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The Last of His Kind

Memoirist, scholar, biographer, historian, critic, and polemicist: Nirad Chaudhuri, who died on August 1, 1999, at the age of 101, assumed many different roles in the course of his writing life. But his best-known work is The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, which described his passage to adulthood against the backdrop of provincial Bengal and Calcutta, and also offered a personal reading of modern Indian history.1

Published in 1951, when Chaudhuri was already fifty-four years old, the book represented an extraordinary triumph over his circumstances. Most of Chaudhuri’s life had been drab and mean. As a student and clerk in Calcutta in the early years of this century, he had rarely ceased to struggle with “poverty, want, and humiliation.” It was his passion for art and scholarship—the anticipation of future intellectual discoveries—that had kept him going. He had read widely, and always with an eye on his own surroundings and past. The reading nourished his latent powers, opened him to new ways of looking and feeling he couldn’t have otherwise known in his colonial setting, where men took for granted, and hardly ever saw through, their state of intellectual and emotional subjection. In these circumstances, Chaudhuri’s growing knowledge was, as he himself wrote, “comparable to the snail’s, gained through his tender horns and guarded jealously within his shelly cave.” This steady self-fashioning accounts for the strikingly bold design of The Autobiography, where Chaudhuri, a lowly toiler at All India Radio in Delhi, presented his modest life as a window onto the tumultuous events of the anti-colonial struggle.

In England, the book found appreciative readers (Winston Churchill was one of them), and formed the basis for Chaudhuri’s later reputation as an intellectual freak and polymath, an eccentric connoisseur and sentinel of European civilization. But in India, the book, although not much read, was reviled, and Chaudhuri was denounced as a lackey of the British. The main reason for this was Chaudhuri’s belief, which he set out while dedicating the book to the memory of the British Empire in India, that “all that was good and living within us” was “made, shaped, and quickened” by British rule.

This sounds more politically incorrect today when the tendency is to define those affected by the empires of the past as helpless victims. But it is also much easier now to see what Chaudhuri meant. Growing up in a backwater town in the province of Bengal, he had convinced himself early that his future lay in apprenticing himself to European civilization, which had exported to India—by way of the complicated medium of British colonialism—some of its own nineteenth-century dynamism. The institutions of learning, the scientific advances and social philosophies introduced to India in the century Chaudhuri was born lie even today at the basis of India’s modern identity. Many eminent Indians of the time hoped that a new civilization in India would grow out of the contact with the best of what was being thought and said in the West. (This nineteenth-century idea of progress was echoed by the unlikely figure of Karl Marx, who believed that British colonialism, exploitative as it was, had still given India a chance to join the modern world.) Chaudhuri perhaps overstated the case in his dedication, and other writings, but he did not wish to leave unacknowledged the British role in creating—if only inadvertently—a whole new range of human possibilities in India.

Tragically for Chaudhuri, the Europe-inspired Indian renaissance of the nineteenth century was confined to a small elite in Bengal (the Anglophilic gentry trapped in its country houses and Calcutta mansions was to become a subject for the filmmaker Satyajit Ray, himself a uniquely late product of the Anglo-Bengali encounter). The genteel-bourgeois idealism of this renaissance—self-culture through Pas-cal and Mozart and Mill—barely survived the nineteenth century, when it was overwhelmed by the neo-Hindu mass-based nationalism that found its greatest exponent in Gandhi.

By the time Chaudhuri grew up, both sides had lost faith in the Anglo-Indian partnership; and he came to see the incomplete—or worse, half-hearted—Europeanization of India as a betrayal of a high cultural ideal. He blamed the racial arrogance of the British as much as the rabble-rousing of the new nationalists; and he distrusted the Gandhi-led freedom movement, to which he was an especially close witness as secretary to a senior colleague of Gandhi from Bengal. He claimed to have discovered an innate xenophobia and jingoism among the masses Gandhi attracted to the movement; he saw Gandhi as exalting the worst aspects of a decayed Hinduism—self-righteousness, apathy, and empty moralism—which he predicted would be a dead weight in independent India.

These views, expressed just four years after Indian independence, were attacked instantly by historians who were busy creating new myths for Indian nationalism, packaging, among other things, India’s newly acquired freedom as a triumph of Gandhian nonviolence. Chaudhuri also antagonized Indian intellectuals by speaking out spiritedly against the shallow Westernization of India that Pandit Nehru, according to him, embodied and patronized. This lack of reverence for both Gandhi and Nehru was a very serious heresy at the time: it not only made all official recognition or patronage impossible for Chaudhuri—a great handicap in a third world country where it is hard to make a living as an unaffiliated writer—but also set almost the entire Indian intelligentsia against him.

Chaudhuri, however, kept up his attacks against the new rulers of India. He lived then in a tiny cramped house in old Delhi, and out on the dirty narrow streets his impeccable suits and hats made him a figure of fun. People heckled him, shouting “left-right, left-right,” as the small, delicately built Chaudhuri walked down the street in his brisk “European” manner. In crowded Delhi buses, fellow passengers wishing to know the time would lift his wrist without asking him, and then let it drop.

He escaped to England in 1970 and never returned to India. But England disappointed his high expectations. It now seems that he had fallen victim to an old kind of colonial misunderstanding and overestimation. Chaudhuri had read any number of books about his beloved European civilization; but he had failed to accept it as an evolving, ever-changing entity. The simple-minded hedonism Chaudhuri saw around himself in the 1970s—London still swinging in long hair and bellbottoms—was very remote from the refinements and graces of the Victorian/Edwardian high culture he had come to cherish in India as the very essence of England. Chaudhuri’s disenchantment recalls that of the other great exile in England, the Russian writer Alexander Herzen. Feeling trapped within their own relatively stagnant societies, Chaudhuri and Herzen came to Europe imbued with their enthusiastic readings in European literature and philosophy, and then found that Europe had moved on.

Chaudhuri did make a life in England. He had several friends in Oxford, where he lived for close to three decades. He found generous and loyal publishers: Chatto and Windus published without any major cuts the second volume of his autobiography, Thy Hand, Great Anarch!, which was more than one thousand pages long and clearly had no prospects of commercial success (Chaudhuri’s royalties from it, as well as from the rest of his books, were small).2

He wrote many other books. These are of varying quality. But there is no better Indian record of the early years of this century than the one found in The Autobiography, which is a masterpiece of descriptive and analytic prose. Chaudhuri displayed the skills of the imaginative writer, alert to landscape and mood as well as to individual motives and impulses in great historical moments. The chapters set in rural Bengal convey the child’s sense of wonder at his big unknown world with an intensity and precision that recall Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches. Here is Chaudhuri describing his first trip to his mother’s village. It is very dark; Chaudhuri, just six years old, is being carried in a doolie, a rustic version of a palanquin:

The bearers stepped unevenly, not only on account of the darkness but also because they had to walk over reaped rice-fields left with stubble. With the bearers, the doolies also jolted violently, and the little smoking lamps swung from side to side, giving out even more smoke than they normally give. The only place which seemed to be lighted was the sky, which we saw as a vast blue-black, solid dome above us. The men occasionally talked, but the most constant sound was the barking of pariah dogs—it was the long, trilled and nearly musical bark which they give forth after dark. The barkings seemed to come from all points of the horizon and from equal distances, so that we derived the impression that the dogs were standing in an immense circle along the line where the sky met the earth.

In his scholarly books, the biographies of the German scholar Max Müller and the British adventurer Robert Clive, he was held back by his own erudition; he seemed unable to shake off the influence of his intellectual heroes: Mommsen, Eduard Meyer, Wilamowitz-Moellendorff. Rigorously classical in structure and prose, the biographies lack that special Chaudhuri quirkiness which enlivened the relatively short books he published: The Intellectual in India, where Chaudhuri underlined the risks of independent thinking in India; To Live or Not to Live, in which he exposed the stultifying claustrophobia of the Hindu social system and advocated a fuller engagement with life; and The Continent of Circe, where he elaborated further on the reasons—degenerate Hinduism and debased Europeanization—behind the country’s general malaise. In the second volume of his autobiography and in the travel book A Passage to England, he continued to speak uninhibitedly on his big theme: the failure of the Anglo-Indian encounter and the related Indian failure to create a living culture or modern identity.

His candor, in fact, was his great strength. He was often verbose, out of the fear that his reader wouldn’t get his original and complicated ideas. He also generalized far too recklessly (the autodidact’s vice): his study of Hinduism, for instance, was full of idle speculations about whether the main ideas of the Bhagavad-Gita were derived from the Bible. But such slippages from his usual standards of intellectual precision and honesty were rare; and even when wrong he was never less than stimulating. He despised the easy route of secondhand knowledge. His fastidiousness could be perverse: the quotations from Latin literature, for instance, that he left untranslated in his books. When some clumsy attempts were made recently to present him as an advocate of Hindu nationalism, he was quick and emphatic in his rejection. He could detect the philistinism—the ignorance, mimicry, and confusion—that lay behind the invocations of the classical Indian past.

However, toward the end, the same unyielding outlook also made him incapable of accommodating the last of the many changes he had witnessed in his long life. Regret for the past and distaste for the present had been a constant with Chaudhuri. He had also shown much equanimity at times of stress; the derision and scorn he suffered in India had embittered him surprisingly little. But he now developed an extreme aversion to the modern world. This had its effect on his writing. He began to sound cranky; he became an even more obsessive decline-spotter and decadence-sniffer. His last book, Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse (published when he was 100), is a sad record of his alienation. His style lost its graceful clarity as he went on in a quasi-Spenglerian way about the decline, decadence, and barbarism of various civilizations. He raged against short skirts, America, Englishwomen wearing jewelry, and abortion. Not surprisingly, the book couldn’t find a publisher in either England or America.

His loneliness—the loneliness of a man carrying too many worlds inside him—grew more acute after the death of his wife a few years ago. He seemed to long for company, and was very high-spirited with visitors, whom he interrogated relentlessly, showing off his learning in the process with child-like delight. Jeremy Lewis, the biographer of Cyril Connolly and a first-time guest at Chaudhuri’s North Oxford home, was subjected to an audio examination on Western classical music; his wife was reprimanded for not holding her wine glass by the stem. Have you read Stendhal? he asked me on my first meeting with him. I had only to say yes before he started quizzing me on the friendship between the traveler Victor Jacquemont and Stendhal. He then went on to deplore my poor knowledge of Sanskrit (What kind of a Brahmin are you?). My companion, a biologist by training, was examined about an animal in Africa that possessed both male and female genitals.

They don’t read my books in Indiaå? he told me. But he was wrong. Most of his books, discovered by a younger generation of readers, are back in print. In the Fifties and Sixties, his ideas had provoked all the cultural defensiveness and resentful pride of a young, immature nation. After fifty years of independence and several experiences of defeat and disillusionment, many Indians recognize Chaudhuri as having got a lot of things right very early on: for instance, Hindu xenophobia and jingoism are alive and flourishing; the iconic figures of Gandhi and Nehru, once so exalted, have faded into irrelevance; the dominant culture in India remains a borrowing from the West, and its main emblems are not Pascal or Mozart but MTV and Coca-Cola.

Chaudhuri predicted all this a long time ago; and he had no guides, no ready-made theories of globalizationå? to support his insights. He relied on his own experience and vision—the vision of the self-created man who looks at everything afresh. Attached to no cause or institution, Chaudhuri brought a nineteenth-century purity and dedication to the art of self-cultivation; the last Indian of his kind, he was also the last of the great freelance intellectuals of this century. To be once déraciné, he used to say, is to be forever on the road. Having exiled himself from both his home and his adopted country, he was still on the road, living and ennobling the life of the mind, when he died early last month.

  1. 1

    The Autobiography is back in print in the UK (Picador, 1999).

  2. 2

    Reviewed in these pages by Ian Buruma, The New York Review, December 8, 1988, pp. 12-16.

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