1927 | 11,233,916 words
Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....
Dr. D. ANJANEYULU
Why do people write their autobiographies? - Out of egoism and self-love, to satisfy their vanity and feed the growing craze for publicity? Or out of a deeper humility (than the formal and conventional variety, that is all too familiar) that leads them to self-analysis through a process of introspection? We cannot always say for certain. It is all the more difficult in times of confusion of values, when the genuine can hardly be told from the spurious. With the modern miracles achieved in the art of publicity and the technique of advertisement, a colourable imitation might often be a lot more attractive than the real object. But, that is by the way.
Autobiography, as well as biography has not been native to the Indian tradition of near-anonymity of authorship in the field of creative endeavour. The song, not the singer, was the thing that mattered for us in the distant past. The sculpture was more important than the sculptor and the book more than the writer. Like most other forms of art in modem literature, biography and autobiography too appeared on the Indian scene, only after the introduction of the English language. Even in Europe, the art of biography cannot, perhaps claim the same pristine glory in the hierarchy of literature as is generally conceded to poetry or history, each of which has a special Muse to preside over it on the mythical Mount Parnassus. In the present form in which it is recognized, autobiography was christened at the beginning of the last century in England.
Be that as it may, what is, the real purpose of autobiography? That if has its origins in the Christian confessional is generally conceded by many authors on the subject. (We remember Caesar’s Commentaries, but they have to be distinguished from autobiography, as we understand it now, as they are mainly a story of his conquests, military conquests, not conquests of the mind). A modern writer says in the foreword to his autobiography:
“I wanted to discover how and why I became what I am, to understand the forces and emotions behind my present reactions. I tried to find them, not through a psychological analysis, but by calling up the images and sensations, I had once seen and felt, and later on absorbed and re-edited”.
According to Susanne Langer, autobiography provides us with “the intuitive knowledge of some inner experience”, which, as such, is representative of the character of life altogether. Its symbols are not invented by the imagination, but chosen and arranged by the evaluating memory. We have, therefore, to look for design as well as truth in this art, borrowing the two operative words from the title of the perceptive and analytical book on the subject by Roy Pascal. The truth of feeling is no less important than the truth of fact in autobiography as a literary composition. A factual recapitulation of the events in one’s own life cannot by itself, achieve the art of autobiography. A conscious or unconscious distortion, or the clever device of whitewashing with the aid of a too selective memory could, on the other hand, detract from the clement of truth. The eminent art critic, Kenneth Clark, speaks of the “Blot and the Diagram” in his discussion of the trends in modern art. He sees too many blots and too few diagrams competing for the title of works of art. This could apply, by stretching the metaphor a little, to the art of autobiography as well.
Looking at the literature of autobiography in this country, available in the English language, we cannot help noting in this panoramic glimpse two or three works of outstanding significance in this century. One is Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, entitled The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Another is An Autobiography by Jawaharlal Nehru (titled Toward Freedom in one of its American editions). A third one is The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad C. Chaudhuri. All the three were published within a period of a quarter of a century, from 1927 to 1952. Perhaps, a more natural comparison is called for between the first two, than either of them and the third, for the obvious reason that Gandhi and Nehru were essentially men of action and leaders of the nation, while Chaudhuri is almost entirely an intellectual (though he might stoutly resent this description) and a professional man of letters. It is as well to remember here that they have all stood the test of time and could safely be classed as modern classics, on their intrinsic merits, without the aid of adventitious circumstances.
In considering the Mahatma’s autobiography as a work of literature, one should not commit the mistake of forgetting that it was originally written in his mother-tongue, Gujarati. The best part of it was rendered into English by his Secretary, Mahadev Desai, who was a writer of considerable talent and sensitiveness. Some of the latter portions were translated by his other Secretary, Pyarelal, who is also an author of undoubted ability (as could be seen from his monumental work, Gandhi- The Last Phase),steeped in the Gandhian ethic. It had also the benefit ofcareful revision by an eminent English scholar (could be C.F. Andrews) who preferred to remain anonymous, as well as by Gandhi himself, a stickler for accuracy of expression, if ever there was one.
These facts are mentioned here in view of the tendency, among a few distinguished critics, to go into raptures over Gandhi’s English prose style. It is hailed by some as being almost “biblical” in its simplicity. That Gandhi had an admirable flair for economy, as well as accuracy, in the use of words is taken for granted by those familiar with his personality and habits of mind. In isolated phrases and expressions, that have become memorable in Indian political history, he does reach great heights, as in “a Himalayan blunder.”, “leonine violence”, “Satanic government”, “Quit India“, “a post-dated cheque”, etc. None but the Mahatma could have described the cow as “a poem in pity”, giving one an inkling of the reserves of poetry, as well as pathos, deep inside himself.
But, by and large, critics who shower excessive praise on Gandhi’s prose style do inadequate justice to the skill of the translators, both of whom were able to merge their personalities in that of their master. On the other hand, it may also be worth pointing out that his autobiography derives its appeal to the reader from the quality of his life and philosophy rather than from the quality of the book as a work of art. That it does not set out to be a work of art either, is quite another matter.
It is the teaching that is important for the Mahatma - the cardinal value of truth and non-violence, and the moral imperative as for Cardinal Newman. He says in the last chapter, as he could have said in every chapter, of the book:
“My uniform experience has convinced me that there is no other god than truth. And if every page of these chapters does not proclaim to the reader that the only means for the realization of Truth is Ahimsa, I shall deem all my labour in writing these chapters to have been in vain.
And this idea is the main thread that runs through the whole book. It is this which provides the unity, by appearing as a refrain from time to time rather than the way in which he treats the variety of subjects he comes across for effecting a unity of structure. The design is represented by the concept of truth itself--the author’s ceaseless striving to stick to its straight and narrow path. One might as well say with pardonable exaggeration, that the name of the Lord (Rama, Krishna, Shiva, Vishnu, etc.), with which some devotees portray the divinity in line and colour, supplies the design for the diagram.
Few could be more candid than Gandhi in recollecting the failings and foibles of the past. The story of the incident in his bedroom with an expectant wifewhile his old father was literally on his death bed is but one of the many that place the book in a class with The Confessions of Saint Augustine. But seldom does a sensitive and cultivated reader have occasion to feel that the author has “re-created” the past. He always related the facts unvarnished, and recollects details accurately. Rarely, however, does he capture the mood of a passing moment.
Fidelity is his forte, not the power of evocation. We admire his forbearance and fortitude, no less than his truthfulness and humility, but we are rarely enabled to live and laugh with him. Almost never, hardly ever. The truth of fact is invariably there, the truth of feeling is less in evidence. Translated in any other language, Indian or foreign, the book is likely to undergo only a minimum loss of appeal in its impact on the reader, who misses nothing of the basic content. This could be a fair measure of its weakness as well as its strength.
Nehru’s Autobiography, on the otherhand, is a literary masterpiece by any standard that could be reasonably applied to the handiwork of one who was not a professional man of letters. No translation could do justice to the original in adequate measure. Nehru could really be described as a writer by temperament, who was a politician by force of national circumstances. He was an intellectual in his make-up, never quite at ease in the rough and tumble of everyday politics, though, in course of time, he proves a master of the political situation as well, by conscious effort, as it were. Though often in the midst of admiring crowds, he was essentially a lonely man, like most intellectuals, and never allowed the inner soft (not hard) core of his personality to be coarsened by the din and bustle of political controversy. As every storm has a still centre, almost unaffected by it. he had a tranquility within him, effectively hidden by the protective shell of a violent temper.
In one or two material respects, Nehru’s work has an edge overthat of Gandhi (though according to the mythology of popular opinion, it might be blasphemy to say that). It is an integral whole (proving the gestalt theory) in which the different strands of his own eventful life are skilfully interwoven with those of the nation in torment and a world in turmoil. This is made possible as much by the author’s artistic vision and historical perspective as by his active involvement in the country’s destinies and his lively awareness of world affairs.
There is a beautiful fusing ofthe subjective and the objective elements in Nehru (as seen through his Autobiography) the subjective self always coming to terms with the world of objective reality. For all his participation in the national upsurges and involvement in international convulsions, that must leave little time to a man of affairs like him. Nehru is introspective like a philosophic recluse in the woods.
In many ways, he is as introspective as Gandhi himself, perhaps a trifle more. For he reflects levels of consciousness in the flowing narrative, not to be found in the simple, direct account of Gandhi, who shows few traces of philosophic doubt or even ordinary human conflicts of the subtler kind. In that sense. Nehru’s account has a greater human, not to say artistic, appeal. It is the human personality that breathes through the pages with its joys and sorrows, its minor diversions and major excitements.
The didactic element is almost wholly absent, as the author is ever in the agonizing and exhilarating process of depicting his own struggle and tracing the evolution of his personality. The lofty and unalterable moral imperative is either absent orcarefully kept out of the reader’s way. The little childhood anecdote about pinching one of the two pens on the father’s table (the childlike reasoning behind it, and the severe parental chastisement that it duly earned forhim) is remarkable for its human appeal rather than for its moral judgement.
Poetry and Pathos are two of the pervasive qualities that lift Nehru’s account far above the common run of Indian autobiographies. The author has an inimitable flair for vivid description of scenes, and sensitive evocation of moods, his own, as well as those of nature. The death of his father is described with a poignancy and tenderness of sentiment that is not allowed to droop to the level of maudlin sentiment. Here is a touching incident:
“I found it hard to realize that he had gone. Three months later, I was in Ceylon with my wife and daughter, and we were spending a few quiet and restful days at Nuwara Eliya. I liked the place, and it struck me suddenly that it would suit father. Why not send for him? He must be tired out, and the rest would do him good. I was on the point of sending a telegram to him to Allahabad.”
In the poignancy of its dramatic irony, this reminds the present writer of a heart-rending scene in a picture of Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali), in which the poor, voluble father fondly opens his bag of knick-knacks for the child that is no longer there, while the mother averts her face to suppress an agonizing shriek, with little success.
There are quite a few passages that throw light on the human qualities of the author, his love of animals and birds and his longing for wide open spaces, while kept to the narrow confines of a prison cell. The clouds and the skies, not to speak of the mountain peaks and rivulets, the hills and the dales, had an irresistible fascination for him:
“Lying there in the open, I watched the skies and the clouds and I realized, better than I had ever done before, how amazingly beautiful were their changing hues.
To Watch the changing clouds,
little clime in clime,
Oh! Sweet to lie and bless the
luxury of time.
Time was not a luxury for us, it was more of a burden. But the time I spent in watching those ever-shifting monsoon clouds was filled with delight and a sense of relief”.
Something of his pleasant irony and restrained sense of humour could be seen in the delicious comments on the British Jail Superintendent, who could not quite understand his (Nehru’s ) reading habit:
“This devotion to reading seemed to get on his nerves a little and he remarked on it once, adding that, so far as he was concerned, he had practically finished his general reading at the age of twelve. No doubt this abstention, on his part, had been of use to that gallant English colonel in avoiding troublesome thoughts, and perhaps helped him subsequently in rising to the position of Inspector-General of Prisons in the U.P.
Despite the stresses and strains of a hectic political life, as already, mentioned, Nehru was able to look at himself dispassionately and objectively. Many a thoughtful passage bears witness to his frequent spells of introspection. The familiar one about the East-West mixture bears repetition for the sense of “alienation” so precisely spotlighted by him:
“....I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Perhaps my thoughts and approach to life are more akin to what is called Western than Eastern, but India clings to me, as she does to all her children in innumerable ways; and behind me lie, somewhere in the subconscious, recall memories of a hundred, or whatever the number may be generations of Brahmans. I cannot get rid of either that past inheritance or my recent acquisitions. They are both part of me, and, though they help me in both the East and the West, they also create in me a feeling of spiritual loneliness not only in public activities but in life itself. I am a stranger and alien in the West. I cannot be of it. But in my own country also, sometimes, I have an exile’s feeling”.
This is no less true of the modem educated Indian, in a lesser or greater measure.
Necessarily thrown on his own resources, intellectual and emotional, as an agnostic (“an agnostic Lenin meekly obedient to the dictates of a Christian Tolstoy”, in the graphic words of the British Journalist, George Slocombe) Nehru the man has a heavier cross to bear. An unwavering faith in God and devotion to the twin principles of Truth and non-violence would seem to have made the path of Gandhi the seeker less difficult. At least, the faith provides him with the staff of certitude, as could be seen in the last chapter titled “Farewell”:
“...God can never be realized by one who is not pure of heart. Self-purification, therefore, must mean purification in all the walks of life. And purification being highly infectious, purification of oneself necessarily leads to the purification of one’s surroundings.”
It is safe to surmise that “alienation” is less infectious than “Purification”. Hence the predicament of Nehru the man, mirrored in the pages of his book. His Autobiography could, there fore, be seen to be as much an exercise in self-examination as it is a history of the times.
Nirad Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of An Unknown Indian (derisively described by hostile critics as “the autobiography of a known anti-Indian”) stands at the other extreme–as mainly a history of the times. It is not, however, the traditional chronicle of wars and dynasties but an unconventional essay in the understanding of the national mores. A book of encyclopedic learning and exceptional brilliance, it is apt to be misunderstood by most Indians, as indicated by the sarcasm of the punsters. His vigorously non-conformist approach to the study of cultural conflicts in Indian history do compel attention, even if they cannot induce general agreement:
“The story I want to tell is the story of the struggle of a civilization with a hostile environment, in which the destiny of British rule in India became necessarily involved. My main intention is thus historical, and since I have written the account with the utmost honesty and accuracy, of which I am capable, the intention in my mind has become mingled with the aspiration that the book may be regarded as contribution to contemporary history.”
And so it should be, despite the many personal angularities of the author that affect the unfamiliar points of view and interpretations offered by him. Outlining his cyclical theory of foreign influences (Aryan, Islamic and British) on Indian civilization, which remain essentially foreign, according to him, he observes:
“I do not know of any other country exhibiting these features in its history. The normal course is for foreign influence, whether cultural or ethnic, to fuse with the pre-existing elements, unfold as a synthesis and thus decay forever. The regular ebb and flow, the ever-present conflict, and the inevitable involvement in the greatest movements of history appear to be unique to India.”
Chaudhuri’s autobiography could justly be recognized as a history of ideas (in addition to being a personal history, of course) as that of John Stuart Mill, for instance it is to the credit of Chaudhuri that new ideas and propositions flow from his mind as sparks fly from the anvil of a blacksmith. Not all these ideas might be sustainable in terms of logic and history. Some might be astounding in their originality, and brilliance, while others could be shocking in their perversity. But he pulls them offhis sleeve as does a practised juggler rabbits out of his hat. As a fighter, he pulls no punches. In him the creative endeavour takes the vigorous form of an ideational process.
Chaudhuri’s autobiography is the story of the evolution of an Indian intellectual, whose nonconformist views are sure to stimulate the seasoned reader, even if they be caviare to the general.
It is observed that a man changes as he writes his autobiography, if he shares Montaigne’s conviction that “I have not made my book more than it made me”; What has it possibly done to Nirad Chaudhuri? One might be permitted the facetious remark that it has made one of the best-known and most significant of Indian authors out of “an unknown Indian”.
As for Gandhi, whose view of the world and way of life were set in the crucible of Truth before he wrote the book, it is mainly a confessional–a document of experiment rather than a depiction of the process of change.
Always aquiver on the brink of emotional experience, Nehru could be seen to have grown from chapter to chapter, from the “spoilt” child of wealthy parents to the sensitive leader of a nation at the crossroads of history. Nehru received maturity and poise from the writing of a modern classic, to which he gave the best of his pathos and poetry, humour and humanity.