No one claims ‘purity’ any longer, no one can. Chaudhuri, while worshipping the glory and nobility of the ‘British project’, would vouch for this today more than anyone else.
I’m not new to the word referendum. Among my family and my Bengali-aka-Sylheti-heritage kin, the word has bounced around our homes several dozen times. We have all heard stories of heightened politics, communal bitterness and sharply polarised opinions. That referendum, when Assam and Sylhet went through the political litmus test of 1947, was a historically defining moment for both supporters and opponents of separation – including some of my family members and neighbours in Guwahati, Assam, where I was born and brought up.
The recent Brexit vote revived the word in my memory. My mother still speaks of it now and then. She was, for a while, unconcerned with Brexit. But over the past few days, she read the newspapers and made a connection to this referendum and the one she witnessed, albeit as a child. The empire was changing, and with it, its people and literature.
I’m reminded of Nirad Chaudhuri (1897 – 1999), the well-known twentieth-century Bengali author who remains a pillar of English writing in India. I remind her that my father and she have discussed his work and, as writing that is pro-imperialism, made it their pet peeve (“Your father never supported the glory of Britain, which Nirad-babu understood!”). She indeed, somehow, believed the empire was impeccable. Her ‘memsahib‘ upbringing – with its English speaking, skirt-suit wearing and expert embroidery teachers – is unquestionable in her mind. That she read a hyper-nationalistic Vivekananda or the liberal humanist Tagore and Nazrul has had no serious consequences for her love for the greatness of Britain.
“Nirad-babu” was mentioned in the household as frequently as the referendum. Not in connection with the latter, but as a body of literary ideas that, I believe, had troubled our ‘borderless’ parents. Borderless because they sometimes considered themselves strictly from Assam, and then also from what lies in Bangladesh today, some percentage from Meghalaya and the rest from a scattered northeastern geography. I figured that my mother regarded this fractured identity of theirs as similar to the UK’s, with the disparate countries it ruled, while for my father, having such an identity was a leftist method of uniting an impossible diversity. Hence, I imagine that for him, Chaudhuri would be, hypothetically, the perfect Brexit proponent today.
Nations and homes
In fact, one is tempted to imagine what would happen if Chaudhuri really experienced Brexit, if it had happened in his time.
The ‘unknown Indian’ would be each one of the scores of unknown workers, farmers, technicians, knowledge migrants and the like, who look towards the UK for livelihood and more. Only a salary and lifestyle are not enough justification for migration, though – because individuals often do return to their native countries to make a better life not only for themselves but also others. Chaudhuri, who had himself immigrated at an advanced age, decided to stay and make the city of Oxford his home. His love for the past glory of Britain and the modern imperial project was scathingly criticised at home, as much as it generated literary praise on account of his incisive writing.
In his dedication of The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, he wrote:
“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.”
Whether or not this was an imitation of what Cicero said about the conduct of Verres – the Roman proconsul of Sicily who oppressed Sicilian Roman citizens, who in their desperation cried out, “civis romanus sum” (“I am a Roman citizen”) – is a question that continues to have weight.
But if he were to weigh it in the context of the EU today, the question of subjecthood would be teetering in its precarious weight. The colonial project in India and elsewhere would be staring at a precipice if faced with a Brexit.
My mother’s memory of the older referendum is of Muslim classmates, most of whose fathers were followers of Jinnah, liberals being a minority when Assam and Sylhet parted. Not yet of voting age, my parents had witnessed adults talking about a passionate desire for independence, as well as about widespread misconduct in the voting process for the referendum, for instance, bogus voting and communal incitement to skew issues.
When I asked if the syncretic tradition of Assam and Sylhet could have prevented the split, my mother assured me that the referendum had a pre-decided outcome. The administration would see to it that the Assam side remained predominantly Hindu, and hence in India, and the Sylhet side predominantly Muslim, and therefore in ‘East Pakistan’, notwithstanding Shah Jalal’s Sufi and Srimanta Sankaradeva’s Vaishnava cultures merging into each other. “The memory we have of our elders is mostly that religious sentiment was at its peak and most knew what country they wanted as ‘home’,” she said.
The word ‘home’, however, is plural. Incidentally and interestingly, I discovered recently that the Sylhet region has a ‘friendship link’ with the city of St. Albans in the UK. The link was established in 1988 when the St. Albans district council supported a housing project in Sylhet as part of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. Sylhet was chosen because its people make the largest ethnic minority group in St. Albans. Chaudhuri, who was from Kishoreganj, now in Bangladesh, and was posthumously awarded a prestigious blue plaque, among several other high honours, would perhaps have scoffed at this move and taken an anti-immigration stance to resist celebrating the ethnic minority, most of them Muslims from Bangladesh.
Ian Jack, in his introduction to The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, said of Chaudhuri, the great Anglophone:
“Once he told me at his Oxford flat: “I am what I am on account of British rule in India. And have I shown myself to be worthless? My kind of human being was created. Doesn’t that show the nobility of the project?” We were having lunch – roast beef prepared by his Bengali wife, Amiya. The Chaudhuris were far from rich, but a splendid effort had been made. Different glasses for the red and white wine, for the water, for the cognac. I gripped one of them by the bowl. A small Bengali hand, created far away in Kishorganj in 1897, reached across the table and slapped me on the wrist. Chaudhuri scowled. “Don’t you know that one always grips a hock glass by the stem? What a nation of illiterate and unmannerly creatures Britain has become.”
Oxford, roast beef, wine, cognac, hock glass, Bengali hand – the performatives are abundantly in favor of a life that wants to “remain”, having been created through cultures within and without.
Whether it is the food, the drink, the tableware, the etiquette, the arts or the users – no one claims ‘purity’ any longer, no one can. I feel that Chaudhuri, albeit a worshipper of British originality and purity, would vouch for this today more than anyone else.
This is because nations are evolving entities, whether they go to die quietly later or not, peter off and disintegrate, or as per Marxian tenets, simply wither away. What Jack suggests in the above paragraph about Chaudhuri’s faith in the ‘nobility of the project’, pitted against an ignominy today, is that the British ethos cannot be simplistically seen in the voter’s choice of just ‘yes or no’ to keeping humans out of a nation – humans who may be immigrants, non-British, former colony members, people of colour and so on and so forth. Just as Chaudhuri was, with his undying love for the empire. If Brexit happened to Chaudhuri, he’d probably say that last sentence again – “What a nation of illiterate and unmannerly creatures Britain has become” – albeit in a different context.
Nabina Das is a poet.