A whole subcontinent was picked up without half trying.
Images of the British raj in India are everywhere of late. On television reruns, the divided rulers of Paul Scott's Jewel in the Crown sip their tea in scented hill stations and swap idle gossip in the palaces of local princes. At movie houses, we can savor all the hot intensities that blast a decorous English visitor the moment she steps ashore after A Passage to India, to be engulfed in a whirlwind of mendicants, elephants, snake charmers and crowds. In New York, British director Peter Brook's nine-hour production of an ancient Hindu epic poem, The Mahabharata, has lately been playing to packed houses and considerable critical praise. Best-selling books like Freedom at Midnight re-create the struggle of two great cultures, mighty opposites with a twinned destiny, as they set about trying to disentangle themselves and their feelings before the Partition of 1947. Across the country, strolling visitors marveled a few years ago at all the silken saris and bright turbans of the Festival of India (SMITHSONIAN, June 1985) and, even more, at the exotic world they evoke: the bejeweled splendor of the Mogul courts; dusty, teeming streets; and all the dilemmas confronting the imperial British as they sought to bring Western ideas of order to one of the wildest and most complex lands on Earth.
Behind all the glamour and the glory, however, lies one of history's mischievous ironies. For the raj, which did not begin until 1858 when the British government officially took over India from a private trading company, was in fact only the final act in a long, crooked and partly accidental drama. Much of the British empire, in fact, was acquired, according to a celebrated phrase, "in a fit of absence of mind.".
When the London merchants of what became the East India Company first sent ships to the East in 1601, they were not bound for India at all but for the Spice Islands of the Dutch East Indies, and the English traders who set foot on the subcontinent a little later actually sought to avoid conquest.