Just occasionally, though, a book really does alter your view of the world, so much so that you insist others read it and sometimes foist it on them as a gift. This has just happened to me with Madhusree Mukerjee’s account of the Bengal Famine, titled Churchill’s Secret War. I’ve been absorbed and shaken by it. I don’t think anyone who reads Mukerjee can ever see Churchill in the same light again. This may scarcely matter in India, but Britain still sees him as its greatest-ever prime minister and the saviour in 1940 of the civilized world. That reputation, which is both grounded in fact and self-created, will probably survive; so much of Britain’s sense of itself still depends on ‘our finest hour’. But in Mukerjee’s book another kind of Churchill emerges to rival the war hero: obstructive, wilful, egocentric, foolish, and wickedly racist — ‘insane’, as more than one of his colleagues remarked, when it came to India.
Of course, none of this is new. The same awful character can be glimpsed in many biographies. Nor would it be true to imagine that the British are, or ever were, Churchill fans to the last man and woman. One of my earliest memories is my father mocking a neighbour who insisted on referring to the prime minister (which he was again after 1951) in affectionate terms as “Our Winnie”. Among the organized working-class and survivors of the Dardanelles campaign in the First World War, the idea of Churchill as the national saviour was tempered with memories of his ruthless strike-breaking and foolish military adventurism. Nor are the facts of the Bengal Famine new; the estimate of three million dead is now widely accepted, and thanks to the work of Amartya Sen and other scholars we know that it wasn’t simply an act of god. Markets and speculators played their part, as well as wartime shortages and administrative incompetence.What Mukerjee shows, however, is that the British weren’t just incompetent and hard-pressed by the war. At the apex of British policy-making stood Churchill and his callous sidekick, the eugenicist Frederick Lindemann, and between them they blocked the food shipments that Bengal so desperately needed. Shiploads of Australian wheat sailed past India on their way to supply a projected British invasion of the Balkans, a Churchill stunt that never came off, while offers of help from Canada and the United States of America were rejected. Why? On the evidence of Mukerjee’s well-sourced narrative, because Churchill had a visceral hatred of Indians and deplored ‘brown people’ in the same way that Hitler disliked his allies, the ‘yellow’ Japanese. In 1945, to give one example, he told his private secretary that the Hindus were a foul race “protected by their mere pullulation [rapid breeding] from the doom that is their due”. As to Lindemann, who became Lord Cherwell, the “abdication of the white man” remained for him the worst calamity of the 20th century, worse in its effects than two world wars and the Holocaust. The behaviour and attitudes of both men contributed to the starvation in Bengal. Theirs were sins of commission and not just unwitting blunders in the turbulence of war.This is a depressing story and any Briton with a historical sense would also find it a shameful one. The one slightly uplifting note is that many other British politicians and officials fought hard to change Churchill’s mind, including the viceroys Linlithgow and Wavell and the secretary of state for India, Leo Amery, whose notes and diaries register frustration and disgust. The usual excuse that Churchill was only a prisoner of his times won’t, therefore, wash. At best he was how Roosevelt described him — “a mid-Victorian” — and at worst not all that far removed from the racial attitudes of his Nazi enemy.Mukerjee tells her story with a limpid simplicity that suggests she’s not an academic. Her research has been scrupulous and wide-ranging, from the oral testimony of survivors in Midnapore to papers in the Whitehall archive. The author isn’t well known — I’ve yet to see her name on the festival circuit — but hers is a book that makes the best case for books. Hundreds of thousands of new titles are published across the world every year in the English language alone. Other than to their authors, it would make very little difference if many had never been put into type — they fail for reasons of craftsmanship, imagination or information to achieve the writer’s intention. Many are nothing more than an intermediary stage on the sad journey between a tree and a pulping machine. But a few of them really do matter — they are, you might say, necessary books. Mukerjee’s is one of these.