VINE VOICEon 4 September 2007
David Gilmour is a respected historian who wrote a massive and highly-regarded biography of Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th Century, when the Raj perhaps reached its apogee. This book seems to be the by-product of the extensive research that Gilmour did for "Curzon" (see Amazon listing), but to call it merely that is to do it a grave injustice. Most people with an interest in India know that the civil administration of the Raj was undertaken by a tiny corps, little more than 1,000 strong, of British (and Indian) civil servants: indeed, the Indian Civil Service, or ICS. It was noted for its incorruptibility, and for the enormous responsibility given to young men fresh from training college or university. So profoundly influential was the ICS on the running of this enormous and diverse country that even today, with a population of 1 billion, India still has its successor, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), that is little more than twice the size of the ICS under the Raj.
Now, you might think, and could be forgiven for thinking, that a book about any civil service would be mind-numbingly dull. Imagine reading a book about the Home Office. But with Gilmour's book you would be wrong. This is a fascinating insight into an extraordinary world. There is a good deal of detail about how the ICS was structured, but only enough to illuminate the lives of the men who comprised it, their careers, their frustrations, their loneliness, their elating successes, their scholarship, and their enormous power on a local level that was the heart of the British administration of India. Equally interesting is Gilmour's examination of the relationship between the Raj, as personified by the ICS, and the 600+ "princes" who ruled vast swathes of the Sub-Continent up to 1947. One is left with the thought that there were, are, hundreds of millions of Indians who were far better off under the administration of the Raj than the extravagant, capricious, often vicious and cruel rule of many of the petty princes.
Gilmour's prose is far from pedestrian, and many of the stories he relates are fascinating, even bizarre. Sixty years after Indian independence, at the hands of the last Viceroy, an egomaniac to outstrip even the extraordinary Curzon, it is perhaps politically incorrect to focus on the imperial period, but the Raj remains a fact of history, and India today is and will remain for a long time to come a product of the Raj. It is not a topic that will appeal immediately to a wide audience, nor is it a racy story in the mode of "Freedom at Midnight". However, for anyone interested in India during the three centuries leading up to independence, this is a most interesting and rewarding book.