Doolally sahib and the black zamindar: Racism and revenge in British India

TCA Srinivasa Raghavan | Updated on: Feb 23, 2022

MJ Akbar’s latest book is another nail in the coffin of formal colonialism

This book can be read at three levels. One, for the simple pleasure of reading MJ Akbar who writes like Mark Knopfler playing the guitar; two, to understand how horrible the English were to Indians when they ruled India; and three, to appreciate the stopping of the applause which the British encouraged for their ways here.

In short, this book is another nail in the coffin of formal colonialism which, even after ending, managed to remain in control of the colonised minds. The way the British told it, and made our own historians tell it, you’d think they had behaved most civilly to us.

So, should you read the book? Absolutely. It’s a bit expensive but well worth it.

Akbar writes without anger or spite or rancour about the racism of the British. The style is wonderfully patronising of the type - like say,  The Economist magazine - that likes to preach values to the rest of the world, especially Indians. The writing is deft and filled with engrossing anecdotes of the colonisers and the colonised.

The title is intriguing: Doolally Sahib. Doolally means to be slightly mentally unbalanced. It comes from Deolali, the military town about 150 kilometres from Mumbai, which was the last staging point for the Englishmen going back home to England, for good or on leave. Many of them were deranged. Hence the term “going or gone Doolally.”

But Akbar makes the reader wait till chapter 5 on page 117 to explain this. He also cites a ditty that Indian women and their parents would sing, bereft that they were being abandoned after being enjoyed by the white rascals. It goes:

“Oh, Doolally sahib, fifteen years you have had my daughter,

And now you go to Blighty, Sahib;

May the boat that takes you over sink to the bottom of the Pani, Sahib.”

The book abounds in stories of how the English interacted with the Indians. The racial divide, says Akbar, was for the daytime; at night, all cats were grey. The nautch girls, for example, were in great demand after sundown.

But just how utterly racist the English were becomes cruelly apparent when Akbar tells us how they simply abandoned those who they regarded as having been born of ‘miscegenation’. These were people born of one white and one non-white parent. They are also called half-castes.

Akbar tells us how Queen Victoria, who for long had an Indian ‘assistant’, described the English civil servants in India. “Snobbish. Vulgar. Overbearing. Offensive.”

Accepting bribes was acceptable till the Crown took over the governance of India. But even then, many of the officers were quite the gentlemen they needed to be. In the end it was the old Spartan rule: steal but don’t get caught.

The British thought it was perfectly alright to beat Indians on the slightest pretext. Indians were after all an ‘inferior race’. The beatings could be harsh but were deemed completely justified. 

And the English ladies, they were oblivious to the natives. Most avoided Indians completely. And they never settled down, always wanting to go ‘home’.

To conclude, I have just one little complaint: the book relies almost entirely on European and British sources. One can’t help wondering what the Indians thought of it all.

(TCA Srinivasa Raghavan is a veteran journalist, and author)

Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Racism and Revenge in British India

MJ Akbar

Bloomsbury

Rs 899; 359 pages

Check out the book on Amazon here

Published on February 23, 2022
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