Monday, 19 October 2015

Book Review: Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, by Nirad C. Chaudhuri

Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, which came out in the early 1950s, has been on my reading list for over a decade, but because Chaudhuri was literally, for me, an unknown Indian, I was able to put it away for so long, despite its reputation as a literary heavyweight. Why would an unknown Indian want to write his autobiography, I wondered? And what would he have to say?

Modesty from a Non-Native English Speaker

Chaudhuri is quite modest as he sets sail. He announces very early on that he has no illusions about his mastery over the English language. ‘An author whose English was not learnt from Englishmen or in any English speaking country’, he describes himself, though it is clear that his writing does not have any reason to be shy. By the time Chaudhuri adds a bit later that he has never lived outside India, I am convinced that I am reading a master of the English language, possibly the best Indian English writing I’ve ever read, better than even Vikram Seth’s. Since Chaudhuri was around 50 when he published Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, the only other conclusion I can draw is that Chaudhuri did not come from a privileged background, something borne out from his disclosures in the rest of the book.

Brutally Candid

If you are a successful sports star or a politician or a businessman, writing an autobiography should be a straight forward, how-did-I-achieve-success narrative. Writers on the other hand, maybe because success as a writer is as much a function of the writer’s mental makeup and past trauma as it a result of hard work and persistence, make a virtue of excoriating themselves in public. JM Coetzee’s auto-biographical novel Summertime: Scenes from Provincial Life comes to mind. V. S. Naipaul arranged for sufficient personal detail to be provided to his official biographer Patrick French to write some pretty interesting stuff. If JM Coetzee strips himself bare and shines an unflattering light on his naked body in Summertime, Chaudhuri does the same for his community and country, without dissociating himself from either.


Chaudhuri starts off by giving a detailed description of his parents and other family members. We are told that his father was a successful lawyer and the Vice-Chairman of the Kishorganj municipality. Those days, there were two categories of lawyers, Ukils with higher academic and professional qualifications and Muktears who largely handled criminal cases. Chaudhuri’s father was Muktear who made enough money to buy unlimited quantities of books for his children, who unusually for his time (and even by modern day standards) thought that education was an end by itself. The Chaudhuri children evidently grew up in a literary environment. One can’t help but be impressed when Chaudhuri says that he cannot remember the time when he did not know the names of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, Napoleon, Shakespeare and Raphael. I think I heard of Raphael when I was 21! ‘The next series comprising Milton, Burke, Warren Hastings, Wellington, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra is almost as nebulous in origin. Lord Roberts, Lord Kitchener, General Buller, Lord Methuen, Botha and Cronje, entered early thanks to the Boer war. Next in order came Mr. Gladstone, Lord Rosebery, Martin Luther, Julius Caesar and Osman Pasha (the defender of Plevna in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78) – these too belonging to the proto-memoric age. The beginnings of true memory in my case were marked by the names of Fox and Pitt, and Mirabeau, Robespierre, Danton, Marat, Junot (Napoleon’s marshal) and also perhaps Georve Washington. On the literary side, in addition to the names of Shakespeare and Milton which we imbibed unconsciously, we came to know of Homer as soon as we began to read the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which was fairly easy.

When the family moved to Kolkata, Chaudhuri found school life to be a disappointment. However, the wider literary life in Calcutta was more lively and generous.

Rooted to the Bangla Soil

Even as he taught them English, Chaudhuri’s father made sure his children did not neglect Bangla literature. Chaudhuri takes us on a tour of the Bengali literary world, introducing us to its litterateurs of his time in the process. He starts with Michael Madhusudan Dutt, a wealthy Bengali who converted to Christianity. Chaudhuri calls him the greatest exponent and greatest martyr of Bengali humanism and a great scholar. We meet Bankim Chandra Chatterji who was, according to Chaudhuri, positively and fiercely anti-Muslim, the creator of Hindu nationalism. These men were not, in their days, darlings of the masses. We are told that Rammohun Roy and Tagore were underrated, ridiculed, slandered and even persecuted in a manner wholly undeserved and unexpected. Even a Hindu conservative like Bankim Chandra Chatterji was not fully understood by the masses. Vivekananda became a hero only after the Parliament of Religions at Chicago gave him an unexpectedly favourable reception. Most funnily, I learnt that Tagore's Bangla was not considered to be chaste or classy enough by many and this perception did not change until he won the Nobel!

Chaudhuri talks of Brahmo Samaj as an organisation whose morality was derived from puritan Christianity. It led a moral crusade attacking four vices namely sensuality, drunkenness, dishonesty and falsehood. Chaudhuri tells us that none of these vices had reached diabolic proportions, since feebleness and passivity permeated even the vices. Chaudhuri was evidently not a follower of the Brahmo Samaj.

On Calcutta and Bengalis

Even in those days, Calcutta was not a very clean city. Apparently Bengalis washed themselves and their clothes more than was necessary and tonnes of washing was always hung out to dry and garbage was dumped on roads. To slip on a mango or banana skin and have a sprained ankle was a very common mishap in Calcutta, we are told.

Elysium Row was a dreaded street since it had, Number Fourteen, the Headquarters of the special police or the political police. Apparently there were few Bengali young men with any stuff in them who did not have dossiers in Number Fourteen, and many had to go there in person to be questioned or tortured, or to be sent off to a detention camp.

Bengalis were very superstitious. For example, men tied up their hair in a knot before going to a WC since WCs were believed to be the favourite haunts of evil spirits who would possess them unless their hair was tied up. Cow dung was sprinkled liberally to purify things. Elderly women sometimes went nude when working in the kitchen since their clothes would otherwise be contaminated by food. The common man was opposed to all sorts of reform or to the emancipation of women. The sternest denouncers of Rammohun Roy or Tagore were the gentry of Calcutta.

Mixed Feelings Towards The British

Though Chaudhuri is supposed to be an anglophile, his feelings towards the British, which he conflates with that of Indians in general, are definitely mixed. According to Chaudhuri, during the Boer War, one-half of India automatically shared in the English triumph, while the other and the patriotic half wanted the enemies of England to win. Indians gloated over allied reverses and glory in German victories in both World Wars. This was done less openly in 1914 than in 1939.

Once when attending a concert in Calcutta with an English friend, sitting in the gallery, Chaudhuri saw row upon row of Englishmen and Englishwomen in graceful evening dress below him and there were no Indians. The thought of dropping a bomb on the crowd below came to Chaudhuri in his heated and excited state.

As a student, Chaudhuri too defaced pictures of Moghul emperors and English governor Generals. Even when they wrote of the Black Hole as a tragedy and the battle of Chillianwallah as a draw, in exam papers, they were convinced all the while that the former was a myth and the second a defeat for the English.

Once Chaudhuri and his brothers visited a battleship which had come to Kolkata. He was disgusted by the way Indian crowds behaved and Indian constables (under English sergeants) treated them. The crowds followed no queue or rules and swarmed all over. The police used batons, lathis and whips freely on the crowds. Apparently, that spectacle repeated was year after year on the visit of ships of the East Indies Squadron. Chaudhuri tells us that the ‘display of racial discrimination not surpassed in all the squalid history of Indo-British personal relations. The arrogance and absence of consideration shown by one side was matched only by the indiscipline and lack of self-respect shown by the other.

Outright or fulsome praise for the British Empire is entirely missing in Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. One gets the feeling that Chaudhuri not only admired the British Empire and its achievements, he also envied them in the position of one colonised. Where there is praise, it is faint and even disguised. For example, when discussing the education system devised for India by the British, he says that ‘the educational system of British India has been accused of being only a machine for turning out clerks and officials. That certainly is true if we test the system by the use which was made of it in average instances and judge it by its average product. But it is not true if we take into account the intention of those who created the system. Many passed through the British Indian educational system mechanically, their approach akin to that of a man with a gun who uses it as a cudgel.

Chaudhuri had no contact with English social life in Calcutta. Those were days of racial privileges and certain parts of Eden Gardens were roped off. Chaudhuri never went close to the English for he did not wish to invite rebuffs, he tells us.

Attitude Towards Muslims

Chaudhuri tells us that they learnt nothing of Islamic culture, although it was the spiritual and intellectual heritage of nearly half the population of Bengal and living in East Bengal, they came into intimate and daily contact with Muslims. Creators of modern Indian culture in the 19th century completely ignored the Muslims. After the end of Muslim rule, Hindu society had completely broken with Islam. ‘There was retrospective hostility towards Muslims for their one-time domination of the us. Even before we could read, we had been told that the Muslims had once ruled and oppressed us, that they had spread their religion in India, with the Koran in one hand and the sword in the other, that the Muslim rulers had abducted our women, destroyed our temples, polluted our sacred places. In nineteenth century Bengali literature, the Muslims were always referred to under the contemptuous epithet of Yavana.

Despite doing his best to be neutral towards Muslims and Islam, Chaudhuri mentions an incident from school when Muslim students protested against acting certain scenes from a Bengali drama for the school anniversary day. Whilst admitting that the scenes were indeed offensive towards Muslims, Chaudhuri says that he went home in tears.

Chaudhuri’s views towards Muslims were influenced by his uncle Anukul who was in turn influenced by Bepin Chandra Pal. Ankul took the view that Pan Islamism was the greatest danger facing Indian nationalism. Chaudhuri agrees and for this reason, during the Turco Italian War and the two Balkan Wars when most Indians pro-Turkey, Chaudhuri was anti-Turkey.

On India’s Defeat By Islamic Invaders

Chaudhuri delves into the Hindu psyche in detail as he seeks to understand how Muslim rulers managed to conquer India and control the majority Hindus for so long. Chaudhuri says that Muslim rulers, as long as they remained strong, had no Hindu rebellion to fear. Provided they paid a commensurate reward they could count on being able to enlist any number of Hindus to act as administrators, army commanders, suppliers and advisors. Hindus would even advise them of the best means of bring other Hindus under subjugation. However, Hindu homes and kitchens were out of bounds for Muslims even as Hindu society tightened rules against intermarriage and commensality during the period of Muslim rule. Chaudhuri quotes Sarat Chandra Chatterji who summed by the underlying principle of Hindu behaviour with the example of a woman who has a low caste paramour and who boasts that although she has lived with him for twenty years, she had not, for a single day, allowed him to enter her kitchen.

According to Chaudhuri, India was a colonial empire of Islam. Unlike Persia which was conquered by Islam during its formative years, India was conquered after the Islamic order was fully grown and fully self-conscious. Chaudhuri refutes the argument that Islam declined in India because of Aurangazib’s (sic) intolerance. There were other Muslim monarchs who were less tolerant of Hinduism. ‘An Islamic society stretching from the Atlantic to the Oxus was not founded on the basis of perfect equality between the conqueror and the unconverted conquered. If an empire is founded as well as destroyed by intolerance, the intolerance ceases to have any causal significance for any part of the process. Tolerance or no tolerance, Indian Hindus were never reconciled to Muslim rule. The empire ceased to receive new administrators and soldiers from Iran and Turkestan and the resident Muslims were too denigrate.’ In short, the decline of the Moghul Empire was not due to uprisings by the Marathas or the Rajputs. Globally Islam had declined and this decline took India in its stride. ‘The revolt of the internal proletariat against Muslim rule was only the ass’s kicking of the sick lion.

Weaknesses of Hinduism

Chaudhuri ticks off various Hindu weaknesses one by one, even as he does not even try to disassociate himself from his community. He gives the example of a contractor whose cow was strangled accidentally. The contractor was forced to wear sackcloth, drink half a glass of bovine urine and fast for a day. For the next three days, he lived and slept in the open on the spot where the cow had died and also abstained from eating anything but plain rice without even salt. He had to beg for alms, bellowing like an ox. Later he was sprinkled with cow urine even as all Brahmins of the locality were fed and the priests amply rewarded.

Chaudhuri says that the ethical immaturity of Hindu society is apparent from its failure to develop a sense of personal moral responsibility. ‘Taking of bribes, not giving value for money in public services is sanctioned or condoned by habit or custom. The doctrine of karma has dulled the Hindu’s conscience by entrusting the ship of morality to a sort of gyropilot,’ Chaudhuri says.As for Hindus who boast of the greatness of their heritage without much knowledge, Chaudhuri has only contempt. We are told that many Hindus from Punjab spoke of the greatness of Hindu culture and religion without being able to read not only Sanskrit but even Hindi. Colleagues who chided Chaudhuri for his fondness for English and French had little knowledge of Sanskrit or even the Nagari script.

Professional Life

Chaudhuri tells us that he was over-ambitious as an undergraduate. In his B.A. history honours, he was placed first in the order of merit in the first class. However, he took on a vast reading list for his M.A and failed to pass his M.A. examination. I found this failure to be remarkable. How can someone who topped his university in his B.A. exam fail to clear his M.A.?

After his college education came to an end, Chaudhuri started to work for the Military Account Department. Initially he liked his job and won a lot of praise from his bosses, but he got bored and quit. Chaudhuri doesn’t tell us much about his career as a journalist or as a secretary to Sarat Chandra Bose, one can get these details from Wikipedia.

Chaudhuri was fascinated by military technology, he actually calls himself an expert on certain military matters and there are random references to publishing articles on military subjects. For example, while talking of a meeting with Pandit Nehru in 1931, to whom he was introduced by a friend, Chaudhuri says that he summoned courage to appear before Pandit Nehru on the strength of his articles on military subjects and the self-confidence he had acquired thereby. Having read the entire Autobiography, I can’t imagine Chaudhuri feeling nervous about meeting Nehru in 1931 when Nehru was not such a tall person. I assume Chaudhuri is merely being modest, just as he is when describing his apparent lack of felicity with the English language.

How did Chaudhuri become a military and weapons expert? We are told that he made a study of Napoleon’s Italian campaign. He followed the Russo-Japanese war, the Turco Italian War and the World Wars. From studying military history, he started to study the technical aspect of warfare and tried to learn the elements of gunnery and aviation. He developed a special interest in the breech mechanism of guns and understood them all. The only breech Chaudhuri failed to master was that of the Nordenfelt automatic. For some reason, I am not convinced that a man can become a technical expert on guns and the like by reading books on them.

Wikipedia tells me that Chaudhuri was a reasonably successful journalist, but there is little mention of his journalistic life in the Autobiography. According to this article, Chaudhuri was associated with Subhas Chandra Bose, but the Autobiography does not have much to say about Netaji.

On The Freedom Movement

Apparently during the civil disobedience movement of 1930, Chaudhuri was a passionate supporter of Gandhian methods. However, in the late thirties, he moved away from what he calls ‘Gandhism ideology’. I assume his disillusionment was the result of the knowledge he gained of the inner workings of the freedom movement, when he was secretary to Sarat Chandra Bose.

India's Weather - A Graveyard for Conquerors

Chaudhuri places some of the blame for India’s lack of vitality on the weather. According to Chaudhuri, so far no foreigner, Aryan, Turk or Anglo-Saxon, has been able to escape the consequences of living in the Indo-Gangetic plain, which he calls a Vampire of geography, with its high temperatures that sap human beings of all energy. As long as the peoples or civilizations which came into India remained vigorous in their native homelands and were able to reinforce themselves periodically, all went well. As soon as the source became weak or exhausted, political regimes and cultures set up in India by the conquerors went into decay.


Chaudhuri calls on his readers to expect the appearance of an Indo-English equivalent of Indo-Persian Urdu after the disappearance of British rule, just as Urdu made its appearance with the decline of Moghul power. I’m not sure if this will come true, Hinglish notwithstanding, since the internet and television have brought Hollywood into our homes.

Of the three historical civilisations that have arisen so far in India – the Indo-Aryan, the Indo-Islamic and the Indo-European – by far the most original and massive was the first. Indo-Islamic was on a lower plane. The Indo-European civilisation was the least sturdy. However Chaurhuri expects the United States singly or a combination of the United States and the British Commonwealth to re-establish and rejuvenate the foreign domination of India.

The United States will beat the Soviets, we are told and I nod my head sagely.

What Made Him Tick?

As I came to the end of this 580-odd pages tome, I asked myself, what sort of man was Nirad C. Chaudhuri? One is offered a clue by Chaudhuri himself when he describes (somewhere in the middle of the book) how he was a fond of a neighbour, a young man named Devendra who told him stories and played with him. After some time, Devendra died of an illness. Those who attended Devendra’s cremation later told Chaudhuri that Devendra’s spleen had grown so large and hard that when the fire touched it, the thing shot off the pyre and had to be picked up from a distance, put back in the fire and kept in place with a pole. On hearing this, young Chaudhuri began to tear his hair and gnash his teeth, upset at not going to the cremation and seeing Cousin Devendra’s spleen bounding away like a red football and being picked up again. As you would have gathered, Chaudhuri was not upset at Devendra’s death, though he was fond of Devendra. Rather, he was upset that he could not see Devendra’s spleen bound away like a red football and get picked up again.

To conclude, one can say that Chaudhuri’s attitude towards India, Hinduism, Bengali society and Islam, as portrayed in the Autobiography, is one of curiosity mixed with a determination to not to allow his analysis to be affected by his personal affiliations, though he never disowns his religion or culture or language. Chaudhuri doesn’t mention caste at all and I assume he was proud of his caste. Ambedkar does not find any mention in the Autobiography either. In his later life, Chaudhuri is said to have justified the demolition of the Babri Masjid saying that the Muslims had no cause to complain for the loss of one Masjid when they had destroyed thousands of temples in the course of a thousand years. However, in the Autobiography, he maintains a stiff upper-lip and is a pucca neutral gentleman.


Kilambi said...

Superb book review - this book has been on my list of 'will read later' for ever, and after reading your review, it looks like a really eclectic mix of stories - should be an interesting read. Thanks for the post. Sriram

Winnowed said...

Thanks Sriram