The world's best-known unknown Indian

The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian
February 5, 1999

When this classic book was published, in London in 1951, its defiant dedication page caused so much outrage in India that it was defaced or excised by some readers, and caused its first-time author, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, to be treated as a pariah by the vast majority of Indians, including even Jawaharlal Nehru. It is therefore ironic that this welcome new edition comes with the famous dedication page missing. A concession by the author to political correctness? No reader of Chaudhuri - who today lives in Oxford, aged 101, and received an honorary degree from the university in his nineties - could imagine him agreeing to this. It appears to be a publisher's error.

The dedication read: "To the memory of the British Empire in India which conferred subjecthood on us but withheld citizenship; to which yet every one of us threw out the challenge: Civis Britannicus Sum , because all that was good and living within us was made, shaped, and quickened by the same British rule."

Over the years, the Autobiography has acquired many distinguished admirers. Winston Churchill thought it one of the best books he had ever read. V. S. Naipaul remarked: "No better account of the penetration of the Indian mind by the West - and by extension, of the penetration of one culture by another - will be or now can be written." In 1998, it was included, as one of the few Indian contributions, in The New Oxford Book of English Prose .

I first read the book in the early 1980s and was much influenced in my own writing on India. Returning to it after a gap, I am enchanted afresh by the limpid beauty of the author's evocation of his upbringing among the rivers and dusty small towns and villages of East Bengal a century ago. "Our road I was so sensitive that we could always tell which way people had gone by looking at the footprints. There was never any time of the day and night when the road did not show footmarks. But they pointed differently at different times. At midday, after the great litigious crowd had gone towards the courts, the toes all pointed westward, and in the early morning eastward. In addition, in every section of the road coinciding with each house-front, there were one or more bigger depressions, showing where the pariah dog or dogs belonging or voluntarily attaching themselves to that particular house had slept the night before."

And I am struck again by the truth of much (though not all) of Chaudhuri's analysis of large themes. "To my mind the most decisive indication of the essentially foreign character of the culture of modern India is the attitude of the general body of Indians as much towards it as to its creators and exponents. By far the greatest majority of Indians rejected the idea of a synthesis of the civilisations of the East and the West on which this new culture was based even when the synthesis was a living historical force. Today the concept stands wholly discredited. What Indians in the mass want is nationalism, which does not, however, preclude a wholesale and uncritical acceptance, or to be more accurate crude imitation, of western habits of living and economic technique."

Although The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian is about India, and mostly about one part of India, undivided Bengal, it deserves to be read - unlike the rest of Chaudhuri's almost equally distinguished books - by everyone. For as Tagore, Chaudhuri's literary mentor, said of his own memoirs: "There is no event in my reminiscences worthy of being preserved for all time. Literary value does not depend on the importance of a subject, however. Whatever one has truly felt, if it can be made sensible to others, will always be respected."

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES .

The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian

Author - Nirad C. Chaudhuri
ISBN - 0 330 371126 6
Publisher - Picador
Price - £15.00
Pages - 516

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments