Nirad C Chaudhuri wasn’t being modest when he named his first book, published in 1951, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. He did not remain unknown since, nor did he cease to be unusual, living till three months short of 102. He finished his last book, Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse, when he was about to hit 99.
But the most interesting feature of this self-styled ‘scholar gypsy’ — a childhood spent in East Bengal, moving gradually westward from Calcutta to Delhi and finally Oxford — is the style of writing he developed, aimed at stunning the reader by a firework of scholarship. This style was his persona. On his wedding night, he asked his bride to spell Beethoven, and proudly remembered her feat in one of his books. While celebrating his 100th birthday at a lunch at Oxford’s Trinity College, he replied to the toasts in flowery Latin.
Chaudhuri’s works are neither history nor literature. All his three major books — The Autobiography, The Continent of Circe (1965) and Thy Hand, Great Anarch (1987) — like Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Times, have the first-person-singular placed in the middle. But, unlike Proust’s novel, Chaudhuri’s books are devoid both of characters and a narrative continuity. There is a continuity of refrain though: the natives of India did not deserve independence and the British ought to have been more imperialistic if they meant to leave behind an India more likely to manage its affairs. It was Kipling 2.0, peppered over with a comic, if not irksome, overlay of pedantic dross. Fancying himself as Ariel, the good spirit of The Tempest and therefore the European who accidentally got painted brown, Chaudhuri spent his years in Delhi in miserable hallucination. He worked as an underpaid radio broadcaster, and walked through the city’s blazing streets in summer dressed in a suit, with a sola hat.
His narration of public events is full of his opinions, devoid of anything resembling evidence. He opines that Indians (he calls them Hindus) are cowardly and venal and unfit to form a nation built on western democratic principles. He offers no evidence in support of his magisterial views except his experience of serving for a few years as secretary to Sarat Bose, the Bengal politician and Subhash Bose’s brother. So averse was Chaudhuri to being accountable for his quirky sermons that his attempted full-fledged histories — the biographies of Max Müller and Robert Clive — are no longer remembered.
Chaudhuri himself would well become history had his photographer son Dhruva N Chaudhuri not brought out Many Shades, Many Frames this year. It is an invitation to take a re-look at the ‘unknown Indian’ without getting judgemental. Spread over so many decades, and in three cities scattered across continents, the pictures, mostly taken by Dhruva, suddenly make his father’s oddities more understandable. The photograph of Calcutta’s Shyambazar crossing where Chaudhuri had once lived, or that of the teetering building that housed the Modern Review magazine where he was a contributing journalist in the 1920’s, are nostalgic. The photograph of his three sons — Kirti, Prithvi and Dhruva — practising on piano and violin in their Delhi house, staff notation held under their eyes, acquires a new dimension when the text informs that the house had no fan.
And then come the Oxford pictures: Chaudhuri being appointed honorary commander of the British Empire by Her Majesty; walking with his grand-daughter, quite the country esquire or those pathos-laden moments, a dhoti-clad Bengali bhadralok who has seemingly lost his moorings in a foreign land.
The book is a bit too reverential, which is pardonable considering that it is a son’s tribute to his father. Khushwant Singh has written the foreword, and gushes about his friend’s “encyclopaedic knowledge”, which says more about his memory than judgement or analytical faculty. But the real strength of Many Shades is that it gives a credible twist to the view that until Mahatma Gandhi’s movements presented the colonial landscape in stark black-and-white, there were many in India whose feeling towards the British was a strange admixture of admiration and hurt, but never one of contempt or anger. Chaudhuri expressed it accurately in the dedication page of his Autobiography: “To the memory of the British Empire in India which conferred subjecthood on us but withheld citizenship”, adding that “all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule.” Many Shades will create a new interest in a writer otherwise destined to become a forgotten Anglophile.
Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer