Evaluating a century

Print edition : November 29, 1997

Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad C. Chaudhuri (special birth centenary edition), Viking in association with Jaico Publishing House, Delhi, 1997, pages xiv+479, Rs. 500.

Nirad C. Chaudhuri, The First Hundred Years: A Celebration, Swapan Dasgupta (ed), HarperCollins Publishers India, Delhi, 1997, Rs 195, pp xx+141.

NOSTALGIA is often a creative instinct, at least when it does not unhinge objectivity and dissolve the critical faculties. Individual memories that retain the vibrancy of experience could be a valuable social resource, a serious contribution to the continual process of relocating the past as the lineage of the present.

On November 23, Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri, acerbic social critic, tireless dissenter and distinguished man of letters, achieved the fullness of a hundred years, his pugnacious spirit unbowed by the passage of years. Except in impetuous youth and even then only as part of a current, he has chosen not to be an intimate participant in the great historical processes that he has been witness to. He held himself aloof and deployed his formidable powers of observation to chronicle the events of a life spent self-consciously as a part of history. Many of Chaudhuri's major works bear insistent reference to his own social moorings and take the explicit form of autobiography. This may, to some, indicate a rather excessive degree of self-indulgence. But for anybody who is willing to engage with these works on their own terms, they represent valuable historical documents. Indeed, their relevance arises equally from their documentary and curiosity value, in that they map the perceptions of an individual whose basic attitudes retain an anchorage in a social milieu that, when not long past, is recognisably a creation of the imagination.

Chaudhuri has in his lifespan seen the first awakenings of nationalist agitation in India, the years of ripening political consciousness and the fruition of these yearnings in national independence. The first of his major works appeared shortly afterwards - Autobiography of an Unknown Indian - published four years after Independence, when the author was at the relatively advanced age of 54. The genre of the autobiography may have seemed a rather odd choice for a person who was admittedly then of less than considerable renown. But Chaudhuri's memoirs were more than a series of reminiscences - in its detailed characterisation of the ethos of a whole age and in its dissection of the process of formation of a nation's identity, it transcended the genre of the autobiography. What the author failed to transcend were his own social origins, his limited exposure to the world and his own restricted vision of history as the preserve of the high-born.

THE Autobiography never quite made it to anybody's recommended reading list. Those were days of nationalist optimism, of an enlightened leadership willing a young nation into a sense of belief in its manifest destiny. It was a context in which Chaudhuri's invocation of the glories of the British empire in his book dedication quite simply put him beyond the pale. It followed that all his work, which was deemed to suffer from the original sin of his first published volume, was never given the minimum that was its due - a fair and balanced assessment. The centenary reissue of the Autobiography is for this reason a welcome event, which defines the terms for a fresh engagement between Chaudhuri, now in self-contented exile in England, and a nation which is just completing its first half century in a state of considerable emotional stress and turmoil.

AS a child growing up in pastoral Bengal, the certitudes of the imperial order were a source of emotional reassurance and sustenance. In an often violent milieu, says Chaudhuri, there "was consolation and security in the clear feeling which all of us had that these terrifying aspects of the world constituted only a thin layer between two more solid ones." One of these was the underlying substratum of religion and morality, "to which in the last resort everybody returned." But by far the greater sense of security came from the overarching framework of Imperial Britain: "Overhead there appeared to be, coinciding with the sky, an immutable sphere of justice and order, brooding sleeplessly over what was happening below, and swooping down on it when certain limits were passed. Its arm seemed to be long and all-powerful, and it passed by different names among us. The common people still called it the Company, others Queen Victoria, and the educated the Government."

These were the comforting certainties that "vanished at one stroke with the coming of the nationalist agitation in 1905." Chaudhuri was in the recklessness of youth, often swept up in the fervour of the times. As a ten-year old, he recollects, he was once involved in a passionate argument with a school-fellow on whether the country would be able to keep its independence when (or if) it was won. Chaudhuri's mother, who was called in to arbitrate, pronounced that if the country could win its independence by driving the English out, it would also retain it. In later years, with the benefit of retrospective judgment, Chaudhuri was not quite so convinced that in "the process of extorting (its) independence" the country had also acquired the "strength which would be adequate to preserve it."

CHAUDHURI'S recollections always display a strong overlay of environmental factors. In this reading of his personal development, detachment from the ancestral village of Banagram and the childhood milieu of Kishorganj were decisive events: "When once torn up from my natural habitat I became liberated from the habitat altogether; my environment and I began to fall apart; and in the end the environment became wholly external, a thing to feel, observe, and measure, and a thing to act and react on, but never to absorb or be absorbed in. It is said that to be once bitten is to be twice shy; I suppose to be once deracine is to be for ever on the road."

This fairly transparent admission of cultural uprootedness perhaps is a key to understanding Chaudhuri's diagnosis of the malaise of Indian nationhood. After a prolonged period of oscillation between violent disapproval and "idolatrous worship" of Mahatma Gandhi, Chaudhuri finally resolved his doubts by the late-1930s, "after much reflection on the nature and history of Indian nationalism." His mature conclusion was that Gandhism represented an approach to nationalism that was third in order of temporal succession, after two preceding doctrines - the liberal and the Hindu nationalist doctrines, respectively. Indeed, he argues that the difference between the latter two were more of degree than of kind: "The liberal form of Indian nationalism thought less of the Hindu past than of the Occidental present, the new Hindu form approached these sources contrariwise." If the conjunction of the liberal and Hindu doctrines were to be viewed as the thesis, then Gandhism, says Chaudhuri, represented the counter-thesis.

Gandhism also represented the extinction of the historical and political consciousness that the two earlier streams of nationalism had sought to foster. This "simplification and transformation of nationalism" underlay its conversion into a mass movement. Chaudhuri makes no effort to disguise his sense of hostility towards Gandhi: "This remarkable man was the most perfect representative of the masses of India, taken of course in their state of grace. In the long history of their existence, these masses have had many prophets to preach their ethos and voice their idealistic aspirations but none who so completely was their very own. Mahatma Gandhi remained theirs even after birth and education had done everything to bring about a separation... He remained profoundly uneducated in the intellectual sense and lived in utter nakedness of spirit till his death."

Plainly then, Gandhism represented for Chaudhuri the apotheosis of all the primitivist tendencies of Indian culture that the Bengal renaissance had sought valiantly to defeat. In this reaction of cultural aversion, Chaudhuri sees himself as sharing a close affinity with other Bengali intellectuals of the time, including Rabindranath Tagore. "In the end," says he, "Gandhism in politics and practice came to stand for very little else but a congealed mass of atavistic aspirations and prejudices."

It is not necessary to test this rather disdainful assessment against the view that mainstream Indian historiography has evolved. Those contrasts are rather well known. More illustrative may be a comparison of this reading, typical of a man who would not test the waters of nationalist politics for fear of risking the cold, with that of a serious intellectual who also happened to be deeply involved in the cause of national freedom. For Jawaharlal Nehru, the contrasts between Tagore and Gandhi were deep but only illustrative in this sense, of the depth of tradition that the freedom movement could call upon to underline its claims to a national identity. "Tagore and Gandhi have undoubtedly been the two outstanding and dominating figures of India in this first half of the twentieth century," he wrote in The Discovery of India. Yet he continued, "no two persons could be so different." "Tagore, the aristocratic artist, turned democrat with proletarian sympathies, represented essentially the cultural tradition of India," while "Gandhi, more a man of the people, almost the embodiment of the Indian peasant, represented the other ancient tradition of India, that of renunciation and asceticism." And yet, Nehru said: "Tagore was primarily the man of thought, Gandhi of concentrated and ceaseless activity. Both in their different ways had a world outlook and both were at the same time wholly Indian. They seemed to present different but harmonious aspects of India and to complement one another."

CHAUDHURI'S hostility to Gandhi betrays a nostalgic longing for all that might have been, if politics had remained the preserve of those of high breeding and tastes. History unfortunately, allows no room for counterfactuals. For anybody who recognises the irreversible changes that the industrialised economy brought to the practice of politics, the notion of "what might have been"would seem hopelessly fanciful, almost quixotic. The irresistible forces of technology and economy, implanted in India under the colonial framework, brought in their train the necessity of mass politics. By the early years of the century, even the colonial state, till then confined blissfully to a dialogue with the chosen few among the anglicised Indian elite, was compelled to recognise the necessity of recruiting the loyalty of the mass of citizens to its cause. The liberal and Hindu nationalists, while setting a standard of debate that Chaudhuri continues to find edifying, clearly had no notion of how to augment their platforms through the allegiance of the masses. Further, their notions of political organisation met either with popular indifference, or engendered a sense of alienation along two axes - neither Muslims, or for that matter, the oppressed castes, could find any sense of identification with the discourse of Hindu nationalism.

With his deep sense of animus towards the Gandhian effort to synthesise these divergent and conflicting perceptions, Chaudhuri the aesthete finds contemporary Indian social reality deeply repugnant: "What one sees in India today is an immense expanse of debased Europeanisation, mottled here and there with Hindu or Muslim traits." The cultural "pastiche" which is modern India "gains all the greater significance because it is unaccompanied by the possession of any positive selfhood, or, for that matter, even any striving after it." And hastening to resolve the very apparent contradiction between this statement and the undoubted reality that India is a land of massive and teeming group conflicts, Chaudhuri adds the clarification that all this does not represent the "consciousness of being something, but the consciousness of not being something else."

From the vantage point of late-Victorian cultivation and manners that he has fashioned for himself, Chaudhuri naturally remains oblivious to the efforts that were made to harmonise this multiplicity of group identities into a composite vision of Indian nationhood. It was an endeavour in which Nehru's principles of secular statecraft played a key role, partly premised upon the political bequest of Gandhian tolerance and cultural inclusion, but inspired more directly by a historic vision of modernity and science. When the fervour of Nehruvian modernity and secularism ran high, Chaudhuri's critique sounded rather peevish and hollow. But with the Nehruvian vision now looking pallid and enervated, Chaudhuri has perhaps won himself the right to a second hearing. That this reappraisal should come about in his centenary year is incidental, though fitting symbolism.

To some degree, an objective re-evaluation is rendered difficult by Chaudhuri's own eccentric peregrinations. The man who could never quite stomach the entry of the masses into history now sees little amiss in the politics of the mob, as exemplified in the destructive assault on the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992. In remarks published in 1993 to much public consternation, he referred to the demolition of the mosque at Ayodhya as the Hindus' long-delayed response to centuries of Islamic vandalism. After excoriating the Indian state for its premature celebration of nationhood and its neglect of the need to nurture sound civic institutions, Chaudhuri - though in his own heterodox way - today exalts the Hindutva movement, which has had arguably the most corrosive impact on the institutional foundations of Indian democracy. But then, Chaudhuri has been nothing if not an engaging bundle of contradictions, an individual who sees himself concurrently as a Hindu, a Bengali and an Englishman and confesses to a profound lack of association with the appellation "Indian".

ANY reader embarking upon Swapan Dasgupta's volume with the expectation of resolving this mass of contradictions would be disappointed. Aside from Dasgupta's somewhat tendentious introductory essay, which advances Chaudhuri's claims towards being counted among the champions of Hindutva, tacitly equates Hindutva as the sentiment of Indianness, and celebrates his obdurate refusal to bow to popular taste or fashion, there is little by way of evaluation or exegeses in this volume. Ian Jack's engaging contribution, written on the occasion of Chaudhuri's ninetieth birthday, has been reproduced, detailing Nirad Chaudhuri's rather obsessive sense of English correctness though without a reference to his larger cultural concerns. An interesting counterpoint is achieved by Harish Trivedi, with "The Last Bengali Babu", a celebration equally of Chaudhuri's "pretentious swagger" as of his "delightful" use of "apt and simple English" and his resonant and classical Bengali. Khushwant Singh, in an essay first published in 1987, provides a recapitulation of his own personal encounters with Chaudhuri and draws attention to the rather unsavoury methods by which his extreme form of dissent with the dominant nationalist consensus was muzzled.

Dasgupta's volume offers little by way of serious literary criticism or of social reconstruction of the milieu that produced the phenomenon known as Nirad C. Chaudhuri. On the other hand there is much description of the subject's engaging personal foibles and many idiosyncrasies - the insistence on correct sartorial styles, the disdain for eclecticism, the tendency to dissect an interlocutor's speech idiom for clues about his origins, the childish delight in parading his prodigious fund of trivia - all these come in for long and loving treatment from the various contributors. But the energy dissipated in needless repetition could perhaps have been better utilised in a fuller exegesis of Chaudhuri's work.

UNDENIABLY, Nirad Chaudhuri is a writer and analyst whose work needs to be engaged and dealt with. Nationalist insecurities, which prevented such an engagement in the past, have now perhaps been allayed. Once shut out of mainstream intellectual debate, Chaudhuri has perhaps made a comeback. Though as unsparing, opinionated and outrageous in his utterances and writings, the Indian public has now learnt to be more indulgent towards the ways of the apostate. But would things have been any different if the early years of nationhood had been less intolerant of dissent, even of the excoriating type that the world's last Englishman patented? That must remain a matter for speculation, since it is a variety of counterfactual enquiry that even Chaudhuri would disdain.

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