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What’s with this colonial nostalgia?

The writer has been all agog while watching the whole “don’t say bad things about Queen Elizabeth II” drama

People walk past a screen showing Queen Elizabeth's archival footage outside the British Film Institute, in London.
People walk past a screen showing Queen Elizabeth's archival footage outside the British Film Institute, in London. (Reuters)

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Are we really not supposed to say anything bad about people after they die? That whole “de mortuis nil nisi bonum”—of the dead, (say) nothing but good— tag which has floated from the ancient Greeks to the Anglophone world over centuries, does that apply to all of us now? Christopher Hitchens said, “Never say anything nasty about the dead that you weren’t brave enough to say while they were alive. Everything else is fair game.” I want to tell the late Hitchens, some people make it very hard to say bad things about them when they are alive, so we bank on the opportunity to say it when they are safely (we hope) dead.

I ask because I have been agog while watching the whole “don’t say bad things about Queen Elizabeth II” drama. While I have many gossip rabbit-holes I thoroughly enjoy, the British royal family is not one of my beloved spectacles. But millions of people around the world have been fans, devotees and hate-watchers. And if there were any who were too young to really get into the Buckingham Palace franchise, the immense success of the Netflix show The Crown is likely to have caught them. With the result that when the 96-year-old, who was monarch of a country for 70 years, died, there were rather a whole lot of opinions. If, as someone pointed out, every six days a different country commemorates its independence from said country, one would assume the opinions would be rather mixed. Yes? In Kerala, we like to say, ammeye thaloyalum randu paksham. Meaning, even in the seemingly undebatable matter of someone beating up their mother, there is likely to be someone who has a different opinion. Apparently, fans of the British royal family and the colonial legacy seem to think that this is a moment for all of us to stand up and put our finger on our lips, taking this digit off only to sing praises of Elizabeth.

When the Queen was critically ill, a Nigerian-born US professor, Uju Anya, tweeted her wish for an excruciating death for the Queen. I flinched a little reading it but Jeff Bezos, the billionaire co-founder of Amazon, with his massive reach, criticised her from his own Twitter handle, a rare event. The Carnegie Mellon professor replied, “May everyone you and your merciless greed have harmed in this world remember you as fondly as I remember my colonizers.” It’s the kind of all-encompassing, juicy curse that Shakespearean witches would envy. And instantly I felt embarrassed for having winced in the first place. Of course, the white-washing reach of the British royal establishment and all those who have inherited its ambitions would behave as if Elizabeth II was a nonagenarian who deserved a peaceful death. But all the millions of the elderly and young who had neither peaceful lives nor deaths in the British colonies as recently as 50 years ago, who is flinching on their behalf, where is their mourning period? Even for the posthumous diss, there has been a disproportionate backlash against people of colour. When football fans in Ireland sang “Lizzy’s In A Box” at Dublin’s Tallaght Stadium, it was deemed “tasteless”. When Argentinian TV host Santiago Cúneo popped open a bottle of champagne live on air while announcing the death, he was declared the chillest Argentinian. Anya got an avalanche of hate mail, was locked out of Twitter and criticised by her university.

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No one could make the case against the colonial nostalgia lens with Uju Anya’s efficiency but the American right-winger and TV anchor Tucker Carlson gave it an old-school try. In his show, he condemned the “ghoulish critics” and said the British empire was more than “just genocide”. He asked, “And after 75 years of independence, has that country (India) produced a single building as beautiful as the Bombay train station that the British colonials built?” I am no architecture expert but I imagine Carlson launched a million WhatsApp forwards right away, the same million we were spared, as a brilliant person on Twitter said, when Rishi Sunak failed to become the British prime minister.

The current British regime seems to be having a gigantic attack of something inexplicable. Is it nostalgia? They have announced a 10-day mourning period; and on the Queen’s funeral on 19 September, thousands of medical appointments have been cancelled—everything from cancer care to cataract surgeries and hip replacements. The genius behind this probably does know that if your grandmother’s chemotherapy appointment or father’s funeral was postponed because of the Queen’s funeral, it’s not winning her any fans.

And that is why this looks less like grief and more like what author and film-maker Naomi Klein called the Shock Doctrine—“the exploitation of national crises (disasters or upheavals) to establish controversial and questionable policies, while citizens are too distracted (emotionally and physically) to engage and develop an adequate response, and resist effectively”. In the course of a week, can you push the idea of what civility and respectability looks like to mute free speech? Anti-monarchists have been arrested in the last week for protesting the accession of King Charles III. A climate activist claims he was warned by a police officer that if he held up a blank piece of paper opposite the British Parliament, he would be arrested. Another man was arrested after heckling Prince Andrew (because of the widely cited paedophilia allegations) as he walked behind the Queen’s coffin in Edinburgh.

This is also the month that a young American TV star, Jennette McCurdy, has launched her memoir, I’m Glad My Mom Died. After the shock passes and you read what her mother did when she was a child star, you are likely to wonder why she didn’t speed along her mother’s demise. As one critic thoughtfully said, “The actor Jennette McCurdy’s memoir is a confessional feat that asks what, if anything, adult children owe an abusive parent.” One could argue, only a “Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead”.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.

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