A Passage to England Summary and Analysis
Nirad C. Chaudhuri is an outstanding prose-writer with an excellent poise of style. He bursts into sudden fame in 1951 with his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. In India very few writers take more pains with their writings. He has made it clear in his Autobiography that ‘My notion of what is proper and honest between Englishmen and Indians to-day is clear-cut and decisive. I feel that the only course of conduct permissible to either side in their political and public relations at the present moment is an honourable taciturnity.’ His long Autobiography is both a personal record and a post-modern report of British rule in India. He exhibits his scholarship, understanding, insight, a sense of history and capacity for imagination
It is really beyond one’s comprehension to judge the capacity of man who writes a book about a country after seeing it for only five weeks. At the age of fifty seven, Mr. Chaudhuri found himself able to take the first trip of his life outside India. He had five weeks in England at the invitation of the British Broadcasting Corporation, a week in Rome and a week in Paris.
He published one or two articles in the Indian press about his visit. But the reception was rather discouraging. It seemed as if he had given deep offence to a large number of his patriotic fellow Indians by an indiscreet enthusiasm. He was even called ProBritish.
He never kept note of his experiences. But the process of recalling the sensations in tranquillity was bound to set in motion the parallel and rival process of thinking as well. He was trying his best to place the Timeless England against Timeless India in which he had been steeped all his life. English people had shown themselves so capable of adapting themselves to new circumstances.
Shri Chaudhuri has set down with preciseness and candor the impressions of his visit to Britain in the Spring of 1955. The truth is that he is at once more Indian than most Indians and more English than most English men. With his gift of double vision he achieves insights denied to many. He sees things with a child’s insatiable curiosity but records his findings with judicial balance. He persistently asks questions and is not afraid to supply his own answers. Again and again he compares conditions in India and England and this gives a piquancy and edge to his writing. The book is full of such admirable spans of prose that seek to build a bridge of understanding between Britain and India. “He has a poetical mind with a skeptical turn, and the English are lucky to have come under his shrewd, peeled gaze. He is best at direct observation and he writes like an angel.”
He remarks that the main purpose of his A Passage to England is to convey a little of his feeling of the permanence and antithesis of India and England. All his life Mr. Chaudhuri has soaked himself in European art and history. So though physically a stranger to Europe, he was naturally among friends. He has now recounted his impression telling how he found in Europe neither indigestion nor disillusion but intense delight as he realized that what he had been absorbing from books for half-a century was a living reality. He has an unusual awareness of the English character and English past as well as of English landscapes. He is as much at home with constable’s pictures as with the cathedrals, colleges and country houses; he seems to be walking into his natural milieu though at the same time seeing it all through Asian eyes.
It is a blazing humbling book. He tells us things about Britain that we never suspected before and explains things that have hitherto been inexplicable. Bernard Levin says, “I finished his book excited and disturbed; I felt a wild desire to rush out and catch Mr. Chaudhuri and carry him shoulder high.” In the short space of five weeks he saw more paintings, statues and works of art, more plays, fine buildings, gardens and beautiful landscapes, heard more poetry and music and had a more exciting and interesting time. The material of this book is the sensation he experienced. In spite of all his best efforts to decant the ratiocinative sediment, some of it remains in the final product and cannot be separated. For this reason it may taste like muddy port. In this account of England, India will be found to be walking in freely. His sensations could be explained only by a comparative estimate. There were the things positively English, but there were also their shadows cast in a dark mass under the light from India. His ideas on England were earlier acquired from literature, history and geography. It had built u a fairly comprehensive and homogeneous picture of the country and its people.
His record is exclusively concerned with their private life as a nation. He notices the continuity of old England more than its break. There is a permanent and basic India which is breaking all the changes. This India remains capable of dealing in its own way and time, not only with the anglicized upper-middle class, but even with the lower middle class washed into the Jamuna and the Ganges, the Thames and the Hudson. But the permanent face of India and the permanent face of England are different; they wear different looks. Time has made the face of India stark, chastened and sad. The face of England remains smiling, When asked about his impression on England, he said, “I am only carrying back exposed films. They will have to be developed, before I can say anything.” He has given a panoramic view of his impressions on English scene, English people, their cultural life and the state of their nation.
Everything in England presents itself to our eyes in a manner different from visual phenomena on the plains of India. In the East, man is either a parasite on nature or her victim, but in the West man and nature have got together to create something in common. They live at the mercy of nature, get very little from it and take their revenge by making ceaseless war on it. The rivers of England have not only a scenic complement and contrast, but also complements and contrasts of mood and emotion. The Hindus flock to the rivers to bathe and purify themselves to jettison some of the accumulation of worldliness, but they have never tried to bring human life and the river together. If anything has a bewildering variety of forms in Bengal, it is the waters. Nothing is more external to Delhi than the Jamuna, a river more romanticized in Indian literature than any other. The people in India remain in touch with the rivers through Hinduism. The West believe that the Hindus regard the world as an illusion. “The waters of England are like their own swans, wild in origin but cultivated in behaviour.” The English scene is both at its most serene and at its most communicative.
‘God made the country and man made the town.’ One has to live in London to sense its personality and most visitors get lost in it, not only physically but also intellectually. In India the country towns are very much worse than the big cities. In England the poets were on the side of the country and the men of letters on that of the town.
Indians come to England with too many literary associations in their mind and are consequently disappointed. In India any landscape tends to resolve into a silhouette with a side-to-side linking of its components, but in the West, it becomes a composition in depth, with an into-the-picture movement. People in the East see the world in a rarefied way and the West in a concrete way. The beauty spots of London are St. James Park, St. Paul’s, the UNESCO building and so on. Delhi with all the other cities of Northern India seems to belong to an urban family which is completely different from that of Calcutta.
He then gives an impression of the collective appearance and behaviour of English people. His account is concerned with the superficials of English life. English men belonging to the different social strata and professions are very different, not only in speech and behaviour, but also in their appearance, taking it as the sum of their features, figure, expression and clothes. In England, the politicians including the Ministers and the officials are dressed in the same manner. In India there are two standard dresses for the politicians and for the officials.
In India there are two kinds of people–the ordinary folk who dress in their own way, speak their own dialects, behave in their own way, without sophistication and without affectation, while the minority wear the older Hindu or Muslim aristocratic costumes, speak both English and the standard forms of Indian languages. But in a cold country everybody has to wear a certain amount of clothing and that gives an impression of uniformity. No distinction between the classes and the masses is felt in England. The majority of the women in England appear in very ordinary clothes.
People who live in the tropics are susceptible to the texture and colour of cotton and silk, but cannot easily detect the elegance of woolen garments. In India physical beauty is largely associated with a fair complexion. The majority of handsome women in India are very self-conscious. Their relatively dark complexion makes lipsticks rough and other aids to natural beauty more obtrusive than on the faces of the Western women. All women in India or more especially those who have pretensions to fashion are comparable to those to be found in painting or sculpture. The Europeans have made art the expression of the spiritual in man.
Then he refers to the public behavior of the English people. He complains about the silent habits of the English people. In India noise is an essential condition of cheerfulness as the warmth of the sun. Life in London seems to be like a film of pre-talkie days. “The eternal silence of these infinite crowds frightens me.” Even the clubs are the most silent places of all. Transport system in Delhi is very illuminating in this respect. There will be pleasant conversation on public and private affairs, with pretty jokes interspersed in between them. All sorts of incidents happen, which make the bus in Delhi a microcosm of our national life. This craving for sympathy in widest commonalty spread makes persons recoil from the dreariness of the public behaviour of the English people.
Then Nirad Chaudhuri passes on to the private behaviour of the English people. In the university of the parental habit of saying Don’t do this, that or the other thing India exactly resembles England. They are proud of the appearance of their country. The wives are not only familiar with their husband’s work and problems, but also interested in them. People who are endowed with the power to provide employment and recognition in India are incapable of seeing any merit in a man without having it dinned into their ears. Even in regard to Hinduism most Hindus prefer to go to an English book.
Indian parents who send their children to England are as worried about the weather as English parents who had sons in India used to be about our snakes and tigers. Day-light in Delhi will have a hard glare but no brightness. To complain about weather has become a national past-time. His absorption in small things, lends an extra-ordinary test to an Englishman’s life. English weather has fostered a pronounced degree of sensitiveness to nuances and makes both men and things more mellow.
He next refers to their economic conditions and problems from the moral stand-point. They do not have a God or Goddess of money but they are devoted to normal Christian worship. India has become an El Dorado for every kind of economist from every part of the world. Indians call upon the Gods to help them in their economic and technological ventures. For instance when the great dam at Bhakra was formally opened there were Vedic rites to ensure its success.
The banks and shops in England are very trustful. Spending is the positive urge of the English people and saving the corrective To live in style and be careless about money has in the past been privilege of the English upper classes. They believe that the best use of money is to spend it on the good things of life.
Love seems to be a primary motivation of human beings in England. It makes Englishmen forget their dignity and Frenchmen their intelligence. The westerners cannot understand the Indian system of marriage and Indians do not understand theirs. Indians are unorthodox in their political views and orthodox in their relation of men and women.
He next gives an account of their manners. They live a lonely and at times very unhappy life, grumbling about everything from food to social customs. They are a proud, cold and even snobbish people. English social life is still English social life. All Indians get a poor impression of the English man’s sociability. He has not seen much of the English working classes. But in India every rise in status is accompanied by a progressive diminution of physical labour but it is not so in England. Leisure is a torture to the English people. In selecting a career, the Englishman takes his main interest in life into account. But in India, it is just a drift. The rush of the intellectuals from the universities to the secretariat is one of the most striking career-drifts seen in India.
Chaudhuri then refers to the cultural life of the English people. Shakespeare is amusement in England but it is culture in India. They have not degraded the old playwright, actor and stage manager into a mere author. English people remain basically Elizabethan and have always been so. Another amusement of the English people is the growing habit of visiting the country house.
European civilization remains as much of the present as of the past. India is a land of ancient and massive civilizations. English people put forward the economic excuse for neglecting culture. The world of English culture has become divided between a kindergarten in the showrooms and a pedagogy in the bookshops. Religion and culture have always intermingled in England. Religion and civilization are also interwoven with each other in England. There the so-called upper classes are more religious than the common people, while in India the situation is exactly the opposite. The upper classes in India are losing, and have largely lost their capacity for faith.
Lastly he points out the contemporary situation of English people. England was the Mecca of politically minded Indians. Parliament definitely has its place. Voting has no connection with ability in India, but not so in England. English people have lost not only their political ambitions, but also the greater part of their zest in politics. English politics is like watching a swimming pool There has visibly been a marked decline of political interest even in India. In England they have solved all their problems or got rid of them. At home they have ended social and economic injustice. They shrink with great horror at the mere idea of war. Their welfare state is a reality. It is trying to promote the welfare of the people and making contributions to it and general state of welfare of the people. It is quite clear from the National Health Service, the building effort, the absence of slums and child welfare.
While spiritual superiority is more in the East, the West is highly materialistic. India is a country of very great disparities of wealth, perhaps the greatest disparities existing in the present day world. In England rents are very high. There is a glorious social and economic revolution. There is agriculture and animal husbandry everywhere. The material well-being of the people is a speciality there. They are always abreast of others in technological and scientific development. Finally they have a national destiny of their own. They enjoy the present no doubt and they are not really thoughtless about the future.
After a careful study of his Passage to England, one is likely to question one-self as to how far Chaudhuri could formulate such decided opinions in such a short span of five weeks. He could have made an estimate of his views on the various aspects of English life no doubt. But that he should have belittled and spoken ill of his own native soil, where it is not absolutely warranted, he speaks of his stature and intellectual understanding. Moreover, his dogged notions about his own brethren are unjustified.
But his simple and apt phraseology by placing India side by side with England in the different minute aspects, speaks of his pen-manship and his ability in making a comparative estimate of the two eyes of the face, as it were, effectively.