The Last Laugh

Thy Hand, Great Anarch! India 1921–1952

by Nirad C. Chaudhuri
Addison-Wesley, 979 pp., $29.95

Nirad C. Chaudhuri
Nirad C. Chaudhuri; drawing by David Levine

Nirad C. Chaudhuri is in many ways a most unusual Indian. Fellow Indians tend to dismiss him with a casual flick of the wrist. “Oh, him,” said a journalist from Bombay, whose opinion I sought, “just a cantankerous old fellow.” A more charitable Bengali scholar called him “a kind of museum piece, a nineteenth-century relic.”

Chaudhuri, ninety years old, has spent a lifetime kicking against the myths and shibboleths held by the majority of his countrymen: he has ridiculed the pacifism of Mahatma Gandhi; he has exposed Hinduism as a form of xenophobic power-worship; he has castigated Indian nationalism for being corrupt, self-seeking, and destructive; he has mocked the pretentions of Anglicized Indians, and vented his spleen at the stupidity and philistinism of the British in India, while at the same time beginning his first and most famous book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian,1 with the following dedication:

To the memory of the British Empire in India, which conferred subject-hood on us but withheld citizenship, to which yet every one of us threw out the challenge Civis Britannicus sum, because all that was good and living within us was made, shaped, and quickened by the same British rule.

It was this sentiment, perhaps more than anything else, that most irritated Indians, not to mention British liberals, the former because of nationalist pride, the latter for reasons of colonial guilt, or, as Chaudhuri himself would put it, degeneracy of national character.

“Just a cantankerous old fellow.” “Totally irrelevant.” “A reactionary relic.” No matter how often these mantras of dismissal were recited, Chaudhuri refused to go away or shut up. His voice is as strong, idiosyncratic, erudite, garrulous, and at times cantankerous as ever. His latest chronicle of the intellectual life and times of a no longer unknown Indian is almost a thousand pages long. Indians, as Chaudhuri himself tells us, and as anybody who has ever sat next to an unknown Indian on a plane or train will know, love to talk. It testifies to Chaudhuri’s eloquence, wit, and intellectual brilliance that he can go on at such length without once becoming a bore.

Chaudhuri’s theme is decadence. It permeates everything he writes. “It is a fatality with me,” he writes in the introduction, “that wherever I go the spectre of decadence treads at my heels like the Foul Fiend.” The title itself, a quotation from Alexander Pope, refers to this foul fiend: “Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall; / And Universal Darkness buries All!” In his first book, he already described the decadence of Bengal, specifically the decline of high culture in Calcutta, which flowered briefly in the nineteenth century, inspired by Western learning that came with British rule. This decline, in Chaudhuri’s account, is but part of a larger decadence, that of the British Empire itself, which, like all decadent empires, “ceased…

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