February 20, 2020
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The Art Of Inquisition

A connoisseur of culture and civilisation, Nirad C. Chaudhuri refined the art of self-cultivation

The Art Of Inquisition

Memoirist, scholar, biographer, historian, critic and polemicist: Nirad Chaudhuri, who died last week at the age of 101, assumed many different roles in the course of his writing life. But he is best known for The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, which was famously dedicated to the 'memory of the British Empire in India'. Chaudhuri never renounced the belief he set out here: that 'all that was good and living within us' was 'made, shaped, and quickened' by British rule.

It is easier now to see what he meant than it was in 1951, when Chaudhuri published The Autobiography and was attacked with the vulgar label of 'anti-Indian'. The special circumstances of Chaudhuri's life, the long and arduous struggles through which he created himself and his work, are clearer in retrospect. He had grown up in a backwater town in Bengal, and had convinced himself early that his future lay in apprenticing himself to European civilisation, which had exported to India-via the complicated medium of British colonialism-some of its own 19th 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 civilisation in India would grow out of the contact with the best of what was being thought and said in the West (on the other side of the world, Marx thought that colonialism had 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.

At 101, he was a lonely man, longing for intellectual culture But the genteel-bourgeois liberalism of the 'Indian renaissance' had barely survived the 19th century when it was overwhelmed by the neo-Hindu nationalism of the Congress. By the time Chaudhuri came of age, both sides had lost faith in the proposed Anglo-Indian partnership; and he grew up seeing the incomplete-or worse, half-hearted-Europeanisation 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 freedom movement, to which he was an especially close witness as secretary to Sarat Chandra Bose. 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 a new nation.

He remained perpetually in battle with all conventional pieties and received wisdom. From very early in his life, his quick wit and intelligence made him invulnerable to the colonial mentality of subjection and conformity. It also set him apart. His years in Calcutta as a student and clerk were one of severe poverty and isolation. But all through this 'drab and mean' period he kept on quietly refining his passion for art and scholarship. He read widely, and with always an eye on his own surroundings and past.

It is why his personal culture, which was immense, was not an abstract thing; it was inseparable from his project of self-fashioning. His reading nourished his latent powers, opened him to new ways of looking and feeling. Eventually, when at the relatively advanced age of 54 he published The Autobiography, he had the boldness to place his modest uneventful life against the broad tumultuous backdrop of Indian history.

However, the publication of The Autobiography confirmed his reputation as a licensed eccentric and increased his loneliness in post-Independence Delhi where he held a low-paid job at All India Radio. He spoke out spiritedly against the ruling classes of New Delhi, denouncing the suave bureaucrats with Oxford-accented English as abortions of the Anglo-Indian encounter. In turn, he became a figure of fun for his impeccable suits and hats. Passers-by heckled him, shouting 'Left-Right, Left-Right' as the small, delicately-built Chaudhuri walked down the street in his brisk 'European' manner. People wishing to know the time would lift his wrist without asking him, and then let it drop.

With England, to which he escaped in 1970 with many high expectations, he was to feel another kind of disenchantment. It now seems that he had himself fallen victim to an old type of colonial misunderstanding and overestimation. Chaudhuri had read any number of books about his beloved European civilisation; but he had failed to accept it as an evolving, ever-changing entity. The simple consumer society Chaudhuri saw around himself in the 1970s-London still swinging in long hair and bellbottoms-was remote from the refinements and graces of the Victorian/Edwardian High Culture he had come to cherish 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 via 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 & Windus published without any major cuts the second volume of his autobiography, Thy Hand, Great Anarch, which was more than 1,000 pages long and clearly had no prospects of commercial success (indeed, the book was remaindered soon after publication).

He wrote many other books. These are of varying quality. 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 writing. Chaudhuri's prose here was exact and vivid. Whether writing about rural Bengal or Gandhi, he displayed the skills of the imaginative writer, alert to landscape and mood as well as to individual motives and impulses in great historical moments.

In his scholarly books, the biographies of Max Mueller and Robert Clive, he was held back by his own erudition; he seemed unable to shake off his ambitious models: rigorously classical in structure and prose, the biographies lack that special Chaudhuri quirkiness which found such felicitous expression in the relatively short books he published: The Intellectual in India, To Live or Not to Live, and even The Continent of Circe. In the second volume of his autobiography and the travel book, A Passage to England, he continued to speak directly and uninhibitedly. His candour became his strength. He was often verbose. He also generalised far too recklessly (the autodidact's vice): his study of Hinduism, for instance, attempted to prove that the main ideas of the Bhagavad Gita were derived from the Bible. But he was never less than stimulating; and he rarely wavered from his own standards of intellectual precision and honesty. He despised the easy route of second-hand 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 to present him as an advocate of Hindutva, he was quick and emphatic in his rejection: he could sense the basic philistinism of the whole enterprise, the ignorance, mimicry and confusion that lay behind the rhetoric of cultural nationalism.

But, towards 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 turned into a decline-spotter and decadence-sniffer. The last book, Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse, is a sad record of his alienation. His style lost its graceful clarity as he propounded pseudo-Spenglerian theories about the decline, decadence and barbarism of various civilisations. He raged against short skirts, America, English women wearing jewellery, abortion and contraception. Not surprisingly, the book couldn't find a publisher in either England or America.

His loneliness grew more acute after the death of his wife; and he continued, as always, to miss an intellectual culture. He seemed to long for conversations about books and music, and he showed off his learning with a child-like delight. He interrogated visitors relentlessly. '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 traveller, Victor Jacquemont, and Stendhal. 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 India," he told me. But he was wrong. In the '50s and '60s, his ideas had provoked all the cultural defensiveness and resentful pride of a young immature country. After several national trysts with defeat and disillusionment, Chaudhuri now appears right about many things. Most of his books, discovered by a younger generation of readers, are back in print. His unique achievement is increasingly honoured; in time, it will also be fully understood. But ultimately, it is as a connoisseur-of cultures and civilisations-that Chaudhuri will be remembered: someone who brought the purest energy and dedication to the almost forgotten art of self-cultivation. The last Indian of his kind, Chaudhuri was also the last of the great public intellectuals of this century. Attached to no cause or institution, he lived and ennobled the free life of the mind till the very end, and died, fittingly, in exile from both his home and adopted country.

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