Up at Oxford

By Amit ChaudhuriJuly 2, 2020

Up at Oxford
“Surely some revelation is at hand.”


A MEMOIR BY the journalist and sportswriter Simon Kuper appeared in the Financial Times in late July last year. It was about Kuper’s time at Oxford from the late 1980s onward, when he overlapped with Boris Johnson and Rory Stewart at Balliol College. Young Tory contemporaries at other colleges included Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Kuper’s essay was, among other things, an eye-opening meditation on how the foundations of Brexit were laid by a bunch of upper-class undergraduates who already saw the future of Britain as their proper inheritance. I felt a mild startlement. I’d arrived at Balliol in 1987.

Each generation will have its landmark triumphs and calamities. The late ’80s in Oxford, however, was of little consequence until the present generation of Tories came to power. In Kuper’s account, the ramifications were no less wide for involving a very small set of people. I realized that, if I had run into Boris Johnson and Rory Stewart in hall, I had ignored them. (I met Stewart briefly in 2006 at a literary festival in Delhi. He was warm and self-effacing. I was puzzled to hear later that he was a Tory.) In 1987, I’d just begun my probationary MLitt, on whose completion I’d be allowed to wade into the expanse of the DPhil. Graduate students at Balliol lived in a 12th-century building called Holywell Manor, or in one of its two modern annexes. The only way you encountered undergraduates was if you ate at hall. Balliol’s food was atrocious, and the cheapest in Oxford: the single reason for making the pilgrimage to college.

Otherwise, graduates didn’t have much to do with the undergraduates’ internal upheavals and their devout embrace of college existence. Graduates anyway had one foot in their college and one foot outside it, as their supervisors were situated elsewhere. So what Boris and his friends were up to had little reality for me.


When Kuper’s piece appeared, I emailed him saying that it had brought back memories. I didn’t know Kuper from Oxford. I’d met him once during a stint in Paris (where he lives). He replied in a couple of days, saying an “Indian perspective” on the time would be welcome.

What kind of “Indian perspective”? I’d had no knowledge of the Bullingdon Club until David Cameron was elected, no interest in the Oxford Union. Mentally, as a student who’d been in Britain since 1983, I was still emerging, in 1987, from the aftermath of the miners’ strike, which Margaret Thatcher put down brutally in 1984, destroying, in effect, both British trade unions and what became known as the “old,” socialist Labour Party, paving the way for her admirer Tony Blair and imparting a new ebullience to my young Tory contemporaries.

There was, however, another phenomenon I’d encountered soon after reaching Oxford, and for the first time: Delhi. Delhi’s trajectory is different from, but comparable (up to a point) to, the evolution of the politics of Brexit. Comparable in what way? It would have to do with the emergence of exclusive global networks that inflected not only center-right but also left-liberal politics: in Britain, it had to do with London (whatever political persuasion you might want to associate with that name) beginning to become self-sufficient, ignoring not just the disillusionment in, but even the existence of, the hinterlands that eventually voted for Brexit. It’s open to question whether the entitled — right or left, leavers and Boris included — actually wanted Brexit to happen, given that the referendum result brought to an end that post-Thatcherite bubble world. In India, too, it wasn’t so much the BJP that punctured the post–Rajiv Gandhi secularist bubble; it was the sudden, overwhelmingly wide support for the BJP — and, through the BJP, of the unthinkable.

When I responded to Kuper by pointing out what had dominated my Oxford, he wrote back saying he’d had a good friend at the time who was an Indian (a nice man whom I knew too, who’s now a lawyer) who had told him that he planned to become “prime minister of India.” When Kuper relayed this to another Indian friend, he was informed that “all Indians in Oxford plan to be prime minister of India.” Another set of memories began to surface, having to do with the inauguration, then consolidation, of a certain India in the last 35 years, thrown into a kind of relief — as with Brexit, both answering and raising questions — by the Indian election results that announced, on May 23, 2019, that the BJP had returned for a second term with a crushing majority and, therefore, with impunity.


What do I mean by “Delhi”? I mean a number of things, none of which I was prepared for by the two cities I’d grown up with: Bombay and Calcutta. The Delhi I’d visited as a child was like a cantonment town, in which people cycled everywhere. It was a capital city, nothing more or less. Its great cultural moments were in the 13th century, when it was the seat of the Delhi Sultanate, and then between the 16th and the 19th centuries, when it was the capital of the Mughal Empire. For about a century, it had lapsed into anonymity: New Delhi a cluster of parliamentary buildings, doll museums, and arts and crafts emporia, old Delhi a maze of alleys and mausoleums for the tourist to see before departing for Jaipur.

In Oxford, I found the map realigned. For one thing, it appeared 95 percent of its Indian students were from Delhi: they’d either grown up or studied there. Of these 95 percent, 90 percent were evidently from one institution: St. Stephen’s College. The other 10 percent seemed to be portioned out between Hindu College and Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru Universities. (We knew that the final rota of all Oxford scholarships was decided in Delhi; not long after, I heard that the Rhodes scholarship was administered in an office in St. Stephen’s.) In the overall composition of Indian students, the five percent non-Delhi lot came from Calcutta, with a marginal contribution from Bombay, and little less than a trickle from other cities. There were students from small towns, but they’d mostly served their apprenticeship in Delhi first.

Before arriving in Oxford, I’d been unaware of Delhi’s role in India’s academic life. I’d grown up hearing of generations of brilliance and ferment at Calcutta’s Presidency College. Then there were the other historic institutions — Calcutta, Allahabad, Jadavpur, Aligarh, and Banaras Hindu Universities; St. Xavier’s Colleges in Bombay and Calcutta; Elphinstone College in Bombay and Stella Maris in Madras. St. Stephen’s was in this list, except now it made the rest of the list irrelevant. Presidency College was being dismantled by the Left Front government in its anti-elitist drive; Allahabad and Banaras Hindu were beginning to be seized by atrophy. But when had St. Stephen’s risen like an iceberg? No one had seen it coming; now it was there, impassable. So was a school — Doon, named after the city of Dehradun, where it was located; a laboratory for making undergraduates for St. Stephen’s and other Delhi colleges. As a child, I’d heard of Doon School as one of India’s best-known boarding schools.

Doon (that one word enough to identify it) was anointed in the ’80s for having produced a prime minister: Rajiv Gandhi, an affable airline pilot thrown into prime ministership upon the assassination of his mother, Indira; a man who never got his Cambridge degree, boasted no intellectual credentials, and whose main asset was his family name — the sort of asset that would become crucial in his India. Gandhi’s appointment presumably encouraged, at Doon, further prime minister production. My school in Bombay, an elite day school called Cathedral & John Connon School, had its share of luminaries: the writers Salman Rushdie and Adil Jussawalla. It had thrown up a prime minister, but of the wrong nation: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. A vice principal told us at assembly in 1973, when Bhutto had ascended to his, in the end, tragic position: “Maybe one of you will be prime minister one day!”

The Delhi I ran into at Oxford had a set of values that was a discovery to me. In Bombay and Calcutta, young people courted, alongside money, knowledge, and the opposite sex, a degree of deferral. Drift was a foreign language for Delhi. Homesickness, too; you planned your future — postdoctoral applications to American universities. Young people moved away from what their fathers did; in Delhi, you filled your father’s shoes. Your father was an eminent academic or a civil servant. At Oxford, I learned that the civil service — the Indian Administrative Service — was a holy grail.

In the India I’d grown up in, the respectable professions had to do with medicine, engineering, and scientific research. In Bombay, though, middle-class youth rushed toward the MBA; a generation went to America for this purpose in the 1970s. At Oxford, only a minority of the Indians I met had come to “do” science. The majority were pursuing the social sciences — either history or PPE (politics, philosophy, and economics) — as undergraduates, or any one of these subjects (barring philosophy) as graduate students.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the study of science by Indians would have partly been related to nation building. By the 1980s (many of the cardiac and brain surgeons and astrophysicists having settled abroad), science had to do with money. At Oxford, what I was witnessing may have been a nation-building turn: a sociological education for those who would return to consolidate the place of the social sciences in Delhi academia, and then, as is the case with any hegemony, make Delhi academia a shorthand for Indian academia; or create private Anglophone and subsidiary Hindi news channels broadcasting from Delhi, different in tone from the government-run national channel, because they expressed not an anodyne paternalistic viewpoint but a specific class sensibility and cast of characters, and make the news shaped in Delhi synonymous with “Indian” news; or set up publishing houses in Delhi that mainly published fiction in English, then make this fiction synonymous with Indian fiction. Some, of course, would take up influential positions in the civil services.


Conversations were political, to do with the crises that had gripped India. (When I arrived, these comprised Rajiv Gandhi’s ill-fated foray into Sri Lanka with a “peacekeeping force” to protect Tamils, and the ongoing turbulence in Punjab to create Khalistan, a nation for the Sikhs.) The aim of conversations was to establish a tone to do with an entitlement to governance. I remember a friend from that time — a Sri Lankan student of pharmacology called Kumar Navaratnam — reporting to me a discussion he’d had with one of the grand young men of Delhi. The argument ended with: “Do you realize you’re speaking to one of the future ruling elite of India?”

Spontaneity was deemed a sign of imbecility. I recall that hooting laughter greeted an anecdote about an Indian woman (doing a DPhil in economics) who’d said that she’d loved the walk she’d taken the previous night.


I once had a chat with two professors from Smith College — Jay Garfield and Nalini Bhushan — about an anthology they’d edited of modern Indian philosophy. Ancient Indian philosophy was taken to be “religious”; there was supposedly no “modern Indian philosophy.” Why? Garfield’s answer to me was that it was Nehru’s decision to give centrality to science and to the social sciences, in effect placing philosophy and literature on the periphery. Garfield had heard this from various eminent (but, to India and the larger world, obscure) Indian philosophers and historians of philosophy: S. R. Bhatt, Daya Krishna, G. C. Pande. Whatever was going on in Nehru’s head, it’s true that there’s a gap in thinking in Delhi where philosophy and literature should be, presenting alternatives to the worldview offered by the social sciences.

A humanities without philosophy means that, say, literary criticism becomes a branch of the social sciences, and responses to the arts are, by default, sociological. The sociological response characterizes the Delhi of the mind. My sense over the last three decades is not so much that members of the social science, academic, or journalistic elite wanted to be prime ministers, but that they rejected ambivalence (literature, philosophy) in favor of conferring — or withholding — legitimacy. The sociological worldview opts for a positivism of outlook, giving centrality to what it deems to be fact, archive, and research. Fact and research are legitimizing tools in a way that the imagination can never be. This disciplinary stance segued in Anglophone India into intellectual custodianship and ownership, and the setting of the parameters of legitimacy: in other words, into power.


Nehru emphasized usefulness, productivity, planning, science, and technology. There’s an unexpected prefiguring of the kind of thinking that informs Nehruvian modernity in the historian and colonialist Macaulay’s 1835 Minute on Indian Education. Macaulay is articulating what constitutes “useful” knowledge. Science is useful; to fund the study of Sanskrit and Arabic, however, is like awarding “the Pacha of Egypt” a “sum” that would allow “the youth of his Pachalik to give years to the study of hieroglyphics, to search into all the doctrines disguised under the fable of Osiris.” In connection with deciding the proper language for the new sort of education he wishes to introduce, Macaulay observes:

All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are moreover so pure and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them.

He goes on to consider two major “Oriental” languages, Sanskrit and Arabic, and makes his assessment, memorable for its pithiness and absurdity: “[A] single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

English, then, is marked by concision (something Tagore would dispute later); but, even more, it’s marked by usefulness. Nehru would have found much to loathe in the insanity that lay behind Macaulay’s erudition; but with the core, radical argument he couldn’t have helped but agree: the conflation of usefulness with knowledge.


My sense is that the secular modernity that defined India’s cultural life from the mid-19th century onward is only partly addressed by “colonial modernity” and “Nehruvian secularism.” There is also the legacy of the secular modernity of the various Indian languages and literatures to take into account. This legacy manifests itself in artistic and intellectual experiments undertaken for more than a century, from the middle of the 19th century onward, and it’s fashioned in an atmosphere of boldness, curiosity, and indifference: an indifference to the centrality of the colonizer, and an indifference to “India” — that is, to the myth of the nation, and to a programmatic pluralism.

The legacy is distinctive in two ways. The first has to do with an accommodation of an anti-pedagogical stance. This accommodation is crucial to Tagore. In various memoirs, he notes his refusal to go to school, his hatred of classroom English; then there’s his abortive law degree at University College London, and his attempt to create an anti-institutional form of education in Visva-Bharati. In an essay on Bengali nursery rhymes published in 1894, Tagore acknowledges the place of the “superfluous” or “useless”: the anavashyak. Consciousness is a flow, he says, but the adult mind sifts through and filters out the random, fragmentary, anavashyak debris from the current in its impatience to progress to a destination. For Tagore, Bengali nursery rhymes are important not because they represent Bengali folk culture but because they make a space for random association and for the superfluous. This essay is the first, and the most intelligent, argument for “stream of consciousness” in literature. By the “superfluous,” Tagore means something that lies on the edge of the paradigm through which we assign value to things.

The second distinguishing feature of this secular modernity is its preoccupation with self-critique. Tagore detested English rule, but it’s not “English values” that he’s attacking in the 1894 essay. It’s something closer, and he calls it the “mind”:

When one starts to think objectively with a specific objective in view […] one’s intellect and imagination take on an integrated purpose and begin to flow in a single direction. The substance one calls one’s mind is so authoritarian that when it awakens and emerges into the light of day, the greater part of the world within and outside us is obscured under its influence: its own retinue of attendants fills all creation under its power, its law, and its bidding. […] Think about it: the call of birds in the sky, the sough of leaves, the babble of waters, the hubbub of human habitations — so many thousands of sounds, big and small, rising without end; so many waves and tremors, comings and goings […] yet only a small fraction of all this impinges on one’s consciousness. This is chiefly because one’s mind, like a fisherman, casts a net of integration and accepts only what it can gather at a single haul: everything else eludes it. […] It has the power to move all irrelevancies far away from the path of its set purpose. (trans. Sukanta Chaudhuri)

“Irrelevancies,” or the anavashyak, is key to Tagore’s critique of what he describes as the “mind’s” fisherman’s-net-like embrace of a “set purpose.” It comprises his rebuttal of Macaulay and what, in a different context, would become Nehru’s positivist legacy.

What might be loosely called “Nehruvian” secular modernity directs its critique outside itself — at the colonizer, or the political right — but it lacks the frisson of self-critique of the modern Indian literatures. Macaulay predicted that these “dialects” would never contain anything of value. But their rise contributed to an overturning of his ambition to create “a class of interpreters,” and to the arrival, instead, of an aleatory literary imagination. This doesn’t mean that the cultural world of the Indian languages wasn’t political; it was often radically so. But it did mean that the “secular,” in that world, was more real for being concealed in the transitions of everyday life; it didn’t have to be perpetually visible, or demonstrable. Anything whose identity becomes dependent on exhibiting itself indefatigably — as with “secularism” in India during the last 30 years — risks professionalizing that identity.


On reaching Oxford, I met a man called Jatin Nayak. “The substance one call’s one’s mind is so authoritarian that when it awakens and emerges into the light of day, the greater part of the world within and outside us is obscured under its influence”; this wasn’t the case with Jatin. Firstly, he postponed emerging into daylight for as long as possible. He slept till midday or after. He was proceeding in a leisurely way with an MLitt/DPhil on Walter Scott’s Waverley novels. His insouciance allowed him to embark on other projects: reading all of Graham Greene, for instance. He’d recently finished Naipaul’s latest book, The Enigma of Arrival (1987). His accounts of the self-absorption of the Indians around him were penetrating and aphoristic. He was from Cuttack in Orissa; he’d been spotted at Ravenshaw College by John Carey, who’d gone there to conduct a workshop — that explained his presence (too grandiose a term for him) at Oxford. He shared some of his writing with me: an unfinished sketch about his brother and Ravenshaw College; two short stories, one of which had come out in a magazine published by a friend at Merton College, the other in the weekend supplement of the Calcutta Telegraph. “Vultures,” which appeared in the Telegraph, was about a boy who wants to run away from his village, makes a start, sees vultures feeding on carrion in a field, realizes that running away is less thrilling than it’s reputed to be, and rushes back home in tears. The other story, written with beautiful poise, described a man who returns to his village after many years, gets off the bus, and confronts the village deity in its shrine on his way homeward. Disappointed, he finds that it no longer seems commanding to him.

Although Jatin spoke and wrote English with more tactility than almost anyone I met at Oxford, he hadn’t abandoned his Oriya accent. I saw him as the product of the same sort of secular modernity as my parents, whose English was a second language that was deeply, imaginatively engaged with.

I mention Jatin as an aberration, in his behavior, allegiances, and the history he represented. He alarmed Indians at Oxford. Two of them called him a “cynic.” Maybe the term had to do with his lifestyle? Or it could have been a way of describing a provincial contemporary who resisted Delhi’s ideals. I spent time that year with him and his two scientist friends, Kumar Navaratnam and Rohit Manchanda. Rohit, Jatin, and I discussed sex and literature, subjects that were taboo in Delhi.

Jatin never completed his DPhil. He went back to Orissa with an MLitt. He became a translator and critic of significance, giving to us the English version of the first Oriya autobiography, Fakir Mohan Senapati’s Story of My Life.


The Delhi I ran into at Oxford represented the beginning and the end of something. What was ending was the influence of the waywardness of the modern Indian languages. A utopian Hindi would begin to reign, as would the English of a new global class — both caste markers, one for Hindu identity, the other for educated entitlement. Nehruvian secularism would — like the liberal inheritance elsewhere — be turned into ruling-class rhetoric by being severed from socialism and intellectual openness, and being married, in the age of deregulation, to money.

What was beginning at the time (and would survive in some form till the BJP’s absolute majority) was connected to the moral tone I first encountered at Oxford. This tone had to do with protecting, and being responsible for, the destiny of the nation; in this, in the way the politics of the center left converged with those of the center right, it had correspondences with the shifts that led to Brexit. There was the matter of legitimacy. And there was the matter of what was made legitimate. In the ’80s, Thatcherism permitted — no, enjoined — financiers, white-collar workers, and young Tories (and, later, members of New Labour) to admit that “greed is good.” In 2013, Boris Johnson, as mayor of London, declared in one of his speeches: “Some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.” In India, the ’80s were marked by the comeback of the Fair & Lovely creams; their ingenious promotion by Anglophone advertising widened the sphere of what could be thought of as legitimate. Unprecedented social networking, including the invocation of prestigious family lineages (“Some measure of inequality is essential”), started to characterize educated people. Who knew then the Pandora’s box that had been opened, and what impulses would be turned into prerogatives? One might be greedy for self-advancement, but once greed is endorsed, it becomes all right to be greedy for all sorts of things, including the disciplining of minorities and the dispensing with of the nuisance of free speech.

What began three decades ago went on to create its own heroes and enemies, its sociological gravitas and commentators, its academic hubs, and its literary custodians: the Indian novelists in English who emerged in the ’80s, exuding citizenly responsibility. When I say “Delhi” and “Oxford,” I mean an ethos produced by an interface exceeding these two locations, applicable equally to Anglophone Indians everywhere: a class that failed to feel genuinely beleaguered by the right until May 23, 2019. The person about whom tasteless jokes were made for having been a “chaiwallah” (or “tea seller”) — Narendra Modi — began to periodically arraign this lot for being the “Khan Market gang” (that is, those who shop at, or hang out in, South Delhi’s Khan Market) or “Lutyens’ Delhi” — the bit of New Delhi fashioned by the architect, traditionally inhabited by politicians, persons well connected with the government, and the very wealthy.

It could be that that world has ended. Certainly, there’s an air of apocalypse in India. The economy went under well before the pandemic; concomitantly, the government had announced a grandiose Speer-like plan to redesign and overhaul the stretch from Parliament House to India Gate and “Lutyens’ Delhi.” The first attempt to halt this via the judiciary was thrown out by the Supreme Court on April 30 of this year. So much has happened in the last 12 months since the BJP’s triumphal return and Kuper’s piece in the Financial Times — the change in Kashmir’s status; news blackouts; the tacit or open suspension of civil liberties; the bringing of the judiciary and independent institutions to their knees; the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Bill, twin endeavors meant to weed out Muslim migrants; thousands of laborers setting out for home on their feet during the lockdown — that India’s past, recent or ancient, seems dreamlike. On the other hand, some version of Khan Market might (since few things have the tenacity that elites do) survive. In what sense India will, in the present circumstances, is another matter.


Amit Chaudhuri is the author of seven novels, the latest of which is Friend of My Youth. He is also a poet, a critic, and a musician and composer. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia. His new book of essays is The Origins of Dislike.


Featured image: "Holywell manor" is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

LARB Contributor

Amit Chaudhuri is the author of seven novels, the latest of which is Friend of My Youth. He is also a critic and a musician and composer. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Awards for his fiction include the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Betty Trask Prize, the Encore Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, and the Indian government’s Sahitya Akademi Award. In 2013, he was awarded the first Infosys Prize in the Humanities for outstanding contribution to literary studies. He is professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia.


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