“You must promise me — that you will not spend the next eight weeks ranting at me about colonialism.”
I had decided, with the confidence of a teenager who’d read a little French philosophy, that there was only one really serious philosophical question: complicity. For a brief while, intense and priggish as only a weedy teenager can be, I thought I could get through life with clean hands. No meat, no logos, and fossil fuels only for the greater good. But the first time I had a real chance not to be complicit with evil, I found I had a staggering gift for casuistry. I walked into the vast modernist convention center in New Delhi, my oversize jacket and tie already a concession to the Man, armed with answers to a question I was sure the Rhodes Scholarship committee would ask: And what, young man, are your feelings about taking blood money?
Other people had been there before me. Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version (1997) has a character who, having just won a Rhodes Scholarship, announces that its benefactor, Cecil Rhodes, “was a vicious imperialist and his scholarship fund would be more honourably used making restitution to the blacks he exploited.” Such a thin line between showing integrity and just showing off.
I’d been through my options. Maybe I could claim the scholarship with a clean conscience as restitution for colonialism: when the hand that feeds you is the one that starved you in the first place, it’s only rational to sup well, then bite hard. But a casual skim of the family annals yielded only several generations of high-caste collaborators who went out of their way to welcome their new British overlords. Then there was the honest answer, from the dustman Mr. Doolittle in Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion: “Have you no morals, man?” “Can’t afford them, Governor.” Hardly the thing for someone aspiring, as Rhodes himself grandly put it, to “fight the world’s fight.” That left the Marxist answer: that the obsession with integrity is a fallacy of bourgeois morality; no reason a hypocrite can’t be the agent of history; the revolutionary vanguard can’t live off righteousness alone. So unsatisfying to the teenage moralist.
When the steely-eyed biochemist and former athlete, evidently the bad cop of the committee, turned to me with an “and finally” look, I thought the question was imminent. “What sports do you play?” No help from Marx on this one. “None competitively, sir.” “All sport, young man, is competitive. You thrash me, or I thrash you. Thank you; we will be in touch.”
Afterward, when they’d made their decisions, the biochemist sat me down with the air of someone overruled by a majority, someone used to monologuing without interruption. “I know your kind. Poetry, philosophy, pacifism. Lose their heads at Oxford and get sent down, or worse, return with a second-class degree, and not even a rowing blue to make up for it. Do me a favor. Keep off the opium. Get a First. Anything less will be a waste of the Founder’s money. Do you promise?”