Captain Moonlight's Notebook: Passages from India

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NIRAD CHAUDHURI, the 95-year-old Indian writer and controversialist, was delighted to be made an honorary Commander of the British Empire last week. He is, as he said, 'a dedicated imperialist' because 'there has been no civilisation without empire'.

It is sometimes difficult to know if Chaudhuri quite believes all he says and writes - he has been making mischief now since approximately 1905 - but about imperialism he is totally sincere. His first book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, was dedicated to the British empire, which did him no favours in Delhi, where he then lived, when it was first published in 1951, four years after Indian independence. Not that Chaudhuri minded. In his life and in his many fine books since (in Captain Moonlight's view he is one of the greatest writers alive), he has taken public revulsion with no more than a snap of his fingers and gleeful giggle.

But his views are more complicated than first appears. Chaudhuri admires the empire but not the people who made it work. When I rang him last week, he said he was writing an essay on the subject. The British in India, he said, were unconscious traitors to their own country. By about 1900 they had lost their sense of mission, and by their bad behaviour they did more harm to Britain and the empire than to Indians.

Example? 'For instance they called us niggers.'

It has never been clear to me in several meetings with Chaudhuri whether he thinks nobody should be called a 'nigger', or that the word should simply not be applied to Indians. I have never pressed him because . . . well, he comes from a very different age. He was born in rural Bengal in 1897, which is before Kipling got around to urging white men to pick up their burden.

He came to live in this country, in Oxford, in 1970 and despite everything that has happened to the country since remains a passionate Anglophile. He doesn't follow cricket and when Norman Tebbit set his crude terms of loyalty - which side do you cheer at a Test match - he offered his own set of standards for being British: appreciation of The Wind in the Willows, enjoyment of Stilton cheese in crocks, and going to the opera. At home he wears a dhoti. Outside he dresses in tie and hat.

He says that the problem with Britain today is its decadence. After the empire went, the downward trend was irreversible. He believes Britain's political institutions are in a state of decay and its civilisation has evaporated. 'It is very unfortunate,' he says.

Indeed. Nonetheless, Niradji, heartiest felicitations (as they say on the Indian telegrams) on your CBE.

(Photograph omitted)

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