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Literary Review

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AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Obsessive precision

A.J. THOMAS

This is a book that speaks of the self and the world in objective terms.


Nahal's detailed accounts of his life as a scholar and a teacher make engrossing reading because of his sheer passion for life.


Silent Life: Memoirs of a Writer, Chaman Nahal, Roli Books, 2005, p.286, Rs. 295.

SILENT LIFE is the literary autobiography of Chaman Nahal, the eminent teacher of English, academic, globe-trotter and renowned Indian English fiction writer who is widely acclaimed for his Partition novel, Azadi. As far as autobiographies go, they fall into facile classifications like "egocentric" because the author has to speak about himself/ herself all the time. But there are also autobiographies, rarely though, that speak of the self and the world objectively, and the present volume is one of them.

A rarity

As a literary autobiography, it is a rarity because even renowned writers nowadays produce self-important autobiographies that dwell on meaningless personal exploits. Here is a writer giving us details about how he went about doing his work, with the obsessive precision of an inveterate craftsman. When you think of the writing of Nahal, the picture of a filigree work of art comes to mind. He is so exquisite in the craftsmanship using words. Plus, his is a burning, all-engrossing spirit. Such a vibrant writer. And it is not purely accidental — Nahal was born into a goldsmith family and here is what he says about it: "I believe I owe the gift (of being a writer) partly to my class origins. Every gold ornament has to be cut, moulded, soldered, set with precious stones, washed and polished with absolute precision. ... If gold is precious, a gold ornament is even more so, for it is altogether the brainchild of the artisan. Isn't that what a work of art is, too?"

Sialkot-born Nahal was 20 when Partition threw asunder the peaceful existence in Punjab, through the heart of which a border had taken shape. He lost his sister in the ensuing riots, and his views on the theme of organised violence (to which he devoted an entire chapter) are born of observations made during those trying times. Nahal believes that large-scale violence that erupts as knee-jerk reaction to socially disturbing events can be contained once the passions cool down. It can be ascribed to mob fury that explodes on the spur of the moment. But the violence that went on for months together in different parts of the country before and after Partition, the massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 following Indira Gandhi's assassination, and the post-Godhra Gujarat carnage, he terms as organised violence: meticulously planned and executed by people to gain certain ends.

Affirming life

Nahal, who believes that a writer cannot change society, but can only affirm life, survived Partition in the same spirit. He is like the fictional characters he created: "men and women who had the capacity to face their own contradictions and still forge ahead." His life as an academic and literary artist went on to blossom to the full extent, bringing him laurels from home and abroad: Turin University conferred upon him a Medal of Honour in 1987, Cambridge University elected him an Overseas Fellow in 1991, East West Centre in Hawaii honoured him with its Distinguished Service Award in 1997 and his last academic position abroad was as Dai Ho Chum Distinguished Chair at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu from 1997-98. He had won the Sahitya Akademi Award for Azadi much earlier, in 1977. Now, in his late seventies, he is as active as he was in his twenties, heading the Chaman Nahal Foundation.

The book is full of interesting details that will keep the curious literary buff absorbed. Here are but a few. His brief encounter with Gandhiji is one such. The young Nahal was of the opinion that Gandhiji was responsible for Partition and the misery it entailed. So, one day in 1947, he walked up to Gandhiji during one of the prayer meetings at Birla House and told him bluntly that he had suffered much. Strangely, the Mahatma said he too had suffered much. Next he told Nahal something that deeply influenced him: about the ability of a person to face any threat to his integrity through an inner strength. This steered Nahal into eventually writing the four long novels of The Gandhi Quartet (The Crown and the Loincloth, The Salt of Life, The Triumph of the Tricolour, and Azadi) about India's freedom struggle, a project on which he was to spend 25 years of his life. Another fascinating account is that of his close relationship with J. Krishnamurti, which led to the writing of A Conversation with J. Krihsnamurti, and the description of how he was under the spell of the master until Radha Rajagopal Sloss's revelation in her book, Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti, of JK cuckolding his best friend D. Rajagopal for nearly 30 years put him off.

History and fiction

The description of his interview of E.M. Forster, during which the English literary legend admitted that Britain had triggered the Partition riots by irresponsibly leaving the country earlier than planned, would remind one of a recent article in The Hindu by Ramachandra Guha in which he advances the argument of Andrew Roberts to this effect. His detailed accounts of his life as a scholar and a teacher in Universities in the U.K., the U.S., Australia, Italy — which could turn out drab in the hands of a lesser writer — make engrossing reading because of his sheer passion for life that grabs the attention of the reader.

For Chaman Nahal, history is the real story, fiction the projection of things the way he would want them to be. "The study of history is a study of the alternative choices open to a people at a particular time," says he. But, for a writer of fiction, choices are endless. What he could not change in real life, he changed through his creative imagination!

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