Autobiography of an Unknown Indian
Nirad C. Chaudhuri
Jaico Publishing House
Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian is among the few books that I have read twice. I first read the book in 1997, and in February 2022, I read it again. In my first reading, I had not empathized with his bitter view of India and his obsession with England, but twenty-five years later, I read his book again, because I felt like revisiting his account of his personal misfortunes and his disappointments with India.
He was not a happy man. In a passage in the book’s final section he contemplates a sort of metaphorical death: “There never was a time in my life when I was so passively and weakly pessimistic. I thought continuously of death, as if death ever helped a weak creature to find release from the punishment he was gratuitously bringing on himself through his own folly.”
He was born in 1897, when the Bengali Renaissance had reached its climax. The story of his life proceeds against the backdrop of the political developments that are taking place in the country, primarily in the state where he lives, Bengal. He sees India as a dystopia mired in effete traditions and lacking in intellectual capacities. He thinks that British influence is necessary for modernizing India. The book does not read like a “gutter inspector’s report,” a phrase that Gandhi used for Katherine Mayo’s 1927 book Mother India, but it is certainly a compendium of Indian deficiencies.
Nirad is not optimistic about India’s future but he is not pessimistic either. He leaves the fate of the country hanging in a balance. He is convinced that if India succeeds, it will do so under the tutelage of the Englishman, and if it fails, its failure will be such a tepid affair that hardly anyone, certainly not the Indians, will notice that their country has failed. In the Preface to the book, he writes, “Very few people seem to realise that nations stand in need of leadership in order to perish or to rot away no less than to rise and achieve greatness.” He does not have a high opinion of Indian politicians. He thinks that visionary leaders cannot arise in a country of petty minded folks.
The book is divided into four parts. In the first part, Nirad presents his reflections on life in the villages of his father and mother. In the chapter titled, “England,” he describes the preoccupation of the people around him with England. He writes, “If I may put it that way, the chiaroscuro of our knowledge of England was extremely sensational. It had intense highlights in certain places and deep unrelieved shades in others, so that what we knew gripped us with immeasurably greater power than it would have done had we seen it in more diffused and, consequently, more realistic light. On the other hand, what we did not know was so dark that we could easily people the void with phantasms evoked out of our ignorance.” The sensational, almost mythological, view of England that he developed in the early years of his life had a consequence: he became torn between his plebeian Indian life and his aristocratic English aspirations. Eventually, he became alienated from India.
How Indians compare to the Englishmen in Nirad’s eyes can be gauged from the reference that he makes to an essay by Bankim Chandra Chatterji. He says that Chatterjee “has written a satirical piece on Englishmen whose most sardonic and barbed point is reserved for his countrymen. A meeting of Englishmen is represented as a meeting of tigers, but the indigenes are shown as monkeys discreetly hiding themselves among the branches and leaves.” In the next paragraph, Nirad sarcastically notes that even the tallest leader of the Indians, Gandhi, used terms associated with England—“Harrow boy,” “Cambridge graduate,” and “barrister”—when he wanted to praise Nehru.
Nirad begins the book’s second part with this assertion: “Men do not become aware of the precise quality of their early years until late in life.” He points out that Aksakov, Renan, Anatole France, Hudson, and Tagore wrote their autobiographical works when they were in their advanced years. He must have considered himself in this context but was probably too modest to put himself in the list of such illustrious authors. He was fifty-four in 1951, when his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian was published.
This section of the book is about the first twelve years of his life. He briefly dwells on the Indian renaissance which was a short-lived affair. “Our cultural movement began in the early part of the nineteenth century and reached its apogee in about one hundred years. Then it began to break up. If I were asked to specify when the signs of decay made their first appearance I should say in the years between 1916 and 1918. After the end of the First World War, and in the years immediately following, the change had become perceptible.” He hails Raja Rammohan Roy, Bankim Chandra Chatterji, and Swami Vivekanand as the tallest leaders of Indian renaissance, but he asserts that the achievement of these three leaders was not wholly Indian, since they were exposed to western intellectualism.
Between 1908 and 1919, Nirad says, Hindu nationalism made a dramatic entry into his world. He could not resist the currents of nationalist ideas, and became a supporter of the swadeshi movement. He points out that the attitude of Hindus towards the Muslims was shaped not by the swadeshi movement but by tradition. “In the first place, we felt a retrospective hostility toward the Muslims for their one-time domination of us, the Hindus; secondly, on a plane of thought we were utterly indifferent to the Muslims as an element in contemporary society; thirdly, we had friendliness for the Muslim of our own economic and social status with whom we came into personal contact; our fourth feeling was mixed concern and concept for the Muslim peasant, whom we saw in the same light as we saw our low-caste Hindu tenants, or, in other words, as our live-stock.” He credits Hindu-Muslim rivalry as a factor in the progress of Indian nationalism.
In the book’s third part, Nirad’s family has left their ancestral home in Kishorganj for Calcutta, where Nirad would live from June 1910 to March 1942. In his description of Calcutta during the rainy season, when the sewers overflowed and the streets turned into canals with the water in dirtiest shade of brown, he makes a western connection, suggesting that the city felt like “Venice with a vengeance.” There are Indian-style descriptions too, like this one: people used to joke that “such and such street in Calcutta was flooded if a dog raised its hind leg.” On his experience of the first Hindu-Muslim riot that he witnessed in Calcutta, he writes, “The Calcutta riot of 1910 was the outcome of sheer hooliganism, a clean thing compared with what was to come afterwards, and thus it was great fun.”
Nirad mentions several books which he read during his student years. In one passage he mentions three books which had a decisive influence on him: Stubbs’s The Constitutional History of England in Its Origin and Development, Green’s Short History of the English People, and Mommsen’s History of Rome. It is clear that the history of Western civilization was an area of interest for Nirad. I don’t think that he had access to the history books which present the dark side of the West, especially the British empire—he does not dwell on the Western genocides in the colonies and slavery.
Despite his extensive reading, and despite doing well in his B.A., he failed to clear his M.A. examination. For his academic failure, Nirad blames his over-ambitiousness as an undergraduate. He says that even though he read a lot, his reading was too “diffuse and haphazard.” He ruefully confesses that “I never commanded the will-power to carry out my own deliberate projects.”
In his “Prefatory Note” to the book’s fourth part, Nirad says, “Hindu society does not teach its youth to face life bravely.” He was now engaged in a desperate struggle to make a place for himself in Calcutta’s society. He felt that the city was overtaken by pathological megalopolitanism. It did not occur to him that the pathological megalopolitanism, which he decried, was a consequence of British influence. In most pages of the book, he appears painfully aware of the fact that life was not kind to him. He writes: “I entered the world in 1921, and for sixteen years after that I suffered such poverty, want, and humiliation as I cannot wish even an enemy, if I had any, to be punished with.”
He was not impressed by every Englishman. He was contemptuous of the local English, especially those who held bureaucratic positions in the government of British India. This could be a case of familiarity breeding contempt—he was contemptuous of the Englishmen with whom he was familiar. “As long as I lived in Calcutta I wore no article of English clothing and had none. In general, I disliked and despised the local English. To my mind they alone justified the idea that the English were a nation of shopkeepers.”
When India becomes independent, he laments that the “British Empire in India has perished without my ever coming into intimate personal contact with Englishmen, with the exception of less than half a dozen whom I have known more or less.” He had not visited England yet. He could not think of traveling because all his energy was consumed by his struggles to survive in Calcutta. He admired the older generation of anglicized Bengalis. He laments that he “never had the opportunity of coming in direct personal contact with them.” His mind was filled with the notion that an ideal life would be one in which he would have intimate contact with cultured Englishmen, who he imagined existed in England.
He has dedicated his book to the British Empire: “To the memory of the British Empire in India which conferred subjecthood upon us but withheld citizenship; to which yet every one of us threw out the challenge: "Civis Britannicus sum” because all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule.” His phrase “Civis Britannicus sum,” is inspired by the phrase, “Civis romanus sum” (I am a Roman citizen), which Cicero uses while pleading for the rights of a Roman citizen.
Nirad does not treat Gandhi with reverence—in several passages, he is very hostile to him. He presents Gandhi as any other shrewd politician. In the pre-Gandhi period of Indian politics, Nirad, as I pointed out earlier in this article, fully shared the passions of the Indian nationalist movement because he was convinced that this movement could bring historical and political consciousness to the Indian masses. When Gandhi became the dominant figure in Indian politics, Nirad started feeling alienated from Indian nationalism.
He blames Gandhi for removing all aspects of historical and political consciousness from Indian nationalism, and weakening the movement’s intellectual foundations. He was disgusted by Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. He says that he and few older nationalist leaders were seized by a fear of “the monstrous abortion that was taking shape in the womb of the future.” He blames Gandhi for degrading the Indian nationalist movement by oversimplifying its agenda. But he holds that the oversimplification made Indian nationalism palatable to the simple minded population of India.
With the rising popularity of Gandhian politics, rues Nirad, the Indian nationalistic movement became one with Gandhi’s purportedly saintly lifestyle. He felt that Gandhi had learned nothing from his English education and his high station in life.
He puts a big question mark on Gandhi’s moral values: Gandhi’s morality “remained the morality of the servus, very pure and lofty certainly, nonetheless bearing in all its manifestations the unmistakable stamp of its lowly origin. Only a noble slave could have propounded this doctrine, a slave who was too weak, too modest and meek, and too passive to break his chains, but was capable of making them immaterial in an ecstatic contemplation of his hypostasis of goodness and right.”
He ends his book on a sad note: “My low spirits were absolute. There seemed to be no cure for them.” He saw independent India as a dead civilization. He could not imagine life without British rule. He went to England for the first time at the age of fifty-seven—he has described the journey in his book A Passage to England. The irony is that he could not find happiness there either.