The Major Works of Nirad C. Chaudhuri

The Autobiography of An Unknown Indian (1951) was published by Macmillan & co. The Glasgow Herald hailed it as “an extraordinary book. It is written by a Hindu of East Bengal … With a command of English that is not exceeded by Mr. Nehru himself… No other Indian self-portrait can compare for interest or challenge, with the product of a tortured and assertive spirit”.

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I have also perused A Passage to England (1959), The Continent of Circe (1966), The Intellectual in India (1967) and To Live or Not to Live! whose year of publication is not mentioned in the issue I own.

Autobiographer and Scholar

One cannot separate Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s autobiography from his works. In his introduction to the study of the writer and his output, which is worth going through, Paul Verghese mentions that Chaudhuri is “a professional writer of considerate accomplishment. As an autobiographer he has formed his widest public; as scholar with bold and idiosyncretic theories on race and religion he has stimulated much controversy”. Of all the books he has written his autobiography has brought him recognition as a writer in English.

Before embarking on his note to The Continent of Circe, which won the Duff Cooper Award for 1966, Nirad C. Chaudhuri expresses his gratitude to Khushwant Singh, a prolific and versatile writer.

Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri mentions the conditions in which he lived and an incident wherein Khushwant Singh referred to them. In the latter’s mind Chaudhuri was undoubtedly the best writer of non-fiction in those days. He added that he was “A bitter man, a poor man. He doesn’t even own a typewriter. He borrows mine a week at a time”.

The Typewriter Issue

In reply Nirad C. Chaudhuri states, “My poverty is of course well-known in New Delhi and much further afield and therefore I was not prepared to see it bruited by so august a body as the American Women’s Club of Delhi”. Khushwant Singh’s comments were made in the course of an interview. The renowned Sardar, for his part, denied having ever uttered these words in the form and spirit in which they were reproduced. Nirad C. Chaudhuri puts an end to the incident by stating clearly, “I tried to show that I bore no grudge by again borrowing the machine… and by gratefully accepting the present of the new typewriter”.

Chaudhuri quotes from Latin and French in his works and concludes the typewriter episode by referring to the following statement made by Blaise Pascal, “Si tous les hommes savaient ce qu’ils disent les uns des autres, il n’y aurait pas quatre amis dans le monde”. In the same vein, his epigraph to the much-praised Autobiography reads, “En vieillissant on devient plus fou et plus sage”.

Controversy and Scholarship

To read, appreciate and understand Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri requires patience and some scholarship. He has been called “India’s most controversial writer” and “a person whose range of scholarship is astonishing”. Like V. S. Naipaul, he expresses what he sees and feels without, for that matter, bothering about their effects on the sensibilities of others. For example, in The Continent of Circe he plainly states, “I would say that no man can be regarded as a fit citizen of India until he has conquered squeamishness to the point of being indifferent to the presence of fifty lepers in various stages of decomposition within a hundred yards, or not minding the site of ubiquitous human excreta everywhere even in a big city” in reaction to the filth and squalid conditions prevalent in the subcontinent.

In the words of C. R. Mandy, who started editing the now defunct The Illustrated Weekly of India from 1947, “I had hardly met an Indian writer with such coruscating intelligence; his brain dances like fireflies before the monsoon… I would always rate him – cerebrally and stylistically – in the top class of Indo-Anglian writers”.

Background and Family

Nirad Chaudhuri was born on November 23, 1897 in a middle-class family. His father, who practised criminal law gave the family its tone – serious, high minded and self-improving. At the same time, an atmosphere characterized by traditional religion hovered over the home. The family was intimately in touch with classic Indian epics and poetry. The Chaudhuris were exposed from time to time to dramatic religious festivals. Chaudhuri’s mother was an uncompromising puritan.

He was educated at home and the University of Calcutta. He was a brilliant undergraduate but ill-health compelled him to abandon his studies and with it the professorship he seemed suited for.

He was active in political work for the Gandhi cause in the nineteen twenties. Later he tried a variety of jobs working as journalist, broadcaster and Civil servant. He developed an extraordinary full and detailed knowledge of English life, letters and art. He began writing The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian in 1947. It is one of the finest examples of this genre to appear in English during the last century and the “single discursive work to be generated by the love and hate of Indian-British relationships”. Starting with his birth in Kishorganj, the book is “written in masculine confident English of long, balanced sentences which combine a degree of formality with considerable ease and lissomness, and its only oddity is a curiously Celtic use of tenses”.

A Rational Habit of Mind

Each of the places Chaudhuri lived in has a particular meaning in his development. Life there made for a rational habit of mind. It offered stability, but mainly because of the influence exercised by an admirable level-headed father, it also encouraged moral and intellectual independence. The Autobiography presents, through the minutely detailed round of daily life, “a portrait of a highly civilised society in which drama, poetry, religion and ordinary life are intimately united”.

England had been a living presence in Chaudhuri’s imagination since his early days, partly because of his father’s care that he should learn English and the good sense of the teaching methods he adopted to this end, partly through the poems he read and the history he studied. Chaudhuri, himself, a man with a relish for the specific, loved the quality of concreteness in English civilization. It was the absence of this in Indian civilisation to which he gave a measured philosophic expression towards the end of the Autobiography.

In A Passage to England we discover Chaudhuri as a writer with a gift for registering fresh and exact impressions of what he observes about him, and also as someone capable of some highly subjective analysis of the British Welfare State. His visit was sponsored by the BBC. It is an affectionate response to a country known till then in literature. It is a record of “the range and intensity of the experiences he went through at the age of fifty-seven in his “short visit of five weeks”. The book, however is more than a travelogue. Nirad Chaudhuri writes, “I saw things in doublets – there were the things which were positively English, but there were also their shadows cast in dark mass under the light from India”.

It is perhaps the East-West confrontation in his mind that influenced him to provide the title A Passage to England to his book after E. M. Forster’s famous novel A Passage to India. A main characteristic of Chaudhuri’s book is his emphasis on the contrast between India and England. William Walsh is of the opinion that A Passage to England reflects the “sharp eye” of its author.

Subjective and Intuitive Explanation

In The Continent of Circe, William Walsh notes an evolution on the writer’s part. He has evolved as much from imagination as from the historical perspective. He mentions a theory of Indian development which, he is satisfied, provides him “with a casual explanation of the character and failures of his society. We may not agree with what is a subjective and intuitive explanation of the origins of his society. But Chaudhuri’s sharp, unforgiving eye, natural audacity and impatient, intellectual edge – while they do not qualify him as an unfailingly objective analyst of national life do offer what impressed as a pure intensity of perception”. The book is sub-titled An Essay on the peoples of India.

According to the writer the world’s knowledge about India since 1947 has not been as it should have been because of the requirements of international friendship and a “timidity” on the part of some nations, diplomats and journalists. Further, he believes that there is inadequate book-knowledge about the subcontinent among foreign commentators. This, together with the foreign commentators’ ignorance of Indian languages, stands in the way of an understanding of the real India by the West. Ironically, Chaudhuri criticises those Indians who use English as their medium of expression for a Western readership. The list also includes “the Anglicised upper middle-class which is ignorant of the harsh life of the people and Indian novelists who “just to acquire the desire to write novels in English … have to de-Indianize themselves substantially”. He believes that the Indian novelist offers a different image of India for the sake of a wider readership in the West. In the process, Chaudhuri blatantly forgets that his first three books were meant for English readers outside India and that he is an Indian writer who makes use of English.

Through Chaudhuri claims that his book is an essay on the peoples of India, in “actual fact it is an essay on the Aryan Hindu”. Chaudhuri claims that the symbols of their Pre-Indian existence to which the Aryans clung tenaciously have also been the loyalties of the Hindus all through the ages. They are “the Vedas, fair complexion, the rivers and cattle”. He gives the example of Jawaharlal Nehru’s desire to have a portion of his ashes thrown into the Ganges.

An Indian Readership

Unlike his first three books which are also his major works, The Intellectual in India and To Live or Not to Live! were published in India. On his own admission Chaudhuri did so deliberately. While the first three books were primarily meant for the Western reader, the two later books have Indian readers in mind. The writer wanted to share “his wisdom and practical knowledge” about how one should lead a successful and happy life in the India of those times. The awareness that he was writing for Indians made Chaudhuri shed his self-consciousness in style and write “in a natural and discursive manner”.

The Intellectual in India owes its title to the famous tracts of the Oxford Movement in England in which many leading figures participated in a fight against the challenge and materialism of the Industrial Revolution. Chaudhuri’s intention was to concern himself with the situation prevalent in India then.

To Live or Not to Live! Can briefly be interpreted as a guide to happiness. It is both Chaudhuri’s criticism of life in India and a positive analysis of the clash between tradition and modernity.

Prose Writing in English

Chaudhuri is a product of the Indian Renaissance which started with the impact of the West on Indian intellectuals early in the nineteenth century. Further, he belongs to the tradition of prose writing in English in India that can be traced back to Raja Rammohun Roy.

I attended the fifteenth Oxford Conference on the Teaching of Literature at Corpus Christi College in April 2000 thanks to the British Council. During my stay I visited the Bodleian about which Charles Dickens writes in his Essays of Elia, University College where the statue of Percy B. Shelley is to be found and other places of interest. They are many.

A soft-spoken elegant gentleman who epitomized the spirit of the place directed me to the house where Chaudhuri lived. The lawn was neatly trimmed. That winter morning a serene atmosphere prevailed over the place. I felt sad at the thought that I would not meet Nirad Chaudhuri as he had breathed his last on August 1 of the previous year. I could nevertheless feel his spirit hovering over the place.


Mithyl Banymandhub



  1. Iyengar, Srinivasa, Indian writing in English (Fourth Edition), New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1984
  2. Verghese, Paul C, Nirad C .Chaudhuri, New Delhi 16: Arnold-Heinemann India, 1973
  3. Gopaul, B. Indian Writing in English-Critical Studies, University Press, 1983
  4. Walsh, William, Indian Literature in English UK: Longman Group ltd., 1993

In the words of C. R. Mandy, who started editing the now defunct The Illustrated Weekly of India from 1947, “I had hardly met an Indian writer with such coruscating intelligence; his brain dances like fireflies before the monsoon… I would always rate him – cerebrally and stylistically – in the top class of Indo-Anglian writers”.




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