This voluminous autobiography of Nirad Chaudhuri runs to 600+ pages on a book size that is larger than a pocket book. It is characterized by the author's keen sense of observation, with indication in every page, of his erudition especially in English literature, so much so that sometimes it becomes difficult for the lay reader to grasp the full purport of his account without the reader's own ability to appreciate the generous quotations from literary works of the Victorian Era.
As a fellow Indian and coming from a family background similar to Nirad's (middle class, emphasis on morality and education during formative years, etc), the book is very engaging in that I could "live through" what the author recounts of his immediate and extended families, his home, town, school, teachers and life in general, although I come from a region in India far removed from East Bengal (which by the way was not a separate country then) both geographically, linguistically and to some extent culturally too.
I have found a few things striking in Nirad's life, family and the general milieu that he grew up in: amazed by his liberal upbringing even in "those days" - especially his mother's independent nature and `going against the grain' that too for a woman; my confirmation of the Bengali's pre-eminent position amongst Indians in matters of literature (as well as art). People, I mean the educated class, would quote from literary works in everyday conversations and arguments; surprised by, how Bengali intelligentsia had fallen head over heels with Shakespeare's works.
The book is more a treatise than an autobiography - a treatise on Indian polity at that time, Indian history and Hinduism - all these are obviously loaded topics and one cannot expect profound treatment of the subjects but the author gleans on all these topics with ease and offers his own well formulated views - views that sometimes prove difficult to digest. Nirad comes across as opinionated at times, but if one reads him carefully one appreciates that these are opinions formulated with sufficient ground. But, personally I feel he has been uncharitable to Hinduism and the East in general. He makes no secret of his unabashed adulation of the West and its ways but being the inveterate critic that he is, doesn't hesitate to wield his whip against the English and Westerners in general. Nirad is even caustic in his remarks, especially of Hindus and Hinduism. He is definitely a confirmed liberal but one does not understand why that should mean the foreigner is right most of the times. He conveniently fails to mention the West's fallacies. Instead, he never missed an opportunity to point out the `civilizing' effect of the West on India and Indians. Did not the West learn anything? One fails to understand why the author is silent on the storied spirituality of the East and India in particular. (I have not read any of the author's other works, so I make this remark with some caution). Similarly, about Turks, Persians and other Muslim invaders. The meekness of Hindus in the face of the marauding Muslim invaders is something that no Indian is proud about, but Nirad could have taken a moment to condemn that it was patently wrong to desecrate religious places of the vanquished. He mentions proselytization in passing but could have taken a harder stance against it.
Another astonishing feature about this "autobiography" is, while the author provides a graphic description of his childhood and of the places where he spent his childhood, it is totally opaque when it comes to throwing light on his later years. His silence on his career should lead one to believe that he had nothing to be proud of nor even enjoyed it. He brooks no hesitation in admitting his total dislike of his first job which was dreary to say the least, albeit better paying than that of a college professor that he had hoped to become. The reader is unable to fathom why Nirad, while very clear as a student about his career ambition to become a professor, did not complete his Master's degree knowing very well that one could not hope to fulfill this ambition without the said degree. He attributes his lack of aspiration to his inability to concentrate, in spite of completing his Bachelor's in flying colors. Given his scholarly achievements in the literary field and his penchant for scholarly reading, one would have thought that he could take to advance studies like a duck taking to water. The reader is not clear about the exact reasons for this anomalous development in Nirad's life except guessing that he wanted to study in "his own terms" and did not want to be straight jacketed into any particular regimen or `syllabus', howsoever enticing the rewards were to be. Personally I am filled with pity for the author on this count - not only because he could not, or rather did not pursue something that would have been natural to his being, but also because a large swath of his life became listless. I am coming to this significant conclusion about the `listlessness' based on his silence on anything remotely connected to his career during, what would have otherwise been his prime working years. There is also no mention of his family life as a married man - how did he meet his wife, what kind of a family life did he have. He mentions in a different context that he had only sons but no daughters. I would not like to speculate the reasons for this silence but would safely assume that, perhaps the author wanted to remain silent for reasons of privacy.
I also have a complaint against the publisher (Jaico Books) - they have not cared to provide any footnotes whatsoever nor translations of the French/German quotations from books that Nirad quotes liberally. The most that has been done is italicizing non-English words.
Lastly, in spite of disappointments on several counts as already mentioned, I would give a thumbs up to this work without any hesitation. My reasons are rich language, scholarship and the close insight into Indian consciousness as it developed through the 19th and the first half of 20th century. The author's views appeal to a rational mind and is a direct hit at the parochial minded.
It is a book I would recommend every Indian to read.
- Anand D N, Dec 28th 2011