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Sailing Down A Century

Nirad Chaudhuri completes a 100-year voyage through the intricacies of the English language

Sailing Down A Century
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NONE of us who worked with Nirad C. Chaudhuri in the newsroom of All India Radio would have imagined that he would grow into a legendary figure, and among other things complete his century in November 1997. His most noticeable characteristic was his eccentricity and his limitless egotism. Perhaps the legend has its roots in these factors, but there is a lot more to the man which history has revealed.

Nirad Chaudhuri joined the news department of AIR in 1942 as a news commentator. His commentaries were mostly devoted to the war. His favourite themes were Churchill, who he greatly admired, and matters concerning the navy. The tonnage of warships was at his fingertips. But if in doubt, he would ring up his house and ask his sons to check the facts from his own reference books. He did not trust the news department's reference officer.

I joined the news department a year after Niradbabu, and we served together for the next seven years. Then I was appointed station director and was posted to Shillong.

During these years I saw him almost every day. I must confess I did not get to know him at all well. He was not popular with the editors. He would descend on the newsroom around 10 am and go through the bulletins of the previous 24 hours. He would pick holes and sarcastically point out errors of grammar, infelicities of expression and the like. He was usually right. However, the editors felt that he made no allowance for the circumstances. A news bulletin is a rush job in which some of the niceties of expression are sacrificed. His obvious contempt for the editors often led to acrimony. At least on one occasion I was witness to Niradbabu getting so enraged that he threw a paperweight at Vishnu Dutt (later to be editor, Indian Express, Ahmedabad). Fortunately, he missed. Vishnu was a tall athletic figure. He picked up Nirad and thumped him down on one window sill and then on another, but did not hit him. Colleagues rushed in and separated the two.

Another reason for Niradbabu's unpopularity was that we considered him a bootlick of our British boss Charles Barns. But here we were definitely wrong as subsequent events have shown. He had a genuine regard for the British and has had to suffer for it.

I kept out of Chaudhuri's way and was lucky in not rousing his ire. On one occasion, Samar Sen, the distinguished Bengali poet, who was on our staff, told Chaudhuri that I was interested in philosophy. Where on he started off "Now I will tell you...". He rattled off the names of A.N. Whitehead and Samuel Alexander, two of the most difficult philosophers of the early 20th century, and a host of others. One word which does not exist in Chaudhuri's vocabulary is dialogue. When he stopped for breath half-an-hour later, I made my escape. Never again did I give him the impression that I had anything to do with matters of the mind.

In 1951, while I was in Shillong, I ordered from London a copy of his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (no such thing as a bookshop existed in Shillong or Guwahati in those days). And wrote to tell him how much I had enjoyed his book. I mentioned two points in particular. The first was his capacity for vivid description and in this context I mentioned his pen-picture of Shillong. I had also thought his account of Aryan civilisation in the Gangetic valley a profound essay in the philosophy of history.

I received in reply a nine-page letter in his own hand which regrettably has been lost in my several transfers. Niradbabu was very hurt. He said mine was one of very few letters he got from friends about his book. If not praise, he had expected brickbats. But just to be ignored cut him to the quick. About descriptive writing, he said that Indians generally were given to abstraction. Then he went on to describe the location of my house from the address, the look-out north, east, south and west. He went on to give the Khasi name for a big ravine on the west side. It was "the ravine where the bear was cut to pieces". I had read everything available about Shillong and the Khasi Hills, but I did not know this. Enquiries from elderly Khasis showed that Niradbabu was right.

My next encounter with Nirad C. Chaudhuri takes me to the year 1961 when I was appointed director of programmes in the Directorate General. Niradbabu was expected to visit Delhi and I wanted to book him for a broadcast. I was told he had been banned from broadcasting by the ministry. I sent for the file thinking that a ban cannot be for ever. Apparently, someone in the I&B ministry had seen the Autobiography and expressed the view that according to the Government Servants Conduct Rules a government servant is required take permission to publish a book which has to be submitted for vetting. Evidently Niradbabu failed to comply with this procedure. In the ministry, the papers travelled up pretty high. The then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, did not note anything on the file but it seemed pretty clear that he saw it and what followed had his approval.

Nirad Chaudhuri was given a showcause notice in which the government servant is asked to give reason why he should not be chargesheeted and proceeded against formally. He was given a fortnight in which to submit his reply. Niradbabu asked for a month, saying he needed to consult his lawyers in Calcutta.

The crux of his defence was that freedom of expression is a fundamental right under the Constitution and the government has no authority to deny it to a whole class of individuals, namely, government servants. This was set out as a legal statement and defended in legal terms. What touched me in Niradbabu's reply was his concluding paragraph in which he expresses his desire to persuade the government of the rightness of his cause not to cut at the roots of democracy. I usually associate Niradbabu's tone as critical, even sarcastic. Here it is an eloquent appeal for better sense to prevail. The I&B ministry sent the papers to the ministry of law who opined that the government had no case and so could not proceed. But they took vindictive action by banning Niradbabu from broadcasting. This deprived him of an important source of income and I believe was one reason why he left India.

My plea to get the ban lifted drew a blank. The file seemed to vanish. Even later, when I was director general, I could not get it located. Evidently, those in authority were embarrassed over the contents of the file which showed that the author of The Discovery of India was peeved that an unknown Indian had written a book which rivalled his own. So petty vengeance was wreaked on a distinguished but vulnerable human being.

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