Thy Hand, Great Anarch

Viewers of the movie GANDHI or the PBS series THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN will get a different perspective on the British Raj from Chaudhuri’s most recent book. The first volume of his autobiography is dedicated “to the memory of the British Empire in India ... because all that was good and living within us was made, shaped, and quickened by ... British Rule.” The same Anglophilia informs this volume also; Chaudhuri attacks Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the entire Indian nationalist movement that led to independence.

Chaudhuri’s real concern, however, is the loss of Bengali influence on Indian affairs. Himself the second son of a rich, cultured East Bengali family, Chaudhuri witnessed the decline of his region’s prestige and its ultimate separation from India to become part of Pakistan and then Bangladesh. His own fortunes, too, declined. The book begins with his failure to attain his master’s degree in 1920 and traces his efforts to earn a precarious living as a government clerk, journalist, and writer.

This autobiography is therefore reminiscent of THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS in tracing the transfer of power from an established, cultured elite to what the author perceives as an unlettered mob, and in using the writer’s life, transformed into a myth of failure, as a symbol of that transformation. Again like Adams, Chaudhuri sees the forces of history as possessing their own dynamic, uncontrollable by human wisdom, and he regards his age as “the falling dusk of European civilization.” The book’s title comes from the closing lines of Alexander Pope’s DUNCIAD, another lament for the collapse of Western culture: “Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;/ And Universal Darkness buries All!”

Despite this pessimism, Chaudhuri’s account is entertaining. The life it describes is fascinating, Chaudhuri writes well, and the observations about Indian history and culture shed an unconventional light on the vast subcontinent.