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Many in the U.K. are pondering Queen Elizabeth and the legacy of imperial Britain


All morning, we have watched the funeral services here for Queen Elizabeth II - the memorial service at Westminster Abbey and the funeral procession. Her casket has now arrived at Windsor Castle, where the queen will be laid to rest. While many here in Britain and around the world are mourning the queen, who was on the throne for 70 years, many others are thinking through the legacy of imperial Britain - among them, the British writer Hari Kunzru. He wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times titled "My Family Fought The British Empire. I Reject Its Myths." He's on the line now from New York. Thank you so much for being with us.

HARI KUNZRU: Thank you for asking me.

MARTIN: During the queen's Silver Jubilee, you were 7 years old. She'd already been on the throne for 25 years. How does your experience of Elizabeth compare to how she's being publicly remembered?

KUNZRU: Well, you know, in some sense, I do share a lot of the feelings that I think the majority of British people have of - you know, Queen Elizabeth's great value to the nation was continuity. I mean, she's been - she was on the throne for 70 years. So, you know, every coin I've ever spent, every banknote, every stamp I've ever put on a letter has had her face on it. And she's been a constant presence in my life, as she has been in the lives of all British people. I mean, you'd have to be quite old to even really have a proper memory of the reign of her father.

And I suppose that that continuity has a double edge to it for some of us, in that she was also the queen during the very end of the imperial period. You know, she ascended the throne in 1952. And during the early part of her reign, there were very violent, anti-colonial sort of police actions against - you know, against people fighting for their liberation in Kenya, in what was then Malaya - now Malaysia - in Aden, in Cyprus. And so she represented a kind of unbroken continuity between the imperial and the post-imperial period in Britain.

MARTIN: What does that mean for you personally? Your family hails from India. What did imperial rule look like in India?

KUNZRU: Well, my father's side of the family is Indian and my mother's is British. So I have a very strange perspective there. But my father's family has a long tradition of nationalism, of wanting to remove colonial rule and having independence for India. My great-great-uncle was one of the framers of the Indian Constitution in 1947, when it finally did become independent. So it was very important that India have self-determination and have that kind of dignity of not being ruled by the great white queen from overseas. You know, at the same time, my father did then emigrate to the U.K., to England, to work as a doctor - part of a massive flow of people from the former colonies who did come to Britain to work and participate in its life. So, you know, that wish for independence and that wish not to be ruled from afar is not without complications.

And so, I mean, I've grown up in the U.K. with all the tradition and all the pageantry, but also very aware that that pageantry authorizes a certain kind of hierarchy, both by the class hierarchy within the U.K. and, you know - and I suppose you could call it a racial hierarchy more widely. You know, the Empire became the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth has - you know, it's a wonderful word that implies sort of equality amongst nations. But there was still the mother country and the queen as a sort of mother figure, embodying that authority over the former colonies who were, I suppose, you know, sort of the children in that relationship.

MARTIN: You talk about the queen's longevity, her stability, and that not necessarily being of value. I met this woman in Peckham in southeast London yesterday. Originally from Pakistan, she's an older woman, and she had tears in her eyes when she was talking about the queen. She felt this very personal loss. And when I asked her about the legacy of imperial rule and colonialism, she said she very clearly separates Elizabeth the woman from Elizabeth the queen and the monarchy. You do not find that compartmentalization so easy.

KUNZRU: No. And I think it's completely fascinating. There's a very ancient idea in the British monarchy, which is the idea of the king's two bodies. There's the body natural, which is the individual, the person. You know, what she's saying about the - you know, the queen as a woman who was very well liked and was considered to have behaved with dignity and grace. And then there's the body politic, the function, the monarch as having a role within the system of monarchy. And I think for British people, it's been impossible to separate the two for the last, you know, more than half a century because the queen's personal popularity has been very wrapped up with how people feel about the monarchy. And I think now we'll really see that difference, that separation. And I think it's a moment - I mean, right now, I'm sure monarchist feelings are at a real high in Britain. But I think as time goes on, we will have a...

MARTIN: Just because of the moment and the grief and the pageantry of...

KUNZRU: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, I've been watching the procession. And it is a - it's a profound moment of change for the nation. But at the same time, I think it's going to inaugurate a new relationship between the monarchy as an institution and British people. I think we'll look at the sort of post-imperial, post-colonial period under Elizabeth, and we'll see that we have moved on. And maybe there are - there's room for some changes.

MARTIN: Do you think the monarchy itself has had an inability to see its own blind spots? I mean, its actual imperial power has diminished over the last hundred years. But in ways, has it projected an image still of an imperial power?

KUNZRU: Well, I think that's part of its function, is to remind people of this history and of this legacy. And, you know, a lot of people will immediately start talking about tourism and about how people are attracted to come to Britain because of that history. But also, you know, that sort of soft power, I suppose you'd call it, is - you know, is something that is - I mean, you know, it's a threat and a warning, as well. I mean, it is about power and it is about the projection of power internationally. I mean, I think within Britain, there is something I find very troubling about the fact that we still have a class system that is, at least tacitly, associated with the idea of blood - of blue blood, of the royals being at the top of the tree and proximity to them being an important thing.

MARTIN: Just a few seconds.

KUNZRU: And I - you know, I feel that's something that has a certain effect in the life of Britain. And that's something that I've never been comfortable with personally.

MARTIN: Hari Kunzru is the author of nine novels. His most recent book is called "Red Pill." Thank you so much for sharing your perspective with us this morning. We appreciate it.

KUNZRU: Thank you very much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.