A Brown Sahib according to Wikipedia is a term used to refer to natives of South Asia who imitate Western—typically English—lifestyle. It is also used to refer to those have been heavily influenced by Western—usually British—culture and thinking.
When the British came to India they were the rulers of the land and despite making several institutional changes, were unable to make a dent into the social structure. And so, they did what served them well: devious and insidious infiltration into the psyche of the colonized mind. They chipped away at local self-esteem demeaning the authenticity of anything native while simultaneously making “white life” and everything that went with it, enviable. They literally placed themselves at the pinnacle of the caste system, converting every educated Indian into a colonial slave, who longed to be white but was trapped in brown skin, unable to decide between loyalty to the crown and love of land. They imitated western ways and did whatever it took to blend in and be “as British as a Britisher,” but in the eyes of the white man they were always just “darkies”.
And so you have it: the legacy of the Brown sahib…
In “A Rose from a Dream,” Mahadevan fits in perfectly into the role of the classic Brown Sahib. I have also introduced hints of this mental tug-of-war in certain vignettes with Inspector Swaminathan who worked for the British police and faced this dilemma on a daily basis.
The following excerpt occurs after independence when Mahadevan truly examines the inner workings of his psychological conditioning and comes face to face with his own racist beliefs.
Mahadevan placed the medal back in the blue velvet container and sat down at his desk. He wasn’t really sure how he felt, but he realized he was troubled. For more than forty years he had worked as a civil servant loyal to the crown, and his allegiance to the British astonished him. The advent of independence resulted in an upsurge of many conflicting emotions within him, and it was unpleasant and disconcerting because he was customarily clear thinking, and was usually not swayed by his emotions. He wasn’t quite sure if he felt any national pride with the British leaving India. As soon as that thought popped into his mind, he felt guilt and shame, for every citizen in this land longed to be free from the British. Why was he feeling this sense of doom on their departure? For so many years, by adapting to British ways, something within him remained comfortable and content. He loved his Johnny Walker Red label and Yardley talcum powder and hated bidding farewell to them in addition to the other host of British goods the family had used and enjoyed for so many years now. How foolish to give so much importance to trivia! After all, whiskey and talcum powder didn’t compensate for deliberate depletion of the country’s national resources. Even so, he could not shake off the melancholia that had attacked him like a slow and painful virus.
Slowly but deliberately, he had become a colonial slave. Somewhere deep within him was an acceptance of his inferior status and an admiration for the white skinned. This didn’t happen overnight. Over time they had chipped away at his confidence and placed themselves at the pinnacle of the caste system. The pride he took at being Brahmin paled in significance to being English. Speaking the language, hobnobbing with British officers, being included in the inner circle, had over time become paramount for his self-esteem. Every time he was insulted or humiliated by his British superiors, he silenced that little voice within him, muffling the protest. He could think of a dozen times he stood on the brink of throwing it all away and joining the fight for freedom, but the cowardice within him triumphed each time, never allowing him to act on his bold impulses. Yes, I am a second-class citizen in my own country. He could never allow that thought to manifest and take root within him because pandering to the British, and a deep need for acceptance by them, took precedence. Intellectually he knew he was wrong, but this was an intuitive choice he made without his own volition, and now here he was, wondering if the new India cabinet of ministers was good enough for him. He had turned into an intellectual snob! That was appalling! He cringed inwardly at this consideration.
For the first time in his life he reflected on the values that laid the foundation for his work ethic and wondered how he would adapt to the new way. Change was imminent, and he was the quasi-white-skinned-Britisher looking down on natives.
What were his choices? He could either remain utterly miserable working for those he believed were a cut below his caliber or he could adapt. Somehow the second choice was the prudent one. After all, transforming into a British bumsucker was his way of surviving within the system, and it had worked well for him. He just needed to change his mindset. Work was work. What difference did it make whom he reported to? He would silence the superiority dialogue in his head and move on. It was time for a reality check. The British had left. It had been good for him while it lasted, and now, he needed to ensure his mind was steady. No more audience to those ugly voices that longed for the past and were scared for the future. Just like Appanshayal always told him, he would bring it all back to the present. Now, now, now! That was all he had. And it wasn’t so bad. A great job, an accomplished wife, and three healthy children. Life was good. The mental shackles of colonial slavery needed to be released. Mahadevan sat at his desk and wrote three liberating words.
I am free.
An Excerpt from A Rose from a Dream