Best known for his work The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Nirad C. Chaudhuri ranks high in the list of Bengal’s most prolific writers and scholars. Yet, very few people know the man behind the words.
His 125th birth anniversary celebration, held on November 23 at the Tollygunge Club, was an attempt at understanding the man on a more personal level. The fact that it was hosted by Chaudhuri’s youngest son, made the occasion even more intimate.
“I am not going to talk about his literary achievements,” said Prithvi Chaudhuri, during an interview before the event. “There are no formalities, no garlands, no rose petals. Today is just to remember what the person was, and what he has given us.”
Nirad C. ChaudhuriAmit Datta
The evening began with an opening address by the president of Tolly Club, B.B. Chatterjee, where he welcomed the dignitaries and other members of the audience, before handing over the mic to Anil Mukerji, the club CEO, who then read out excerpts from a column written by the former governor of West Bengal, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, where he fondly recollects some of his encounters with Nirad C. Chaudhuri.
(Left) Tollygunge Club president B.B. Chatterjee and (right) CEO Anil MukerjiAmit Datta
The evening’s proceedings were then handed over to Prithvi Chaudhuri.
“I have nothing to say about him as far as his writings or literature are concerned, because he never sent me to school! I have never had any formal schooling,” laughed Chaudhuri as he talked about his father’s eccentricity, and delighted the audience with some personal anecdotes from his life, following which he then called upon stage author Amit Chaudhuri.
Amit Chaudhuri, who first read The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian sometime in the mid-’80s, reminisced about how the dedication of the book to the memory of the British empire stirred up quite a controversy during the time of its publication. “The book spoke to me as a writer who was in the process of becoming a writer,” he recalled.
Amit ChaudhuriAmit Datta
A homage to the English language
Talking about his first and only encounter with Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the writer described him as “a small man, perfectly dressed in a black suit...maybe with a hat on”, who he had met at NatWest Bank during his years as a student at Oxford University. He then went on to read some excerpts from The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, drawing attention to the prolific use of language and the literary prowess that the work displayed.
“Another remarkable thing about the book is that it is… a homage to the English language – a homage which works marvellously at the level of style,” noted Amit Chaudhuri.
The next thing on the itinerary for the evening was an audio-visual presentation.
A still from the documentaryAmit Datta
A son’s devotion to his father
Conceptualised and edited by Prithvi Chaudhuri himself, the documentary was peppered with personal stories and recollections. “I have tried to pack almost 80 years of his life and my life. Of how I saw him and how I grew up with him,” he noted.
The audio-visual, which was close to 30 minutes long, was an insight into the life of Nirad C. Chaudhuri, made even more vivid thanks to the rare archival photographs and videos that were woven into it.
At the end of that half an hour, the presentation received a standing ovation from the audience.
Members of the audience give a standing ovationAmit Datta
The evening drew to a close following a short speech by Rajya Sabha MP, Subramanian Swamy, who had flown down to Kolkata with his wife Roxna Swamy, especially for this event.
While commenting on the documentary, Swamy summed up the audience sentiment when he remarked how it was an example of a son’s devotion to his father. “This kind of film needs to be shown in universities, colleges, schools, so that people know what kind of people really built India…”
Subramanian SwamyAmit Datta
Following the event, My Kolkata had an opportunity to catch up with the president of Tolly Club, B.B. Chatterjee.
What was that one moment which stood out for him in the event?
“It is not about the moment. It is about the person…such a powerful person. His thought process and the way he lived – whatever he believed in, he projected that in his life, and that aspect of him really mesmerised me.”