Deborah Baker’s The Last Englishmen: Love, War and the End of Empire is essentially a history of science set in the twilight of the Empire in India. Histories of mountain expeditions often tend to be technical narratives, but Baker has delightfully proven otherwise. With archival sources spanning continents, she tracks down protagonists of this tale: W.H. Auden, John Bicknell Auden, Michael Spender and Sudhindranath Dutta. The chronologies of all these lives meet and move out, revolving around World War II.
Figures like Jinnah, Gandhi and Nehru appear, reminding the reader of the doom of war and the gory Partition. In the 1930s, at the same time when repeated failed expeditions in the 1920s accelerated the quest for conquering Everest, soirees at the north Calcutta mansion of Sudhindranath and his Parichay adda (with Shaheed Suhrawardy, Sushobhan Sarkar, M.N. Roy, Hirendranath Mukherjee and Sarojini Naidu) were conducted. The outbreak of war would not just force them to south Calcutta parlours, but also leave them arguing tooth and nail whether to become communists or socialists. The conquered, who had earlier embraced the language, ideology and culture of the conqueror, priding themselves on being intellectual representatives of India, soon felt betrayed at England’s helplessness before Hitler’s fascist forces. The weakening of Britain’s hold over India saw the metaphorical weakening of Sudhindranath’s hold over his durbar friends. War became couched in the truth that there were no friends or enemies when it came to profiteering.