Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri – lifespan (23 November 1897 – 2001) was an English-language writer of Indian origin. He authored numerous works in English and Bengali. His oeuvre provides a magisterial appraisal of the histories and cultures of India, especially in the context of British colonialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Chaudhuri is best known for ‘The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian’ published in 1951. Over the course of his literary career, he received numerous accolades for his writing. In 1966, his work ‘The Continent of Circe’ was awarded, the Duff Cooper Memorial Award, making Chaudhuri the first and the only Indian till date, to be given the prize. The Sahitya Akedemi, India’s national Academy of Letters, awarded Chaudhuri the Sahitya Akademi Award for his biography on Max Muller, Scholar Extraordinary.
In 1990, Oxford University awarded Chaudhuri, who by then had become a long-time resident of the city of Oxford, an Honorary Degree in Letters. In 1992, he was made an honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Although, he was highly critical of the post-independence Congress party establishment, Chaudhuri was more sympathetic to the right-wing Hindu nationalist movement in India. He refused to criticise the destruction of mosques. He wrote “Muslims do not have the slightest right to complain about the desecration of one mosque in Ayodhya. From 1000 AD every temple from Kathiawar to Bihar, from the Himalayas to the Vindhyas has been sacked and ruined. Not one temple was left standing all over northern India. They escaped destruction only where Muslim power did not gain access to them for reasons such as dense forests. Otherwise, it was a continuous spell of vandalism. No nation with any self-respect will forgive this. What happened in Ayodhya would not have happened had the Muslims acknowledged this historical argument even once.”
Chaudhuri was born in Kishoregunj, Mymensingh, East Bengal, British India (now Bangladesh), the second of eight children of Upendra Narayan Chaudhuri, a lawyer, and of Sushila Sundarani Chaudhurani. His parents were liberal middle-class Hindus who belonged to the Brahmo Samaj movement.
Chaudhuri was educated in Kishorganj and Kolkata (then, Calcutta). For his FA (school-leaving) course he attended Ripon College in Calcutta along with the famous Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. Following this, he attended Scottish Church College, Calcutta, where he studied history as his undergraduate major. He graduated with honors in history and topped the University of Calcutta merit list. At Scottish Church College, Calcutta, he attended the seminars of the noted historian, Professor Kalidas Nag. After graduation, he enrolled for M.A. at the University of Calcutta. However, he did not attend all of his final exams, and consequently was not able to complete his M.A. degree. From 1937 to 1941 he worked as a secretary to Sharatchandra Bose (Subhas Chandra Bose’s brother).
After studies, he took a position as a clerk in the Accounting Department of the Indian Army. At the same time, he started contributing articles to popular magazines. His first article on Bharat Chandra (a famous Bengali poet of the 18th century) appeared in the most prestigious English magazine of the time, Modern Review.
Chaudhuri left his position in the Accounting Department shortly after, and started a new career as a journalist and editor. During this period he was a boarder in Mirzapur Street near College Square, Kolkata, living together with the writers Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee and Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumder. He was involved in the editing of the then well-known English and Bengali magazines Modern Review, Prabasi and Sonibarer Chithi. In addition, he also founded two short-lived but highly esteemed Bengali magazines, Sama-samayik and Notun Patrika. Fed up with Bengali insularity, he later left Calcutta to settle down in Delhi, and took up a government job there. He worked for All India Radio from 1941 to 1952. But sadly he found Delhi, too, was full of Philistines.
In 1932, he married Amiya Dhar, a well-known writer herself. The couple had three sons. In 1938, when Chaudhuri obtained a job, as a secretary, to Sarat Chandra Bose, a political leader in the freedom movement of India. He was able to interact with political leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the brother of Sarat Chandra Bose, Subhas Chandra Bose (also known as Netaji).
Apart from his career as secretary, Chaudhuri continued to contribute articles in Bengali and English, to newspapers and magazines. He was also appointed as a political commentator on the Kolkata branch of the All India Radio. In 1941, he started working for the Delhi Branch of the All India Radio.
He was a prolific writer even in the very last years of his life, publishing his last work at the age of 99. His wife Amiya Chaudhuri died in 1994 in Oxford, England. He too died in Oxford, three months short of his 102nd birthday, in 1999. He lived at 20 Lathbury Road from 1982 until his death, where, a blue plaque is installed by the Oxfordshire Blue Placks Plaques Board in 2008.
Student historian Dipayan Pal wrote some interesting things about Nirad C. Chaudhuri in The Statesman in 2016. Why was he always in love with England, though he had never visited the land before the age of 57? These questions perplexed me and the only answer I could decipher is that perhaps Nirad Chaudhuri was in search of a home that he could call his own. And perhaps this street in Oxfordshire of 1980s took him closer to the novels of Hardy and Austen. Lovers of literature not only see texts through their lives but also sculpt life through the texts they read. His textual affinity was coupled with the colonial aura he grew up with. We must remember that he spent his first 50 years in an empire where the sun never set.
His England was a realisation of certain dominant sensibilities and visions he idealized but they were far from reality. Places like 20, Lathbury Road makes me wonder why people choose to migrate and why certain places receive more sanctity than others. For Nirad Chaudhuri, England was sacred as for some America is. The solution to this onerous puzzle cannot be found in better living standard or socio-economic conditions of higher wages.
Furthermore, certain places celebrate certain people. Nirad Chaudhuri would have been immensely happy if he knew about the blue plaque as it would fit his sensibilities perfectly. Even Oxford County Council was happy enough to remember this person who was, “an original thinker, forthright in his opinions and an internationalist, in the sense of one who embraces the best of all cultures but never loses his own.”
His masterpiece, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, published in 1951, put him on the long list of great Indian writers. Chaudhari had said that The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian is ‘more of an exercise in descriptive ethology than autobiography.’
The book describes Kishanganj, the country town in which he lived till he was twelve. Bangram, his ancestral village, and Kalikutch, his mother’s village. A fourth chapter is devoted to England, which occupied a large place in his imagination. Later in the book he talks about Kolkatta, the Indian Renaissance, the beginnings of the Nationalist Movement, and his experience of Englishmen in India, as opposed to the idyllic pictures of a civilization he considered perhaps the greatest in the world. These themes remain his preoccupations in most of his works, as does his deterministic view of culture and politics. He courted controversy in the newly independent India due to the dedication of this book to the British Empire that said, ‘To the memory of the British Empire in India,
Which conferred subject hood upon us, but withheld citizenship. To which yet every one of us threw out the challenge: “Civis Britannicus sum.” Because all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule.
The dedication infuriated many Indians, particularly the political and bureaucratic establishment. “The wogs took the bait and having read only dedication sent up howls of protest,” commented Chaudhuri’s friend, editor, historian and novelist, Khushwant Singh. Chaudhuri was hounded out of government service, deprived of his pension, blacklisted as a writer in India and forced to live a life of penury. Furthermore, he had to give up his job as a political commentator in All India Radio as the Government of India promulgated a law that prohibited employees from publishing memoirs. Chaudhuri argued that his critics were not careful-enough readers; “the dedication was really a condemnation of the British rulers for not treating us as equals”, he wrote in a 1997 special edition of Granta a magazine. Typically, to demonstrate what exactly he had been trying to say, he drew on a parallel with Ancient Rome. The book’s dedication, Chaudhuri observed, “was an imitation of what Cicero said about the conduct of Verres, a Roman proconsul of Sicily who oppressed Sicilian Roman citizens, who in their desperation cried out: “Civis Romanus Sum.”
In 1955, the British Council and the BBC jointly made arrangements to take Chaudhuri to England for eight weeks. He was asked to contribute lectures to the BBC, and wrote eight of these. His impressions of England and Europe were later collected in his book ‘A Passage to England.’ on the other hand ‘The Continent of Circe,’ published in 1965, traces Chaudhuri’s doggedly independent-minded ideas on the social, geopolitical, and historical aspects of sub-continental India across millennia. An extended sequel to his famous autobiography, titled, ‘Thy Hand, Great Anarch’ was published in 1988. His last book Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse, was published in 1997, coincided with his hundredth year.
At the age of 57, in 1955 for the first time Chaudhari went abroad. After coming back he wrote a novel Passage to England (1959). In this novel he talked about his visits, and an account of five weeks in England, two weeks in Paris and one week in Rome.
Chaudhuri was deeply distressed by what he saw as the deep hypocrisy in Bengali social life and in particular those that resulted from class and caste distinctions. His historical research revealed to him that the rigid Victorianesque morality of middle class Bengali women was a socially enforced construct, that had less to do with religion, choice and judgment, but more to do with upbringing, social acceptance and intergenerational transference of values.
His prose was highly influenced by Sanskrit and the older version of the Bengali language, the Shadhu-bhasha. He had little respect for the proletarian language, Choltibhasha, which he regarded as being common in taste and scope. He avoided the use of words and very common expressions originating from Arabic, Urdu and Persian in modern Bengali.
Nirad C Chaudhuri is accused of being in secret connivance with the British and leaked information about the whereabouts of Sarat Chandra Bose. This may have led to arrest of Sarat Bose in 1941. He was awarded DLitt from Oxford University in 1990. Sahitya Akademi Award in 1975.
By Kamlesh Tripathi
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