25 OCTOBER 1975, Page 13

Paradox galore

Philip Mason

Clive of India: A Political and Psychological Essay Nirad C. Chaudhuri (Barrie and Jenkins £7.50)

When Nirad Chaudhuri first endeared himself to us as an unknown Indian, it was the element of freshness, of continual surprise, that was so beguiling. Now that he is far from unknown, balancing airily on two cultures with the grace of a spangled artist of the circus, it is still surprise that we have come to expect, That he, a Bengali, a man of letters, should write a biography of Clive and call it a political and Psychological essay ought not therefore to startle anyone; we perceive, on reflection, that it is just what he would do.

The reader who has already some knowledge Of Clive's life will therefore open this book expecting something fresh. He will find, needless to say, much to stimulate and interest him scathing asides on modern politicians in Britain and India, engaging excursions on SciPio Africanus and Napoleon, the rise and decay of the Roman empire, the inevitable cycle of power and decadence in Islamic dynasties; he will be entertained by quotations from Hamlet and Henry fV,from de Tocqueville, from Pope and Gray and Alice in Wonderland, with a touch or two from the Upanishads and something of the philosophy of history. Such a reader may be advised to read this book for this kind of stimulus, for the flavour of Chaudhuri in which it is soaked. But I do not think he will find anything startlingly new about Clive. Indeed, the main surprise to me was that in so many matters Nirad Chaudhuri's judgment is S o close to what has now become fairly widely accepted. His adversaries, -the historians" Whom he castigates are, on the British side, both the legend-makers of the nineteenth Century and the radical de-bunkers of the twentieth, and on the Indian side, the nationalist historians of the years immediately after independence. But there too the tide is beginning to turn. Nirad Chaudhuri is a Champion of the objectivity of history and his sturclY integrity leads him again and again to the conclusion of common sense. He is not, for example, to be persuaded, simply because there are some discrepancies in the numbers, that the ePisode known as the Black Hole did not occur.

There is really no need to recommend this book to addicts of Chaudhuri or to specialists in Indian history. It is not so easy to advise anyone who has neither of these interests. To understand Clive's achievement he must have some understanding of the struggle between the French and English. This is not easy, because there is a bewildering profusion of characters; assassinations and executions follow each Other in rapid succession, as in the Wars of the Roses. And hardly anyone is on the stage long enough to establish a distinguishable character. For an English reader a confusing scene IS made more confusing by unfamiliar names Which, as in a Russian novel, not only occur in bewildering profusion but frequently in three or more forms and in a variety of spellings. The professional historian will harden his heart and wade through this sea of detail — marches, counter-marches, failures of supply, battles, murders, intrigues, enthronements and flights. But he will hardly, carry many general readers with him.

Nirad Chaudhuri has not, I think, overcome this difficulty for anyone who had no familiarity with the scene before. This is a pity, because here are the materials for historical tragedy on the grand scale. The events of these few crowded years were so dramatic, so far-reaching in their consequences, so sudden in their rapid reversals of fortune; the two heroic figures, Clive and Warren *Hastings, were so outstanding in ability and determination and yet so different in character so much to be admired for fortitude in adversity and .to be pitied for the malice with which they were attacked that the theme cries out for the kind of treatment Shakespeare would have given it. But Chaudhuri has made at least one concession to the times in which he lives; he is too good a scholar to be an Elizabethan dramatist. Besides, he inclines to the Tolstoyan view of history, seeing men as carried along by the sweep of mysterious currents. Just as according to Tolstoy the tides which swept the French to Moscow and back had nothing to do with Napoleon's decisions, so the English were forced to expand by something inevitable in the stage of development they had then reached, and in spite of the pettiness and self-seeking of the politicians in England. Politics to Chaudhuri is always "a cruel trade", and the motives of politicians are always short-sighted.

It is this kind of judgment that makes Chaudhuri's book so interesting, and particularly so •in the English interludes which paradoxically but then one expects paradox seem in this biography to be much more gripping than the Indian scenes. I happen to disagree with Chaudhuri's view of history; in fact, it was the course of these very wars in Madras between the French and English that convinced me of the paramountcy of the personal. In those little battles, again and again it was the quality of the leader that brought victory. I am not sure however that Nirad Chaudhuri is consistent in this; he is very much aware of Clive's enormous gift for decisive leadership. He perceives that the determination to win was more important than the study of Caesar's campaigns and that the indefinable poiver of filling other men with that detern-oidation was more important than either. Indeed, he becomes a warm partisan for Clive, triumphing, in my view, over his own theories.

At the Indian end, I think he does not put enough weight on the value of Indian troops when trained on European lines. It was a French discovery, and the victory of M. Paradis -with a handful of French-trained sepoys over an overwhelmingly superior force brought it home to the Indian Princes. It was this which caused the startling reversal of roles, from humble suppliant to haughty patron, on which Chaudhuri quotes Bussy's evidence. I think this was because in the eighteenth century Mughal armies, like the Hindu armies before them, still followed the precepts of the ancient political and military treaties, the Arthasastra, two thousand years old a theory which I think should appeal to Chaudhuri.

I applaud this book because it is quirky and stimulating, because it seeks the reasons for events and sets them against their contemporary background and relates them to ale past and the future, because in short it is human and personal.