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Autobiography of an Unknown Indian [Paperback]

Nirad C. Chaudhuri
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

11 Mar 2004
Evokes the first 24 years of the author's life in Calcutta and in his ancestral village in East Bengal. The book combines memoirs with a sweeping survey of Indian history and culture in the last years of the Raj.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 610 pages
  • Publisher: Jaico Publishing House; New Ed edition (11 Mar 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 8172242875
  • ISBN-13: 978-8172242879
  • Product Dimensions: 21.2 x 14 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 73,433 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
This is one of the most extraordinary and important books to come out of India this century: as Doris Lessing says: "Reading this book is to be immersed in India, you feel you are living that life, such is the power of this acute stubbornly honest, capaciously minded writer to recreate his times. He is a product of the period when Indians were nourished by English literature, law, thought. The contrast between the vivid details of village and family life and the slow growth towardsthe grandeur of his moral and literary vision provides the tension of these vivid pages. THIS IS ONE OF THE GREAT BOOKS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY"
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting perspective from an era gone by..... 8 Aug 2001
By Kersi Von Zerububbel - Published on Amazon.com
This book will give you a perspective that was quite common amongst the "educated Indians" during the waning days of the Raj. The writing is somewhat turgid though quite colorful in parts. I read this book in small doses just to savor and reflect upon an era long gone. The descriptions of family life and personalities are delightful and vivid.
This however, is not a easy read. If you expect a fast-paced juicy narrative then you will be disappointed. If you enjoy a meaty jaunt through late 19th and early 20th century India then by all means get it. A word of caution. When reading the author's opinions please realize the times from whence they spring.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars NCC's Masterpiece 2 April 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
This is a must book for all those who've seen Rural Bengal/Bangladesh in its true form with its summers, rainy season and winters with the human face. Description is vivid and also the dreams about Foreign Land (Bilet). NCC with one of his best novels however, with his usual opinionated and often judgemental perception which is so typically Nirad-babu. The maestro puts his experience of yesteryears with the accuracy of present day. Insights and the minute details is what makes him one of the greatest prolific writers of all time. One needs to look at the world of Nirad-babu to fully appreciate his work without marring your thoughts without your prejudices. If anyone, wants to get lost in the laid-back life of Bengal, this is where your quest should end. I wish he could have more writings in English so that more people could appreciate the master.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Weighty, worthy, and entertaining (but a bit of a bore) 6 July 2003
By Jay Dickson - Published on Amazon.com
Nirad Chaudhuri was often unfairly dismissed in his lifetime as a 20th-century equivalent to the notorious mimic men evoked in Macaulay's infamous "Minute on Indian Education": he adopts the attitudes of the British ruling class during the Raj so thoroughly he might at a casual glance be dismissed as such. But Chaudhuri's fierce and iconoclastic intelligence makes him far much more: a singular and independent thinker, and in truth a true original. This book, his masterpiece, is a brilliant semi-autobiographical study of the political situation of the first half of the Indian twentieth century. It works best in the lovely and lyrical opening hundred pages, which give a very evocative sense of his Bengali childhood. Unfortunately later, when Chaudhuri surrenders reminiscence for political analysis, he becomes more tedious than illuminating (you get the suspicion that, were you to visit him as Ian Jack , who provided the book's fine introduction, you would have been compelled despite yourself to check your watch discreetly during one of Chaudhuri's lengthy and self-satisfied tirades).
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Three In One 28 Dec 2003
By Buce - Published on Amazon.com
I took Chaudhuri's autobiography along on both legs of a cross-country plane trip. Good choice: this tale of old Bengal is sufficiently remote from the cares and demands of my ordinary life, I would have been a long time getting to it at home. But the constraints of coach class are just the place to come to terms with its prickly, difficult and high-principled author. At 535 pages, the book is not short, but I don't think I would want it shorter. Chaudhuri has a big subject -- not just himself, but the whole of a culture -- and you need this breadth to capture it. Besides, it is not really one book; it is at least three. It is a bildungsroman: the story of a boy's maturation in a dark time. It's a magic-lantern guided tour through the Bengal of his youth, now irretrievably lost in the mists of history. Finally it is a shrewd and challenging--and highly personal--account of life under British rule. As they say on SNL, it's a candy mint /and/ a breath mint, a floor wax and a dessert topping.
More specifically--Chaudhuri is full of (pardonable?) rage against the gobsmacking cheek of the old-fashioned British occupiers, their pretense and their presumption. But he is the product of a British education, the child of Mill and Burke, and at the end of the day, he wouldn't have it any other way. Such a dual perspective makes him at best a a reluctant and critical onlooker in the great subcontinental uprising. It positions him as a critic of even that most untouchable of 20th Century icons, Mahatma Gandhi. Indeed, far from wishing for less of a book from Chaudhuri, still when it comes to politics, I can only wish there were more (I haven't read "They Hand, Great Anarch!", his other big book, which I gather is a kind of a pendant to this one). Still, it's a gift as it is. "India has merged," he says near the end of this great work "in the stream of European expansion, and forms part of those portions of the world which constitute a greater Europe, which, as I see it, will ultimately come to mean the whole world." Maybe. At least from the standpoint of 1951 when he first published, it seems prescient. And it is wonderful to have him along as a guide.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly but not balanced on controversial topics but a should read 29 Dec 2011
By Anand D N - Published on Amazon.com
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
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