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Book News

'Masterful treatment' of the British in India

'Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India'
By Lawrence James

St. Martin's Press, $35

Review by Bruce Kennedy

(CNN) -- It took the British a century to become masters of an India they then went on to rule for another 100 years. This remarkable story, in all its amazing, appalling and disturbing details, unfolds in Lawrence James' masterful treatment.

"There was never a masterplan for a conquest of India," James notes early on. "Instead, there was a sequence of tactical decisions made in response to local and sometimes unexpected crises." Britain was just one of several European nations vying for control of Indian trade in the 18th century. Through the East India Company, the British brought with them to India their battles with the French, who were also securing footholds in the subcontinent.

The British were also able to exploit the failing fortunes of India's Mogul rulers, thanks to the likes of such vivid historical figures as Robert Clive -- who was sent to India as a teen-ager to seek his fortune and who, in the employ of the East India Company, displayed an unexpected military genius that led to a major victory at Plassey in 1757, Britain's domination of Bengal and London's first governorship of India.

Violence is a continuing motif in the history of the British Raj. James's account of The Mutiny of 1857-1859 -- when Indian "sepoys," soldiers in the service of the British, sparked a widespread and brutal rebellion against their masters -- is harrowing. In repressing the revolt, the British were not at all timid to exact vicious revenge -- a detail James makes clear.

It was in 1857 that the East India Company was abolished -- and rule of India passed on to the British crown. As British fortunes diminished in the 20th century, so did the Raj -- crumbling under the eventual pressure of the Indian National Congress and such leaders as Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

The end of British rule in 1947 brought into being two nations, India and Pakistan -- whose relations were almost immediately hostile and who, now both armed with nuclear weapons, continue to circle one another warily.

A teacher and researcher before devoting himself to his writing, James has a very obvious affection for his subject. He offers lively accounts of British ambivalence towards its new acquisition in India, how Victorian morals clashed with a culture they were both repelled by and attracted to. Information comes in waves, as well as spoonfuls. Statistics are given on the average number of days ordinary British soldiers spent in hospital in the early 1800s, recovering from venereal diseases -- as well as the amount of war bonds Indian princes bought as part of the Allied effort during World War II.

James has a good ear for the condescension many Britons had for India and its inhabitants. But despite his awareness of the more-than-occasional harshness of British rule in India, he apparently can't keep himself from sharing the nostalgic viewpoint of those who served in the Raj -- that Britain brought order, serenity and prosperity to a chaotic part of the world, while extending Brittania's glory. "Raj" occasionally reads like the memoirs of a long-lost love -- which, in some ways, it is.

Bruce Kennedy is part of CNN Interactive's Special Projects unit. He has worked in international news for more than 15 years.

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