Just Like That | Knowledge vs Authenticity: The peril of being a ‘photocopy’
On the curious case of Indian writer Nirad Chaudhuri and his quest for knowledge and British acceptance, which led him away from his own cultural authenticity.
Are knowledge and authenticity interchangeable or synonymous? I don’t think so. One can be very knowledgeable, and yet be a clone of some other culture and rootless in one’s own. On the other hand, one could be very authentically part of one’s own culture, but have very little knowledge about anything else.
I was thinking of this dilemma, especially in post-colonial societies, by re-reading parts of Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. The book created a sensation when it was published in 1951, and Chaudhuri, little known in the world of letters, was catapulted into one of the most talked-about writers in India.
There was a reason why the book created such an implosion. Nirad Babu was India’s most unapologetic, outspoken and knowledgeable supporter of the British and their rule in India. Born in a middle-class family in what is now Bangladesh in 1897, his first book, The Autobiography, was published in 1951. Its dedication was enough to create the stir he desired. It read: To the Memory of the British Empire…..Because all that was good and living within us, Was Made, Shaped and Quickened, By the same British Rule.
Chaudhuri visited England for the first time in 1955, when he was 57 years old, and wrote a book on that experience, A Passage to England. He later went into self-exile from India, and lived at Oxford from 1982 till his death in 1999, at the ripe old age of 101. Oxford conferred on him an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters, and the British government made him an honorary Commander of the British Empire in 1992.
Although Nirad Choudhari spent a lifetime — and very considerable scholarship — in denigrating his own people and venerating the British, was he really accepted as one of their own by the latter? On a visit to Oxford in 2004 for a speaking engagement, my wife and I were invited to dinner by the venerable Tapan Raychaudhuri, Professor Emeritus at St Anthony’s College. Nirad lived around the corner from the Raychauduris, and the good Professor had dozens of anecdotes to share about him. According to Tapan, although Nirad took great pride in speaking the Queen’s English and dressed like the most fastidious English gentleman, he remained for Englishmen an oddity, a diminutive curiosity, a relic of the past, respected for his scholarship but tolerated only for his partisanship in their favour.
Tapan recalled Nirad Babu’s laughable efforts at preserving his ‘English’ image, especially when an Englishman was coming to see him. ‘He would keep his one and only Doulton tea set ready, and dress for the occasion in an overdone manner, which would quite startle his unsuspecting guest. He would go out of his way to tell his British visitor that he never ate the food the ‘natives’ ate, although, on one occasion, Tapan remembered, he had just eaten a meal of rice and machher jhol with great relish. The gardener at St Anthony’s College once ran into Nirad’s son, and jocularly remarked that he would come home sometime to have some curry. The son, well trained by his father, reacted with horror: ‘We do not eat curry in our home’, he retorted. ‘My father always has an English breakfast with bacon and eggs’.
Nirad’s knowledge of British history and culture was a kind of defence mechanism to prove his Englishness. If he was serving wine, he would begin to give its history and a comparative analysis of similar wines and their vintage, leaving his visitors not so much impressed as flummoxed. Apparently, the monthly stipend he was paid by Oxford University was quite small, and there was considerable uncertainty on how long it would continue. He was unsure too how long he would be able to retain the house allotted to him. These insecurities only accentuated his desire to prove his loyalty to his benefactors, and while he was at his imperious best in overwhelming the fawning Indian acolytes that called on him, he was reduced to a somewhat pathetic supplicant before his white friends. Sometimes his efforts to impress them and to be counted among them would lead to unexpected consequences. A member of the House of Lords, who met Nirad at a time when he was in dire financial straits, was quite taken aback by the expensive wines and spirits served.
Nirad Chaudhuri, who was dismissive of the mimicry and mediocrity of Indian brown sahibs, especially since he was not born into that background, decided to become the true brown Englishman. But in the process, he became a caricature himself. He did not use his vast intellectual resources to chisel an authentic identity for himself.
The takeaway is clear: Photocopies of other cultures, however knowledgeable, remain photocopies. And photocopies never win real respect. It is far, far better to be oneself, rooted in your own culture, while being open to others.
Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha).
Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers
The views expressed are personal