The pupils of Miss Higgins’ School in Calcutta had lined up neatly for the photograph, the girls’ shoulders draped by braids, the boys’ knees peeping below shorts. Their tropical uniforms blazed brightly in the black-and-white photograph. Many of the children, including my mother and my uncle, were Bengali. Some were European, and at least one was half-Bengali, like me. “Her uncle was W. H. Auden,” my grandmother said, pointing to a girl named Anita.
If I didn’t know who the poet W. H. Auden was when I first saw these pictures from my mother’s 1950s schooldays, I knew nothing whatsoever about his brother John Bicknell Auden, Anita’s father, until reading The Last Englishmen by Deborah Baker. Auden is one of the leading characters in this group biography of young British men who set out for India in the 1920s to work as imperial administrators. They went expecting to do their bit maintaining the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire, as generations had done before them. Instead, they found themselves witnessing the demise of the British Raj, when a long nationalist struggle culminated in 1947 with the partition of British India and the independence of India and Pakistan.
Fighting for independence from oppressive imperial rule can look in retrospect like one of those black-and-white choices—resisting fascism is another—where it seems obvious what stand anyone with principle would take. What the deeply researched, marvelously portrayed life stories recounted in The Last Englishmen show is just how muddled these world-historical changes actually look when you’re living in the middle of them. That makes the book a valuable supplement to the more conventional accounts of decolonization as a process driven by clear-eyed activists and historical logic. If anything, histories like Baker’s may be precisely what are needed in the present heated moment, as reminders of the many ways in which people find their way through political transformation.
John Auden was fresh out of Cambridge when he traveled
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