Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800- 1859) was a British prodigy, politician and a leading administrator of India during the British Empire. As the blurb on the cover jacket claims, 'if you are an Indian reading this book in English, it is probably because of Thomas Macaulay'. A more compelling invitation to read a book from cover to cover is difficult to imagine.
By any standard, Macaulay has influenced all our lives profoundly. He was instrumental in introducing English as a medium of (western) education in India; in shaping the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and thus the Indian Administrative Service (IAS); and in drafting the Indian Penal Code (IPC). He accomplished all this by the time he was just 39 years old. He spent his last twenty years back in Britain as a leading politician, a cabinet minister and a world-class writer of history.
It is not as if Indian leaders did not try to switch to a national language of our own, or to reorient the IAS for administering an Independent India or to revamp our legal systems. In spite of political independence, India could not shake away English as a medium of education. The IAS is still considered the backbone of Indian bureaucracy, albeit much weakened over the years. The IPC still rules the roost in our courts. All this is a vindication of Macaulay's belief in deploying 'soft power' to influence the world in the service of Britain.
In that sense, Macaulay is the intellectual father of the paternalistic interventions by Western powers that is going on even today. And as an Indian of today, one may admire or hate Macaulay, but one cannot ignore him; we are all 'Macaulay's children'. What is the secret of his lasting Indian legacy? How did he break through the class-conscious British society? How did he do so much at such a young age?
This book has succeeded in giving us a reasonable and nuanced understanding of Macaulay. He comes across as a peculiar mixture of a loyalist of the Empire, keen modernizer, a believer in Anglo-Saxon superiority over the occident, an advocate of equality under law, a lifelong bachelor who simply could not let go of two of his sisters, and much more. That is the strength of this biography. While giving a very positive assessment overall of Macaulay's legacy, it nevertheless offers a peep into his motives, origins and wheeling-dealing to get his way through.
Macaulay was a childhood prodigy but his father was a strict disciplinarian, an evangelist Christian who was against slavery. Though Macaulay hated the disciplinarian in him, he perhaps inherited his patronizing attitude towards those of other races and lower classes. Macaulay seems to have had no love interest or sexual passions whatsoever. Not that he was shy of female company or did not have any opportunity. He was not handsome - being short and stout - but he grew up with five sisters, who could have helped him along if he was interested in such endeavours.
While at Cambridge, Macaulay moved away from being a radical towards the Whig party, whose members believed in gradual parliamentary reform. He sympathized with the underdogs in English society of his time - Catholics, Jews, Blacks and others. Starting as a Whig party backbencher, he quickly rose up the hierarchy primarily due to his stirring speeches in the House of Commons. Winning a position as a member in charge of Law in the Council of the Governor General of India, he came to India.
He emotionally blackmailed his unmarried young sister to accompany him to India. When she fell in love with a British officer serving in India, he fixed an attractive position for his to be brother-in-law in the British hierarchy in Calcutta, to stop the couple from going back to Britain.
He cleverly shepherded his agenda for westernizing Indian education, outlined in the famous 'Macaulay minutes'. He defeated the so-called orientalists back home in Britain, who advocated preserving the culture and educational practices of the Asiatic societies. He did a phenomenal job of drafting the Indian Penal Code and had the patience to see it through. He was emphatic about testing the depth of knowledge in any one of a broad range of fields before appointing civil servants, a practice we follow to this day. This is in contrast to the other entrance examinations emphasizing surface level acquaintance with a broad range of subjects, encouraging the quiz-wizards who have quick answers.
Macaulay was a man of several interesting contradictions. He was radical in his thinking but believed in achieving things through incremental parliamentary means. He was a racist but believed in giving a reasonable chance to everyone in the British Empire, but in a patronizing sense and confident of the superiority of Anglo-Saxon way of life and Western science. He took pains to learn several European languages but never learned any of the Asian ones. He was ignorant but readily dismissive of all contributions by Asians to knowledge and culture. He was contemptuous of Indian customs, music, religions and even fruits!
What is striking is this contrast between his extreme and strong views, likes and dislikes in personal life and the libertarian streak when it comes to actions and positions while contributing to public affairs. For example, though he considered Indians untrustworthy, he pushed for equality before law for Britishers as well as Indians. Though loyal to British royalty, he strongly argued for equal rights for Catholics. While being a great admirer of the working and middle class in modern industry, he was against voting rights to those without property. The 1857 Indian Sepoy Mutiny made him so vengeful for Indian blood, even though in other times he could not hurt even a bird.
What do we make of such contradictions? Do we brand him a hypocrite? Was he a life-long learner or simply inconsistent? Do we conclude that personal prejudices and public positions can be successfully ring-fenced from each other? Was he a loving brother, or merely an extremely selfish and possessive one?
I would any day prefer to read about such an interesting person, even one so full of contradictions, rather than about someone who was boringly consistent. For, it raises the uncomfortable personal question: do many of us simply avoid participation in public affairs because we fear exposing our personal prejudices? It raises an even more important question: Why are we shocked when we hear that a prominent person in public life suffers from a personal prejudice or vice?
All in all, an excellent read for anyone who wants to appreciate the making of modern India. The author Zareer Masani is himself a true 'son of Macaulay' - having studied in an elite English medium school of Bombay, an important legacy of Macaulay. His father Minoo Masani was a very active freedom fighter and a prolific contributor to post-independence politics as a conscience keeper, taking positions across the entire right-left spectrum. He had been a member of the Communist party at one end and then of the Swatantra party at the other extreme, and in between, like most freedom fighters in Indian national Congress too. No surprise, then, that this author of several earlier bestsellers and critically acclaimed tomes has managed to achieve such a nuanced biography of Macaulay.