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The Last Laugh

So there was Chaudhuri, lover of Mozart, Pascal, Burke, Wordsworth, and Dante, ruled by Englishmen whose intellectual tastes were adequately served by Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads. Their fantasy of Englishness did not include the literary Bengali babus, for whom they felt contempt and distrust. More congenial to the British New Imperialists were the brave and philistine warriors of the northern frontiers, Muslims whose tribal pride mirrored the “muscular Christianity” of the British. The British mission civilatrice had run into the sand and Chaudhuri felt betrayed: “Any exhibition of knowledge of European life, civilization or history drove the British community in India to make the gesture which peasant boys in India make at a passing train. They expose themselves and wave their hips.”

The fantasy of Englishness had the unfortunate effect that Indians, especially Bengalis, retreated into fantasies of their own, the fantasy of ancient India, a civilization whose magnificence put even its modern, humiliated descendants on an unassailable plane, or the fantasy of superior spirituality, beyond the reach of the materialist West. Bengali intellectuals, made defensive by English contempt, often became showoffs, ridiculed by Kipling in The Jungle Book. (It is a weakness that Chaudhuri points out and, it must be said, often exemplifies.) Kipling likened Bengali intellectuals to monkeys, the Bandar Log. When Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for a book in English in 1913, Kipling remarked in a letter to Rider Haggard: “Well, whose fault is it that the Babu is what he is? We did it. We began in Macaulay’s time. We have worked without intermission to make this Caliban.” Caliban would have his revenge by gloating over every British setback during the two world wars, a show of petty hatred that disgusted Chaudhuri as much as did British arrogance.

Chaudhuri felt the British contempt particularly keenly because he believed in the mission civilatrice. He took Queen Victoria at her word when she said the imperial mission was “to protect the poor natives and advance civilization.” He can still say without a hint of self-consciousness that “I remain a Bengali, an Indian, an Englishman, while being a citizen of the world.” He is the embodiment of the highest imperial ideal, a man Queen Victoria would have been deeply proud of, and precisely for that reason a man utterly out of sync with modern India. “L’Inde c’est moi,” he wrote in his first autobiography. Perhaps “Bengal c’est moi” would have been more accurate, but even that may have been too wide a net in which to catch this lifelong maverick. He thought of giving his latest book the title “One Man against his People.” He gave that up, though, because, as he put it, he is not against any people, but against historical trends.

Chaudhuri’s defense of imperialism is interesting and not easily to be dismissed. Empires are by definition hierarchical, but also cosmopolitan (one of the greatest promoters of the British Empire, Benjamin Disraeli, was a Levantine Jew): “There is no empire without a conglomeration of linguistically, racially, and culturally different nationalities and the hegemony of one of them over the rest. The heterogeneity and the domination are of the very essence of imperial relations.” But this domination, in Chaudhuri’s view, is perfectly justified if power is exercised morally, indeed to protect the poor natives and advance civilization. Chaudhuri distinguishes imperialism from mere colonialism. The conquest of the Americas, and the consequent slaughter of the native population, was colonialism. The Roman Empire and the British Raj worked to the benefit of all.

History, says Chaudhuri, “had shown empires as protectors and reclaimers of civilization, and empires had taken over the keepership of civilizations when its creators had become incapable of maintaining them.” To a Calcutta Bhadralok this may have been so, but does history show it to be generally true? The Romans might have been the keepers of Greek civilization, but did the Manchus who founded the Qing Dynasty help to preserve Chinese high culture? Who was to blame for the steady degeneration of that same culture into kitsch? Has the Soviet Empire been a good keeper of the high culture of Mitteleuropa? Did the Japanese imperialists, whose courage Chaudhuri admired, do much for the culture of Chinese and Koreans? Did Javanese culture thrive under the Dutch?

It is true that empires impose order and often preserve native elites, whose assistance they require. The Manchus did that and so did the Dutch and the British. The Soviets, of course, did not—they murdered the old guard. The British Raj, despite its skill at dividing to rule, kept the peace in India better than its Indian successors have done. So, for that matter, did Soviet imperial rule; it is only now that Moscow’s grip is loosening that serious ethnic strife, repressed for so long, is starting up again. But that is the trouble with empires. They tend to freeze the existing social order artificially; social conflicts are not solved but frozen into place. Old elites are kept in power, symbolically, without retaining real authority; their high culture survives but becomes lifeless. New hybrid elites, the compradors and middlemen, are created in the imperialists’ own image. But as soon as the imperial rulers leave, the tensions break out again, the high culture turns to dust, the new elites find themselves isolated and betrayed and in the unlucky event of a revolution up against the execution wall.

This does not excuse the way in which Britain left India. Chaudhuri is quite right to feel bitter about Attlee and Lord Mountbatten, the Richard Attenborough of the Empire’s dying days, more interested in his own liberal image than in the consequences of his actions. India was left wholly unprepared for the mass migrations and massacres that came with partition. But I am not convinced that prolonging British rule would have done all that much for the things that Chaudhuri holds dear.

Chaudhuri is an unashamed elitist, as were the great writers of the Bengali Renaissance. Tagore, he says, “never had any friendliness for anybody who did not belong to an elite.” Bankim Chandra Chatterji, Bengal’s first novelist, and a Hindu nationalist, wrote, to Chaudhuri’s approval, “It is, indeed, a matter of hope for the Bengali people that they are imitating the English.” But, writes Chaudhuri, also with approval, what Chatterji “wholly condemned and regarded as despicable was imitation by those who were devoid of talent.” And, still on a high cultural note, when Chaudhuri himself learned to appreciate European classical music, he observed that “if I had heard pop music then, my chance encounter with European music would not have had any sequel. A man moored to the highest in one’s own culture does not go over to barbarism, nor is he beaten by it, even if it were as strong as King Kong.”

Chaudhuri’s favorite word of condemnation is “crude.” Bengali revolutionaries were crude. Middle-class Indians are crude. The British in India were crude. The British in their own country today are crude. Crude people cannot be good rulers. They cannot advance civilization. And so Congress rule in India is turning the country into “a Caribbean island on a continental scale.”

There is a seeming contradiction between Chaudhuri’s elitism and his assertion that the greatest betrayal by the British was their leaving India without having achieved a social transformation of Indian society. But there is no real contradiction there. Chaudhuri’s elitism has little to do with class. He did not think his own class, the upper-middle-class Hindus, were fit to rule, for they only looked after their own interests. But neither did he have any trust in the Indian masses, or any masses for that matter, for they did not understand politics; all they knew was communal hatred, which should be kept in check at all times, if necessary by force. Gandhi’s greatest crime, in Chaudhuri’s eyes, is that by mobilizing the masses he effectively unleashed the primitive emotions that the British had kept under control for so long. Chaudhuri’s elite, the only one fit to rule, is a cultural and moral aristocracy. Only this enlightened elite could have effected a social transformation, from the top on down, with the help and might of the British, but this, as we know, was denied them.

Gandhi tried to do the exact opposite: he had no time for high culture, indeed he tried by example to return India to the primitive level of folk religion and the spinning wheel. His transformation had to come from the bottom up. Chaudhuri does not deny that Gandhi was a moral man, but “even after the best had been said about it, it still remained the morality of the servus, very pure and lofty certainly, none the less bearing in all its manifestations the unmistakable stamp of its lowly origin.” But that was of course Gandhi’s whole point. Only through the morality of the servus could he make the Indian masses feel proud of themselves.

Chaudhuri’s defense of high culture is deeply antidemocratic:

Neither biological evolution nor human history reveals anything like equal status for all. They do not bear witness to the achievement of anything good, great, wise, abiding, or new, by the exercise of the equal vote. The cosmic process is revealed as a living and evergrowing pyramid, whose apex is rising higher and higher, leaving more and more strata underneath.

This idea, owing as much to the influence of Darwin as to Burke, went out of fashion some time ago. Perhaps that is a sign of decadence. If so, democracy advances if not political then certainly cultural decadence. And it is true that aristocrats of the spirit are going through hard times everywhere. But even that is, if Professor Allan Bloom will forgive the expression, relative: nowhere are the fruits of high culture so abundantly available as in the democracies of the decadent West; and many of those fruits were sown in democracies, beginning with ancient Greece. Still, when the Attlee government decided to relinquish British power in India the preservation of high culture was not high on its list of goals; the very idea of a mission civilatrice had become an embarrassment. Britain was not prepared to rule by force, because it no longer seemed moral to do so. Instead it was hoped that the instruments and institutions of law and democracy would last beyond the Raj. And, to an astonishing degree, despite corruption, economic mismanagement, political demagogery, and communal violence, it has turned out that way. India is still a functioning democracy, one of the few in Asia. This might have resulted in a loss of aristocratic values, but it is perhaps a price worth paying.

It would be hard to convince Chaudhuri of that, however. His sense of betrayal goes too deep. It is a sign of his decency and common sense that, unlike some European participants of the Kulturkampf against democratic vulgarity, Chaudhuri never fell for fascist poseurs in fancy uniforms. There were plenty of them in Bengal; Gandhi’s greatest political rival was the Bengali politician Subhas Chandra Bose, known to his followers as Netaji, the Bengali word for FĂźhrer.

Chaudhuri’s revenge against his betrayers was more subtle than that. In 1970 he moved to Britain, where he is not just a cantankerous old fellow, let alone totally irrelevant, but a literary celebrity. His newly found role is to castigate his former masters for their crudeness, ignorance, and illiterate philistinism. The Bengali babu has finally come into his own as an arbiter elegantiarum in the pages of the Tory press. “Why I Mourn For England” was the headline to a recent piece in The Daily Telegraph in which Chaudhuri analyzed the decay of the English mind by pointing out the sloppy, ungrammatical, imprecise use of the English language as it is spoken by the British today. He has great sport by inserting literary allusions which he refuses to identify and which he can be quite sure few of his readers will recognize.

Seventy years ago in Bengal Chaudhuri was hurt by the contemptuous laughter of arrogant Englishmen who mocked him for knowing more about their culture than they did. Now he has the last laugh. But irony still finds a way of catching up with its most elusive targets. Now that every politician feels compelled to talk about “values” again, Nirad C. Chaudhuri is fast becoming the very thing he had avoided with such success for ninety years: fashionable.


In Fancy Uniform March 16, 1989

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