Chaudhuri, Nirad C.

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CHAUDHURI, NIRAD C. (1897–1999), renowned Indian writer. Nirad C. Chaudhuri was arguably the greatest writer of nonfiction among Indians in the twentieth century. A self-taught polyglot, vastly learned, he claimed to have "read Shakespeare before I learned to walk." With the publication of his magnum opus, Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, in 1951, however, he became widely known for his unabashed admiration for Western, especially British, culture and his acerbic, contrarian views of Indian civilization.

Chaudhuri was born in 1897 in Kishurganj in the Tangail district of present-day Bangladesh. He spent the first twelve years of his life in Kishurganj, and the next thirty years in Kolkata as a student and intellectual with an endless thirst for knowledge. Already proficient in Bengali and Sanskrit by the time he graduated from college with a first-class degree in history, he had also mastered English, French, German, Greek, and Latin. His scholarly interests ranged from art, architecture, anthropology, and archaeology to biology, geography, classical Western music, and military history. A dropout from graduate school despite his outstanding undergraduate record, he devoted most of his time to studying in the Imperial (now National) Library in Kolkata while supporting himself with a modest job in the Military Accounts Department. He was published in the noted English-language journal Modern Review in Kolkata, and later worked briefly as its assistant editor. In Bengali letters, he became known for his conservative views as the editor of Shanibarer Chithi (The Saturday letter). He married Amiya Devi in 1932, and they had two sons.

Mostly unemployed in the 1930s, Chaudhuri battled poverty and insecurity while trying to make ends meet. He later recorded the struggles of these years in the sequel to the Autobiography, called Thy Hand, Great Anarch. In 1939 he became personal secretary to Sarat Chandra Bose, a leading nationalist figure in Bengal and the elder brother of Subhash Chandra Bose. In 1941 Sarat Bose was arrested and sent to prison, and Chaudhuri again became unemployed. In 1942 he went to Delhi with a job at All India Radio.

Chaudhuri published his first book in 1951, at the age of fifty-four, from Delhi—his celebrated and much-maligned Autobiography. It was accorded the status of an instant classic as an elegantly written record of life in small-town Bengal and in Kolkata, and a record of the far reaches of the Anglo-Bengali encounters beyond the upper echelons and elites of the social order. It was maligned and reviled in India because Chaudhuri dedicated the book to the British for the blessings of their two-hundred-year rule of India. In 1955 a British Council grant enabled Chaudhuri to travel to England for the first time. He recorded the experience in Passage to England (1959). In 1965 he published The Continent of Circe, his critical introspection of independent India and its many ills. His first Bengali book appeared in 1968. A handsome advance from the publisher persuaded him to write Bangali Jivaney Ramani (Representation of women in Bengali life). The project to work on a biography of Max Müller, the great Sanskrit scholar, took him back to England in 1970. He settled in Oxford, never to return to India. During the last thirty years of his long life, he was remarkably productive, writing both in Bengali and English, and generating storms of controversy with each work.

His books include: The Scholar Extraordinary (1974), Hinduism (1979), Thy Hand, Great Anarch (1987), From the Archives of a Centarian (1997), Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse (1997), and four books in Bengali. He was honored by Oxford University with an honorary doctorate in literature in 1989, and the queen conferred on him the title "Commander of Order of the British Empire" in 1993. In 1996 Visva Bharati University honored him with Desikottama, the equivalent of a doctorate in literature.

Chaudhuri considered the Bengal Renaissance (1860–1910) the high point of Anglo-Bengali encounters. His Anglicist side emphasized steeping oneself deeply in contemporary English and European letters. Chaudhuri quotes from Bankim Chandra Chatterji's novel Rajani to describe a casual conversation between two friends that includes references to classical historians Tacitus, Plutarch, and Thucydides, and the philosophy of Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, T.H. Huxley, G.E.L. Owen, Ludwig Buchner, and Arthur Schopenhauer. His Bengali side showed a certain hubris and pride in the acquisition of Occidental knowledge and its articulate expression in modernist literature. In one of his last pieces of writing in Bengali, Chaudhuri says, "I always introduce myself as a Bengali Hindu or a Hindu Bengali, not as an Indian." Impeccably dressed in European clothes when he went out, Chaudhuri always wore dhoti and kurta at home. He did not give up his Indian passport in the thirty years he lived in England. In his will, he asked his heirs to give his personal library to the Calcutta Club in Kolkata, not to Oxford University or the National (formerly Imperial) Library in Kolkata. The Calcutta Club was established in the colonial style in 1920 by the elite Bengali professionals who had been denied membership in the European-exclusive Bengal Club.

Dilip K. Basu


Dhawan, R. K. Nirad C. Chaudhuri: The Scholar Extraordinary. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2000.

Kamani, Chetan. Nirad C. Chaudhuri. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Scott, David P. Perceiving India. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1986.