How the writer accidentally became the person who revealed to Nirad C. Chaudhuri how his seminal work got published.

One of the most mythologised professions is that of the publisher. I am referring specifically to the publisher of books. Even more specifically to the publisher not of self-help or cookery or keep-well books but books of fiction and non-fiction.

Who decides who is published? Is it the managing director? Certainly she/he can influence decisions though behind the closed doors of some publishing houses the turfs are very strictly drawn. Is it the Chief Publisher? The Editor-in-Chief? What about the Sales Director whose job it is to pull in the profits? Wouldn’t he, shouldn’t she, have a say? Does the Commissioning Editor really commission?

Vast myths are woven around the visible worthies who speak for publishing houses that rejoice in brand names. Most of them are so unreachable they might as well inhabit another planet.

“I called every day for a month but she was never available.”

“He said he would let me know but its nearly a year now.”

“I don’t know what happened to my script; do you know anyone in the firm?”

“I never even saw a proof.” (This from a luckier-than-most who actually gets a book published.) A responsible publisher/editor is rarer than a laptop that never hangs. Disdainful silences and monosyllabic answers are the instruments of power designed to let writers (even important and successful ones, imagine the state of those who haven’t made it) know exactly where they are: at the foot of the Himalaya.

However, one of the traditions of responsible publishers is to pay well for the evaluation of new works, entrusting these scripts to the judgement of experts in the field to which the proposed work looks like it will fit. The more unusual the writer and his /her background, the harder the anonymous reviewer has to press the case of the script, on behalf of the helpless writer who is many opaque worlds away. One of the most well-known cases of the rise of a writer from obscurity to fame is Nirad Chaudhuri and his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951).

My story is 22 years old and I came into the picture quite by accident. At one of the Madras Book Club meetings organised by K.S. Padmanabhan (MD of East West and the publisher of that excellent and now defunct monthly, Indian Review of Books), I met Mr. C.V. Reddy. On learning that I was with Macmillan, he gave me a letter dated December 5, 1950, addressed to his distinguished uncle C.R.R. Reddy. It was a friendly end-of-year letter from a Sir John Squire to his contemporary at Cambridge University and it unlocked a literary mystery about NC’s work. The operative paragraph reads: “I spent five days and nights reading a manuscript for Macmillan (this is between ourselves) called The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. The author’s name is Chaudari — though I don’t think I have spelt it properly. I wish that you had been here when I read it. He has his defects, for instance, he has never been out of Bengal, and although he has drawn spiritual sustenance from all the great English authors of the past, and thinks that any Indian revival must come from Europe and mainly from England, he has met very few Englishmen, and has a certain resentment against the commercial community in Calcutta, who I don’t suppose would suit me any better than they suited him….my dear Reddy, the man is a sage; he is as familiar with all the arts of the world as he is with the religions and philosophies. His English is so good that one is tempted to think that he must have had a translator; but a translator as good as that would never have bothered about translation, but have written great works of English prose on his own. This “unknown Indian” hovers above our globe, and sadly scrutinizes the fluctuating fortunes not merely of India with her succession of invaders, but all of mankind…He could meet any of the great thinkers of the past on equal footing…if his book comes out, as I hope it will, it may put India into an uproar. But it will certainly enlighten all historically-minded men.

When I finished reading the letter I looked at Mr Reddy.

“Why don’t you send this to Nirad Chaudhuri in Oxford?”

“Why not?” I thought to myself but did nothing for nearly a month, during which time I read the letter every day and looked at photographs of the author, now famous for more than this his most famous work. Finally I wrote him a brief note and attached a copy of Sir John’s letter.

I don’t believe I expected a reply and it had all just begun to fade from my mind when the peon handed me an airmail cover: pale blue, edged with red. What e-mail can ever hope to match the thrill a piece of paper brings, bearing the sender’s handwriting and posted thousands of miles away! I felt ill with excitement when I read the scrawled name and address of the sender. I reproduce in full the letter Nirad Chaudhuri sent me (September 19, 1991) which concluded with, “Are you a recluse?”

Dear Madam,

Thank you very much for your letter of the 11th, which I got yesterday.

I have just had an operation on my right eye for cataract, but the left is to be dealt with later. I am virtually unable to read or type, and write with great difficulty, without being able to read which I have written clearly. So you will excuse the both the handwriting and its untidiness

I can hardly tell you how grateful I am to you for sending Sir John Squire’s letter to CR Reddy. It satisfies a curiosity which had reminded unsatisfied till now. I could never find out upon whose recommendation Macmillan accepted the book so enthusiastically, and of course I could not ask Macmillan. Now it is all explained, with also how it happened that Sir J reviewed the book so favourably in the Illustrated London News of 3rd November 1951.It was accompanied by a full page (or nearly) portrait of me. The only two Indians who had portraits published in the —Jawarharlal Nehru and myself. But JN was PM of India and the photograph was by Karsh of Canada. I was the only unknown Indian and my photograph was by my young son Dhruva.

Sir John was extraordinarily prescient about the consequence for me of the publication of the book. I am now a ‘refugee’ in England if living in one’s second motherland can be called being a refugee. I have never been in India since 1970

Can you give me some information about CR Reddy. I have an imprecise idea of him as a very eminent person of Madras, either as a Member of the Governor’s Council, or as a Minister in the Dyarchy regime. How did you come upon his papers? Are you a recluse?

Thanking you again, I remain, sincerely yours,

Nirad C Choudhuri

If it were not for Sir John, we would not have had Sir Nirad’s beautiful and infuriating autobiography to read, dedicated “To the memory of the British Empire in India….”

And to all those who might be waiting to hear from their publishers, I send good wishes that they might be assessed by reviewers as sensitive and as sympathetic as Sir John.