The Indian Writer and the Past

Culture, History and Nirad Chaudhuri

Homer Syke/Alamy Photo
01 October, 2020

NIRAD CHAUDHURI ENJOYED COMPLAINING about his struggles despite a long, outwardly happy and very productive life. He became a full-time writer during the 1950s, when very few Indians wrote “literature” in English. Like their successors, they lacked a significant domestic audience—to be published meant being published abroad. Even in Britain, until the breakthrough success of Midnight’s Children in 1981, books about India usually sold in modest quantities. The best-known “Indian” novels were written by English (or Anglo-Irish) writers like Paul Scott and JG Farrell (who won the Booker Prize in 1973 for the superb The Siege of Krishnapur). Yet Chaudhuri managed to earn his living as a writer—if his books did not make much money, he always found publishers willing to take them. In 1970, he moved with his wife to Oxford, where he spent thirty-odd years, dying at the Biblical age of 101. His last book was published shortly before his hundredth birthday.

His first book came out in 1951, when he was 54. Nearly seventy years later, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian remains one of the finest books ever written about India. An idiosyncratic mixture of description, memoir, criticism, reportage and historical excavation, it is rooted in Chaudhuri’s lived experience and febrile temperament. On publication, it was feted by a small but influential circle of critics—its later admirers include Doris Lessing, VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Pankaj Mishra. Yet it’s out of print in the United Kingdom; in India, Jaico, an undistinguished publishing house, appears to own the rights to Chaudhuri’s work. In the United States, the New York Review of Books brought out a handsome paperback edition with an introduction by the journalist and critic Ian Jack some years ago.

As a writer, Chaudhuri is all but forgotten in the cultures that shaped him. Quite apart from its literary merit, the Autobiography also sets out some interesting ideas about Indian society and its relation to the West. Chaudhuri failed to develop them, for he had no interest in political economy as such. His primary concern was intellectual culture in its purest sense. From this standpoint, and almost in passing, the Autobiography mounts a scathing attack on the moral hypocrisy of the Bengali middle class (and, by extension, its Indian counterpart). It also makes a penetrating critique of Indian nationalism as it developed during Chaudhuri’s lifetime.

Both criticisms, rejected out of hand when the book was published, appear surprisingly prescient today. They speak to our own time and its intellectual climate: extending and modifying Chaudhuri’s critique allows us to uncover the common ground between the nationalism espoused by Gandhi and Nehru, and the insular, bigoted worldview of the Hindu Right. Despite the very real and irreconcilable differences between them, there is some relation between Nehru and Modi. The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party from the 1980s—and its forebears before that—did not occur in isolation. It is tied not merely to the failures of Nehruvian nationalism, but to some of its basic assumptions.