Remembering India

The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian and now its successor, Thy Hand, Great Anarch!, give a portrait of the slow but triumphant self-discovery of a powerful writer. During this process, Nirad Chaudhuri was in the grip of dramatic public events in India. Independence and the partition of the con tinent in 1948 were widely hailed as states manship and the reparation of imperial wrongdoing, but Chaudhuri drew quite another conclusion—that his country had no future.
The British and their counterparts, the Indian nationalists, in his view, had con trived a ruin for which ordinary people had to pay. Slogans about progress and mo dernity concealed corruption and decadence. Having escaped, Chaudhuri now lives in England, in a mood befitting a wise man of “stern, almost exultant despair.”
One of the numerous books to have influenced Chaudhuri was The Decline of the West, and he may be seen as an Indian Spengler with a belief in the predestination of history. Granted the nature of the British and the Indians alike, he thinks, misunder standings between them could only have ended in tragedy. With hindsight, it can be suggested that the British had no need to dig a pit for themselves, but at the time they could not have behaved except as they did. Yet the role of chance in his own literary evolution obliges Chaudhuri to take responsibility for himself and his achieve ment with a pride which is entirely justified. These books illuminate the mysterious area between literature and politics and individ ual character.
A large part of Chaudhuri’s development rested initially on an adoption of heroic models. It seems marvelous that he could have found them in Kishorganj, where he was born in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. This small town on a river in Bengal was divided into Hindu and Muslim communities immemorially settled in their ways, contented, yet about to be shaken and destroyed by a violence that nobody could have imagined.
There never was a time, Chaudhuri recalls, when he did not know who were the leading personalities of the day, from the Queen and Empress herself to her ministers and generals. The likes of Napoleon, Raphael, Milton, and Burke were household names. His father, part lawyer and part merchant, read him a passage from Shakespeare and made him recite it by heart. Bengalis by the thousand took for granted such familiarity with the world’s high culture, it seems, and the Chaudhuri family was by no means ex ceptional. The youthful Nirad found models of enlightenment in Lytton Strachey, Middleton Murry, Percy Lubbock, and others. In order to read Sorel or Aulard, as well as Rémy de Gourmont and above all Julien Benda, a freethinker like himself, he learned French. Next came German, for the sake of Bernheim’s Lehrbuch der historischen Methode (“Textbook on the Historical Method”).
This formidable autodidact writes a splendid rhetorical prose, adorned with quotations and allusions caught on the wing from his eminent peers. Among the multi farious subjects to have fired his imagination was artillery, especially the design of breech blocks, and naval history, French wines, the origins of man, the Latin names of trees and plants, the growth of Calcutta and Delhi, and Western music. Here was someone ab sorbing equally The Times Literary SupplementThe Aeroplane, and The Gramophone. When he found himself alone with the wife who had been married to him according to customary arrangements between families, he asked her to spell Beethoven.
Such a dynamo for acquiring knowledge had an inappropriate frame. Chaudhuri pokes fun at himself as someone just above five feet, weak in physique. At various times he was ill and hungry, with only his father and brothers between him and destitution. Even in the tightest of squeezes, however, he continued to buy books on credit, or a box of educational bricks for his son. It is typical of his combative humor that he describes with delight how he once kicked downstairs a man who offered him a bribe, and also how he beat another, who had insulted him for being a “servant,” until this fellow wept. “Gandhi suggested the primitive primate tarsier to me,” is a good example of how Chaudhuri combines style and outlook. This passage continues, “But a beatific unworldly look suffused what was basically mere animal innocence,” concluding with the sweep, “There was not a trace on his face of the repulsive arrogance which disfigures the face of every Hindu holy man.” He likes play fulness, too, as in a chapter entitled “Mount Batten piled on Mount Attlee.”
It was all very well to be a strong-minded individualist and libertarian with marked literary tastes, Chaudhuri realized early, but he had to find a proper outlet, too. Moving to Calcutta, he was first a clerk in a department of military accounts, and then a journalist. His first published articles were in English in 1925 and in his native Bengali two years later. So hard was it to advance in literary circles that he is perhaps over anxious in his memoirs to fight again some battles of long ago and far away, reprinting articles which prove him to have been right.
If Chaudhuri was unpopular or marginal, did the fault lie in him or in circumstances? Gradually he sensed that the political climate between the wars was thwarting and de pressing not just him but everyone else as well. A complete reappraisal was needed of the relationship between India and Great Britain.
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