[Reworked from a 2011 post Shrine of an exiled scholar of Bengal and this re-work is inspired by a discourse with friend and colleague Mr. Sushovhan Mukherjee in a Calcutta terrace, overlooking the Neapolis of Calcutta (Rajarhat) in a magical evening, only made real by the telebhaja and chalu-chai - one of the very very few authentic products of Contemporary Bengal ]
Bengal is only one true lacking : the lack of true geniuses for an agonizing amount of time. We have plenty of everything, in more or less proportion but current absence of genius is an absolute and verifiable fact. Now what is a genius ? It is strictly forbidden for non-geniuses to even approach this subject and hence we shall go to Arthur Schopenhauer, the most vigorous of pessimists in the history of European philosophy who said like this : ‘Science can manage with talent, but Art requires genius’ . I quoted him because he was singing and talking of worship of heroes in Europe when all heroes were dead.
Recently, I have started meeting young Bengali men and women in various business and start-up forums and I thought of introducing a genius of this land, a crooked, exiled, scurrilous, controversial but a true genius nevertheless.
Our genius had passed almost half of his life in exile and claimed in a Bengali prose whose quality cannot be even matched by those who claim to be more ‘indigenous’. For a genius, no law is the law. Bengali has long forgotten the ennobling effects of heroes on young lives.Our exiled scholar mourned to his last breath about this lack in his mammoth works in English and Bengali and in spite of all his failings and overstated generalization, he has not failed to add another name to the pantheon of true heroes of humanity.
Nirad C Chaudhuri – lived and worked in this quaint Oxford home in 20 Lathbury Road and in one summer evening when I stood in front of the gate, I heard a foreign bird singing as if from East Bengal’s hidden groves somewhere, in some ancient time. I found a great joy to have made the pilgrimage.
The Oxford blue plaque anticipates something so simply but profoundly. It describes Mr. Chaudhuri as Writer. Nothing else is necessary
Many Hindus of India, in olden times and still now prefer to spend the end of their life in Benares, the holy city. Nirad, who could write, the only Bengali of the whole history of Bengal an essay entitled :
আমি একাধারে বাঙালী ও একাধারে ইংরেজ (I am a Bengali and Englishman in the same spectre)
Contemplating over his stay in Oxford – the dhoti-clad Bengali who was known to the salesgirl in the Marks and Spencer’s store to the librarian of the Bodlien to the alumni of Oxford Baccalaureate , I felt (like another English commentator) that in a way, this stay has been a great poetic justice. England’s Oxford or Oxford of England became his ‘spiritual’ home. We know that Nirad had a photo of Benares’ ghat in an imposing fashion in his study in the Lathbury Road home where he had written the pages of Thy Hand, Great Anarch ! And in this home, Ms. Amiya, writer’s wife took care of him, fed guests full-course Italian dinner and wrote her own books. I think some Bengali man (or woman ) of letters in East or West Bengal needs to document the signal service this Bengali lady had rendered to English and Bengali literature and by implication to world literature.
Below are 3 photos of that spiritual home of our genius and very few Bengalis have paid so much price for being a genius and it is equally true that no Bengali has a Oxford plaque bearing his name.
One of the Oxford Colleges. The half-shaded half lit moment made me shoot this but the passing white clouds became imprisoned
The Oxford Park – the green of the grass, I was told by a gardener there : it can happen only after 800 years of regular watering, care and scholarly walks
Twenty minutes after I got out of the Bodlien Library, immensely delighted by an exhibition on Dickens organized by the library, one of the Europe’s oldest. I asked the the Library Assistant whether she could tell me how could I could go to Nirad’s house. She replied, Is this the scholar who had asked his wife on the wedding night to spell Beethoven. I answered, oh yes, oh yes, that is the gentleman.
Presenting a paper in St Annes College’s Conference organized by Philosophy and Management and urged by wife Chandrani (the Lakshmi and Annapurna of our flat in Calcutta east), I chose the gate of Schola Naturalis Philosophiae as a backdrop inside which the Dickens exhibition was going on.
Back to the genius track. In my book An Intimate History of Bengal (published 2009), I wrote that Genius does not belong to any community or geography and does not care either. It chooses or sent by a higher destiny to a particular community, culture or time. A community or a culture dies if it does not recognize and respect a true genius. Because, genius is not a person or idea or democratic aggregation of likes or dislikes or neutrality, Genius is a Homecoming for Humanity. The light that shines from the lives of great men and women is so powerful that even time cannot dim them and future geniuses will recognize the countenance of a true genius, how far the objects may be in the rear or far end view mirror.
I remain a humble wordsmith by the roadside of this Genius Track and pray that Bengal is blessed by true geniuses and also with the good sense of respecting and valuing them in the community which is made glorious by his or her descent.