Autobiography is a deliberate opening up of inner thought processes and private life experiences of an individual. In a society like ours where most of the time people love to cover up their activities and hide their actual intentions, autobiography becomes a very genuine and bold effort. I do not wish to paint the whole Indian nation as hypocrite; nevertheless elements of hypocrisy are very strong in the Indian society. It is almost a natural way of thinking that private behavior is different from public discourse.
Interestingly, hypocrisy and autobiography cannot go together for the simple reason that the writer has the every right not to write an autobiography. When an educated person deliberately takes the decision of writing down the personal experiences of her or his life, there is very little possibility that he or she would lie. In any case, autobiographies written for the cause of covering up life events or justifying deeds are not considered to be good autobiographies.
A good autobiography like all good literature must come from within. When the experiences of life, pain, joy, suffering, waiting, overwhelm a person, she or he writes an autobiography. In this context, in the Indian scenario, autobiography is become very important for women because women have this innate feeling of communicating with others. As is commonly said, ‘women speak much more than men’. An autobiography therefore has a special place for women. It is all the more so because traditional societies suppress women in a big and systematized manner. Channels of communication for women in the traditional set up are very limited. No wonder the first autobiography in India was written by a woman.
In 1865, in rural Bengal, a woman named Rassundari Devi wrote the first Indian autobiography. The name of her village was Ramdia. It is a remarkable piece of work, keeping in view that it is written in 1865. The book narrates her endless ordeals. She describes that first feeling of youth which is suddenly crushed when she find herself suddenly dressed as a child bride.
Autobiographies written in modern India are very remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, they are all written by great men. Many of these autobiographies are interlinked with the history of the nation. During the freedom struggle, personal and private lives often overlapped each other. The men who have written autobiographies are definitely remarkable. They wrote autobiographies because there was public demand for it. People wanted to know more and more about Gandhi, Nehru or Rajendra Prasad’s life.
The first remarkable autobiography is actually an autobiographical novel, “Pather Panchali” by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyaya. The popularity of this work is also due to the fact that legendary film maker Satyajit Ray made a movie based on this book. The translation of Pather Panchali is “Song of the Road”.
The child protagonist Apu is none other than the child writer himself. Apu lives in an ancestral home, in a village in Bengal. The family lives jointly. The father Hariher Rai, is a priest by profession but is not practical at all. He lives in his dreamland believing that someday through his writing he will become a big and celebrated man. In reality, he fails to provide respectively for his family. The anchor of the family is Apu's mother Sarbhojaya. The mother is the central figure who imparts training to her children not by words, but by her deeds. She is a self-respecting woman who many times refuses financial help of relatives. The ancestral house belongs to an old lady, a relative Indir Thakrun. While Sarbhojaya and Indir do not share a cordial relationship; the children Apu and his sister Durga love the old lady. This is such a common feature in Indian homes where the grandmother is hated by the daughter-in-law but loved by the grandchildren. Such, delicate and detailed dynamics of home are discussed beautifully in this book.
The character of Durga is a sublime mixture of energy and vivacity on one hand and failure and frustration on the other hand. A free spirited girl, she develops the habit of stealing the things she likes. However her life journey comes to an end very soon because of lack of proper health care and nutrition. There is no time to judge her character because she soon reduces the readers to tears by her death.
The character of Apu is the most endearing character of this book. He is an innocent kid who is drawn towards literature. Juxtaposed against a hyperactive sister, Apu loves to loose himself in the world of poems and plays. The young brother and sister share simple joys of life like eating stolen mangoes or running after a candy-man or watching a Kaleidoscope or running miles together just to have a glimpse of a train. Apu grows into a very sensible person. The end of the book is very touching when the mother, the father and the son board a train to go to a new place in search of a bright future. Apu remember his sister, who always wanted to travel in a train, but could not do so. This is a milestone work in terms of sincerity and literacy flavor. This book has had tremendous impact on many Indians especially those from Bengal.
The autobiography of Rajendra Prasad “Aatm Katha” becomes important simply because it is written by the first President of the Indian republic. He was deeply involved in the freedom struggle and held the position of the President from 1950 to 1962.
Rajendra Babu, as he is commonly known shows conversational naturalness and simplicity. The most, remarkable part of this book is Prasad’s description of his child hood. A Maulwi Sahab was his first teacher who taught him alphabet of Persian. The life was slow and relaxed in his village in Bihar. The fact that a Muslim came to his house as a teacher was never discussed and bothered anybody. The two religions co-existed naturally. Although almost everybody was illiterate in the village, nevertheless, Shri Ram Charat Manas by Tulsidas was read and heard quite regularly. The later part of the “Aatm Katha” turns more and more political. Prasad dwells in deep about the role of Hindi as a national language of the country. Since his autobiography was written in jail, it contains many incidents of the freedom struggle.
Now, we are turning to one of the most hated and also one of most loved and appreciated autobiographies of India. Nirad C. Chaudhari wrote “Autobiography of an Unknown Indian”. It is hated because it does not find anything lovable in India. Chaudhari was a staunch admirer of the good manners of the British, their reserved attitude, their knowledge, precision, punctuality and honesty. In contrast, he found India to be a pulp of semi human instincts. He never wanted to go into reasons, as to why be India, the way it was. He only blamed India. He could never analyze centuries of slavery and all the historical processes that made India what is was. His world view had nothing like compassion.
But his book is also loved and admired by many Indians. Why? The book is good for those who want to improve India. As Kabir said, that the critic is to be kept very near because he cleanse your soul without soap or water.
Chaudhari presents a penetrating and challenging analysis of Indian history, culture and British rule. He openly accepted that he was an admirer of the western culture. He wanted India to be like the west. He hated his roots. In this sense, we can say that this book has sprung from acute self-hate. He dressed exactly like the classic British. The word 'Ego' was good for him. He shamelessly accepted that it was his brute ego that had made him successful. His ego motivated him to live a full life of 102 years. He hated being an unknown Indian. He wanted to be a known Indian. That journey from the unknown to the known came from his selfish ego.
Chaudhari describes how the idea of this classic came to his mind,
“As I lay awake on in the night of May 4-5, 1947, an idea suddenly flashed into my mind. Why instead of merely regretting the work of history you cannot write, I asked myself, do you not write the history you have passed through and seen enacted before your introduction eyes, and which would not call for research? The answer too was instantaneous: I will. I also decided to give it in the form of an autobiography. Quieted by this decision I fell asleep. Fortunately, this idea was not nullified by the deplorable lack of energy which was habitual with me. The very next morning I sat down to my typewriter and drafted a few paragraphs.”
All through Chaudhuri was skeptical of Gandhi's ways and style, but the news of his murder shattered Chaudhari. The Book is important because it is totally candid. Naipaul has called it ‘one great book’. His admiration for British sprang basically from the fact that their presence in India gave India the window to the rest of the world. This exposure created intellectuals like Chaudhuri.
Now, we are coming to one of the most celebrated autobiographies in the world. It is one of the most popular books in the world, ‘My Experiments with Truth’ by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Some time back, I read in the newspaper, that one judge in the Ahmedabad, gave a queer judgment. The punishment that he gave of a habitual thief was that the thief would read Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography in police presence every day for coming one year or so. The criminal was required to read the book as many times as he could.
This judgment is not a joke. Like the judge, many across the globe believe that the book purifies the soul; it improves the human being, it compels one to introspect.
How could Gandhi achieve this impact?
The simple answer is that, he practiced each word of what he had written. His words are living, breathing, simply because they come from his life. Gandhi had taken truth to the divine level. Even his thinking was non-violent and peaceful. His words are precious gems because each word is true. The book starts is very ordinarily with his plain narration of his parents and his childhood. After some pages we realize that the man has hooked us. His honest description of his faults makes us realize that we are into serious reading. This man has no pretentions, he has nothing to hide. Gandhi's life was the nation's life. He has tried to keep the narration personal so as to give the reader a glimpse of his inner thought processes. Why he came to adore truth and non-violence, what was the whole journey-he takes the reader through this route. The book is written in the first person. We see the world through the eyes of Gandhi.
Gandhi is often highly self-critical. He developed himself to that level where desire of a crime is identical with the commitment of the crime. If we think of something immoral, in Gandhi's opinion, we have committed the immoral act. He talks about his personal journey of temptations and falls when he wanted physical pleasures and worldly enjoyment.
“From a strictly ethical point of view, all these occasions must be regarded as moral lapses, for the casual desire was there, and it was as good as the act. But from the ordinary point of view, a man who is saved from physically committing sin is regarded as saved. And I was saved only is that sense. But one thing took deep root in me- the conviction that morality is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality. Truth became my sole objective ......” (part I, chapter 7, pg. 24).
Jawahar Lal Nehru's autobiography is considered to be a great literary work because of his depth of thought and fine language. Among all the national leaders of the freedom struggle, Nehru's command over English was the best. He wrote flawlessly and flowingly. Nehru was a deeply thinking person. A true disciple of Gandhi, he was true and honest to the core. The book becomes important because through the life of an individual, we see the life of the nation. Nehru had a policy never to feel sad. He was committed to see the bright side of things. An architect of modern India, Nehru’s vision shows a passionate commitment to democracy, secularism and socialism. Rabindranath Tagore has written about Nehru’s autobiography, “Through all its details there runs a deep current of humanity which overpasses the tangles of facts and leads us to the person who is greater than his deeds and truer than his surroundings.”
I feel that my discussion on important autobiographies of modern India will remain incomplete if I do not mention ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ by Paramhansa Yoganand. India has been eternally spiritual. Our faith in spirituality is shaken when we see charlatans in the name of saints. This is one book written in modern India which places our faith where it belongs. Pramhansa takes us through his early life, his mother’s death, the saint with two bodies, the perfume saint, the tiger swami, the scientist J.C. Bose and things like cosmic romance, cosmic consciousness, the wonder-worker Afzal Khan, his university degree, Kashi, Tagore, Ma Ananda Mayi and the last days of his guru. It’s a blissful reading which alleviates the mind. It generates nobility and raises consciousness. The world around us is not everything. Yogananda writes,
“Many yogis are known to have retained their self-consciousness without interruption by the dramatic transition to and from ‘life’ and ‘death’. If man be solely a body, its loss indeed places the final period to identity. But if prophets down the millenniums spake with truth, man is essentially of corporeal nature. The persistent core of human egoity is only temporarily allied with sense perception.” (Page 4)
The importance of this book also comes from the fact that it roots our sensibility in a skeptical age. Be it someone from west or today’s India, there are problems of faith. This book resolves the conflict in an effective way. W. Y. Evans-Wentz writes in his Preface to ‘Autobiography’, ‘The value of Yogananda’s ‘Autobiography’ is greatly enhanced by the fact that it is one of the few books in English about the wise men of India which has been written, not by a journalist or a foreigner, but by one of their own race and training- in short, a book about yogis by a yogi. As an eyewitness recount of the extraordinary lives and powers of modern Hindu saints, the book has importance both timely and timeless. To its illustrious author, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing both in India and America, may every reader render due appreciation and gratitude. His unusual life-document is certainly one of the most revealing of the depths of the Hindu mind and heart, and of the spiritual wealth of India, ever to be published in the west.’
These are some of the outstanding autobiographies of modern India written by men. There could be many more worthy entrants to this list because literature always leaves that scope. Personally, I could not find fault with these great books. I found them to be perfect. I am too much of a ‘sahridaya’ reader as to be able to find faults in style or theme. After some pages my vision merges with that of the writer and I start seeing things from that point of view. Everything looks justified. Sometimes I feel that the word ‘critic’ should be replaced with a better, more positive and more inclusive term like ‘literature-lover’ or ‘appreciator’. But we will leave that to the future.
(This was delivered as a lecture at Academic Staff College, GG Central University, Bilaspur, Chhatisgarh, India on 12th March 2013)
Related Books and Websites:
Saumitra Sekhar (2006). "Bandyopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan" (in English and Bengali). Banglapedia — National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh. Banglapedia.
Chandrahas. "The world of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay" (Web page (blog)). The Middle Stage: Essays on Indian and world literature. Chandrahas.
Rajendra Prasad. ‘Atmakatha’. 1957. Patna: Sahitya Sansar.
Nehru. ‘An Autobiography’. 1967. London: John Lane. The Bodley Head.
Paramhansa Yogananda. ‘Autobiography of a Yog’i. 1946. New York: The Philosophical Library. 15 East, 40th Street.