At first my mind raced back to a March day in 1982 and the drama of Maneka Gandhi’s stormy exit from the prime minister’s residence. Although the Duchess of Sussex, the former Meghan Markle, isn’t battling a mother-in-law, in essence her fight is not very different from traditional India’s saas-bahu tussle. Then, it dawned on me that so many people — Americans especially — would not be making whoopee over a young black girl from nowhere thumbing her nose at Britain’s august and ancient monarch if the defiance had not been especially significant for them.

Cutting to the heart of the matter, Meghan was outraged, she wailed amidst the interview’s welter of tearful grievances, blunt accusations and snide remarks, when an unnamed member of the royal family wondered what her then unborn son’s colour might be. As it happens, so did I … as must millions of people worldwide with no more than a casual interest in Britain’s royals. Given the mutations of race, idle genetic curiosity was only to be expected.

Apparently not by the high-powered African-American interviewer. An aghast “What???” was all Oprah Winfrey could manage before outraged condemnation flooded in from every direction. Some warned of alienating the Commonwealth (does anybody in India or Pakistan care?). Others feared hostile demonstrations when the royals next visit the US. No wonder Hillary Clinton called Meghan’s revelation “heartbreaking”. Amidst the cacophony, Queen Elizabeth struck a sober note with a brief statement admitting that “the issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning” and promising that “they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.” 

That may not satisfy Americans for whom raucously championing Meghan is another form of taking the knee, the Black Lives Matter movement’s protest over a white policeman killing an African-American. It seeks to atone for generations of race violence and distract attention from the turmoil of the Trump years. The more complex English decision to ignore race and colour distinctions can result in piquant situations like the London stage casting blacks in all kinds of unlikely roles before Covid-19 closed theatres. When I mentioned the biological incongruity of a black girl playing one of a genteel English widow’s three daughters on the marriage mart in a Jane Austen play, an English friend explained the audience was not meant to see any difference between the three girls. It was even more absurd when an Englishwoman got a mouthful for asking a railway official if an “Indian-looking gentleman” had been in. “We don’t go by people’s looks!” he retorted stiffly.

The Queen would approve: She was reputedly as colour-blind as her great great grandmother with her munshi even before acquiring a black grand daughter-in-law. Badar Azim, the footman who announced Prince George’s birth at Buckingham Palace, reportedly grew up in a Kolkata slum. A black courtier in a frock coat received Boris Johnson when he called to kiss hands as prime minister. Grenada-born Colour Sgt Johnson Beharry, resplendent in dress uniform, who placed the Queen’s wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey after she had touched it symbolically at the Remembrance Day ceremony, is the first living recipient of the Victoria Cross in 40 years. His autobiography solves the riddle of the familiar-sounding surname: “My father’s family are all of Indian descent; my mother is half-Indian, half-Negro”. Patriarchal India can claim gallant Beharry as its own.

That would make him white according to Bhagat Singh Thind, an early Sikh immigrant to the US who claimed citizenship as “a descendant of the Aryans of India, belonging to the Caucasian race [and therefore] white...”. It’s a national obsession. One reason why Jawaharlal Nehru disliked Loy Henderson, the US ambassador, may have been the latter’s belief that Nehru was “constitutionally unhappy” unless leading a global union of “coloured peoples”. A State Department conference added insult to injury by recommending that “coloured” Indians deserved only black diplomats. All those ads for “wheat-complexioned” brides confirm that Indians resemble the “Reds” and “Whites” who are both black but fancy themselves as white in Evelyn Waugh’s hilarious novel Scoop.

Some might think the duchess is beautifully poised on the borderline to enjoy the best of all worlds like the young lady called Starkey who had an affair with a darkie in the old and no doubt the outrageously politically incorrect limerick: “The result of that sin was quadruplets, not twins -/ one black, one white and two khaki.” But that rainbow choice cannot tempt the duchess whose son, she thinks, is denied a princely title and police protection because her own mother is black. If the “Black is Beautiful” slogan is not for India’s “fair and lovely”, it is also not for a woman for whom being white is a privilege. 

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