Nirad C Chaudhuri’s The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian

The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian is the autobiography of a writer from India, Nirad C. Chaudhuri. Written when he was around 50, it documents his life in Kishoreganj, a small town in present-day Bangladesh, from his birth in 1897. The book relates his mental and intellectual growth, his life and development in Calcutta, his observations of vanishing landmarks, the connotation of this is dual-changing Indian situation and historical forces that were leaving an imminent affair with British from India. The book is divided into four books, each consisting of four chapters and a preface. The first book is entitled “Early Environment” and its four chapters are: 1) My Place of Birth, 2) My Ancestral Place, 3) The Place of My Mother and 4) England.

The autobiography has acquired many distinguished admirers over the years. It was thought by Winston Churchill to be one of the best books he had ever read. “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.” V. S. Naipaul said. It was included in The New Oxford Book of English Prose in 1998, as one of the few Indian contributions.

Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri (1897-1999) was born in a small town in pre-independence India called Kishorganj, East Bengal. Among other literary giants, such as R, he has made a special niche for himself. K. Narayan, and in the field of autobiography, Mulk Raj Anand. Published in 1951, his first book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, made him famous in the whole field of literature and intellect.

Chaudhuri decided to write down events and incidents that he had seen with his own eyes or had experienced those events first-hand. Therefore in the form of autobiography, he began writing down his past experiences. In the words of Ian Jack: in the pages that follow, the power of Chaudhuri as a describer speaks for itself and needs no elaboration; he is a fascinating, ground-level witness and expositor of a vanished Indian way of life and what British imperialism meant to its humble and not-so-humble subjects at its height. However the word ‘courage’ deserves some context. Chaudhuri is brave in two ways in this book: in his literary ambition and in the open declaration of his political and historical convictions. (AUI vi)

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By reading this autobiography, the reader gets to know the country’s poverty and Indian people’s infatuation with England, which they thought was a symbol of prosperity, as every educated young man in India wanted to go to England to study. “Thus, for the author, England was also a dream world and that influenced his sensitivity from the beginning, as he himself describes, “England evoked by imagination and enjoyed emotionally, has been as great an influence on me as any of the three places sensibly experienced”(AUI 1).

On the other hand, compared to England, his hometown, Kishoreganj, had nothing significant. He compares both of these: Kishorganj, my birthplace, I called a country town, but I’m afraid this description will call up completely wrong associations. If I am to judge by the illustrations I have seen and the description I have read, the place had nothing of the English country town about it, these being my only sources of knowledge about England, since I have never been there, nor actually anywhere outside my own country. (AUI 3) His home town of Kishoreganj, on the other hand, was only a normal specimen of its class, with a collection of tin-and-mat huts or sheds, consisting of courts, offices, schools, shops and residential dwellings, which had been put up for their own use by the British administration in the green and brown spaces of East Bengal. The description of his home town explicitly presents the image of urban India at that time, and it was unfortunately no different from rural India in any way.He informs that the villagers used to drink water from the same river where they took bath along with the other animals such as cow and elephant, depicting the poverty-stricken living style of this town. In squalid conditions, they had to live; moths, ants and centipedes were their constant companions. They had to deal with flies in the rainy season, while mosquitoes made their lives troublesome in winter, and they did not have any preventive measures for these conditions.

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Whenever the children got the insect-bite, the only remedy they could get was a mixture of mustard oil and slaked lime which was worse than a disease in itself. They had to live in such unhygienic conditions that resulted in the disease like Cholera which was a very frequent visitor in their life. Writing about Cholera, he says: “It was not by flowers alone that the season was marked for us at Kishorganj. There was another visitor both at the beginning and end of the cold weather, but mostly at the beginning…that being one of the regular sights of the cholera season” (AUI 22).

Among other problems of Indian society, the author describes one of the most severe problems that prevailed throughout Indian subcontinent i.e.the population explosion, which is becoming more and more dangerous day by day. It is so because population explosion also becomes the sole cause of many other challenges in Indian society such as lack of food, hospital facilities and jobs, and consequently the people have to live in very disappointing conditions. Gradually, this problem becomes even worse. The author too contemplates about this problem when he faces a huge crowd during the annual fair in his town. He says that the overpopulation of a country gives birth to the problem of sanitation and many others. He observes that the problem of sanitation is one of the other several problems in over-crowded cities throughout India in general and in the city like Calcutta in particular. The sewage system of these cities does not suffice the need of overpopulation, and in the rainy season, the situation becomes worse. Further, due to the bad sewage system, the water is excessively blocked in many places and becomes the cause of many diseases. Further, the author also discusses the problem of gender-bias in society. He is very conscious of all the problems and difficulties that a woman has to face in Indian society. When the matter of the status of women comes in context of the Indian society, it is considered no better than that of a mere object. They have no right to speak or do anything according to their own choice. They have always been exploited in the name of the pride of family or in the name of tradition. Same is the case with the family of the author. They are very conscious of their “Blue Blood.” For instance, as the author describes that when his aunt became a widow at an early age, a marriage proposal came from the richest landlord of the town but he was considered rather inferior in status by author’s family. The author expresses his grandfather’s reply to that proposal: “I would sooner cut her up and feed the fishes of the Brahmaputra with the pieces” (AUI 60). It clearly shows the authority of male members of the family over female counterparts. The females of the family have no decision-making power when it comes to the question of saving the honour of the clan. Moreover, women have to face discrimination in Indian society due to their complexion, especially at the time of marriage. The complexion of girls is rigorously scrutinized by the people from the boy’s side. Whether or not the marriage will take place, depends on the fact that the girl has not the fair complexion. It becomes a very humiliating situation for the girls. Besides, the author describes a shocking and common practice in Bengal to rub the face of the girl with a wet towel in order to know whether the girl’s complexion is naturally fair or the result of makeup. Therefore, it is unfortunate to know that the life of dark marriageable girls was not easy in Bengal as they always have to face public humiliation just because of their complexion.

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