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Nirad Chaudhuri: Difficult Scholar, Brit Bootlicker or Spy?

On Nirad C Chaudhuri’s birth anniversary, a look at the life of the ‘Autobiography of an Unknown Indian’ author.

Updated
India
4 min read
A plaque in front of Nirad C Chaudhuri’s Oxfordshire home.
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(This article was first published on 23 November 2016 and is being reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Nirad C Chaudhuri’s birth anniversary.)

Nirad C Chaudhuri, writer of books like A Passage to England (1959), The Intellectual in India (1967), Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse (1997) etc has left behind a legacy fit for someone who lived to be a hundred and one.

Chaudhuri, born in 1897 in British India, was the quintessential ‘Bengali babu’. An academically illustrious adolescence – he topped the merit list in BA History at University of Calcutta – led to a brief stint with the Indian army as a clerk. This was followed by what would turn out to be his true calling – writing, whether poetry for esteemed magazines or non-fiction.

20 Lathbury Road, the former home of Nirad Chaudhuri in Oxford, England where he passed away.
20 Lathbury Road, the former home of Nirad Chaudhuri in Oxford, England where he passed away.
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Nirad Chaudhuri)

On this day, his birth anniversary, here is a brief snapshot of his life.

He Lost Everything Because His Dedication in The Autobiography... Was Widely Misinterpreted as Support for the Raj

Cover of the <i>Autobiography of an Unknown Indian</i>.&nbsp;
Cover of the Autobiography of an Unknown Indian

The dedication runs thus:

To the memory of the British Empire in India/ Which conferred subjecthood 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.

This mock-imperial rhetoric was taken at face value by the post-independence political administration and Chaudhuri was sacked from government service, deprived of his pension, blacklisted as a writer in India, and forced to live in penury, until BBC offered him a job in 1955 in England.

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Suspected as a Spy, He’s Held Responsible for Sarat Chandra Bose’s Arrest in 1941

In 1938, Chaudhuri obtained a job as secretary to Sarat Chandra Bose, Subhas Chandra Bose’s brother and a political leader in the freedom movement in India. In 1941, a day before Sarat Bose was arrested by the British, Chaudhuri quit the job and joined All India Radio. Chaudhuri was later honoured with a CBE, raising more suspicion. The Bose family appealed to the CBI to declassify the relevant files post-independence but the then CBI chief D P Kohli refused.

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Spy or Not, His Sentiments as to His Nationality Were Decidedly Ambiguous

Years after the controversial publication of The Autobiography of An Unknown Indian, he wrote:

“I was determined that I would not give the book to an Indian publisher because I knew that a book in English published in India would not be regarded as worth much even by Indian readers, not to speak of those in the English-speaking countries.”
Nirad C Chaudhuri

Leaving Bengal in 1942 as the Japanese closed in on the region and the political leadership of Bengali Hindus was eclipsed by Bengal’s Muslim majority and by non-Bengalis like Gandhi and Nehru, he wrote

“My people had no future, and I was not prepared to share their fate.”
Nirad C Chaudhuri
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At 99, He Retained His Delightful Wit, in Evidence in the Preface to Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse (1997)

Cover of <i>Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse</i>.
Cover of Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse.
“The very first thing I have to tell those who will read this book is that it is being written by a man in his ninety-ninth year. I have never read or heard of any author, however great or productive in his heyday, doing that. This confession alone will be enough to make the reader expect only senile babbling from me. It is not for me, however, to reassure him. He must be his own judge.”
Nirad C Chaudhuri
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He Summed Up Both Scholarship and Life When He Wrote These Lines

“Thus, on the one hand, I have been disenthralled by knowledge. On the other, I have believed to understand, and have been rewarded with joy. I have found that to sit by the rivers of Babylon is not necessarily to weep in Hebraic sorrow. Today, borne on a great flood of faith, hope, and joy in the midst of infinite degradation, I feel that I shall be content to be nothing for ever after death in the ecstasy of having lived and been alive for a moment. I have made the discovery that the last act is glorious however squalid the play may be in all the rest.”
Nirad C Chaudhuri

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