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Facets Of India: A Quaint Indian "Englishman'' - Part 4

Hariharan Balakrishnan continues his series of articles on Nirad Chaudhury, the thinker and writer, at one time one of the most widely read columnists in India and author of The Autobiography Of An Unknown Indian.

Nirad Chaudhuri’s scholastic journey started right from his teens. He had a voracious appetite for books and had a remarkably independent and analytical mind even in those days. As a college student in Calcutta, he made full use of all the libraries open to him, including the Metcalfe Hall and the Imperial Library. His first love for study was history, particularly military history.

“As for the books, the most decisive influence on me was certainly the Constitutional History by Stubbs and Mommsen’s History of Rome following at some remove. I hardly know what made me read Stubbs week after week, month after month, when I could not understand three-fourths of him. It was not accompanied by the craze for constitutional history and law that which prevailed in our midst. Educated Indians with their newly acquired sense of politics took to these subject as ducks take to water, and only too many of them would have liked above everything else to have been, if not Jeffersons, at least Sieyeses.”, he wrote in his Autobiography.

While history was the métier of the man, it is difficult to point out any group of subjects as his oeuvre. He had precise knowledge of aspects of chemistry, thermodynamics, European literature, Hindu philosophy, Tagore’s works not excluding an array of his Rabindra Sangeet, as well as Western classical music - not to speak of an uncanny ability to tell the precise vintage and origin of wines. It is said that he taught the last of these gifts to his son when the boy was barely into his teens.

Another anecdote that tells us something of the man is about his sense of satisfaction when he found that his new bride could not only spell correctly but also pronounce the name of Beethoven!

Lord Acton was one more abiding influence on Nirad Chaudhuri. As he says in the same book, “For Lord Acton I developed a veneration which was almost idolatry, and as a personal loyalty this veneration is equalled in me only by my affection for Charlotte Bronte. I read through all the works of Lord Acton, including his letters. I also read everything published about him, and I do not think that the account Lord Acton gave one night at Cannes of his projected history of freedom gave a greater thrill to Lord Bryce who listened to it, than Lord Bryce’s account in his Contemporary Biography gave to me.”

While waiting for the result of his BA exams in his native Kishorganj in 1918, one evening young Nirad found the entire house of the family crumbling in a devastating earthquake. “There was a low all-pervading rumble, but it seemed to be part of a vast preternatural and unconquerable silence by which that familiar and reassuring sound, the human voice, had been wholly stifled. Men were running about, but everything was unreal and trance-like, although intolerably distinct. The earth was quivering without interruption, but its progress towards destruction appeared to be agonizingly slow,” is how he recalled the event.

Nirad Chaudhuri was witness from an armchair to both the World Wars. Indian aspiration for independence was at simmering point around the time World War I was being fought. “Citizen-student” Nirad Chaudhuri was fully on the side of the British, while a majority among students and the faculty developed a deep antipathy towards colonial Britain. Many found a red rag in any Britisher or anything British. In 1918, barely 20, he wrote an essay on “The objective method in history”, after getting angry with his highly rated professor Dr. Kalidas Nag who digressed from the subject he was teaching to give an harangue on patriotism in the classroom, when the scholarly Professor Ramsey Muir quietly slipped into his class and sat on a back bench. That effort in flawless English of the times was lost in the debris of the crumbling house in Kishorganj, retrieved two years later and lost again for years until it miraculously surfaced in 1948. But to read that, you must go to The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian http://www.amazon.co.uk/Autobiography-Indian-Review-Books-Classics/dp/094032282X


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