All That is Good and Living in Us

Nirad C Chaudhuri (1897 – 1999) dedicated his book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951), to the British Empire.

To the memory of the British Empire in India,
Which conferred subjecthood upon 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.

“Every one of us”? How modest of him to speak on behalf of all Indians.

Sure, the Bengali babu, Mr Chaudhuri, wanted desperately to be considered British. Civis Britannicus sum is the Latin for “I am a British citizen”. To each his own, I say. But to declare that what he feels to be true about himself to be the general condition is unwarranted. Everything that was good and living in him may have been made and shaped by the British rule but that hardly exhausts the possibilities for others. Much of what is good and alive in Indians predate the rape of India by Muslim and European invasions.

I believe it is too early to dismiss the British Empire as a memory. Indians are still under the subjecthood of dead Britishers — their proxies being the generations of politicians, police and bureaucrats that took over control in 1947 after the British formally departed. They administer a colonial raj as laid out in the Indian constitution.

marktwain This idea is, not surprisingly, absolutely abhorrent to most Indians who bristle at the suggestion that they are not really free. Indians love to believe that they are free and independent. The alternative is unthinkable because it would imply that they have been fooled. Mark Twain recognized that “it’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

Incidentally, the autobiography by NCC is held in very high regard by the British. The wiki notes:

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 .

There’s something admirable about the British: they reward loyalty and recognize their most dedicated Indian supporters. The greatest of those loyal servants of the British Empire was undoubtedly Mr Mohandas Gandhi. They even made a hagiographic movie about him in 1982. It was a great propaganda success. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi was nominated for 11 Oscars and won 8 of them. Pretty good show, eh?

Mr Chaudhuri also makes the cut. He was awarded the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1992. No doubt, if he had been alive today, NCC would have lined up to return his Sahitya Akademi Award which he received in 1975 for his biography on Max Müller, Scholar Extraordinary. Of course, Herr Müller reviled India’s tradition, and that made him an appropriate hero for the British and their subjects.

Author: Atanu Dey


6 thoughts on “All That is Good and Living in Us”

  1. Dear Mr. Dey:

    Nirad C. Chaudhuri best exemplifies the theory that the surest way to subjugate another people is to make your language their currency of power. To gain fame, Chaudhuri had to write in English.

    Now, witness the spectacle of Modern India, in which parents queue up in order to enroll their offspring in dubious institutions that propagate butler English, all this so that the children can vie for a few high-tech coolie jobs in software or multinational companies. To perpetuate this Nehruvian folly, we are fed the story that knowing English is an advantage for Indians in the global market. If that were the case, then why are Indians not learning Chinese, French, Spanish, and Arabic, some of which languages have more native speakers than English?

    Is it not a tragedy that there are few, if any, higher educational institutions in India that teach in Indian languages? Is it not tragicomic that individuals such as I (and, probably, you, if I may presume) feel more comfortable thinking, writing, and speaking in English rather than our own mother tongues?

    On an unrelated note, the fact that Indians still do not hate the British is proof positive of the saying that history is authored by the victors. Can you think of another reason why Indians still do not hate the British, despite the fact that they were as bad, if not worse, in terms of genocide and kleptocracy than the Central and West Asian Barbarians who invaded Hindustan?

    Thank you.


    1. I consider communications important. The language used is merely a means for communications and whatever language serves that function in the specified context, I am OK with it. I am not wedded to any particular language. The fact that among the languages I know (Hindi, English, Bengali) I can only express myself in English, does not bother me overly. Sure, it would have been great if I had known my mother tongue, Bengali, but this is just the way it is. Among my many deficiencies, not knowing Bengali does not make it in the top 100.

      A knowledge of English has instrumental value in the present world. Most of the interesting content is available in English — not in Arabic, Chinese, French, Hindi, or what have you. Certainly, one can get along quite well without knowing English. But it is a needless handicap if you are in the business of learning from and communicating with the wider world. Knowing English is an important skill, almost at the same level as knowing arithmetic and logic.

      Imagine if you did not know English but had all the other skills you have. Would you be handicapped?

      You raise the matter of Indians hating the British. The British were colonialists and did what they were expected to do. Whoever has the power to, does it. Those who can’t, don’t. That does not elevate morally those who didn’t because they couldn’t. Should the British be hated for what they did? Perhaps. But I would also not let the colonized Indians off the hook. They placed themselves in a position to be colonized.

      It is time Indians did a bit of soul searching. Why are Indians unable to forge a nation that can stand up to invaders from thousands of miles away? What is the reason that they are not free even after those invaders have left?

      Hating the British is too easy. The hard thing to do is to set the Indian house in order.


  2. True! In the actual sense, the process of decolonising our minds has a long way to go. But there sure are many things that are worth copying for the Western culture.


  3. @ Reluctant Indian,

    You raise a very interesting point. My roommate used to frequently say that the best way to kill a culture is to kill the language; for instance, a proverb in any regional Indian language embeds a story or reflects a part of the lifestyle that takes a huge amount of time to explain and even then, leaves out a lot. Given the number of languages that are disappearing worldwide, it is not a problem that is confined to India. It is undoubtedly a tragedy in an emotional sense for we lose an intangible part of ourselves forever. And one feels guilty that we unable to do much about retaining something that is part of one’s heritage.

    The above said, for good or bad, English is now the international language and it is in our best interest to learn it, and learn it well. The French themselves recognized the folly of not adopting English, so the rest of us have very little to complain about! History cannot be undone.

    Am not sure there is an easy answer to preserve what’s disappearing in front of one’s eyes other than contributing to, or actively working on preserving it for future generations.


    1. Raghuveer, I recognize the importance of other languages and specifically Indian languages for Indians. Language and other cultural attributes such as food, clothing, customs, have value in themselves. That implies that we should use them and thereby preserve them. Preserving diversity is also has the instrumental value of adding richness to our lives.

      However, it is not an either-or choice. We can preserve the diversity of Indian languages while at the same time be good at communicating in English when needed. Consider this analogy. Knowing the sciences does not mean that you have to forego knowing history. Or another analogy: choosing to eat Chinese food does not mean that you stop eating Indian food. Even though Indian food is our culinary legacy, that should not prevent us from appreciating Chinese food. It only adds to our life, not subtract from it.

      In a globalized world, we have the opportunity to help ourselves to riches that were not available at an earlier time. The attitude of “not invented here and therefore we should not use it” leads to self-imposed impoverishment.

      In the context of languages, we should preserve through usage our languages without feeling impelled to reject English. As I mentioned before, knowing English is a skill and not a judgement on any presumed superiority of the English language.

      Incidentally, I am willing to take what is good without regard to its origin or provenance. I reject the Roman numerals because the Indian number system is far superior, not because it was invented by the Romans. Similarly, I think the Roman script is superior to the other scripts, and prefer the Roman script over the other scripts. Certainly, the alphabet system (common to many languages) is superior to the Chinese (and other related) writing system based on logograms.

      Let’s just take what we judge to be the best for our purposes, and leave the rest to choose as they will.


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