Through eastern eyes [Archives:2005/880/Education]

September 26 2005

An autobiographical writing romances the complex 'self'. The symbiotic relationship between one's innate personality and the social persona, forms the core of an author's account of his life. The Journal of Curriculum Theorizing states that an “Autobiography cannot tell what the life is that is being written, it can only use the self to express the trace of its unspeakable end, absence-presence, and origin.” The current literary trend being a fascination with ex-patriate fiction, one can see these days a great number of writers feeling the need to map their own identities because they have been historically stratified from their native roots. With the 'cross-over' cult gaining prominence in all fields of humanities, the ethnocentric expatriate genre has added a new flavour to autobiographical novels. In the case of emigre writing, the autobiography takes the form of a bi-cultural treatise. The cornerstone of such novels is a tour d'horizon of the experiences one encounters while on his/her maiden visit to the land of one's dreams. In most cases this fantasy-land is England. In British fiction one often comes across blatant comparisons with non-English races in order to define the essence of the English character; in the words of Edward Said, “European superiority over Oriental backwardness.” But the opposite i.e. delineating the oriental spirit by placing it beside the so-called superior race is indeed a rarity. Just as the 20th century saw the paradigm shift from occident to orient in Post-Colonial literature; correspondingly, on the threshold of the millennium we discover a change of perspectives from 'bios' to 'autos'-which is now re-defining the post-colonial Diaspora. According to the Oxford English dictionary, Diaspora is a word with a Greek root literally meaning dispersed. It is mainly used to describe the migration of the Jews. The term refers to “any body of people living outside their traditional homeland”. Fundamentally, this term is an offshoot of western/European colonization. Thus the autobiographical text of an ex-patriate writer becomes double-edged. There is a blending of admiration and resentment, rootlessness and uncertainty, leading to an ambivalent stance on the part of the writer. The coupling of homelessness and nostalgia along with a fascination for things occidental accounts for the ambivalent quality and hybridity that underline the writings of Diaspora novelists.

Basically, an autobiography is made up of memories, recollections and a host of other subliminal elements. Cultural transmigration in 'life stories' is not the simple setting down of an author's life in pen and paper. It marks a voyage towards self-discovery. While the author reminisces, the 'I' undergoes a variety of experiences. The duality of the autobiographer and the 'I' in the autobiography is obviously pronounced. They are two different persons trying to bridge the gap between the past and the future. Most writers have admitted to having a romantic conception of England in their kindergarten days. One must take notice of an interesting fact at this juncture. Most travel writers who have written about their visits to England have already been conditioned since their childhood. The conditioning has come in the form of stories, books, poems or rhymes. Therefore the borders defining the author's fictive notion and the realistic observation of the alien land blur. They view England through a prison of texts.

In his 'A Passage to England', Nirad Chaudhuri writes that his visit to England as an adult had been exciting and interesting. That's because he was able to see all the things and places he had longed to visit as a child. The paintings, statues, beautiful landscape, theatre, the fine buildings, gardens, the food and music, together form a collage of intense experiences which he is unable to explain coherently. All these represent an idea of civilization; an ideal civilization, which his native country lacks. Ignoring the misconceptions and the prejudices that cloud the atavistic Indian mind-set, he illustrates a favourable image of England and its eminent citizens. He admits that he arrived to the land of his boyhood fancies with “an enormous load of book-derived notions”. He classifies them into two categories. He calls his earlier ideas truer; these are the ideas acquired from literature, history and geography. According to the writer these childhood ideas were wide-ranging and created a homogeneous picture of England. Tennyson's Break,Break,Break and Wordsworth's Upon Westminster Bridge along with Shakespeare and Webster had already painted a very idyllic image of England in young Nirad's mind. The second set of influences came from the media- the political, social and economic news that were broadcast in the radio. By the time he made it to the country of his imaginings, he had already memorised the features of England and Europe from his reading. Thus, entering England, he compared the “authorised version” of the England he already knew with the makeshift version that was presented to him: “[t]he famous chalk cliffs did not stand out glimmering and vast, as Matthew Arnold had described, but seemed like white creases between the blue- grey sheet of the Channel…”.

Interestingly Nirad Chaudhuri perceives England as “not-India”. This negates the theory of defining the orient from the occident's point of view. The colonized is no more the effeminate exotic. No more is it a subject for dissection by the rational colonizer. The writer very subtly brings to light his 'Indian-ness' through this binary opposition. Though the writer's idea as regards England might have been a little coloured but his attitude as to its people is neither inflated nor deflated. A travelogue, A Passage to England is a vivid account of the author's 8 weeks visit. The word 'Passage' in the title is a multilayered one. From the literal point it suggests a journey from one place to another. But symbolically the passage is- from childhood flights of fancy to adult realism, the passage of time, the transitory nature of the various images of England, a shift from occident fascination to orient identification. The book is not a scathing indictment of the megalomaniac England. Rather it is concerned with the private life of the English public as a nation. The initial image of England is always very dreamy and pleasant. It is a country of the birds, flowers, green countryside, picturesque villages, and quaint towns. The old world charm that is portrayed in every Elizabethan literary work makes a strong impression on a young reader's mind.

The first chapter 'A World of Illusion' posits this fact. But again it is a two fold one. The author suggests that since he is a Hindu, for him the world is an illusion. Sometimes for the author, the idea and the image collate to form a composite picture of England. He feels that whatever he had read in books did not contradict what he saw. The idea of England remains unchanged. But when the author enquires about the Cumnor Hills and the Bablock Hythe, his friend makes an interesting comment about Indians coming to England with strong literary associations. The very image of England is an illusion. It changed the author's idea of what the country actually is. Thus Nirad Chaudhuri at one point says, ” The only ties felt in the heart that we can have with England are those created by the things of the mind”. The sense of illusion is highlighted in 'Meeting the Third Dimension'. What matters is the manner of perception, ” e in the East in one, a rarefied way, and they in the West in another, a concrete way”. The English scenery according to him is three-dimensional, unlike the Indian landscape that is plain and flat. It is the light that contributes to the sense of unreality, he suggests. He finds the colours more pronounced and as it were frozen. The light effects cause the English countryside to look 'stereoscopic'. In India the surroundings appear very silhouetted. Apart from the natural landscape, even the architecture gives an impression of solidity. In India things look very hazy, almost like a mirage.

Eventhough, throughout his life, Nirad. C. Chaudhuri has put forward aggressively pro-English views, when it comes to Kipling's view on the East and the West, he aggressively rejects it. In 'Oh, East is East, And West is West', he posits a contrary theory that the East and the West will never be able to meet not because of Anglo-Saxon pride or Hindu xenophobia, but because of temperature. It is nature that divides the two cultures. In England the author sees a more symbiotic relationship between man and nature; ” an and nature have got together to create something in common”. Through his description of the colour 'green', he brings to light the essential difference in the two i.e. in the East, man is either a parasite or a victim of nature. He finds the countryside, neither natural nor quite artificial. That industrial and over-populated England could be so pastoral in appearance, surprises him. This very idea is alien to a man who comes from a country where nature plays a great hand in building or destroying lives. In the East one can see “man's cruel and endless struggle with Nature”. For the first time perhaps, Nirad Chaudhuri finds fault in the literary conception of his land of dreams. He feels that the man-nature relationship in England is a Wordsworthian concept, which any Indian will fail to comprehend. Similar is his perception of the rivers, in 'By The Rivers of England'. The rivers in England are a scenic compliment to the surrounding and pose a contrast to the rivers the author has known all his life. In India people have never tried to bridge the gap between the rivers and themselves. But in England the rivers acquire a kind of 'territoriality'. Unlike the English, for whom rivers are an elemental part of life and civilization, we Indians remain in contact with our water-bodies only through religion. Nirad Chaudhuri's eye for detail and his strong acumen give us the sharp contrast between the two cultures. He finds the English rivers “wild in origin but cultivated in behaviour”. But Indian rivers are romanticized and revered. Life, landscape and rivers form an integral part of England.

In 'Who Made the Town?' one comes across what an English town is in reality. In the author's view, Indians suffer from an “artificial didacticism of the anti-town pose”. As a child he had written a number of essays on the disadvantages of town life. But he is proved wrong. “Neither the thrush nor the blackbird had been driven out of London, for I was awakened by their song in the heart of the town”. He feels that every country should have its equal share of town and villages. During his stay in England he comes to realize that the only way of differentiating a town from a village was a matter of degree and not kind. He calls the small English towns “a species by themselves”. They are totally different and independent from their bigger cousins. He classifies them into market towns, cathedral towns, manufacturing towns and university towns. Indian country towns have all the squalor of the big cities and lack in basic facilities too. They are neither aesthetically appealing nor very comfortable. The relationship between the town and the country in England is very cordial. The presence of Cathedrals in the in country and parks in cities vindicates his statement. Nirad Chaudhuri very cleverly challenges William Cowper's “God made the country and, man made the town”. He finds that the country and the town fit together perfectly. And together they add to cheer and well-being of the country in a larger sense. In England it is man who has made the country and God, the town.

In the first half of the travelogue there is a constant swing between the native and the host country. The comparisons and contrasts are glaring but not severely projected. It is very subtly done. Nowhere does the author degrade his the country of his origin; nor does he exalt England. It is vastly different from Prafulla Mohanti's conception of England in Through Brown Eyes. Nirad Chaudhuri's idea of the country is an amalgamation of history and tradition. It displays the complexities as well as the simple attractions colonial mind feels towards the British Empire. Like a child he feels elated at finding the harmonious blend of cathedrals, industries with woods and fields and flowers. The symmetry amazes him. There is neither the rejection of urbane civilization nor the cutting down of forests. Each is given its own space to grow and proliferate. For him it is the two faces of an ideal civilization. “In India for centuries the forests have been giving shelter to the peasants whenever they are threatened by oppression or anarchy. In the West they are they are providing shelter from a disquiet which has become normal and quotidian”. In 'The Palazzo And The Basilica' Nirad Chaudhuri says that the cathedral, people, forests and fields form one landscape.

London is a place of contradictions. As a travel writer, Nirad Chaudhuri thinks, “London's modernity is old-fashioned, but it is living and creative. The best way to understand the city is to go through its innumerable little lanes, courts, by-ways and alleys. It is the large assortment of the human habitation that gives London its character. Therein lies the city's vastness. In The Mother City Of The Age he discusses at length the imaginary London, the real London and the London as it appears to a foreigner. “For me ondon stood out vast, stark and powerful . The city is big and complex physically and intellectually. But its beauty is genuine and not a photographic trick. He finds the real London much more romantic than the pictures or the books he had gone through earlier. The landscape is the same everywhere and stirs up an unswerving mood. He samples the historical monuments and finds them to be architectural jewels. Both the St.James Park and the St.Paul's Cathedral exceed his expectations. He finds the park at par with the Tuileries and the church a supreme example of English classicism. But then there are faces of London; the city steeped in history and the city of the masses i.e. the suburban London, which the intellectuals and aesthetes fear. The journey into the Suburbia is scary for Nirad Chaudhuri. He finds them grey and grimy and quite out of sync with his image of London. But nevertheless it gives him a complete idea of what the city actually is. He admits that these visits helped form a “truer idea of the structure and function of London, than I could have by merely seeing its sights”. The “brickwork of outer London” is incessantly oppressive for him. It stifles the spirit. It induces a kind of exhaustion that is “overpowering” and “crushing”. He also comes to know the London that throbbed with power and vitality. This was Greater London. The visitor comes to realize that there is much more to city than meets the eye. “It is no longer a historic city” but “the base of a new mode of existence”. Unlike Paris London doesn't seem to be frozen in time. “It has absorbed its past n its present”. Thus London for Nirad Chaudhuri is the “archetypal city of our age”. He labels it as the “Mother Megalopolis of our era”. He makes an interesting comparison at this juncture. According to him the visit to London helps him to know Calcutta, his native land. He sees Calcutta as a “half-caste offspring of London”. Both Calcutta and London are old and young at the same time. He understands Calcutta by tracing its ancestry to London. What Nirad Chaudhuri is trying to do is now termed in the world of ethnic Diaspora as 'Acculturation'-maintaining his cultural identity and establishing relations with others.

A Passage to England is written from the point of view of a traveler. It is witty, informative and extensively detailed. Nothing escapes this veteran anglophile's eye. There is no quest for identity here. But the oscillation from host country to the homeland though not very much pronounced, is certainly there. The first part of the book The English Scene describes the sights and sounds of the London metropolis. He assumes the role of a narrator, acquainting the reader with his experiences of a city he has always dreamed of since his kindergarten days. Chaudhuri becomes a kind of omniscient narrator, truthfully recounting the incidents with objectivity and originality. He displays a profound understanding of the English milieu. He is extremely responsive to his surroundings and keeps making interesting comparisons with the 'bookish' idea of London as well as with images gleaned from the past. The travelogue is built around the writer with the English scene as the backdrop. Nowhere do we find the author being overwhelmed by the city. He is independent and involved simultaneously. That is because in a travelogue the narrator and the author share the same persona. And moreover the real world and the world of the story become one seamless entity. Thus, A Passage to England is a record of events, sights and personal feelings with a nostalgic concoction of fiction and reality. The London portrayed by Nirad Chaudhuri reflects the views and attitudes of a cultured man. He reflects on its glorious historical past and evaluates two entirely different civilizations.