An Autobiography of our Times

There is an anecdote describing how Nirad Chaudhuri celebrated his birthday in 1995 à la Jane Austen . Seized by yet another fancy, he decided to mark the day by a celebration which would re-enact a scene from Pride and Prejudice (where Darcy received his lady visitors and served them refreshments). Chaudhuri’s drawing room, decorated in a Victorian style was transformed into Regency England by the placement of a fruit bowl replete with apricots, nectarines, grapes. The guests were made to sit against the wall, ladies on one side, gentlemen on the other, provided with dainty fans with which they fanned themselves as Chaudhuri read the relevant passages from the novel. The celebration ended with jam tarts, game pie and champagne. Interestingly enough, Nirad Chaudhuri wore a dhoti and a panjabi while the invited ladies wore silk sarees—although what dress the other gentlemen wore is not detailed. (An Austen Afternoon, Shrabani Basu in Nirad C. Chaudhuri: The First Hundred Years: A Celebration ed. by Swapan Dasgupta).

Shrabani Basu’s anecdote sums up the essence of Nirad Chaudhuri. Here was a man who exemplified a kind of universal humanism, one who saw nothing surprising in evoking the world of Jane Austen wearing dhoti-panjabi and saree. Photographs of him that are available in books and magazines show him both immaculately dressed in Western attire but also in dhoti. One of them is unique: Nirad Chaudhuri, sitting on the floor of his Oxford house, wearing a dhoti and short punjabi, bent over a plate of rice, separating shingle from grain in a room pretty in chintz and polished glass.

Image credit: Nirad C Chaudhuri, Many Shades, Many Frames – Dhruva N. Chaudhuri, New Delhi, 2011

Chaudhuri called himself “the last Englishman” and whether he was correct in his evaluation is a matter of debate, but it is certain that he was one of the last to embrace a cosmopolitanism that believed in the ideologies and cultural mores of the West, while at the same time being steeped in the sensibilities and mores of India. In this, Nirad Chaudhuri may be said to end what the Rambagan Dutts and Toru Dutt had begun—a perfect syncretic mixture of the Orient and the Occident that privileged England as the centre of the world but was moored towards one’s own tradition.

To read accounts of his boyhood years in Kishorganj, Banagram and Kalikutch is to move through a vanished world where time passed in the fruition of seasons, the coming of spring, summer, the monsoons and then winter, the cycle of Rathyatra, Charak and Durga Pujo, the world of vast gleaming rivers with fishing boats bobbing up and down like seeds, of skies sodden with dark grey rain clouds, of nights sharp with the fragrance of sewlee, champa and gandhoraj. Shut up in our box-like city apartments, Chaudhuri brings back the sense of village Bengal at the turn of the century in a style that is strikingly poetic in appeal. Bibhutibushan Bandopadhyay, the great Bengali writer who evoked this world as poignantly in his Bengali writings, was Chaudhuri’s mess-mate in Calcutta and one can only imagine the two figures lost in conversation about the world they had left behind.

But there in the mud huts of Kishorganj and Banagram, England touched the consciousness of the village world. Milton’s poetry and Shakespeare’s plays stood alongside volumes by Bankim Chandra Chatterji and Michael Madhusudhan Dutt on bookshelves while on the walls there were framed prints of Raphael, of Christ, of British victories in the Boer War. Young boys would come running home from play, whooping and shouting “England expects every man to do his duty” because they had read about the Battle of Trafalgar, and the sensation of river touching the sky in the horizon quickened read memories of this battle gleaned from school textbooks.

It would be incorrect to posit Chaudhuri as a denationalised Anglophile as he is often vilified. The anglicised Bengali had often real contributions to make and to find marks of a slavish adherence in the stream of lawyers, educators and government officials who lived and worked in an aggressive Westernised milieu would be to over simplify things. One finds resemblances with the Dutts before him, and others in the 19th and 20th centuries including Manmohan Ghosh (the more famous Aurobindo’s brother) and Michael Madhusudan Dutt, all of whom could be patriotic and concerned Indian citizens while still having an abstract identification with England. Five centuries ago this would be seen as part of the Liberal Humanist tradition. In the 20th century, however, this was seen as being denationalised.

For Chaudhuri, the problem was compounded by the fact that he attacked certain aspects of 20th century nationalism. That he had the courage to do so shows him as a man of conviction, and despite his childish, often whimsical exaggerations of English-ness he stood up to contemporary Gandhian and Nehruvian models. What he disliked was their reading of Indian history as being one of continuous marauding and exploitation by the structures of British imperialism and their refusal to acknowledge that post-Enlightenment Europe had certain important contributions to make on the Indian mind. To view the colonial state as being completely destructive and evil, with no positive contribution at all was something Chaudhuri was unable to accept.

In a remarkable passage in Chapter Four of The Autobiography of An Unknown Indian, Chaudhuri writes —

“The servility and malice ingrained in every fibre of our being which made us indulge in grotesque antics of alternative genuflexion and defiance before the Englishman persist to this day, and a most striking proof of this persistence was furnished by Mahatma Gandhi himself only one day before the announcement of the final British plan for transferring power to Indians, that is to say, on 2nd June 1947. After bestowing fulsome praise on Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as the uncrowned kind of India and emphasizing with what appeared like a licking of lips that he was a ‘Harrow boy’, ‘Cambridge graduate’, and ‘barrister’, Mahatma Gandhi went on to declare that “our future presidents will not be required to know English.'”

For Nirad Chaudhuri “was savage in his dislike of the new class of Anglicised Indians who stepped into the shoes of the departing British in 1947” and “anticipated the moral fragility of the post-Independence order and its inability to take India forward.”(Introduction, Swapan Dasgupta in Nirad C. Chaudhuri: The First Hundred Years)

In Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri, I remember my grandfather. He was born in 1910 in Barishal, his father also a lawyer and many of the descriptions of provincial life supplied in Chapters One, Two and Three of The Autobiography remind me of my grandfather’s stories. Like Chaudhuri, my grandfather had faith in British systems, was an admirer of Matthew Arnold, described himself as having only one mistress who tempted him more than his wife and described this mistress as the glories of the English language and its literature. Was my grandfather de-nationalised? I think not. Immaculate in crisp dhotipunjabi and jahar coat, he would sit regally at the Calcutta Club, declaiming on Tallulah Bankhead and Tagore, all in the same breath.

Nirad Chaudhuri has found his way back into our lives via, unexpectedly, a newly-constituted English Literature university syllabus. At a time when the world is caught in a strange bind between provincial nationalism and a cosmopolitan non-exhibitionist internationalism, it is time to re-read The Autobiograpghy of an Unknown Indian. Chaudhuri teaches us that it is folly to swagger and swear in the latest Paris fashion, shallow and supercilious as we make our way unthinkingly through a globalised internet-fired post-pandemic world order, passing judgement on this and that, unthinkingly, unknowingly, sans reading, knowledge, judgement, understanding. It is time to embrace new worlds but to stay rooted in our own.

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