The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian

He was more than 50 years old when his first book was published; he moved from Delhi to Oxford when he was 73 and died there in 1999 at the ripe old age of 101.

Nirad C Chaudhuri was an extraordinary man. His first book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, was hailed by VS Naipaul as perhaps “the one great book to have come out of the Indo-British encounter”.

Chaudhuri was “possibly the finest Indian writer of English in the whole of the 20th century,” says Ian Jack in his foreword to the autobiography, “and certainly the finest in the first three quarters of it before the burst of Indian writing in English that followed the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.”

“This is setting aside,” he adds,”the artfully simple fiction of RK Narayan, which Chaudhuri had no time for — an antagonism which was gently reciprocated by the almost equally long-lived South Indian novelist.”

I enjoy the “artfully simple fiction” of Narayan — and Chaudhuri is his exact opposite. While Narayan is content describing people and places, Chaudhuri is an intellectual, writing about his life, the books he had read, and Indian society and culture.

I could understand why Ian Jack began an article on the Scottish referendum, Is This the End of Britishness?, with his memories of Chaudhuri.

Unlike those Scots who wanted independence, Chaudhuri identified with Britain. He dedicated his autobiography “To the memory of the British Empire in India… Because all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule.”

Those were provocative words when the book was published four years after Indian independence. When Indians were celebrating freedom, here was a writer asserting that “all that was good” came from British rule. What was more, he had the audacity to criticize Gandhi, who was venerated then as the father of the nation.

Reading the autobiography now, I am struck by something else — the extent of British influence 100 years ago. Born in 1897, Chaudhuri grew up in a small town called Kishoreganj, in what is now Bangladesh, where the children wore Indian clothes, played in the dirt, and yet learnt English poems at school. His mother told him the story of King Lear. Their house had mud floors, but it contained reproductions of paintings by Italian masters and the works of Milton. (His father was a lawyer.)

The author writes vividly about his childhood days:

The rain came down in what looked like closely packed formations of enormously long pencils of glass and hit the bare ground. At first the pencils pitted the sandy soil, but as soon as some water had collected all around they began to bounce off the surface of water and pop up and down in the form of minuscule marionettes… As we sat on the veranda, myriads of tiny watery marionettes, each with an expanding circlet of water at its feet, gave us such a dancing display as we had never dreamt of seeing in actual life.

You can almost see the rain coming down. You have to admire the writer, who was recalling these childhood memories in his middle age when he was working for All India Radio in Delhi.

He got the idea of writing his autobiography just three months before Indian independence. A student of history, he later wrote: “Äs I lay awake on the night of May 4-5, 1947, an idea suddenly flashed into my mind. Why… I asked myself, do you not write the history you have passed through and seen enacted before your eyes, and which would not call for research? The answer too was instantaneous: I will. I also decided to give it the form of an autobiography.”

“The first pages took some time to write,” says Ian Jack in his foreword, “but once Chaudhuri had fixed his ‘key and tonality’ he was producing 2,500 words a day before and after his short two-hour stints at the radio station.”

Still, the book took two years to finish. Completed in 1949, it was published in 1951.

It is a big book — too big, some might say.

Chaudhuri writes vividly about his childhood, but later as he writes about the books he read, India and the freedom movement, the lyricism dies.

It’s history, not poetry, that Chaudhuri set out to write, a personal history with social commentary — and he was successful, highly successful. The book is an acclaimed masterpiece.

But I would prefer something lighter.

The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian is the work of a widely read, highly opinionated man whose erudition shows on every page, but it is heavy reading. And the “me” in this memoir can be both prickly and pompous. Mark the heavy-handed humour with which he thanks his wife in his preface:

Although it is not good form to cling to one’s wife in society, I have noticed that in the world of book production most authors advertise a loyal adhesion to theirs. I am prevented from following their example by the good sense of mine, who has maintained only an objective interest in the book… She has organized and sustained a balanced regime for me… Those who know what it means in these days to provide a husband with good food and similar amenities in life… will understand my gratitude to my wife.

He may have written those words with his tongue in his cheek, but now it sounds sexist.

He could write beautifully, but he chose to be a commentator. And commentators date faster than storytellers. RK Narayan’s stories about ordinary people have a timeless appeal while Chaudhuri’s autobiography is history.