The ups and downs of statues

In Text Messages this week, RK Narayan’s short story about the removal and reinstatement of a colonial statue provides welcome contrast to today’s statue wars.

Over time, some phrases change in meaning or gain supplementary connotations. Take that seemingly old coinage, “what goes up must come down”. Although it has that sense of direct, lived wisdom that we associate with, say, the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament of the Bible, its origins are very recent. The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable tells us, “proverbial saying, early 20th century; commonly associated with wartime bombing and anti-aircraft shrapnel, and often used with the implication that an exhilarating rise must be followed by a fall”.

Nothing better fits the current vogue for tearing down statues, or demanding that they be removed, than the deflating phrase “what goes up must come down”. It seems axiomatic now that many, if not most, statues are doomed for toppling. History having thus far been written by the victors and celebrated by their putting up statues to the architects of victory – which ought to be qualified by being enclosed in quotes as “victory” – it is easy to see that historical correction must entail the hauling down of statues of the nasty.

This poses certain problems, of course. Just as one person’s meat is another’s poison, so a nasty for some is a hero for many, or the other way around. Debates swirl, arguments froth: is statue-busting a corrective or a denial of history? Take them down or leave them up, not everyone is going to be satisfied and the ranks of the disgruntled will not be few. Perhaps a situation in which none are satisfied and everyone a little unfulfilled is the best compromise.

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Nonetheless, a radical suggestion was advanced in The Guardian on 1 June by a former journalist of that newspaper, Gary Younge, now in the folds of academe as a sociology professor at the University of Manchester. Tear them all down, he wrote, because “they represent the value system of the establishment at any given time that is then projected into the forever”. Statues are also “poor as works of art and poor as efforts at memorialisation. Put more succinctly, they are ugly and lazy.” To show his even-handedness, he added: “Yes, remove Columbus, Leopold II, Colston and Rhodes. But take down Mandela, Gandhi, Seacole and Tubman, too.” 

A key part of his argument is that statues commemorate historical figures, not history, but are read, incorrectly or deliberately, as embodying history. This flows into the pernicious Great Man mode of history, whereby all progress is somehow the responsibility of an individual. Younge did not mention it but opponents of this school of history have long made fun of it by positing that had Cleopatra’s nose been differently shaped, Mark Antony might not have fallen in love with her and so Roman and world history would have taken a very different course. 

Younge also brings into play a potential rebuttal of the argument that the “Statues Must Stand” faction deploys, that to remove a statue is to choose and encourage forgetting. Citing the purge of Saddam Hussein statues in Iraq, he notes, “They wanted him, and his crimes, to be remembered. They just didn’t want him to be revered.” 

‘Ideal gift’

But let us leave the shibboleths and the nostrums of removers and retainers, Fallists and Non-Haulists alike. Decades ago, the great writer RK Narayan anticipated motives, events and debates around the removal of statues in one of his glittering short fictions, Lawley Road. The municipality of Malgudi (Narayan’s fictional blend of Mysore and Bangalore) is faced with a big problem: the 20 feet-high statue of Sir Frederick Lawley at the corner of Lawley Extension and Market. The former having been renamed Gandhi Nagar, “it seemed impossible to keep Lawley’s statue there any longer”.

The narrator of the story wins the tender to get rid of the statue. For 10 days, 50 workers hack away at the enormous figure and plinth. Eventually the narrator-contractor persuades the municipality to allow him to use a few sticks of dynamite to hasten the effort. He carts off the remains to his house: “His head and shoulders were in my front hall, and the rest of him stretched out into the street through the doorway. It was an obliging community there at Kabir Lane and nobody minded this obstruction.”

The narrator is also a stringer for an upcountry newspaper, to whom he sends dispatches about municipal affairs in Malgudi, earning two rupees per printed column inch. His usual 10 inches per month is supplemented by a whole 10 inches of copy about the statue.

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But the news is a disaster because, as the chairperson of the municipal council explains, it drew telegrams “from every kind of historical society in India, all protesting against the removal of the statue. We had all been misled about Sir F … This Frederick Lawley (of the statue) … almost built the town of Malgudi. He established here the first cooperative society for the whole of India, and the first canal system … he died in the great Sarayu [a river] floods while attempting to save the lives of villagers living on its banks.”

In short, the central government has ordered the statue to be reinstated. Not so quick and easy, says the wily narrator-contractor-hack. He puts a starting price of 10 000 rupees on the statue, advertising it in capital letters as “Two and a half tons of excellent metal. Ideal gift for a patriotic friend.”

Then he plays on the chairperson’s political ambitions and convinces him to buy the statue in situ at the house – and the house itself. In the paper some days later, the following item appears: “The chairman of the Malgudi Municipality has been able to buy back as a present for the nation the statue of Sir Frederick Lawley. He proposed to install it in a newly acquired property which is shortly to be converted into a park. The Municipal Council have resolved that Kabir Lane shall be changed to Lawley Road.”

Narayan is all exquisite economy, wit and irony, a relief when set against the bluster of what goes up must come down.

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