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Review: The world in our time, a memoir

A historian writes his memoir, sharing stories, spectacles, drama and some laughs

books Updated: Apr 20, 2012 18:46 IST

The World In Our Time, A Memoir

Tapan Raychaudhuri

Harpercollins India

Rs 399 pp 364

‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” If LP Hartley, the author of this proverbial line, considered adding a qualifier, it could be about historians writing their memoirs — because they are privileged to have done the ‘things’ themselves, and lived to tell the tale. Of course, all sorts of people dip into the past to write their stories, from priests to prostitutes, and saints to charlatans. But historians are trained in the art of surveying the ‘foreign country’. Their memoirs are therefore read with twin expectations: as insight into scholarly lives, and as an eye-witness report on the past.

Oxford don Tapan Raychaudhuri, regarded as an authority on South Asian history, has brought into his memoir an extra quality — readability. The World in our Time is a page-turner. It has stories, spectacles and drama, not to speak of a laugh every few pages. And it is largely due to Raychaudhuri’s superior skill as a raconteur that the reader travels across continents and ages without any culture shock. At one end is the fine watercolour portrayal of the Chekhovian world of the East Bengali zamindar estate in which he grew up, its joys and secrets, its bewildering cast of characters and kinships, until the 1947 Partition approached and one heard the sound of the axe.

The flow of Raychaudhuri’s narrative remains undiminished as he describes his climb up the career ladder, through Calcutta and Delhi to Oxford, to join the high table in the city of dreaming spires. The vistas that unfold are captivating: ranging from the colonial world clattering down in the midst of a communal frenzy to the first taste of living globally in post-War Oxford, an interlude of Delhi’s venal bureaucracy, and finally the memorable pen-portraits of his British academic colleagues and friends.

Some of the portraits are intense, like that of his Oxford neighbour Nirad C Chaudhuri, whose bad reputation in India stems from his Kipling-like contempt for his contemporary countrymen. Though Raychaudhuri paints him as a man with well-rounded views, and justly highlights his legendary scholarship, what is interesting is the explanation offered for Chaudhuri’s oddities. According to him, Chaudhuri, like many of his contemporaries, lived “wasted lives” in clerical jobs and, instead of blaming it on British rulers for creating little opportunities to channelise talent, held his own Bengali race responsible for his misfortune. But why was he so wrong in his judgment? The author’s defence of Chaudhuri falls short of ruling out the possibility of individual nuttiness in the man known to have walked to work in the Delhi summer in a three-piece suit, with street urchins screaming ‘Johnnie Walker’ along the way.

Raychaudhuri calls himself a “yokel from East Bengal” who “gets foul-mouthed when enraged”. However, the book shows a pattern in his angry outbursts, the ‘targets’ being either long dead or not hopeful of having much voice in the rarefied scholarly atmosphere of Oxford. He has spent pages lambasting the persistent British notion that their empire was not a bad thing after all for the Indian people. Sure the empire was evil, but his argument that the empire was bad but Britain was good leaves the Indian reader groping for an answer to a familiar question: would we have been better placed if Clive lost the battle in 1757?

However, Eric Hobsbawm, Marxist historian and Raychaudhuri’s peer, in his autobiography (Interesting Times), addresses the question head-on. He says: “I look forward to an American world empire, whose long-term chances are poor, with more fear and less enthusiasm than I look back on the record of the old British Empire, whose modest size protected it against megalomania.” Hobsbawm was no doubt muddled: if Curzon and his ilk were not megalomaniac, what were they?

But the British surely left us with a nation (or three, for that matter) for which Raychaudhuri does not conceal his pride. He was born in a dependency. Now, at a ripe 87, he not only has a country of origin but one that has recently honoured him with the ‘Padma Bhushan’ title. From a man so familiar with India under the British, even a brief foray into the counterfact — how different would have been South Asia without the British as masters? — could hugely broaden the discourse.

His pet hates, however, are not confined to the Union Jack in India. They include Mrs Thatcher, one of the longest standing sand-boxes of the Oxford community: “Her (Mrs Thatcher) social attitudes… her promotion of an ideology of everyone for him/herself and let devil take the hindmost... combined to produce in me a feeling of physical sickness whenever she appeared on the television screen.” The coalition government in London is cutting grants and raising student fees even now, just as the ‘iron lady’ attempted in her times. Raychaudhuri doesn’t explain how, if she were such a bloodthirsty monster, her idea of ending the UK’s culture of entitlement is still finds resonance with a substantial section of the population.

The judgmental part aside, this book is riveting as a travelogue. While researching in The Hague with the Dutch records of the East India trade, Raychaudhuri offers snippets of the land as they were over half a century ago, but with the keen eyes of a culture tourist. “…the young ladies supplemented their Indisch-Chineesch (Indonesian) meals with multiple gerechten (dishes) with pastries or gebakken covered in slagroom, whipped cream.” He returns from England by the land route, eating kebabs laid out on a Baghdad pavement; elsewhere, he participates in the merriment of Pathan passengers on the deck of a Basra-to-Bombay boat, who sang what sounded like fierce war songs but they described the subject as ‘ishq’.

The only tirsome aspect in this otherwise breezily-written book is the absence of a page index and explanatory notes on the characters and events mentioned.

Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer