Books: Cultural Amnesia — Nirad C Chaudhuri |
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Born in East Bengal in 1897, Nirad C. Chaudhuri lived for a hundred years, which meant that for almost the whole of the twentieth century one of the great masters of English prose was an Indian: and of Indian masters of English prose, Chaudhuri was by a long way the most distinguished. He was granted that title even by other writers of Indian background who might well have claimed something like it for themselves: V. S. Naipaul, Anita Desai, Zulfikar Ghose. They revered him even when they disagreed with him. Chaudhuri himself never set foot outside India until 1955, for a trip to the centre of the old British Empire—rapidly shrinking at the time—that he had always infuriated many of his compatriots by more admiring than not. His short book about that short visit, A Passage to England, gives us the essence of his limpid style and historical range. But readers should not be afraid to tackle at least two of his longer books. Thy Hand, Great Anarch!, his account of the crucial years in Indian history between 1921 and 1952, is one of the indispensable historical works of the century, and The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian is rich in self-examination, unfailingly hard-headed in its liberal sweep, and true in every detail except its title. If ever there was a known Indian, it was Chaudhuri. His decision to live out the last act of his life in Britain had profound impliciations for some of his fellow Indian intellectuals. Many of them resented it. But his belief in India’s importance to the world remained beyond question.

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My notion of what is proper and honest between Englishmen and Indians today is clear-cut and decisive. I feel that the only course of conduct permissible to either side in their political and public relations at the present moment is an honourable taciturnity. The rest must be left to the healing powers of Time.


IN EARLY 2002, British Prime Minister Tony Blair might have profited if his Foreign Office brief had included this quotation. He might have been a bit less ready to lecture his Indian and Pakistani opposite numbers on the advisability of cooling down. The advice was received with polite disdain: the best that could be hoped for. It was Blair’s lucky day. After the Indian Mutiny, cheeky Sepoys were tied across a cannon’s mouth preparatory to its being fired. The hankering for a comparable decisiveness must surely linger. Another use for the quotation, and one we can all put into effect, is to remind us that Chaudhuri, while he valued the connection with Britain, had no rosy view of its effects: he was never a lickspittle for the Raj. In Thy Hand, Great Anarch! he recounts how Britain manoeuvred to get India’s cooperation during World War II without having to promise independence. On the other hand, he came down hard on the counterproductive intransigence of India’s political parties, especially of the Congress party. If Congress had cooperated with Britain during the war, he says, it might have prevented partition afterwards. Nehru, not Gandhi, is Chaudhuri’s villain. In Chaudhuri’s picture, Gandhi retreats into the background while Nehru, between 1939 and 1947, stands forward as “the wordmonger par excellence.”

The Indian intelligentsia, says Chaudhuri, wanted Britain weakened but not defeated. Like the Trinidad-born writer C. L. R. James, whose message to the Third World was that it should learn from the First, Chaudhuri offered no automatic comfort to the old Empire’s self-renewing supply of angry radicals. Most of Chaudhuri’s political talk means discomfort for someone, usually for India’s intellectuals. Many big subcontinental names have admired him, but you can’t imagine any of them not dropping the book and whistling at some point, especially when he reaches the conclusion (and his writings in toto reach no other) that Britain made India possible. The best reason to whistle, however, is the quality of his prose. Ten pages into The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, he’s already snared you. “The rain came down in what looked like already packed formations of enormously long pencils of glass and hit the bare ground.” If he had lived long enough, W. G. Sebald would probably have got the Nobel Prize for writing like that. Chaudhuri’s prize was to live for a hundred years, retain a rock-pool clarity of mind, and spend his extreme old age in England, surrounded by the foreign language he loved best, and of which he was a master.

Chaudhuri and Sebald might seem a strange coupling, but more united them than their choice of England as a place of voluntary exile. Chaudhuri was a character from one of Sebald’s books: like Austerlitz in Austerlitz, Chaudhuri could develop a philosophical theme out of a long study of practical detail. Similarly, Sebald was a character out of Thomas Mann. If you ever find yourself wondering where you have heard Sebald’s infallibly precise memory speak before, think of the enchanting and omniscient Saul Fitelberg in Doktor Faustus. There are tones that connect authors in exile, and that give them a single country to inhabit: the country of the mind. The difference is in the timing. Chaudhuri and Sebald were looking back on shattered civilizations. So was Thomas Mann, but with Fitelberg he could make the character prescient. In Doktor Faustus the end has not yet come. The character can foresee it because the forces that will lead to disintegration are the first he feels. Chaudhuri’s prescience was about a future that had not yet happened, and is happening only now. By the mere act of writing such a richly reflective prose, he suggested that a civilization continues through the humane examination of its history, which was its real secret all along.