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When Dom Moraes met Nirad C Chaudhuri

Dom Moraes | Updated on June 19, 2020 Published on June 19, 2020

Man of letters: Dom Moraes captures varying shades of India’s literary landscape in his journals   -  S SUBRAMANIUM

‘Going Away: An Indian Journal’ chronicles the travels and encounters of a young Dom Moraes who was, at the time, on the cusp of literary fame

* Part travelogue and part autobiography, Going Away: An Indian Journey spans three months of Dom Moraes’s travels across India

*From Moraes’s meetings with Mulk Raj Anand and Nirad C Chaudhuri to Khushwant Singh and Jawaharlal Nehru, Going Away captures India during the ’60s

I want to see Nirad Chaudhuri. Chaudhuri has no telephone. So I ring and ask Khushwant for the address. He seems a bit vague; somewhere near the Kashmiri Gate, he says, but if we go there and ask for Nirad Chaudhuri anyone will direct us: he is a known and beloved figure in the vicinity. Ring Ved, who picks me up in a taxi after lunch.

A long drive to the Kashmiri Gate: meanwhile the sun gropes through the clouds and the afternoon fills slowly with heat. When we reach the Kashmiri Gate, we stop the taxi and ask a passerby where Nirad Chaudhuri lives. He does not know. Conclude that he is not a local inhabitant and push on. An area of exceedingly tortuous streets all mixed up like grandmother’s knitting. Heat-haze after the rain, making the road look as if it were covered with oil, and clouds of flies everywhere. Send the taxi driver to inquire at various shops, but draw a blank. Get out ourselves.

Gone Away: An Indian Journal; Dom Moraes; Speaking Tiger; Non-fiction; ₹294

 

Ask a photographer (Sikh) where Nirad Chaudhuri lives. He pushes his turban forward and scratches his head like a Mummerset man. First time I have ever seen a Sikh do this, and I watch in fascination. Finally takes his hand away from his head, fingernails coated in oil and scurf, and says do we mean a tall youth called Chaudhuri who goes to school? No, we say, but perhaps his father. His father, the Sikh says, is a lentil-seller by the Gate. No, we say again. The Sikh goes back to scratching his head. Then he asks is it an old man called Nirala? No, we say, a middle-aged man called Nirad Chaudhuri, a writer. Ved adds that he is a Bengali. The Sikh snaps his fingers triumphantly. ‘Oh, that fellow! The Bengali Babu!’ He gives us directions. As we drive off he runs after us shouting that if we ever want our photographs taken his is infinitely the best shop in Delhi.

Reach Chaudhuri’s house, tall and wooden in a crooked street off the Kashmiri Gate. Climb three flights of groaning stairs. It is now very hot and my shirt is damp and heavy with sweat. Ved has a suit on and is worse off, but refuses to remove his jacket because he is wearing braces. By the time we reach the top floor we are both in a vile temper. We emerge into a broad verandah where a naked figure is asleep on a sheet. Ved bends and shakes it impatiently. ‘Hai mai, brother, get up and call your master.’ Figure springs up, wraps the sheet round itself to form a waist-cloth, and says with dignity, ‘I am Mr Chaudhuri.’

Ved and I are dumbstruck. Chaudhuri, however, seems to take it all in his stride. ‘Mr Mehta and Mr Moraes? I have seen your pictures in the papers. Please come in.’ The main room is spacious but a little bare, the corners filled with heaped up books. Chaudhuri disappears for a moment, reappearing in a shirt and trousers. He is a small frail man with a sharp bespectacled face and a tiny moustache. We ask him about his new book.

‘Oh I am very pleased about that. Very pleased. It has got some fine reviews in England. The English will understand such a book, you see. But here it has got bad reviews, of course. Here they do not understand.’

He gestures frequently, bobbing his head as he makes his points.

‘You will not believe it, the Indians do not want to know me. No! It is the foreign diplomats who are my friends. I have been to ten parties in the last fortnight—all given by foreign diplomats! Now will you believe that? Is that not extraordinary? I get on better with foreigners, you see. I understand foreigners. Now one of my friends is in the French embassy. His is the last party I have been to. How tastefully his house is decorated! How gracious is the way in which he lives! Every man can be judged by his habits and surroundings at home.’

Ved and I remain silent. Chaudhuri continues: ‘I am now writing a book about India. That also will be appreciated in England and attacked here. But I feel that if I write three or four books, perhaps I may achieve some reputation in England. Is that so? If you write three or four books do you achieve a reputation in England?’

[....]

I relapse into silence, while Chaudhuri talks to Ved about literature. He thinks A Passage to India is Forster’s worst novel because, he says, it was improbable: during British days a person like Aziz would never have been able to ask Miss Quested and Mrs Moore to tea or to picnics. He very gleefully adds that he had pointed this out to Forster. Forster, he says, had taken his point.

When we leave he says earnestly: ‘I am glad to have met you, but take my advice, and return at once to England. If you stay here you will perish. They will not understand you here.’

Gone Away: An Indian Journal; with an introduction by Jerry Pinto was released in May 2020

Published on June 19, 2020
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