Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Thy Hand, Great Anarch by Nirad C. Chaudhuri

Source of book: Kern County Library

This book is the major reason I have posted fewer reviews as of late. Weighing in at nearly 1000 pages of smallish type, this is neither a light nor quick read. It is, however, a truly amazing work of non-fiction.

The best way I can find to classify this book is a hybrid of autobiography, history, and editorial. It goes even farther than Churchill’s works by digressing extensively from the narrative with commentary by the author.

Chaudhuri was born in 1897 in East Bengal, now part of Bangladesh, but then part of British India. He endured extensive bouts of poverty and unemployment as he followed his dream of earning his living through writing. He wrote for newspapers and magazines in both English and Bengali, spent a number of years as a secretary for Sarat Bose, a major figure in the Indian Nationalist movement, and later wrote for All India Radio. He burst upon the international scene with his first book, Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, in the 1950s. This book could be considered Volume One of his autobiography, with Thy Hand, Great Anarch serving as the second installment, covering his life from 1921 to 1951.

Thy Hand, Great Anarch took its title from a poem by Alexander Pope (The Dunciad) which satirizes cultural decay, ending with these lines:

            Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries All.

Chaudhuri wrote this book late in life – it was published in 1987 when he was nearly 90. He would live to 101, publishing his last book at age 100.

As a man, Chaudhuri makes an interesting study. He was in ill health for most of his life due to a series of childhood illnesses. He was a mere five feet tall, and freely admits his wife was bigger and stronger than he. A less imposing or less physically attractive person could hardly be imagined. However, he balanced his frail exterior with an unusually strong memory, a clear and brilliant mind which he kept to the end, a self confidence bordering on arrogance combined with a witty sense of self-deprecation.

This book is considered to be one of the best primary sources for the saga of the end of British rule in India. Chaudhuri lived through many of the important events, and knew the personalities. His portraits in this book of the poet Tagore, Sarat and Subhas Bose, Gandhi, Nehru, and others are brutally honest both as to strengths and failures. His analysis of the events and the disasters which followed were provocative at the time, and still challenge the conventional wisdom.

Uncompromising is perhaps the best word to describe Chaudhuri’s writing. He refused to even consider changing his views on anything to gain his own advantage. In reality, he was dismissed from his position with All India Radio, and even denied his pension, because of his first book. Even 35 years later in Anarch, he refused to pull punches, whether speaking about individuals, the Indian government, or even American culture. It is this quality of speaking the truth as he saw it that gives his writing its force. He states that he has rarely had to revise his opinions, because he has taken such care to never express any opinion on any subject unless he felt sure it would stand wear and tear.  Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions, it is clear he thought them through and did his best to discard any personal bias that might have interfered.

With a book of this length and scope, it is difficult to pick only a few highlights.

First, from the introduction, he announces that much of what was written about Indian independence was blatantly partisan. Those connected with the Indian government sought to preserve their jobs and glorify the new regime. Those from Britain sought to make a saint of Gandhi and therefore forget their own failures. Neither acknowledged the catastrophe that India became in the wake of independence – the rampant corruption and prejudice that even now holds India back from her potential.

“I judge policies and actions by their results, and not by the intentions of the participants…The most extraordinary fact about the recent history of India is that none of those who, whether Indian or British, were in reality Agents of Evil, had any suspicion that they were that and not Children of Light…A true student of history knows that history does not forgive. In India she has not.”

Chaudhuri’s view was that Britain’s significant failure was their refusal to practice “cultural assimilation”. The British in India neither adopted the Indian culture nor spread their own. Rather, they viciously fought against those Indians who attempted to adopt British culture, considering them mere monkeys rather than equals. Thus, in the reaction against British arrogance, the culture of corruption and the prejudice of the caste system were elevated to the status of nationalistic icons, ruining the chance for India to rise above them. In this way, the Indian independence focused on being “not-British”, rather than having a clear idea of what good alternative to put in place of British rule.

In speaking of the Hindu-Muslim conflict which resulted first in the partition of India into Pakistan and Bangladesh, and to this day continues as a nuclear-armed standoff, he believed that lots of high-flown, but utterly irrelevant things had been said. “I came to the conclusion that the more well-intentioned people were, the more prone did they become to utter drivel.” He also became skeptical of humanitarianism after his dealings with Gandhi and others – it seemed to him to become a form of egoism. He also describes those who “draw satisfaction from self pity”, a description of continued relevance today.

Chaudhuri also disdained pacifism and “diplomacy”. I will admit he makes a great case for its failure in the case of India, and much of it rings doubly true today with the endless conflict in the Middle East. He correctly notes that pacifism has its root in fear. “The real emotion behind pacifism was and is fear of war, and there is no greater begetter of wars than this fear if it is allowed to make nations afraid to face wars. Ultimately, it really imposes war on them in the worst of circumstances.”  Regarding “diplomacy”, Chaudhuri uses an image that has stuck with me as ingenious and accurate. “This latter activity was seen in the summoning of conferences, creation of commissions, and sending of missions, whose purpose was to arrive at an agreed solution, but which achieved nothing. The strangest part of this activity was that the failure of each of these sessions of ‘dialogue’, as they would be called today, only inspired more desire for the same kind of ‘dialogue’, just as miscarriages produce immediate pregnancies.”

Lest it be thought that Chaudhuri is annoyingly self-assured, there are several passages throughout the book of brutally unflattering self assessment. He felt himself lacking in will to action, and content to let ill fortune and laziness combine to ruin him.

His account of his marriage is also humorous for his sense that he was not much of a catch. He begins the account, “In this part of the book I shall give an account of my marriage and of the first quinquennium of my married life. It would read like a madman’s tale. But since I have pulled off that bout of madness and succeeded in keeping my wife fifty-four years, it will perhaps be conceded that prudence has very little to do with happiness and unhappiness in the married state.”

In typical Bengali style, he went to his father and asked him to find a wife. His father attempted to get some idea from Nirad what he should look for, but Nirad was loath to make any demands about looks. He considered it to be brutal for a man to reject a girl because of her looks, and felt that his own looks would be a turn off for the girl in any case. His father wisely asked him, “Of the intellectual type?” He replied, “Enough for two.” As he later commented in paragraph, “In knew that if the girl I married did not have real intellectual ability but had its conceit I would make her life miserable.” I found myself nodding along at this point in my reading.

He also hilariously describes his experience with the pimps in Delhi when he lived there. They would make “alluring remarks” about girls whose “sizes and figures” would match his. He notes that he was five feet and under one hundred pounds at the time. However, his continued refusal eventually gave him a reputation, which he considered a prized certificate of his character.

Chaudhuri took a lot of criticism for his unabashed love of European culture. He loved classical music, particularly opera – a form much disdained by most Indians. He was no mere dabbler – his children learned violin and piano, and he mentions his love for Cecil Forsyth’s Orchestration, a work that graces my own bookshelf. He was fluent in English, French, and Latin, among other languages, and had an extensive knowledge of Western history. While this makes him a better writer, it did him no favors in his native land.

This book is an inspiring read both for its language and its ideas. Chaudhuri never thinks small, but always expansively, bringing in history, philosophy, and literature. This book is best enjoyed a chapter at a time, with Latin and French dictionaries handy for his use of quotations from these languages.

As a final note, Chaudhuri was an excellent example of an autodidact. Although he had a college education, he never pursued his graduate studies. He did, however, spend money he didn’t have on books, and educated himself over a vast range of topics. He even became, during World War II, the military expert for All India Radio due to his knowledge of strategy and weaponry. He firmly believed that every ten years or so, a person needs a new hobby or interest to keep him learning and truly alive. Perhaps this helped him keep his mind sharp throughout his long life.

This philosophy also served him well with his children, who he did not trust to the public schools in India. Instead, he taught them, particularly in their high school years. As he said, “So my educational theory and practice falsified the very fashionable theory that parents are the last persons to succeed in educating their children. Actually, who else is qualified to make them both educated and civilized?”

1 comment:

  1. well written surely it is, but a little shallow... Is not it? Problem with Chaudhuri is that he is mainly popular in English... Enough of his intellect and erudition sparkled the English speaking world... But is not it all but brain? What a dichotomy! Scanty of his Bengali works are filled in with his heart, and his much cherished English speaking world never could taste that! How could then they realise, what was there in the back of Chaudhuri's sparkling brain? Is not it that all of one's creation comes out of one's passion and is principally a product of his/her heart? No one can deny that 'Amar debottar sampatti(My Bequeathed Life)' is much a good read... So full of heart, yet not devoid of typical Chaudhurian head.