Book Review – An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India by Shashi Tharoor

It has been over a month since I started reading An Era of Darkness. I fell ill for about two weeks and did not read it during that time. But still, two weeks is quite a long time to read a book that is 360 pages long. And do not mistake the book as just being a lesson in history – it is so much more.

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In An Era of Darkness’s preface, Shashi Tharoor tells us how his Oxford Union speech on the proposition ‘Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies’ had him embark on the venture of making a book out of it. But this book differs from the speech and Shashi Tharoor illustrates this in his writing. While the speech strikes a note with everyone who has seen it, An Era of Darkness is not for everyone.

I was convinced about the wrongs inflicted on colonial subjects by the British empire, but I suggested at the end of my speech that India should be content with a symbolic reparation of one pound a year, payable for 200 years to atone for 200 years of imperial rule. I felt that atonement was the point—a simple ‘sorry’ would do as well—rather than cash. Indeed, the attempt by one Indian commentator, Minhaz Merchant, to compute what a fair sum of reparations would amount to, came up with a figure so astronomical—$3 trillion in today’s money—that no one could ever reasonably be expected to pay it.

Interesting, isn’t it? An Era of Darkness is interspersed with data – numbers, books and authors. At the end of the book, there are Notes & References, and Bibliography. If you want an idea of the research and hard work that went into this book, look it up before you pick up An Era of Darkness.

While it is just a book, that doesn’t make the horrors of colonisation any less. I sat at home, comfortable and safe, and read this book. It wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of sacrifice from our ancestors. But, An Era of Darkness is, in a way, a book of books. There are so many references to various other books that have contributed to the topic at hand.

India had enjoyed a 25 per cent share of the global trade in textiles in the early eighteenth century. But this was destroyed; the Company’s own stalwart administrator Lord William Bentinck wrote that ‘the bones of the cotton weavers were bleaching the plains of India’.

There are people who think that the British rule of India perhaps had good things – like an education system and the railways, which were never possible with the native rule. Tharoor’s arguments against these are precise and well elucidated. In fact, almost all of the book is a riveting read as far as deconstructing what happened and its consequences go.

Sometimes reviewing a book is difficult. And, when it is a book like An Era of Darkness, much more so. Being an Anglophile is still fashionable in our country and An Era of Darkness would be a topic of much debate. An Era of Darkness fulfils that purpose in itself as it reads much like a debate and less like a historical account.

An Era of Darkness, I think, serves a purpose of educating the public (both national and international) about the travesties that colonisation brought about.  And it is still very much relevant in today’s world. But it is a sad truth that only a fraction of the population have a reading habit and an even less number would choose a book like Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness.

“By the early 1800s, India had been reduced from a land of artisans, traders, warriors and merchants, functioning in thriving and complex commercial networks, into an agrarian society of peasants and moneylenders”.

I would definitely recommend Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness. It may not everyone’s cup of tea, but it has been a great read, and an educating one.

PS – Shashi Tharoor is someone I really look up to. I do not care for his politics or anything else. But as a reader, and as someone who loves to read, he is an idol. Tharoor began writing at the age of the 6 and all… but even more impressive is this…

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An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in IndiaAn Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India by Shashi Tharoor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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