| At home in England
Disowning, recovery; the cleaving of the tongue: U.R. Anantha Murthy’s story of how he embarked upon his first work, the short novel Samskara, is, again, as in Dutt and Vijayan, a narrative of homecoming in the middle of exile, recovery in the midst of physical, and inward, distancing: “It was [sic] nearly a little more than twenty-five years ago that I wrote Samskara. I was in England as a student, and fatigued with speaking the English language most of the time. I needed to recover my mother-tongue, living in the midst of English... It all started when I went to see a Bergman film — Seventh Seal — with my teacher, the famous novelist and critic, Malcolm Bradbury. The film had no sub-titles. My incomplete comprehension of it started a vague stirring in me. I remember having told Dr Bradbury that a European has no living memory of the middle ages and hence constructs it through knowledge acquired in books. But for an Indian like me, centuries coexist as a living memory transmitted through oral conditions. This set me off to rewrite a story which I had originally written for a journal.”
Anantha Murthy returns to his room; behaves like one instructed; starts to rewrite the seminal fiction; the role of Dutt’s “goddess”, the “kulalakshmi” who visited the poet in Versailles, is played here, in Birmingham, by, oddly, a “familiar compound ghost” of Bergman and Malcolm Bradbury.
This little story echoes an account of A.K. Ramunajan’s. (Ramanujan was, we know, an important Indian English poet; but it was also as a translator of ancient Tamil poetry that he made a profound impact on our idea of the relationship between English, the contemporary Indian self, and the “little”, non-classical traditions of Indian antiquity.)
Once more, in a foreign country — America, in this case — Ramanujan discovered the poems in ancient Tamil which he’d later translate: “Even one’s own tradition is not one’s birthright; it has to be earned, repossessed... One comes face to face with it sometimes in faraway places, as I did... One chooses and translates a part of one’s past to make it present to oneself and maybe to others. In 1962, on one of my first Saturdays at the University of Chicago, I entered the basement stacks of the then Harper Library in search of an elementary grammar of Old Tamil, which I had never learned... As I searched... I came upon an early anthology of classical Tamil poems ... Here was a part of my language and culture, to which I had been an ignorant heir. Until then, I had only heard of the idiot in the Bible who had gone looking for a donkey and had happened upon a kingdom...”
Here’s an almost mystical discovery made within “secular” parameters, like Dutt’s discovery of the “grand mythology of [his] ancestors”. The language moves from the vocabulary of individual choice — “earned”, “repossessed”, “one chooses” — to that of chance and grace — “I came upon”, “happened upon”. Self-knowledge is connected to ignorance — “which I had never learned”, “ignorant heir” — as it is by mystics. Again, there’s an air of exhortation, of instruction, on the one hand, and supplication and surrender on the other; the “kulalakshmi” who, in the time of modernity, seems to have appeared before Indian writers-to-be in what Dutt called “paradesh”, “foreign lands”, is here as well, in the Chicago basement; she is invisible but palpable. Dutt, I’d said earlier, introduced an element of theatre into Indian literary history; that element of theatre recurs in both the small dramas mentioned above. Locations are worth noting in these stories of discovery and inauguration — the dark theatre with the foreign film without subtitles; the stacks in the basement; the sense of excavation, of artificial night; a narrative of the subconscious to which I’ll return later.
We’ve been talking about “turns” — a turning towards, a turning away from. They occur in these authors’ texts, in the break in Dutt’s sonnet, in Vijayan’s protagonist’s mutation from teacher to disciple in the obscure village, in the Brahmin hero’s alienation from his caste and clan in Samskara; and they occur in the authors themselves, as protagonists in the literary history they’re creating. Disowning and recovery give to our literary (and perhaps political and cultural) history a pattern as formal and passionate as that of a sonnet. Of this pattern, Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian presents a startling variation, even inversion, a turning away from the “turn” itself, a conferring of new values to exile and to homecoming.
With Dutt originated the literary ambition of going outward, toward England and Europe; occasionally substituted, as in Vijayan, by a journey to a remote place. The journey seems to be followed by a crisis, a break, an epiphany, a spiritual homecoming to the mother-tongue. Chaudhuri muddied and complicated this sequence in all kinds of ways; and it’s worth studying his career and his mental life for their remarkable continuities, and disjunctions, with Dutt’s.
Although he didn’t travel to England till he was 57 years old, Chaudhuri’s whole life, till then, had, in a sense, been a preparation for that journey. By the time he made it, he’d already memorized the features of England and Europe from his reading, as he tells us in A Passage to England “...my mind was not a clean slate... it was burdened with an enormous load of book-derived notions”. Entering England, he compared the authorized version of the England he already knew with the makeshift version that was presented to him: “[t]he famous chalk cliffs did not stand out glimmering and vast, as Matthew Arnold had described, but seemed like white creases between the blue-grey sheet of the Channel...” This predilection for attributing a veracity to text or word over “actual” landscape or location is a habit of the colonial mind. It had been made famous by Wilde in “The Decay of Lying”: “Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps.'”
By the time Chaudhuri made his journey, he was, of course, unlike Dutt, already famous in the language and country in which Dutt had aspired to make his name. The Autobiography, which was published in 1951, had received some very favourable reviews in the British press. The pattern I’ve been following takes on an intriguing shape with the writing of this book. Dutt had moved, about a hundred years ago, from the English language to the mother-tongue, thereby, in a sense, creating an avenue for Bengali literary culture, and Chaudhuri now reversed the direction. At the time of his writing the autobiography, and even long after, it was unusual, indeed exceptional, for a Bengali to embark upon a literary project, major or minor, in anything but his own tongue; at the time, the Bengali language was, for the Bengali writer, the legitimate vehicle for cosmopolitan, middle-class expression. But the cultural legacy of the putative but inescapable Bengal Renaissance, which was still coming into being when Dutt was writing, had obviously stratified sufficiently into an orthodoxy for Chaudhuri, born at its peak in 1897, and formed by it intellectually, to want to distance himself from it.
Chaudhuri had served a long apprenticeship as an “unknown Indian” by the time he published his autobiography at the age of 54. Gravitating from a small town, Kishorganj, to Calcutta to read History at the Scottish Church College, he stood first in the BA exams in Calcutta University, probably then the colonial world’s premier institution of higher studies. As spectacularly, he proceeded to fail his MA. He then took up a series of jobs; and, for a time, was secretary to the nationalist, Sarat Bose. Yet he continued to feel uneasy with Indian nationalism, and with the post-Independence Bengali, and Indian, middle class.
Besides, the Bengali bhadralok worshipped a good degree, but never forgave or forgot a bad one; it extolled professional success and berated lack of ambition. Chaudhuri evidently knew what it meant to be judged by these standards; in his Preface, he said: “...after passing the age of fifty I am faced with the compulsion to write off all the years I have lived and begin life anew. My friends say I am a failure; and I daresay they will now think I am trying to excuse that failure; I will not concede the point.” Dutt turned from English to Bengali with a similar refusal to accept failure; to leave behind him the rejection from Blackwood’s Magazine, the uncharitable reviews in Calcutta in the Bengal Harkaru and the Hindu Intelligencer, his difficult European odyssey; Chaudhuri turned from Bengali, and, in effect, Bengalis, in order to compose an epic, a panoramic picture, of the Bengali sensibility. Neither his literary practice, his choice of language, nor his anti-nationalism can be seen in isolation; I see them, in fact, as unexpected, sometimes estranging, elaborations upon a pattern.