When I returned home from India late in June, I noticed that one of our patio doors had been tampered with. Burglars had managed to break into our home. Evidently, they had scatted off when the burglar alarm sounded.
My neighbor across the road was not so lucky. One evening, she swung back into the driveway after a quick dinner date only to discover that someone had looted her home. He had scooted with every item of jewelry; there were many an heirloom among them.
In the weeks subsequent to my return, I would hear repeated references to “loot.” The home of an acquaintance right around the corner from me was burgled. The family lost jewelry newly acquired in India for an upcoming engagement in the family. Apparently, local burglary rings gathered intelligence about the ways Indian families operate. They had gleaned that the right moment to loot an Indian-American family was between the time a homeowner returned from a long vacation and headed to the bank to restore valuables back in the safe-deposit box. According to victims and police officers, burglars in the SF Bay Area had started using detectors to sniff out gold from other junk; they worked fast, making off with the spoils—typically electronics and gold—in under an hour.
The subject of looting seemed very topical to July. It sprang up one morning in a video I watched of the now famous Oxford debate by Indian parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor who stated, in a thunderously funny moment, that the British Raj had looted India and also stolen the word “loot.” Tharoor ended his speech asking for reparations from the British government, but before that, he observed that the perpetration of a crime by ancestors didn’t exactly absolve today’s Britons and that they needed to acknowledge the “moral debt” that was owed for the “dehumanization of Africans in the Caribbean, the massive psychological damage that has been done, the undermining of social traditions, or of property rights, of authority structures of these societies, all in the interests of British colonialism.”
Tharoor enumerated the quantifiable depredations in a masterful way. But I wondered about all the intangibles. In their relentless colonizing and warmongering, Britain had looted India and other colonies not just of material wealth. It had rooted out self-esteem and identity. By supplanting the national language, by telling Indians overtly and subliminally about the pointlessness of their languages, their superstitions, their cultures and their religions, and by foisting the western notions of science, literature and philosophy, the British created, very methodically, a group of literate Anglophiles who would be conduits between the “natives” and the British government. That was indeed the intent of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s proposal on reforming education in India. In his Minute on Indian Education of February 1835, Macaulay asserted that “all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgement used at preparatory schools in England.”
At the Oxford debate, Tharoor honed in on the biggest consequence of British aggression: “The fact remains that many of today’s problems in these countries, including the persistence, in some cases, the creation, of racial and ethnic and religious tensions, were the direct result of the colonial experience.”
The wounds from plunder will take centuries to heal. In India, it will take many generations for pride and self-worth to be reinstated. Several hundred years later, I see the fingerprints of British hegemony and imperialism in small, seemingly disconnected things: In the 10-rupee entry fee at Trivandrum’s Napier museum with its rheumy, disheveled appearance, in the gap between those Indians who think and speak in English and those who do not, in the forgotten Bronze Art Gallery in Chennai, in the appalling state of ancient temples in South India and their callous renovations, in the limited support and sponsorship of literature in India’s regional languages and in my own inability to understand and appreciate the best of Tamil literature.
Some people may deem my use of the word “loot” with respect to neighborhood crimes a hyperbole. After all, looting is associated with stealing goods from a place during a war or a riot and the act itself is often associated with expensive, rare artifacts. But the act of seizing an object unlawfully—of severing a victim’s ties to an object—is in the realm of loot and plunder. When someone steals an heirloom from someone, he deprives another of their dignity. He snips their connections to their past.
That is exactly what happened to my neighbor this summer. The criminal left her sons little to cherish. My neighbor had planned to give her heirloom—her grandmother’s engagement ring—to her son. Now there was nothing left to give.