On the 8th of September 1951, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian was published in London. When the book finally arrived in India, several weeks later, the author sent a copy to his literary mentor, Mohitlal Majumdar. Majumdar soon wrote back with his words of appreciation, but then asked: ‘What does Jawaharlal Nehru think of it?’
The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian was met with considerable acclaim in the United Kingdom, but almost universally condemned in India. Swadeshi-minded reviewers saw it as a prejudiced look at Indian nationalism, as another drain inspector’s report in the manner of Katherine Mayo’s book of 1927, Mother India. Only in The Statesman did it get any praise: but then The Statesman was still an English-owned paper, and its reviewer was that discerning and literate expatriate Englishman, Verrier Elwin.
Now Jawaharlal Nehru was an Indian nationalist in politics and an English gentleman in his cultural make-up. What did he think of Nirad Chaudhuri’s book? Alas, there is no sign that he ever read it. However, no sooner was the book published that Chaudhuri’s bosses at All India Radio started waving the rule-book at him. By law, he was told, all government servants had to take official clearance before publishing a newspaper article, let alone a book. Owing to this transgression Chaudhuri did not get the extension for which he had been recommended. Then, after he had retired from All India Radio, an informal ban was placed on his talking on or writing scripts for the organization, in those days a valuable source of supplementary income for writers.
Then, and later, it was suggested that these acts of vengeance were wreaked by people anxious to please the Prime Minister. It was claimed that Nehru was jealous of the attention the book got in England, where it was praised almost as widely as his own autobiography, published fifteen years before. Where Nehru was a world statesman, the author of this new book was, in his own words, an ‘unknown Indian’. But these suggestions, or innuendos, were rejected by Nirad Chaudhuri himself. In a later memoir, Thy Hand, Great Anarch!, Chaudhuri wrote that besides the officials in the Ministries, the Indian High Commissioner in the U. K., V. K. Krishna Menon, had ‘strongly criticized’ the Autobiography in public. And Menon was known to be a close friend of the Prime Minister. But Chaudhuri insisted that neither his views, nor any one else’s, would have caused Nehru to wreak a petty act of revenge. As he put it, ‘Jawaharlal Nehru was not the man to be roused to action over a book’.
We know not then what the greatest Indian of his time thought of Chaudhuri or his book. But the unknown Indian’s views on Nehru are on record. Thy Hand, Great Anarch! is peppered with comments on his person and his politics. Nirad babu admired Nehru for his unflinching and (in the Indian context) unfashionable hostility to Japanese militarism, and for being ‘so sure of himself’ that he could deal with all kinds of accusations ‘in the most dignified manner’. He wrote with great acuity about Nehru’s loneliness, about how ‘throughout his life [he] never got rid of the sense of being alone, being only by himself.’ There was something to emphatize with, but also much to criticize. Nehru, said Chaudhuri, was ‘completely out of touch with the Indian life even of his time, except with the life of the self-segregating Anglicized set of upper India who lived in the so-called Civil Lines’. While he was ‘repelled’ by the ‘crude Hinduism of northern India’, Nehru had ‘no understanding whatever of even the highest forms of contemporary Hinduism as preached in Bengal and Maharashtra’. This man of the people, wrote Chaudhuri, was actually a snob, with an undisguised condescension ‘towards anyone who had the Hindi or Bengali accent in his English’, towards whom ‘he would always behave like an Englishman to a “native”’. Nehru was also said to be prone to giving ‘elegant verbal embodiments to [his] obsessions’ (a charge which, of course, can be laid at the door of Chaudhuri himself). To these comments one must add, the claim, expressed in The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, that ‘collectively, we shall never achieve anything like the greatness and individuality of the Hindu civilization’: a claim that seems almost a direct challenge to Nehru’s hopes for modern India.
Let me turn to a now forgotten essay on Nehru by Nirad Chaudhuri, published in The Illustrated Weekly of India in the second week of May 1953. The writer was (by this time) a moderately well known Indian, but his subject still towered over him, and everybody else. Nehru’s leadership, remarked Chaudhuri, ‘is the most important moral force behind the unity of India’. He was ‘the leader not of a party, but of the people of India taken collectively, the legitimate successor to Gandhiji’. However, if ‘Nehru goes out of politics or is overthrown, his leadership is likely to be split up into its components, and not pass over intact to another man. In other words, there cannot, properly speaking, be a successor to Nehru, but only successors to the different elements of his composite leadership’.
As Chaudhuri saw it, the Nehru of the 1950s helped harmonize the masses with the classes. ‘Nehru is keeping together the governmental machine and the people, and without this nexus India would probably have been deprived of stable government in these crucial times. He has not only ensured co-operation between the two, but most probably has also prevented actual conflicts, cultural, economic, and political. Not even Mahatmaji’s leadership, had it continued, would have been quite equal to them’.
‘If, within the country, Nehru is the indispensable link between the governing middle-classes and the sovereign people’, continued Chaudhuri, ‘he is no less the bond between India and the world’. He served as ‘India’s representative to the great Western democracies, and, I must add, their representative to India. The Western nations certainly look upon him as such and expect him to guarantee India’s support for them, which is why they are so upset when Nehru takes an anti-Western or neutral line. They feel they are being let down by one of themselves.’
Subsequent issues of the Illustrated Weekly carried many letters by readers, some appreciative of Chaudhuri’s essay, others less so. The more critical mails seemed to come from Bengal. S. M. Chakravarty of Calcutta complained that Chaudhuri had ‘painted Mr Nehru without the warts’—these being his tolerance of corruption and provincialism and his encouragement of personal favourites. Moni B. Majumdar, also from Calcutta, insisted that ‘the Nehru of the old days is dead’. Where once he identified and mingled with the poor, now he moved around ‘surrounded and protected by the police and the military’, reminding one ‘of the days when a British Viceroy travelled in India’. And K. C. Chatterjee, of Bankipore, rejected the argument that Nehru could have no successor. There were two worthy candidates in Bengal itself: B. C. Roy, who ‘has shown a spirit of sacrifice in leaving his lucrative practice to lead the troubled and mutilated state of West Bengal’, and the ‘constructive’ and eloquent leader of the parliamentary Opposition, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee.
Nirad babu was known to be a meticulous record-keeper, filing away all that he wrote and all that people wrote about him. I wonder whether, when he came to write Thy Hand, Great Anarch!, he consulted the file marked ‘Writings and Correspondence for 1953’. Certainly, his retrospective assessment of 1987, by which time Nehru’s reputation had dropped precipitously, is far more qualified than the one he offered while Nehru was alive. To celebrate Nehru when he was in his pomp and to have mixed feelings about him when he was in the doghouse—this somehow goes against the grain of the image that Chaudhuri cultivated about himself. The anomaly can be explained in one of two ways. A cynic would say that this writer who claimed to stand alone and apart was actually quite prepared to lose himself in the herd. More likely, to my mind, is that while the ambivalence of Thy Hand, Great Anarch! reflected Chaudhuri’s real feelings towards Nehru, the gushing admiration of his Weekly essay stemmed from a desire to spite and provoke the Bengali bhadralok, known to detest Nehru (and Gandhi) for depriving their province of the moral and political leadership of free India.