By Swapan Dasgupta
Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri (1897-1999) was one of the 20th century’s towering Indian intellectuals. In his lifetime he was, however, largely the object of derision in his own country. There were two reasons for this. First, Nirad babu was a contrarian who defied intellectual fashions; and, secondly, he had an impish streak which prompted him to be wilfully outrageous. If his contrariness offended the all-powerful Nehruvian establishment which forced him into agreeable exile in Oxford, his perverse sense of humour gave offence to Indians and particularly fellow Bengalis who are inclined to take themselves too seriously.
One particular remark of this “Unknown Indian” which created a minor storm in the pre-twitter India of the Seventies was the observation that for Indians to master the English language, they had to first change their food habits: fish curry and masala dosa couldn’t coexist with the language of Albion!
This knowingly ridiculous assertion comes to mind in the context of the mercifully brief kerfuffle over Rajnath Singh’s suggestion (subsequently diluted) that an over-reliance on English breeds an Anglicised mentality that in turn has led to the emaciation of Sanskrit. The BJP President, it would seem, was unwittingly lending support to Nirad babu’s mischievous aside that a language comes with a cultural baggage. To master English, it was imperative to internalise the Judaeo-Christian ethos of the Anglosphere; and for Sanskrit to be restored to its classical glory, Indians must become more culturally authentic.
Those with a sense of history will detect the threads that bind the Bengali babu and the Thakur from eastern UP with another famous Englishman. Lord Macaulay too believed that the study of English would reproduce English civility in the Orient and facilitate the Enlightenment that came with Empire.
Subsequent developments suggested that Macaulay had not been entirely wrong. Large numbers of Indians developed a voracious appetite for English education and even imbibed Western culture. These people, however, took their exposure to the Occident a bit too literally. After the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858 promised Indians the same rights as all other subjects of the Crown, the English-educated Indian demanded the same rights and privileges that accrued to the self-governing Dominions such as Canada and Australia.
If British politicians had been far-sighted enough to concede this demand after World War I, it is my guess India would have happily reconciled to being a part of the Empire for much longer than 1947. Like Ranji and the Nawab of Pataudi who happily batted for England, Indians would have flocked to join the ICS in even greater numbers and swamped the Classics scholars from Balliol. But disallowing elite Indians to be part of whites-only clubs was Britain’s monumental misjudgement and cost them India. Anglo-India quite forgot that conviviality was best achieved over sundowners on the verandah on a cool monsoon evening.
The irony is that the unabashed admiration of an Oxbridge education and the contrived love for the Lake Districts didn’t lead to Indians becoming less rooted to their inherited traditions. Just as the curious passion for the music of Bach hasn’t diluted the cultural essence of Japan, the Indian Hindus could straddle various worlds simultaneously. Just as multi-tasking comes naturally to the chhotu in the kirana store—but not to the English shop assistant who can cope with just one customer at a time—Indians are natural chameleons. In the West, the pursuit of science generated scepticism and eroded faith; in India, the techies worship Apple and the Art of Living simultaneously.
Actually, Nirad babu knew this all too well. Inside his Oxford house he invariably wore a dhoti—the “three tucks” of the Hindu, as called it; on stepping out, he often resembled the figure on the Johnnie Walker label. And while he held forth on vintages, his wife served delectable Bengali fare.
Nor was he alone in his dualities. Swami Vivekananda gave offence to the orthodox Brahmins on account of his fondness for fish and his love for the cheroot; Sri Aurobindo conceptualised Hindu spirituality in lucid English prose; and Dr Ambedkar rarely wore anything other than a suit, even in summer.
Sunday Times of India, July 28, 2013