England’s Chum

John Bayley

  • The Hand, Great Anarch! India 1921-1952 by Nirad Chaudhuri
    Chatto, 979 pp, £25.00, November 1987, ISBN 0 7011 2476 8
  • The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad Chaudhuri
    Hogarth, 506 pp, £7.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 7012 0800 7

Power stalks the corridors as it has always done, and operates in the same ways, but it increasingly prefers to do so in a mean privacy. Shakespeare today would no longer have the feel of what happens there. The media have taken over the forecourt; and art, in the true sense, no longer has the entrée. Even the Russian novel cannot get in, as it was able to do without effort in the days of War and Peace and Resurrection, following the novels of Balzac and Scott. A contemporary novel like Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat uses the old tradition, alternating domestic and family matters with scenes in the Kremlin and among the Soviet bigwigs. But the result is unconvincing, with no naturalness about it, and the reason seems to be that art can no longer convey the association of power with style. Or perhaps style no longer goes with power, except in terms of making people up for the TV cameras?

In his voluminous memoirs Nirad Chaudhuri gives among many other things a marvellous description of the years he worked for Sarat Bose, barrister, Bengali and Congress politician, elder brother of Subhas Chandra Bose, who led the Indian National Army on the Japanese side in World War Two and at the end of it died in a plane crash on Taiwan. Sarat’s household, where Gandhi and Nehru constantly visited and discussions on the strategy of the Independence struggle took place, would have been instantly familiar to Shakespeare, and indeed must have resembled every great court and power centre before the later 20th century, whether in Elizabethan England or the Versailles of Louis XIV, Kyoto or Mongol Karakorum or Victorian Delhi itself. There was nothing furtive about such a great household power centre. The master lived in public and displayed as part of his natural mastery. Chaudhuri, in a sense a court poet, can perceive and describe this public life as part of his own sense of style. There is no discrepancy between his surroundings and his own power to convey their reality.

It is this, as it were, psychological timelessness which gives their extraordinary fascination to his books. He is completely familiar; he is English literature to the marrow; and yet he does not seem confined, as English-born writers are, to his own particular part of it, the style, experience and outlook of a single time. The effect is very odd, almost demoralising to the reader’s expectations, and yet at the same time intensely stimulating. The zeitgeist confining us to our own period of our own literature has been left behind.

Hence, too, the seeming effortlessness with which he brings before us such a panorama as the court of Sarat Bose. None of the confinement to their own egos which is so obvious in Forster or Ackerley, seeking to define for themselves what they saw and to be funny about it. And yet Chaudhuri is present too, in all his quiddity as an individual. As one of his epigraphs he quotes Pascal: ‘When confronted with a natural style one is both astonished and delighted, because one expected to encounter an author, and one meets a man.’ Characteristically, he provides not one but three epigraphs – overkill is a Chaudhurian speciality: two from Pascal and one from La Rochefoucauld, all quoted in French. After Independence, when his modest job with All India Radio vanished, he was approached by the French Ambassador, Count Ostrorog, who begged him to take on some literary work at the Embassy, out of admiration for his devotion to French culture.

Like his brother, Sarat Bose was a Bengali nationalist, but he was also an English gentleman in an ahistorical sense. He would have been perfectly at home with Warren Hastings, or with any of the grandees of the East India company. In his house there were two great kitchens, one for the preparation of local dishes under a Bengali thakur, one for Western food produced by a Muslim chef who had trained in Europe. The Bose children had a choice every day: ‘Shall we eat English or thakur?’ Sarat Bose himself began with a substantial English breakfast, ate local dishes during the day and chewed pan while receiving his clients, and sat down to a five-course Western dinner in the evening. He usually dined alone and in state.

One of Chaudhuri’s heroes is Sir Henry Maine, Vice-Chancellor in the 1860s of Calcutta University, which had been founded a few years earlier. Maine rejoiced in the Anglicised and highly-educated Bengali graduates, and remarked that they would have been perfectly at home with the servants of the old Company, who did in fact converse and live on terms of equality with the upper-class Bengalis of their day. But the Victorian ruling class in Bengal, and in India generally, were mostly narrow-minded Philistines who, so far as they were aware of it, resented the fact that educated Bengalis knew more about English history and English culture than they did. Once again the curious ahistorical factor was at work, ensuring that rulers and ruled could never be other than at odds, because the latter had embraced the whole of their rulers’ culture while the rulers themselves were conditioned by their immediate class and outlook. Chaudhuri observes with amusement and without bitterness ‘the decline of modern Indian culture, which was created by Indians under British rule’. It was ‘mainly the creation of Bengalis who had received their education in English’. But this produced a double decline, both in indigenous Bengali culture and in Bengal’s commanding position as the force in Indian politics. ‘From the beginning of British rule down to 1920 the Bengali people dominated the political and cultural life of India.’ Their failure was to have evolved a form of Englishness which seemed to India’s real rulers a form of burlesque. Even Kipling referred to the Bengali Babu as a Caliban who had been taught language and used it to curse his mentors. More than one of his stories makes the point – and crudely enough – that the educated Bengali is acceptable neither to the native population nor to the occupying power. Chaudhuri observes that he himself took some part ‘in what might be called the Bengali Kulturkampf’, but that ‘with independence, the eclipse of Bengal was completed.’ Nehru, often encountered when Chaudhuri was Sarat Bose’s secretary, wore the dhoti then in deference to Gandhi, but when he became prime minister after the latter’s death he reverted to the manners and dress of the Kashmiri aristocrat that he was.

As Chaudhuri shows, the case of the great Bengali poet Tagore is an instance of this dilemma and decline. Tagore had an enormous success in England, and in Europe generally, as a model not only of an Indian poet but of Indian spirituality’, a concept which Chaudhuri treats with a not unsympathetic derision. Taken up by Yeats, Bridges, and the whole literary establishment of the time, Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913. This helped to alienate him from his fellow Bengalis, who were envious on the grounds that he didn’t possess a School Certificate, let alone a university degree. Recognition on the international scale also made Tagore convinced that he could translate his own poems into English prose poems. The result was popular and widely respected at the time, sounding as it did sufficiently like the Wisdom of the East, but Yeats for one saw that it wouldn’t do. He and Sturge Moore had produced good translations, and now ‘Damn Tagore. He thought it more important to know English than to be a great poet; he brought out sentimental rubbish and wrecked his reputation’. It was indeed a strange instance of the possible baleful effects of the Anglo-Bengali embrace, for Tagore must be the only great poet who compromised his reputation as a poet with his countrymen by writing poetry in another language. With their knowledge of English literature, educated Bengalis could see it was no good in English and began to wonder whether it could therefore be any good in Bengali either.

But of course it is, as Chaudhuri firmly insists. Tagore is indeed one of the great Bengali poets. But in English he has no style, or rather only the style that went with the age, an age whose idiom in most English poetry was itself inferior. Localised and made quaint by time, Tagore in English belongs among the other Georgians. As Chaudhuri says, it was the shock of war that created new poetry, and even though Gandhi and Nehru spoke reverently of Tagore as Gurudev – ‘My Lord the Guru’ – his art was left behind among the old pre-war fashions. In a typically freewheeling comparison Chaudhuri likens Tagore’s love of his own English to Lord Chesterfield’s love for his natural son, ‘and like Chesterfield Tagore also thought that the child of love was what it was not.’ And indeed this is the big difference between Chaudhuri’s English style and that of the poet. Chaudhuri in a sense is equally infatuated with his own English: but in this case it really is how own, and by being so belongs to a timeless continuum of English prose. This is another aspect of the beguiling asynchronic power of his style.

Yet as well as seeming to occupy his puckish place outside time Chaudhuri is an admirable historian, whose magisterial sense of the achievements and decline of British India, together with his extraordinary readability on any subject, puts him in a unique class. As he tells us in his earlier volume, The Auto biography of an Unknown Indian, his first love was for military history, and lying on his charpoy in the family house among the paddy fields he mastered the tactics of every battle from those of Hannibal to Tsushima and the siege of Port Arthur by the Japanese. He devoured every work on technology he could gel hold of, and confesses that his fascination with the design of field-gun breeches was largely aesthetic. The breech mechanism of the famous French soixante-quinze, however effective, did not please him, and that of the English field gun was too quiet and gentlemanly, ‘unassertive in the English manner’: only the Krupp fully satisfied him, ‘with its concinnity and elegance which cuts instantaneously into an inexperienced sensuous perception’. Such infatuations were not uncommon at the time, or later on, in India – Nehru was in love with his transparent plastic telephone, showing the internal mechanism – but Chaudhuri is wonderfully humorous about their significance for him and for many of his friends. He is perfectly aware, too, of the deeper significance such absorptions illustrate, and the divisions they reveal. His aesthetic love was all for England, Europe, world culture, but another part of him was a passionate Bengali nationalist, burning with resentment against the bêtises of British rule. Here again the aesthetic factor was important. He particularly detested the British contempt for what was supposed, quite unreasonably, to be the Bengali physical type – plump, but spindly – a ‘nation of slaves’, as they were referred to by a visiting Oxford graduate not long before the first war. Chaudhuri rejoiced when those allegedly spindly legs trounced a crack team of the Black Watch at football.

Not least among the illuminations in these remarkable books is Chaudhuri’s unflinching sense of the disaster brought about by Independence. As a historian, he is conscious of its inevitability, but deplores the way it was done and the consequences of partition, for which Indians and British were alike to blame. The desire to get rid of the British, which united educated Moslem and Hindu before and during the war, was also reflected in its immediate aftermath, when the British set up a court-martial of some of the leaders of the Indian National Army. Of the 60,000 Indian troops captured at Singapore a good half remained loyal to their regimental oath, preferring the horrors of a Japanese POW camp to service against their old employers. But though the record of the INA was not good it remained an inspiring idea, and Subhas Chandra Bose a popular figure all over India. The abortive trial united all India by its unpopularity. As at the time of the Mutiny, there was inspiration in any dream which would unite Moslem and Hindu against the invader from Europe.

And Chaudhuri is humorously aware of the power of dreams, both in the land of India and in his own intensely literary consciousness. It was love of his English dream which eventually compelled him to leave India. That departure was not unembittered, a bitterness demonstrated in his brilliant but tendentious book, The Continent of Circe, which allowed the classic image of the enchantress who turns all comers into animal form to dominate quite unfairly a whole theory of the sub-continent. Like most writers, Chaudhuri lives in a world of books, a world into which he converts experience as it comes; but unlike most writers he makes this a source not only of unbounded curiosity but of a continuous comic display. The joy of his language is unfailing – who else would have coined the word ‘chummage’ for a particular sort of youthful group of friends? – and the reader encounters him as man rather than author in whatever he writes, in his massive study Hinduism and in his scholarly books on Clive and Max Muller no less than in his autobiographies. Generosity, rare in authors, is his most beatific quality. He remains dedicated to the memory of the Empire, and to the ‘challenge’ he and his kind made to it – Civis Britannicus sum – because ‘all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule.’