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Part One: CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH - I. A Bridge Across the Years

Part One


A Bridge Across the Years

THE TRUTH about a man as much as about a country or an institution is better than legend, myth and falsehood. I am someone about whom a whole fabric of legend has been woven in my own lifetime. Of recent years I have often been urged by editors and publishers to write my memoirs, my own account of my life and experiences, of my beliefs and opinions, and the way in which they have been molded. Friends have advised me that it is my duty to my own reputation, now and in the future, to tell the truth about myself as I see it, and to refute the falsehoods that have gained credence. Flattering this persuasion may have been, kind in intention certainly.

There are certain obvious and gross fictions which need to be corrected -- the grandiose estimates, for example, of my own and my family's wealth. I have seen estimates both of my capital and my income so inaccurate that not one but two noughts at the end should have been knocked off. Not long ago an alleged biography was published; in the matter of dates the margin of error in it was anything from one to ten years. If there is this amount of misinformation on simple, easily discoverable fact, what sort of veracity is likely in wider, more profound and more intangible matters?

My life in many ways has been a bridge across vastly differing epochs. Looking at it for the moment simply from the Western point of view -- I had a full life in the Victorian era, and I am leading now an equally full life in this new Elizabethan era. When I was a young man I sat next to Queen Victoria at a dinner party and talked to her throughout it; the other day I sat next to Queen Elizabeth II at a tea party and talked to her throughout it. In my youth the internal combustion engine was in its early, experimental phase, and the first motorcars were objects of ridicule; now we all take supersonic jet propulsion for granted, and interplanetary travel is far more seriously discussed today than was even the smallest flying venture at a time when I was quite grown up and had already lived a full and active life. I had the great honor of knowing Lord Kelvin, in his time the greatest physicist in the world; he assured me solemnly and deliberately that flying was a physical impossibility for human beings and quite unattainable. Even H. G. Wells in his early book, Anticipations, put off the conquest of the air and the discovery of atomic power for two or three centuries. Yet these and much more have come to pass in a brief half century.

During this period I have been not only an onlooker but by the accident of birth an active participant in affairs. The extent of the revolution which I have witnessed is not yet to be measured, but we can see manifestations of it at many levels of human experience. Throughout the Western world the whole way of life has undergone fundamental and far-reaching changes, perhaps the greatest of which is that the expectation of life has been increased by nearly twenty years. Old age begins for men and women in the West at anything from ten to twenty years later than it did in my youth, and in India and in the East generally a similar, though at present smaller, extension of the span can be noted. In Europe and America it is most marked. There are far, far more old men and women alive and active. Walking along a busy street like Piccadilly or any of the Paris boulevards, a man of my age sees the difference. In Europe there has been a widespread restriction of families among the upper and middle classes; the family of the nineties, with seven or eight children, has almost completely disappeared. In no European country is divorce looked upon as anything unusual; when I was young, men of the stature of Charles Dilke and Charles Stewart Parnell were driven out of public life -- Dilke not indeed because he was a "guilty party," nor even as a principal, but solely on the grounds of association with a divorce case. Today all over Europe men to whom the strictly legal term "guilty party" is applicable are to be found in the highest, most responsible positions in the state. Indeed the only penalty to which they are subject seems to be nonadmission to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot -- a privilege which, I daresay, few of them care about anyway.

The changes in the status of women, economic and social, have been enormous; fifty or sixty years ago almost the only career open to them was marriage or indirect dependence on man's protection, but today they possess the avenues of countless honorable and profitable callings, and they carry themselves with selfconfidence and self-assurance. Homosexuality was looked upon very much like leprosy. Today in most European countries either there is Freudian pity or there are excuses, and by men like André Gide and others, open justification if not glorification.

I was a grown-up man in that old world. I feel that it is therefore my duty to give an account in some detail of my experience over this long, momentous epoch, and to record my personal acquaintance -often indeed my real and deep friendship -- with some of those who have had their share in bringing about its vast political, social and economic changes.

England -- we still talked naturally of England when I was young -dwelt then in "splendid isolation," a state of affairs which stimulated a far deeper, stronger pride than did the more extreme American isolationism of the twenties and the early thirties. To that England, France was the traditional enemy and Germany the only potential friend in Europe. Only a handful of men whose thoughts converged from very different origins -- Sir Charles Dilke, imperialists like Admiral Maxse, and a few radical "Little Englanders" -- championed friendship with France and distrust of Germany.

In vast regions of the East, England's hegemony was virtually undisputed, and her Indian Empire seemed among the most solidly based and most durable of contemporary political organizations. A man like Lord Curzon -- and indeed I should say ninety-nine per cent of the British ruling class -- would have been horror-struck at the thought of the formation of an Indian Republic, or its inevitable corollary, and even more appalled by the prospect of the partition of the enormous Indian Empire and the emergence of two healthy national states each with its own historic personality. Even as late as the 1930's, when the promise of eventual Dominion status had been made, this same British ruling class permitted itself to be obsessed with the childish delusion that the Indian Empire, which their predecessors had built up, could be handed on -- like an estate after the owner's death -- to successors who would preserve the artificial unity of the structure as if it were a true unity rooted in spiritual and intellectual foundations. Even in the 1940's men like Lord Wavell and others hoped and believed that even after the British quitted India, it would be possible to maintain a united Indian Army. Other European colonial powers nourished delusions no less futile. Less than a decade ago it was seriously held in France that the three Indo-Chinese states would join, humbly and as junior partners, in a French Union of which Paris must be the head and heart.

I have seen the long revolution of Asia against European rule. In the nineties it was a cloud no bigger than a man's hand. What did it seem to amount to then? The mild little hope of a few jobs, and a few honorific titles. Today in Asia the revolution is accomplished, everywhere east of the Middle East there has been an end of European rule in fact and in name; and I have lived long enough to see the same process begin in Africa. But fortunately the western European governing classes have learned the lesson of Asia. The British in West Africa, the Belgians in the Congo and the French in their African Equatorial possessions are preparing and planning that transfer of power for which in Asia they were never prepared.

I have had my share in these changes. However, I must stress that whatever part I may have played in public affairs and in political developments in India and elsewhere, none of it has been my main task or duty. Since my childhood my chief concern, my chief responsibility, throughout the whole of my life, has been the great charge which I have inherited as Imam of the Ismaili branch of the Shia sect of Muslims. Elsewhere in this book I shall give a detailed account of what I mean by this statement. Here, however, I must only affirm that my duties in this task have always been my prime concern; in all aspects -- in a vast and varied correspondence, in the maintenance of countless links of personal and religious loyalty and affection -- they have occupied a large part of every day of my life.

As I look back, there is one memory, one piece of self-knowledge, which gives me the utmost satisfaction. I was myself personally responsible for the conversion to Islam of some thirty thousand to forty thousand caste Hindus, many of them of the upper and professional classes. They had been people without a faith, and they found a faith. Neither my father nor my grandfather had attempted a religious task of this magnitude. Its fulfillment has had one important and interesting effect: the great majority of these converts lived in what is now Pakistan; had they remained Hindu they would in all probability have been involved in and suffered by the mass displacement and all the other terrible and horrible happenings that accompanied Partition in 1947.

Everything else that I have done or striven to do, enjoyed or suffered, has been of necessity secondary. With this important reservation clearly stated, I think I can give an account of many of the other events and experiences of my life. I have tried all the years I spent in public life to do my best so far as I could. It is not possible for me to assess the success or failure of what I have tried to do; final judgment lies elsewhere.

But since I have witnessed this rapid and all-developing process of change in every domain of human interest and experience -- the technical and mechanical revolution of our time, man's developing mastery of natural forces, the recognition of the importance of the subconscious, the vast increase in longevity, the rise of new moral standards and the corresponding profound changes in outlook, and great political changes undreamed of in my youth -- I hope in these coming chapters to give some picture of each epoch as it unfolded before the eyes and in the mind and heart of one who was usually an onlooker but sometimes and actively a participant.

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