. I am aware that many younger people in India today are openly gay, so I don’t think it is a huge issue now as it may have been 50 years ago.”

For dessert, Masani opts for Shahi Thukran, an offer I refuse, wondering how his spare frame absorbed all those calories. We’re discussing his next project, another book but not on an Indian theme although there is a family connection. His father’s sister Mehra had had a long romance with a German national called Michael Vermeeren. Michael came from a prominent German family that almost entirely perished in Hitler’s concentration camps because one of them defected to the British, and Masani is collaborating with a German historian on their story.

“It’s all quite dramatic,” Masani says, almost apologetically, “But it’s also a way of looking at how upper middle class Germans dealt with the Nazi era and how much they collaborated or not.” A 7,000-word synopsis had been sent to various publishers but, he says wryly, “It’s tough to find a publisher — either you have to be a brand name or a celebrity, especially in the West.” By resurrecting Macaulay, he can be considered close to one in India, at least.

First Published: Tue, January 01 2013. 00:30 IST