Nirad C Chaudhuri (1897-1999) was a multifaceted Bengali-Indian writer and scholar who was described (in England) as the “last brown sahib”. A complex character, he celebrated the colonial heritage, Western culture and learning as much as his own classics.
Not surprisingly, he was an unsparing critic of post-1947 India. However, two decades after his death in England, the continued traction of a few of his pre-occupations appears quite astonishing.
One was his assessment of what he considered the Westernized/Anglicised elite.
There was vicariousness in his treatment of its psyche after insisting that he was not one of them. Could soul and spirit be experienced second-hand? The paths to their arrival could be defined as the way he had described them. But did he know with the definitiveness he claimed, their inner feelings, or could every human journey be identical?
The broad classification was useful mostly as a point of departure.
He could vouch for the subjective component viz. the occasional humiliation at the hands of phoney Indian Knight Templers. He showed purpose and determination in directly addressing rather than glossing over those invidious distinctions.
He crafted causes celebres which others after him, doubtless casualties themselves, made a habit of paying back. But it was open to question whether every act of people from a particular category was determined by causes external to their will, particularly the circumstances he had in mind.
Chaudhuri’s scholarly submissions were controversial but invariably contained wholesome truth. Quite significantly, many of his hobby-horses had a way of winding back to public discourse through proxies who did not necessarily acknowledge him as their principal.
In the bargain, he took as much flak as he gave, particularly within the country, ironically even from people who had taken a leaf out of his book. His avatar as private secretary to a key actor in the Partition drama gave him invaluable insights, particularly the selfishness of leaders, whose myopia and greed he reckoned aroused communalism and disfigured the Subcontinent, particularly the eastern region.
One of several self-fulfilling prophecies is the seeming nemesis of the people who had made life miserable not just for him, but a great many others. Retribution seems to be staring in the face those who had succumbed to hubris (though the world-views of some of them happily belie Chaudhuri’s cynicism).
Chastisement with a vengeance as much for conceit and arrogance as for perceived wrong-doing is virtually following a pre-ordained course. Yet the psychology of retribution is such that it can drain the avenger and cast a wider shadow than anticipated. The writer’s unstated doomsday blight will hopefully recede, as chastened victim and avenger alike get down to addressing the bigger picture in dire need of retrieval.
For it is an integral postulate of wisdom that mankind is inextricably interlinked. The Sino-American trade war threatens recession and the fate of people everywhere if they fail to rise above their differences, almost in token remembrance of Chaudhuri’s legacy.
By Uttam Sen
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