There is a scene quite early in The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson that I vividly remember reading. It was 2015 and I was finishing my graduate degree at North Carolina State University. In the scene, the titular Baru has just been accepted to the new colonial school on her island:
They know so much, Baru thought. I must learn it all. I must name every star and sin, find the secrets of treaty-writing and world-changing. Then I can go home and I will know how to make Solit [one of her fathers] happy again.
I felt so seen. I was always a curious child: I participated in quiz contests, math Olympiads, and one summer I hand-copied three encyclopedias cover to cover for fun. Like Baru, I had to learn it all.
Finally, a protagonist experiencing what I really experienced as a post-colonial immigrant student. Hungry for knowledge, for knowledge offered to me because of my talents by the “civilized West.” Knowledge that I might use to make my parents back home happy. I owe a debt of gratitude to Dickinson for giving me this moment.
Years later, after having read more deeply about British colonial education in mid-19th century India, I reread the scene and a different moment stood out to me, horrific in its plain speak:
“Lands around the Ashen Sea,” Farrier said, smiling conspiratorially at Baru. “New sorts of arithmetic and algebra. Astronomy—we have an excellent telescope, built by the Stakhieczi in the distant north. Science and the disciplines within it, Various catalogues”—his smile held—“of sin and social failure. The Imperial Republic is determined to help those we meet.”
“No,” father Solit said, taking her shoulder. “Your help is a fishhook.”
The life of Baru is all too familiar to Indians. Even for those like me, growing up in a country half a century past when the last British ship sailed away.
Baru, a precocious islander girl is mentored by a Masquerade agent, Cairdine Farrier, who has come to subdue her homeland. Her eyes are opened by the vast technocratic Empire of Masks to the wider world outside her tiny island through a state-sponsored education. The school teaches her to treat her island’s traditions as primitive compared to the enlightened imperial scholarship. The internal struggle between absorbing all knowledge the colonizer has to offer while giving as little of yourself to him as possible, willingly or not.
The actions of the characters in this series are a light shining on real history, illuminating the actions of historical figures whose influence still lingers over an education system that had an enrollment of 230 million students in 2013. There is a dotted line between the depiction of colonial education in the Masquerade series, British education policies in 19th century India, and my schooling in a British Raj-era founded school.1
It was only after finishing the third book in the series, The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, that I could recontextualize my education experience in a way that finally dislodged centuries-old cultural conditioning for me.
In The Ruler’s Gaze by Aravind Sharma, a study of the British rule over India from a Saidian perspective, Sharma writes of the British view on the social development of nations in the mid-19th century:
According to [John Stuart] Mill, “The state of different communities in point of culture and development, ranges downwards to a condition very little above the highest beasts.”
[Such] Change elsewhere [outside Anglo-Saxon Europe] could only be induced; there was no internal dynamic to support it, but it needed a ‘government of leading strings.’
History was Geography. But history could be made in the sense that the people can be trained by advanced nations to similarly advance, and once the Indians had been sufficiently trained, ‘their claim to freedom would be irresistible.’
These views would not be out of place in the mouth of Cairdine Farrier and the Imperial teachers imported to teach native children. Baru describes the education that the Masquerade provides:
She went into the school, with her own uniform and her own bed in the crowded dormitory, and there in her first class on Scientific Society and Incrasticm she learned the words sodomite and tribadist and social crime and sanitary inheritance, and even the mantra of rule: order is preferable to disorder. There were rhymes and syllogisms to learn, the Qualms of revolutionary philosophy, readings from a child’s version of the Falcresti Handbook of Manumission.
Incrasticism, under the heavy veil of rational thought, is the Masquerade’s religion and the Handbook is its Bible. Through the mediums of their schools and courts, the Masquerade remade the social fabric of Baru’s island. Through the forceful application of Incrastic lessons and law, the more progressive social practices of Baru’s island were primitivized and rendered illegal.
Primitivization of a colonized culture was a tactic perfected by the British statesmen-academics of the 1840s.2 Sharma writes, “If a clear case could not be made for exalting yourself as civilized and the other as primitive, the other must be primitivized—repeatedly and vociferously.”
Then, once the native practices have been broken down as primitive, the colonizer creates whole-cloth a new morality for their subjects based on their own philosophy, often with a heavy religious undertone. The Masquerade’s technique of stigmatizing native heritage is paralleled in the use of Christianity by the British in India as a covert vehicle for ‘civilizing’ their subjects. While the criminalization of ‘sodomy’ is something the British implemented in 19th century India as well, they focused on other labels to forcefully primitivize their subjects: the words idolator and heathen.
Sharma quotes Thomas Babington Macaulay, a Farrier-like British historian-statesman who worked extensively on the British education project in India in the early 1800s and upon returning to Britain served as a Secretary at War. Macaulay was something of a savant as well—having written an essay on converting ‘heathens’ to Christianity at the age of eight. During the parliamentary discussion for the English Education Act of 1835, Macaulay circulated a famous memorandum called A Minute Upon Indian Education, in which he said:
No Hindoo who receives an English education ever continues to be sincerely attached to his religion… It is my firm belief that, if our plans of education are followed up, there will not be a single idolater among the respectable classes thirty years hence. And this will be effected without any effort to proselytize, without the smallest interference with religious liberty, merely by the natural operation of knowledge and reflection. I heartily rejoice at the prospect.
How can I explain what learning of this grand design makes me feel?
I was never the most excited about Hindu festivals or eager to go to temples with my family. I’ve called myself an atheist ever since my mother explained to me karma would not take care of my kindergarten bully. Intentionally disconnecting myself from Hindu traditions made me feel enlightened and self-aware. Like I was making a modern-eyed choice to rebel from my traditions.
Like Baru, I found myself confronting the fact that I may just be acting out Macaulay’s will from beyond his grave. An agent in his grand design fooled by choice. How many of my choices were constrained by the circumstances of my education, the foundations of which were laid so long ago?
Colonialism always leaves in its wake a chaotic admixture that never neatly purifies into layers of sin and virtue. The Masquerade series, the story that helped me decolonize my mind, is written by a white American author. The Indian Railways, pride of a new nation in motion, was built to loot her natural wealth. Hindu nationalists, descended from the group that assassinated Gandhi, have twisted the dynamic Hindu religion into a conservative, racist system of control over minorities, not unlike what the British had tried to do with Christianity to the Hindus in the 19th century.
Institutions born in colonial times made inescapable sacrifices and concessions that will always tar their reputation. Baru too, learns this lesson well. As she embarks on her journey to tear down the colonial apparatus of the Masquerade, she will commit atrocities that will always haunt her.
Modern School, the first private coed school in New Delhi, was built to teach “a blend of traditional Indian values and English education” during the British Raj in 1920, around the time when compulsory mass education laws were being placed in statute books across the states of British India. Alongside public schools built and run by the British and foreign mission-based schools that received grants from the government, The Modern School was a new type of private school, funded by the landed gentry who created it and sustained by tuition from its aristocratic pupils.
The founder, Lala Raghubir Singh, was an Indian aristocrat whose father was an Imperial Accountant (not unlike Baru herself!). He built the school with the help of builder Sir Sobha Singh, a man known as “the owner of half of Delhi” due to his extensive holdings, and a noted British sympathizer.
At Modern School, I received the same excellent education that my father and his siblings received before me. Modern School counts among its graduates Indian Prime Ministers, influential businessmen, and Olympic sports stars. When I was young, my father taught me how it was natural to feel pride at others’ achievements, only because we had worn the same blue uniform. The golden class-conscious shine reflected from their glory was always ours to bask in.
Modern School was a favored center of education for both British and Indian aristocracy. Going to a school so great it was deemed fit to teach British children manifested an easy aristocratic arrogance among aspirational middle-class students like me. Growing up in a country that no longer recognized the titles of princelings, we settled on miming aristocratic behavior in the patter of our foreign vacation accents and fixation with being an elite studying at an elite school.
Despite its parallel Indian nationalist leanings (nothing built under a colonial gaze remains pure) Modern School provided an education that worked to justify the colonizer’s intellectual superiority, its own existence, in turn, justified by the colonizer’s approval. An ouroboros catering to the white gaze.
Aphalone is the language of the Masquerade, and they don’t waste any time ensuring it becomes the de facto language for trade, education, and exchange across the seas of their colonial enterprise:
Mother had a new book in her collection, bound in foreign leather. From the first page—printed in strange regular blocks, impersonal and crisp—she sounded out the title: A Primer in Aphalone, the Imperial Trade Tongue; Made Available to the People of Taranoke for their Ease.
Later, when at eighteen Baru takes the oath of citizenship and departs on her Imperial assignment:
They aren’t coming, Baru thought, her throat dry. They’re too angry with me. I wrote—maybe I wrote the letter in Aphalone, and didn’t notice, and they couldn’t read it—”
“Mother,” Baru said, her heart breaking within her (how formal the old Urunoki sounded now, when set next to fluid simple Aphalone) …
Later in The Traitor, when talking to someone from another land that is in the process of being colonized by the Masquerade:
“There will come a time,” Ake said softly, “when this city will not remember a time before the Masquerade. They will be in our language, and our homes, and our blood.”
Baru’s ears rang with a strange memory: the sound of Aphalone spoken at the Iriad market, like a new verse in an old song.
It’s not what the Masquerade does to you that you should fear, she wanted to tell Ake. It’s what the Masquerade convinces you to do to yourself.”
Picture me in my dusty classroom in Modern School, Barakhamba Road in New Delhi, enclosed by red brick walls constructed in the late afternoon of British India.
I was one of the seventeen percent of Indian school students who studied in an English-medium school, which meant that every subject barring Hindi was taught in English. From elementary to middle school, I got straight As in everything except Hindi and Sanskrit, where I’d always get a B.
Back then, my mastery over the English language was a running joke, a point of pride even. The signs of my becoming a writer were visible even then. I was convinced that my English proficiency and my clipped, precise, urbane accent were markers of sophistication. I needn’t worry about doing well in Hindi. Where would I use it? Everything that I cared about: History, Science, and Mathematics, were taught in English. Hindi sounded needlessly formal, rustic, uncivilized compared to “fluid simple” English. And Sanskrit? Who had use for that dead language besides saffron-robed holy men?
Now my memories grow an edge limned with shame. I realize my disdain towards Hindi and Sanskrit mirrored Macaulay’s views on Sanskrit, which he deemed “a language barren of useful knowledge.” He proclaimed in his Minute:
It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit (sic) language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England…
“Macaulay’s children” is the pejorative used for Indians like me: someone who read more Tolkein than Tagore, prefers Pink Floyd to Pankaj Udhas. Someone like Baru, who has so thoroughly learned the colonizer’s tongue that she forgot which language she wrote her mother in. Someone who likes to learn their language, learns to like what knowing that language unlocks.
Shame washes over a colonized culture in layers: first the shame Indian students were made to feel towards their vernacular in the 19th century, then the shame for their poor English. Finally, the shame we force upon ourselves after becoming too Anglicized. Like with the worst of all colonial exercises: it’s not what it does to you that you should fear, but what it convinces you to do to yourself.
Only after reading about Baru’s school, did I begin to decolonize my mind of what I had been taught, where I had been taught it, and the history behind it. Dickinson’s Masquerade series expertly tackles so many aspects of the British colonial project—from the mandated English education, the Indian elites collaborating with the British aristocracy, the forced primitivization of Indian culture, and all the dividing-and-conquering historian-politician-adventurers like Macaulay inflicted upon India.
Watching Baru decolonize herself was especially moving. In The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, she finally begins to break free of the mental hold Farrier has placed on her. It is an exceptionally painful process.
First, she relives decades later a memory of her first encounter with Cairdine Farrier’s influence as a child, finally seeing it for what it was. Baru here is remembering Shir, who was Farrier’s protégé before Baru:
Little lark, I know what it means to see strange sails in the harbor. My name’s Shir and I’m from Aurdwynn. When I was a child, the Masquerade harbored in Treatymont, our great city. They fought with the Duke Lachta, and I was scared, too. But it all ended well, and my aunt even got to kill the awful duke. Here – take a coin. Go buy a mango and bring it back to me, and I’ll cut you a piece.
Here’s a coin
Go buy a mango.
I’ll cut you a piece.
She had given the child a Masquerade coin, so that the child could buy her own island’s fruit, to be cut and apportioned to the child by a Masquerade agent.
Then, as the pieces of the decades-long emotional abuse finally begin to break, Baru is confronted with the truth of whose stories she had been taught to believe:
“Fine, yes, but turn flank on that idea, Baru. Who told you all your work had been prelude to war? Who insisted on that framing? Who have you recently realized is a master at manipulating you by forcing his stories into your life?”
“Farrier…” Baru breathed.
She must decolonize her mind of his presence, of the need for his approval—a feeling that made me recognize what I had fallen prey to. The need to please the white gaze, of being ashamed of my own culture, to the point of not learning, or learning badly my mother tongues.
This is how Baru was captured in spirit: her curiosity was weaponized against her. Farrier encouraged her relentless drive for learning and made her his political tool. She was taught in the Masquerade tradition, their stories, their histories, their philosophies, his methods, and his aims. Spun up like a dynamo, she was sent to subdue a colonized land as an extension of himself. An agent of his will.
This was what Macaulay envisioned to be the outcome of his education project as well. In a minute to the English Parliament, he said:
We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.
To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.
Here’s a coin.
Go buy a mango3.
Every year on Diwali, we’d bring out small pink booklets of Jain hymns my grandmother had collected as our family’s essential songbook of devotion. They’d be passed around as we sit on the floor, on vibrant bedsheets, in front of a motley of idols from Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. I avoided learning any of the hymns, not least because they were written in Sanskrit.
This year, as I celebrated Diwali in lockdown with my American wife, we made our own Diwali setup, complete with idols that traveled with me to the US seven years prior. My mother had transliterated the syllables of the hymns to English so my wife could sing along. I forced myself to read the songs in the original Devanagari script, a skill rusty from disuse, and not look over her shoulder at the fluid simple English letters.
I find it frustrating, trying to reconcile my conflicted feelings about my education and the context in which it was envisioned by first Macaulay and then the founders of Modern School.
Is not what I’m doing here an act of interpretation in the style Macaulay envisioned? In the same breath I cast him out as a racist imperialist and actively declare a need to expunge his presence from my mind, am I not still abiding by the original design of the British plan?
By speaking their language better than them, conducting my science in their language, and constructing these arguments in this language better than I ever could in Hindi, is there any hope for me to turn flank and rebel?
My brain is hardwired to construct stories in English.
It does not mean I need to construct their stories.
I love English; the language and its literature. I am grateful for my robust education that has allowed me to prosper. I am ashamed at my poor Hindi language skills, at my initial disdain and now mournful ignorance of Indian literature and my family’s religion. All complicated further by the origins of my colonial-sympathetic but desperately nationalistic, secular but aristocratic, arrogant but inspiring school.
Shame is unhelpful. Learning is helpful. What I do with the education and the voice it gave me matters. This is part of what I find ironic about the genesis of this essay. Dickinson, while not writing from a colonized perspective, still told this powerful story from an accurate anti-colonial perspective, managing to get the conflicted feelings of a post-colonial youth so right. I imagine it took a lot of learning, curiosity, and humility.
The purpose of an education is to unlock potential. The only tool a child needs—whether it’s a girl counting the sails of colonial ships on the horizon, or a boy memorizing facts about dinosaurs over a summer—is curiosity.
An education as envisioned by imperialists like Macaulay or Farrier only seeks to direct the pupil’s curiosity in their chosen direction. Often, away from the pupil’s own culture. The best antidote I’ve found to counteract this, is to return with a childlike curiosity to the literature, arts, and music that have been ignored—that I have ignored—for so long.
1 Although the most proximate historical basis for the series is British adventurism during the South Sea Bubble of 1720, the parallels between the depiction of colonization are just as relevant to the Indian context.
2 There is an earlier period of British interest in Indian culture that is more curious and respectful, as exemplified by Sir William Jones, an Indophile and founder of the Royal Asiatic Society. Falcresti arrogance and imperialism is closer to British attitudes from the Macaulay era and onwards.
3 Although Baru herself was sent impose Falcresti will on a different country, there is textual presence of colonized agents like Aminata and Muire Lo, who grew up in Imperial institutions and learned to behave like Macaulay’s Indians of British spirit, supporting Falcresti rule over their own people.
© 2021 Sid Jain