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.
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 …