The Gracious Sovereign – Queen-Anon?

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Rukmini Bhaya Nair (Rukmini.Bhaya.Nair@hss.iitd.ac.in, rukmini.nair@gmail.com) is a critical theorist and a poet. She is an Honorary Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi. She is also a Global Professorial Fellow at Queen Mary University of London.
8 November 2022

History’s movements are unevenly paced, sometimes slow like a funeral march and sometimes frisky like the current rates of inflation. They are, however, always recursively ironic. It seems like a lifetime but it was only two months ago on September 8, 2022, that the reign of Queen Elizabeth II of England ended. It was of course, in the nature of things, her first and only death. Now we have another first that has taken over the news: the appointment of a ‘person of Indian origin’ as the British Prime Minister. But before it is lost to public memory, this article seeks to present a contemporaneous account of the elaborate ceremonies that marked the passing of Britain’s first postcolonial monarch - and their possible import. It analyzes the imagery of a ‘Gracious Sovereign’, as opposed to Foucault’s putative idea of a ‘Grotesque Sovereign’, that recently animated our fast-paced, visually dominated, conspiracy theory-laden world in an age of grave political turbulence and psychological ambivalence.

Over one thousand women aged over 95 are estimated to have passed away in the UK in 2022. Many of them must have lived full and useful lives; many would have been beloved and mourned alike by family and friends. Yet one death stood out, noticed across the world for its great global significance. What makes this death an event of history so crucial that it drew to a small far-off island a serried line-up of heads of state from Joe Biden to Droupadi Murmu and from Jacinda Ardern to Cyril Ramaphosa? At first glance, the answer to this question is stunningly simple: Unlike those other unnamed women, Elizabeth II was a Queen.

This formulation seems woefully insufficient, however. A Queen? Doesn’t so much attention to a titular monarch, albeit one in the public eye for a full 70 years since her coronation in 1953, run counter to the democratic idiom of the 21st century? The Indian subcontinent, we might remind ourselves, was witness to a quite remarkable political transition in the past century. Between 1947 and 1950, it saw the largely peaceful accession of no less than 565 royal estates to the new-minted nation-states of India and Pakistan [1]. So, what should India, which has maintained its unwieldy democratic status ever since that swift dissolution of so many princely kingdoms, make of the singular pomp and circumstance that’s attended Elizabeth Regina’s recent death? 

My hypothesis in this essay is a simple one: Queen Elizabeth II was for decades a focal national symbol onto whom the people of England projected their hopes and desires. Her face on the bank notes of the realm, her gold crest on bright-red phone booths and letter boxes, and even her inheritance of the checkered mantle of the Head of the Commonwealth States created enduring codes, a discourse of understated power that drew on quiet but robust concepts of continuity, reliability and trust.

(Source: Author, Copyright: Author) Banknote 

Notwithstanding the knotty issues raised by her huge wealth and privilege, Elizabeth II was a figure who typified survival among the general British public, one who passed seamlessly in real-time from being a beautiful, fairytale princess to becoming a grandmotherly source of comfort. Taking off from Michel Foucault's germinal idea of a 'Grotesque Sovereign', I want to suggest that the Queen of England was fashioned as the exact opposite polarity. She epitomized what might be called a ‘Gracious Sovereign’. If the idea of the grotesque was exemplified, say, by the grossly unlawful power of an Adolf Hitler or an Idi Amin or is currently embodied in the myth of flesh-eating paedophiles that Q-Anon conspiracy theorists believe Nancy Pelosi and other Democrat leaders to be [2], the Queen’s claim to power was quite differently exhibited. As a 21st century ‘constitutional monarch’, she possessed zero political clout but she did have bankable historical mystique. It was this familiar notion of ‘royal power’ that conferred on Elizabeth II the spectral anonymity of Q-Anon without any of the associated murkiness. She was Queen-Anon if you will, but unlike her shadowy counterpart, she was entirely identifiable, her reign legitimated by inherited majesty.

 It was a helpful coincidence, then, that I happened to be in London for a conference on those exact dates between the 14th of September and the 20th when Queen Elizabeth II’s hearse passed through its streets. In this sense, mine is simply a ‘Kilroy was here’ piece, providing me with a window to peer into what ordinary people in a once hugely influential empire made of their Queen’s life – and death. It gave me the chance, in short, to formulate, and then randomly test, my tentative thesis about how the imagery of a ‘Gracious Sovereign’ circulated in a visually dominated, virtually governed, 21st century at a moment of great historical ambivalence.

(Source: Author, Copyright: Author) Crowds from residential areas line up to see the queen's cortege.

Source: Author, Videographer: Samuel Strong

Opinions on London's streets, I found, varied, but, as we shall see, compelling similarities did emerge. Three vignettes: first, Rahmatullah Kharoti, a fluent Pashto and Dari speaker from Helmand Province in Afghanistan, is about 30; his parents came to the UK when he was five and, not surprisingly, he sports a West London accent. Plus, an impressive beard. He is soft-spoken, thoughtful, a devout Muslim sympathetic to the Taliban who says that corruption has reduced considerably since they, (mostly poor and uneducated themselves) came to power. The Taliban are, in his words, sincere; and, in his judgement, so was the Queen.

'Sincere' is among a cluster of descriptive phrases and adjectives that I hear repeatedly. Good, friendly, kind, stoic, dutiful, dignified, pragmatic, a nice lady who spent devoted years in the service of the nation and never took sides, are others. These simple iterated words become, for me, prime linguistic markers of 'Gracious Sovereignty', of an ideal, non-conspiratorial, non-transgressive, reflexively transparent, historically attested state. Or, as Foucault might put it, the structure of a normative discourse of power. Rahmatullah, for instance, is generous in his assessment of the Queen. His adherence to an austere version of Islam may preclude a full endorsement of the extravagant displays and the lavish spending of the Church of England’s last rites for Elizabeth II. Nonetheless, he does not begrudge her. She’s been a constant all his life, outlasting the basilisk gaze of postcolonial criticism. Crimes, and evil conspiracies of the state are, in his mind, almost impossible to associate with her.

Second, I ask one of the several hundred volunteers guards in eye-catching black and yellow - let’s call him Tom - posted all over London: ‘You’re here for the Queen, are you not?’ Tom looks surprised at my question, pausing before he answers with a short, definitive ‘No.’ ‘Why are you here then?’ For this, Tom has a simple explanation: he has rent to pay. I’m reminded of a similar answer to a question I once posed to a young Black Cat commando assigned to protect a political dignitary in Delhi: Why do you do this? Pet ke liye (for my stomach, for a living), he’d replied, fingering his dangerous-looking automatic as if it was an ektara and adding his gentle estimate of the politico he was guarding: achche aadmi hain (he is a good man). Tom thinks the same of the Queen: she was a good lady, aka in my analysis, a nonpareil, post-Foucauldian ‘Gracious Sovereign’.

Third, there's Piotr (name changed), who is not much of a talker, perhaps because he is from Eastern Europe and unfamiliar with the Queen's English. Still, he reveals that he had a ringside seat during the funeral rites because he was hired by CBS, the American TV channel, to drive them around the entire week (oh joy). He, too, repeats that he was 'sad' when the Queen died because, guess what – she was a good lady. This is the refrain, the small, politically innocuous, palatable portion of the truth that the people of London, many of them immigrants, are prepared to part with to an old, brown-skinned stranger from India dressed in unflatteringly baggy shalwar-kameez. It's a matter of gut feeling, they confess. They trusted the Queen more than they do the politicians' parade; after all, she was the longest reigning British monarch ever, seeing 15 Prime Ministers through, from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss - a kind of alternative life-support system. They do not know that much about King Charles but they hope he'll continue the tradition.

Tradition - another word with ambiguous social implications both in India and in the UK. Here, I take it to narrowly signify the tradition of the Gracious Sovereign, the symbolic opposite of the terror-inducing figure of the Sovereign Grotesque. It is perhaps the sombre historical nature of the occasion that the passers-by whom I casually consult seldom refer to the bitter politics of colonialism, which I understand on good authority is now reduced to a blip in school textbooks in England. If some have read Hari Kunzru’s caustic critique of English royalty and its catalogue of colonial sins written soon after the Queen’s death [3] they do not bring it up. These crowds seem far more interested in another Harry – Prince Harry and dynastic dynamics of royalty, the feud between brothers and wives, fealty and the gossipy possibilities of reconciliation.

Few speak, either, of the violent clashes in the city of Leicester, not all that far from London, where Hindus and Muslims are bashing each other up right in tandem with the solemnities of the Queen’s funeral [4]. Certainly, no one admits to seeing any connection between these contretemps and the still obviously potent colonial policies of ‘divide and rule’. Reparations and the return of the Kohinoor may vigorously exercise Shashi Tharoor and others here in India but in England, the images of the Queen’s diamond-studded crown and golden sceptre seem to arouse more awed bemusement than indignation. That famous ‘British’ sense of humour may be there but, for now, it circulates undercover, in relative silence, as Elton John memes and Mr Bean sketches. My own favourite non-Brit version of these cracks under the surface is Hasan Minhaj’s must-see opinion, which very much echoes my own Indian one [5].

That these various images are presented on different scales on television, on cellphones and in person further complicates matters. Television cameras flatten 3-dimensional space to 2 but allow us to magically observe facial expressions close up, details embroidered on ceremonial garments and high-glides to cathedral ceilings that the unaided human eye can never reach. On television, an English professor of psychology points out to me, we are able to quickly estimate, for example, that there are very few black or brown faces among the 300 naval ratings hauling the queen’s hearse, despite the UK having become visibly more ‘multicultural’ during the Queen’s long reign.

In-person observations have another feel entirely - more natural and intimate, and yet more distal: intimate because you have access to those other banished senses of touch and smell; distant because your unaided eye can’t catch all that close-up detail, nor can information be leaked into your ears as you watch. For example, YouTube acquaints us with the fact that royals are buried in heavy lead coffins because it’s a metal suited to keeping in the smells of a decaying body buried in an indoor vault. Queen Elizabeth II, who is said to have reinvented the ‘modern royal walkabout’, must have realized these trials of mortality better than others. Another friend, a barrister or ‘Queen’s Counsel’ (now King’s), speculates that an unexpectedly large number of citizens may in fact have met the Queen through such country and Commonwealth walkabouts or her friendly garden parties, serving to augment her image as a benign sovereign. He and his wife have met her at such a small formal party, his mother-in-law at the college where she worked. That’s three in just one family!

This conversation jogs my own memory. I remember actually being in close proximity with Queen Elizabeth myself - despite my evident non-Britishness. In May 1981, when she came to Cambridge to inaugurate Robinson College, I lived in a house across the road and recall how we students clambered up to a low-sloping roof to watch - I think the local newspapers even published a photo of us peering down curiously at her. Then, years later, I was in a group of teachers invited to meet the Queen at the British Council in Delhi when she came to India in 1997 [6]. We exchanged a few pleasantries, but nothing memorable. My impression was of a polite person with a nice smile, wearing a hat and gloves in sultry Delhi - certainly a mark of endurance. The Queen was the same age as my mother and although I know it’s blasphemous to admit this, the obvious ploy of a fictional switch has, of course, occurred to me.

Given history’s strange contingencies, Elizabeth Regina’s genealogy might have been bereft of any ‘Divine Right of Kings’; she might have mothered a less well-born breed. Like those 1000+ women in Britain her age mentioned at the beginning of this essay, as well as countless others across the world, she could have been an ordinary person living out a marvelously private life. Aside: interestingly, the ‘Apothecary to the Queen’ simply lists the cause of her death as ‘Old Age’ [7], exactly as they did on my mother’s death certificate in faraway Delhi, which seems to me to point up a curious anomaly in modern medical practice. Is there really an illness called ‘old age? Younger people’s death certificates tend to have a specific cause of death - pneumonia, septicemia, and heart disease. So once again here, perhaps, is an example of those ‘anonymizing’ social practices spoken of in this essay, indicating the limits of medical knowledge and the erasure of personhood under certain circumstances everywhere. In stark contrast, the Queen’s ‘occupation’ in the same death certificate has an exclusive clarity, applying to no other woman in the world; it is simply: ‘Her Majesty the Queen’.

This is indeed the precise paradox of sovereign power. It is not fungible, it is not reducible to statistics, it is unique and mystical; it is at once anonymous (no one can know the sovereign’s mind) and specific (everyone can verify the sovereign’s bodily existence).

The Queen put the paradox most pithily herself in relation to her walkabouts: “I have to be seen to be believed”. Or, as William Shakespeare, whose career straddled the reigns of the first Queen Elizabeth and her successor James the First, put it in The Tempest (a play several scholars believe to be an allegory of early colonization): We are such stuff as dreams are made of. And here it is again – that stuff of dreams and performative pageantry on splendid display in the 21st century, in a way Elizabeth II seemed to have intuited. For she was, I learn, personally involved not only in the quotidian planning of her walkabouts but in the elaborate behind-the-scenes, long-term plans that structured the flawlessly orchestrated rituals of her death. The insignia of lions, dragons and gryphons may have belonged to queenly tradition but the delicate flowers atop, with sprigs of myrtle and rosemary standing for love and remembrance were, we are told, chosen by her son Charles from her own gardens - offsetting to an extent the ostentatious provocation of the diamond sceptre and golden orb so unavoidably associated not only with colonialism but with great imperial arrogance. James Shirley, Shakespeare’s younger contemporary’s prescient lines seem appropriate here:

 

Death lays his icy hand on kings:

        Sceptre and Crown

        Must tumble down,

And in the dust be equal made

With the poor crookèd scythe and spade.

Exactly so - and it is at this juncture that nature appears to merge with nature, the human scale of the walkabout with the grand rhythms of the Queen’s funeral march, both feeding our age-old human appetite for ‘spectacle’, which Aristotle considered one of the six essential elements of drama. In her staging her last appearance for posterity on the wide screen of the public psyche, Elizabeth Regina Queen-Anon ensured that she was seen from all angles - and thus believed in.

Media commentators described the crowds lining up on the street of London to ‘look at the Queen’ one final time, some waiting in line for over 14 hours to file past her, as deeply grieving. This, I have to say, was not my impression.

(Source: Author, Copyright: Author) Cloudless skies and festive crowds

(Source: Author, Copyright: Author) Lone police van guarding happy crowds

The queues I observed were attentive, even celebratory - if they were stricken, they hid it well under that stiff British upper lip [8].

The Brits, we are given to understand, are committed queuers; to them, the queue symbolizes an ethic of order, discipline, and equality. Still, the British, like us Indians, have also discovered innovative ways to ‘break the queue’ and, more generally, to circumvent the rules. The British Academy [9], for instance, where our conference was held, is housed in an imposing early 19th building in Carlton House Terrace - once the residence of Prime Minister William Gladstone. As the name of its location indicates, perhaps the most notable feature of these premises is a pair of large terraces. When the Queen's procession passes by, we were sternly instructed you must not jump onto those inviting terraces, still less should you poke your heads out of the windows - or you may fatally alarm the police guarding the queues below. Be warned. The clever scholars at the Academy, however, manage an optimal solution. They do not poke their heads outside the windows, nor do they attempt dangerous leaps onto terraces. Instead, they climb onto small unforbidden ledges just outside the windows handily overlooking those forbidden terraces. Fine observation posts – and no bones (or queues) broken!

(Source: Author, Copyright: Author) The Queen’s procession and the British queues beneath

(Source: Author, Copyright: Author) The high above-it-all, all-seeing, ceilings of the British Academy

Not long after this bracing combination of scholarly antics and awesome solemnities, I return to a Delhi pouring with rain owing to a weather-front called, with magnificent irony, a ‘Western Disturbance’. On my way home, I observe a woman from a passing jhuggi rescue a potted plant from a pile of trash and tenderly place it on a rough unterraced ledge, as dignified in her way as the ‘Gracious Sovereign’ of whom her people recently sang in moving unison: God Save Our Gracious Queen. 

 

 

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Rukmini Bhaya Nair (Rukmini.Bhaya.Nair@hss.iitd.ac.in, rukmini.nair@gmail.com) is a critical theorist and a poet. She is an Honorary Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi. She is also a Global Professorial Fellow at Queen Mary University of London.
8 November 2022