| Marvellous memoirist
In his new book, A Writer’s People, V.S. Naipaul reflects on the work of, among others, Nirad C. Chaudhuri. Naipaul praises (with some reservations) Chaudhuri’s two volumes of autobiography, but is dismissive of his other, more impersonal, books, such as his analyses of Hindu philosophy and his lives of Clive and Max Müller. The little Bengali, says the middle-sized Trinidadian, was a marvellous memoirist, but not much of a scholar. Writing of the descriptions of rural Bengal in The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Naipaul observes, “The ethnographic tone, which might be modelled on something French, suits Chaudhuri. He is at his best in that mode. It doesn’t deny autobiography, but it controls what might become too personal and slack, and it keeps at a distance the polemical and rather hectoring side of his personality, into which after a life of non-doing he is too ready to fall: the wish to display knowledge and settle accounts with the world.”
Not long after I read the proofs of Naipaul’s new book, I came across some perceptive comments about Chaudhuri by another intelligent foreigner. This was Walter Crocker, who served two long terms as high commissioner of Australia in New Delhi in the Fifties. I have written previously in these columns about Crocker’s biography of Jawaharlal Nehru. The remarks about Chaudhuri were, however, offered in private — they are to be found in the diplomat’s personal papers, which are held by the University of Adelaide.
It was while serving in Delhi in the Fifties that Crocker first met Nirad Chaudhuri. He began reading the Bengali’s first (and greatest) book, and on May 23, 1959 made the following entry in his diary: “In spite of some affectations and exhibitionisms — C[haudhuri] is under 5 [feet] in height, has a high-pitched shrill voice, and has suffered much poverty most of his life — the book is outstanding. Apart from the valuable social history in it, and its illumination of the Indian Nationalist movement, it shows the inside of Indians, or at all events of Bengalis, in a way few books do. Chaudhuri has scholarship, mind, and honesty.”
The next day, Crocker wrote again in his diary about Niradbabu and his book. He found much to admire in it, but also some things to contest. “Gandhi, for instance,” noted the Australian emissary, “could not have had the rudimentariness of intellect which C [haudhuri] makes out. How in that case would Rajaji, the subtlest and sharpest of minds, have admired him so much'”
Crocker left India not long after this. But Chaudhuri and he remained in touch. When the diplomat’s book on Nehru came out early in 1966, he sent his Bengali friend a copy. On February 17, Chaudhuri wrote Crocker nine pages on onion-skin paper, the first page of which printed the writer’s address (P&O Buildings, Nicholson Road, Delhi), as well as a motto which read: Les grandes pensées viennent du coueur. (My French-knowing father translates this as “the greatest thoughts come from the heart”, but he couldn’t tell me which Frenchman first said this.)
Chaudhuri began by thanking Crocker for his Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate, but went on, as authors are prone to do, speaking of a book of his own. The Continent of Circe had just come out in England. “If you have seen the British reviews,” wrote Chaudhuri, “I would give you a cautionary hint — that they have overemphasized the iconoclastic character of the book. There is no direct iconoclasm in it, though there is a great deal by implication.” The author then turned his attention to one of those British assessments and continued: “V.S. Naipaul wrote a 4-page review article on it in Encounter, which my son, who is now a senior lecturer in economics in London University, described as ‘clever and superficial’, which it is. But it is tremendous publicity. Incidentally, Encounter asked me to review Naipaul’s Area of Darkness, but I replied I would rather not. Naipaul really did not understand India, and I do not like to make unfavourable remarks about any book, especially about a book by [a] young (and Indian') author.”
The letter concluded by speaking of the writer’s greatly enhanced status within a country that had previously scorned and despised him. “You will be glad to learn,” said Chaudhuri to his Australian friend, “that since the end of 1964 I am coming up in India, and have become not only acceptable but actually respectable. While any praise (in print) for my writings was wholly abnormal formerly, I am now getting quite vocal support for my articles as well as the new book.” The improvement was financial as well as social. “I can now live quite comfortably by our standards on the earnings from my occasional writings (excluding books),” wrote Niradbabu, “and the most important Indian newspapers not only want articles from me, but also pay very handsomely. After all, [the] proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I feel happy.”
This was written in February 1966; five months later, Chaudhuri and his new book pop up again in an exchange between Crocker and one of his Australian correspondents. On July 7, a lady named Mildred Watt wrote to Crocker that she had “just been reading The Continent of Circe”. “What a bitter book!” she remarked: “It would need more than a touch of the Indian sun to make a man like that, and I think his explanation of his country’s disease fanciful, though the description of the symptoms is cuttingly done, isn’t it'”
A week later, Crocker wrote back saying that he was pleasantly surprised that Mildred Watt was reading Nirad Chaudhuri’s new book. “I know the author well,” he continued: “He has some bitterness, a great deal of oddness; but if taken in well-spaced meals he has got something.”
To complete the circle, let me quote what Chaudhuri said about the Australian. Reviewing Crocker’s Nehru in the Calcutta journal Now in May 1966, he called it an “extraordinarily interesting book”, written in a style that “is cool, neutral, judicial”. Crocker, he noted, had at times been critical of Indian attitudes and positions, but these criticisms “gain weight from the fact that he is over-generous to the good qualities of Indians”. The book, said Chaudhuri, was a challenge to “our besotted national vanity and the screaming hysteria which accompanies it”.
Walter Crocker is merely the sutradhar to the documents quoted here. Their main interest lies in what they tell us about that crabby, sour, insecure, boastful, yet also very brave and single-minded writer — Nirad C. Chaudhuri. It is noteworthy, though, that another writer cut from the same cloth also figures here — V.S. Naipaul. In my view, Chaudhuri’s struggle was harder and longer than Naipaul’s (although the latter would never admit it). On the other hand, Naipaul is by some distance the greater writer (although not all Bengalis will admit it). I too think that only two works of Chaudh- uri’s stand the test of time — the volumes of autobiography. His scholarship was mere pedantry, but he did have “mind and honesty”. For the first 50 years of his life Chaudhuri worked away, reading and writing in quiet obscurity. Emerging into the world with the publication of Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, he was now set upon by bigots and jingoists for being ‘anti-Indian’. It is thus nice to know that he was pleased, even flattered, by the attention he was receiving in the Sixties — he deserved it.