Seeing India through the eyes of Nirad

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Seeing India through the eyes of Nirad

On my doing “well” in graduation in 1978 from DAV Degree College, Gorakhpur, my uncle gifted me a book titled The Continent of Circe whose author was one Nirad C Chaudhuri. The book interested me; I made efforts to read it; greater efforts to absorb it and yet to make greatest possible efforts to come to grips with it. When I attempt to write about a scholar-extraordinary like Nirad C Chaudhuri after a gap of more than thirty eight years when I read him first, I front a riddle more complex than the riddle: the writer Nirad C Chaudhuri himself.

That is the grandeur of great literature: great literature is one that ejaculates out one riddle the moment the last one is solved. It continues to be an unresting cycle. Great Hindi poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, Joyce and Beckett like a host of their ilk are yet to be understood even marginally not to speak of completely. So is true of Chaudhuri. They represent a riddle for a human mind to grapple with in times to come. Here is a small effort.

What stunned me while reading that book was its very vastness: vastness in terms of depth of knowledge, observation, penetration, language and relevance. As you look at the waves of the ocean only imagining the depths hidden and most certainly allowing an unconscious fear overtake you, you think how fragile you are before this mightiest empire God has created for you. So is The Continent of Circe: a gargantuan empire of thoughts and ideas: an apoapsis of intellectual paradigm, to my mind, unmatched thus far in the history of Indian writing in English about India.

Chaudhuri, quite aware of the fragility of our knowledge and wisdom (as he thought), did not mince words while letting his fellow-intellectuals know his standards of knowledge, learning and wisdom. What a fantastic giant he was writing untiredly of what he thought of the society. He was as much proud of his wisdom and learning as he was ashamed of his peers lacking in these. So he chose to name four gentlemen, all foreigners, whom he honoured by calling them “truly learned”: Harnack, Edurad Meyer, Mommsen and the fourth one — a difficult name — Wilamowitz-Moellndorf. Thus set Chaudhuri the benchmark for his evaluation. Chaudhuri, when young, cherished the ambition of being the fifth in the series. But he wore no veneer. For instance there is no dearth of people who set their own standards as the sole criterion for judging others without realising that in any society even a child has eyes: piercing eyes: eyes which can look through designs of those who are past masters at the game how to charter a path for post-retirement awards and cozy assignments? They master the art of reaping where they have not sown. Chaudhuri had those eyes that could, in seconds, sift the wheat from the chaff. He possessed eyes of a young child avid to know the mysteries around him and brain of an alert, agile, old man who, to quote Chaudhuri, “has read to live and not lived to read.” This rare combination made him scan everything in history and then apply to things around him.

Coming to these four scholars, obviously I had not heard of any such name. With my curiosity tiptoeing me, in due course of my progression which initiated me into a wider world of people, intellectuals and systems, I asked a few persons from elite planes of the country if they had read about these names. They straightway told they had either not heard of Nirad Chaudhuri or if they had heard, they had not read The Continent of Circe. People from academia had heard of him but many of them thought there were better books to read than the one in question. “Rubbish, we must not read rubbish,” said one of them. That is the pity. One consigns a book to flames even without reading it. Is it not pathetic? Remember Vladimir Nabokov lecture on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, “Where there is beauty, there is pity because beauty decays.” Good enough. But what if there is only pity and pity. Shallow knowledge does not make one a good judge of anything. It represents only pity and pity resulting in greater pity and pathos.

No doubt, no true Hindu worth his salt and I as a Hindu to the core, will never tolerate a book full of venom for Hindus and their traditions. Our greatness lies with us and we are aware of it. But with Chaudhuri, there are harsh truths. He required no special efforts to drive home the point that, “In fact, the necessity to be psychologically proof against filth is the first condition of understanding our life,” This is something which hardly needs a reiteration. The real problem is Chaudhuri, with his gargantuan knowledge of history and religious books, gave illustrations which were sickening and nauseating. Let us see this example he gave in support of his contention that, “Squeamishness is out of place in India.” He picked up a story from the Arabian Nights about Prince Diamond who was determined to go to city of Wakak the road to which was endless and filled with terrors. After many refusals by various princes who fell in love with him to share his idea to visit Wakak, he had a chance to meet daughter of the king of the Jinn who gave him some magic weapons advising him to find out her uncle, Jinni Flying Simurg. Simurg, the crafty thing as he was, was in deep slumber and on waking up pretended not to see the Prince and with a view to put the Prince to test “maliciously let out the terrible fart, lasting more than an hour. While any other creature would have been poisoned, the Prince was rescued by magic weapons he was endowed with by Jinni’s daughter. Surprised the Jinni asked the Prince the secret of his surviving the blast from the Jinni’s bum. The rescuer: the magic weapons. The Jinni bowed and took the Prince on his back flying to city of Wakak. Now this is the question Chaudhuri raised, “I think the genii who guard the secrets of our country, life, and civilisation put us to the same tests before they will allow us to see real India. But when they carry us up what a vision it is! Has anyone pondered over the difference which even a height of two hundred feet makes to our conception? All its squalor and confusion vanish and we see things spread out below in order, goodness, beauty.”

Any intelligent person will not take even minutes to agree that Chaudhuri through his writings tried his best to draw our attention to things so visible, so saddening but with no hands to take corrective measures. The Continent of Circe is replete with severe examples of our behaviour, negative and self-hurting which he illustrated with extreme and sometimes offending instances culled out from ancient books.

Another chapter, titled The HINDU ACEDIA. One would have loved to hear from Chaudhuri another caption: The INDIAN ACEDIA. Unfortunately, this was an expected behavior from Chaudhuri, who, as he admitted, was not having in his mind “the acedia of which the monks spoke. It is the acedia with a more positive feeling — irritation and bad temper which makes it a dangerously active form of ennui.” To justify that he gave the examples of interaction between the shopkeepers and the customers, the severe altercation between two taxi-drivers vying with each other to take him to his home; soon the altercation developing “into filthy, reciprocal abuse.” Ultimately the more aggressive driver picked him up.

The second example let me pick from the same essay. Chaudhuri convinced himself through his observations that when people walked on roads and streets, he got a feel which he conveyed, “It is normally impossible to have any feelings that they are going towards any goals and are not just somnambulists.” He cited his own case. While in Delhi, when he used to walk quickly and with a sense of purpose and goal, he heard even elderly persons, not to speak of children, “Left, right: left, right.” Street urchins walking along with him, burst into peals of laughter jeering in a manner ribald in Hindi, “Are Jahny.” His final reaction and his large-heartedness, “I learned to my mortification that it was not even the Johnnie Walker of whiskey that they referred to, but a caricature of him by an Indian film-star.” There are other examples like atmosphere in homes which was jarring enough for the inhabitants to accept, “Anything rather than this.”

Needless to mention, Chaudhuri was not an ill-starred man like many intellectuals of modern era: he had a sense of humour and he had an inherent ability to spot humour in daily routine.

Fond of citing excerpts from Pascal, the French philosopher and thinker whose complete works in fourteen volumes of French text: Les Grands Ecrivatins de La France was Chaudhuri’s proud possession, he did not relish writers and thinkers given to looseness of thinking or imprecision in writing. And, therefore, serious readers never notice looseness of thinking or imprecision in writings of Chaudhuri in any of his opus. It may be difficult to agree to what he wrote but more difficult to keep what he wrote at bay.

In Goggle search, I hardly find him in any avatar on YouTube: one exception being THE UNREPENTANT VISION: a conscientious attempt by Rajiv Mahrotra, the eminent host of one of India’s longest running talk shows on national television: “In Conversation”. In THE UNREPENTANT VISION, Chaudhuri laid bare his ideas and opinions about things Indian. Talking turkey was his passion and he was neither Janus with two faces nor was he either Janus Quadrifrons or Janus Multifrons. He admitted there even if five persons did not read his books; he would be more than satisfied, for he wrote for himself with a desire to leave behind a mass of literature. Lo and behold many of our current “best-selling writers” are busier in marketing their books than in spending serious time with their own books: to assess for themselves what they have written and of what worth their creation is. That is the greatest tragedy literature is undergoing today and Chaudhuri and his ilk fade into oblivion because of that.

Chaudhuri, as his critics leave no stone unturned in convincing, though their drily arguments, more themselves that their readers, was a frustrated, dejected man, fond of self-wounding narratives about society he was a product of. That is far from true. One cannot progress or propel oneself or society unless one is capable of spotting dangers: imminent or distant, and take adequate precautionary measures to safeguard the interest of society. Nor was he a rigid ideologue but flexibility was not facile with him. He knew where he stood and more importantly also knew where those who argued with him stood. It was not easy to argue with him, not to talk of stealing an argument from him. “Great thoughts don’t come from the mind. Great thoughts come from the heart,” Chaudhuri on Rajiv Mehrotra’s YouTube. So he had no quarrels with his intellectual peers: they wrote from the mind, he from his heart. The citation in the beginning of this article from his book Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse gives an ample proof as to his humility. Can one find such a humble philosopher of life?

But The Continent of Circe fronts us with disquieting facets of life we live. My belief is: if one is your greatest critic, listen to him, try to understand him and then evaluate yourself. If things have gone haywire, take remedial measures to correct trends; and if the critique is guided by biases and prejudices or distorted notions of history and books, the philosophy to be pursued is: tit for tat — a befitting reply. Here is a man, with an uncompromising bent of mind and an amazing intellectual apogee who deserves no pity at the hands of so-called intellectuals. He deserves a careful, hard, dispassionate look at his magnum opus which unfortunately has been amiss.

Chaudhuri was a sad thinker lamenting in the chapter titled, NOSTALGIA FOR THE FORGOOEN HOME, “the perpetual sight of an oozing of uncleanliness into the consciousness”, and looking helplessly at the Circe playing havoc with our identity. His concluding remarks in CIRCE’S TRUMPH, “So she lived on the island of Aeaea, and so she has in India. Men have stood at her gate, and called to be admitted; and to all she has opened her shining doors. She has taken them in, given them seats and served food. But with the food she has also mixed the drug which makes them forget their country.” People forgetting their country i.e India was what pained Chaudhuri the most and what was at the root of his fabulous creations.

He was sad as he noticed no emerging hands to arrest the unbridled progress of Circe. He developed a sense of overall futility that he found irreversible. Of late given the massive attempts at cleaning the system, and at evolving a better, matured society through special programmes like Swachchh Bharat Abhiyan aimed at cleaning roads, streets and infrastructure coupled with fast spreading adoption and absorption of yoga to enhance our mental, physical and spiritual capabilities holistically and a host of other measures, had Chaudhuri been alive today and writing The Continent of Circe, he would have definitely been overwhelmed by the presence of a society of trust, wisdom and confidence and would have written a superior, more positive version certainly not with the title: The Continent of Circe. Fortunately now, “the great sorceress” will not be able “to see the completeness of her handiwork.”


(KK Srivastava, hailing from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, is a Civil servant and currently working as Director General in the Office of Comptroller & Auditor General of India, New Delhi. He is an acclaimed poet, literary reviewer and columnist. Views expressed here are his own)

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