Guilt and self-loathing in India

Each year, the British Council escorts scores of wide-eyed university students across developing countries, but there comes a time when each guest must confront the elephant in the room

Feature by Henry Scanlan | 09 Jan 2017
  • Travel illustration Elephant

The Elephant
At 6pm in mid July, an elephant lumbered down a quiet backstreet of Delhi. It was flanked on either side by dancers and fire-jugglers, and it bore a sash across its midriff. WELCOME BRITISH COUNCIL adorned it in bright pink letters. We, at whom this message was aimed, stood at the end of the street in our turbans and robes, sipping bottles of beer and awaiting the serenade that was to conclude our tour of the country on a British Council programme called 'Make In India'.

Rumours of a surprise had circulated all day – this was clearly it. The animal was so slow, however, that by the time it got close enough to kick up dust against our ankles its novelty impact had already been supplanted by gloomy reality. The crowning centre-piece of our Delhi welcome ceremony, after trudging 8 miles across town in 40-plus degree heat, had finally arrived to the party, and it didn't look to be in much of a mood.

Frankly, it looked pretty glum: its feet flattened by too many years in the city, kneaded out like rolls of dough; its sides scarred by villainous owners; its trunk hanging like dead weight; its testicles swollen and pendulous; its mouth gasping for air. Worst of all were the eyes: sad and cavernous, and with lids that sagged to reveal the innards of the skull. Someone should fix it a drink, I thought – something strong.

The Programme
Meanwhile we all continue sheepishly sipping our own drinks to stifle our grimaces. We're the 60 students chosen for a British Council 'cultural exchange' programme that's amounted to a crash course across northern India. We're the sponges, India is the moisture, and this so-called 'exchange' is really more of a one-way street. Activities have included Bollywood dancing on hotel rooftops, touching base at the Bombay Stock Exchange, dining at the Taj Lake Palace with Prince Mewar of Udaipur, and wandering through the Dharavi slums with packs of biscuits to hand out to impoverished children.

But throughout this all-consuming, all-singing, all-dancing odyssey, something mysterious has been curdling the skin, contaminating the food and spiking the punch, and right now it is unmistakable. The ailment they call 'colonial guilt' has been the elephant in the room for a fortnight, and now that there is actually an elephant present, greeting us outside our hotel and paying miserable tribute to our government, it has found corporeal form.

To the untrained eye, our trip is beginning to resemble a reenactment of a royal visit to the Raj. We've inspected factories and institutions, rubbed shoulders with royalty, taken pictures with the needy, and now we have our own honorary elephant. The dancers and fire-jugglers continue to dance and juggle while our semi-circle shuffles backwards from the animal. Some members of the group can be seen breaking into tears. The rest are extremely uncomfortable. Later, during one of our regular group conferences, the ceremony is deemed "too imperialist" by one commenter, to widespread agreement. The inclusion of the elephant is labeled "an error of judgment" on behalf of the Council. Everyone nods. The issue is laid to rest.

The Guilt
Colonial guilt is the Catholic guilt of an atheist, university-educated generation. It's like a newfangled update on original sin; the guilt is present from birth, despite the absence of any specific wrongdoing. Combined with the equally ubiquitous consumerist guilt, it helps form a well-intentioned but self-indulgent, patronistic, vague and frequently misguided worldview. The received opinion is that our debt is immeasurable, hereditary, and forever unpayable, but that we must try to pay it back regardless with foreign aid and apologist rhetoric.

But the truth is, India doesn't need our tears, or our sympathy, or even our money. Like most of East Asia, it's turning out to be superb at capitalism. Its economy is forecast to surpass the U.S by 2050. Tellingly, and despite the attitudes of its participants, 'Make In India' is no typical British Council program; it is helmed by a company called IndoGenius, whose aim is to promote India, and it is run by Nick Booker-Soni, a brilliant man who is convinced of the West's political, moral and economic decline, and who spends a lot of his time trying to persuade young British people to jump ship and start afresh in the new promised land.

Post-Brexit, Booker-Soni isn't the only one: "Get out while you still can!" goes the clarion call from political commentators and baby boomers at home. "Leave this stinking vessel!" The message of 'Make In India', too, is clear: India is the land of the future; Britain the land of the past. That was then; this is now.

The Self-Loathing
By its own definition, the purpose of any British Council programme since the organisation's creation in 1934 has been to engender cultural relations and promote Britain around the world. In 2016, the curious part in all of this is that few participants on this or any British Council 'cultural exchange' venture appear to exhibit any willingness to represent, er, Britain. Instead, they almost all seem to harvest a loathing for their home country, and an embarrassment about their own consumerist, post-colonial selves.

This is no doubt exacerbated by the contrast between India's boundless spiritual complexion and the decidedly materialist and comparably mundane personalities of most of the Westerners who find themselves wandering through it. David Foster Wallace once said this of being a new age traveler from the First World: "It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience." All 60 of the 'Make In India' participants seem painfully aware of this. In some ways, this is reassuring.

In others, it's excruciating. Only in this scenario could a crowd of young, affluent people gather in a lecture room and carry out a perverse Q&A with a man from the Dharavi slums, who is held in reverence at the front of the room and asked questions that can mostly be paraphrased to "what's it like to be poor?" The sincere self-effacement of one student's closing statement said it all: she stood, breathing heavily into the microphone, one hand on heart. "You are richer than us in so many ways," she assured the man from Dharavi, to ardent applause. The man graciously received the sentiment, but might've been tempted to ask what he could buy with it.

The Future
On the morning after our Delhi closing ceremony, an announcement is made at breakfast confirming that the elephant won't be returning next year. A number of complaints have been made in its name. There is a collective sigh of relief in response to this announcement, which brings with it the news that the people have made a difference: a forlorn elephant will be saved another 8-mile trudge across the city next year. Of course, this won't actually do anything to protect the elephant from a similarly painful experience elsewhere, but it does at least mean that it won't be able to upset a group of UK students ever again.

There may come a time in the not-too-distant future when Britain's discernible use to the rest of the world has whittled away, and India has completed its graduation into a First World powerhouse. When that time comes, India, a nation awash with manufacturing prowess and technological genius, will be able to arrange for its own bright young students to visit Britain and gawp awkwardly at its struggling people. It won't be all bad for the Brits, though; at least they won't have to feel guilty anymore.