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Nirad Chaudhuri biography a ‘new chapter’ about a ‘known Indian’

Pippa Rann Books & Media’s Knowing the Unknown: Nirad C Chaudhuri – is a nod to Nirad’s own The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, which came out in 1951.

Nirad C Chaudhuri

By: Amit Roy

In the Indian literary world, this is quite big news.

Prabhu Guptara, who runs a niche publishing house in the UK called Pippa Rann Books & Media (named after his late wife), tells me he is bringing out a fresh biography of Nirad C Chaudhuri next year to mark the 25th anniversary of the great man’s passing.

The title – Knowing the Unknown: Nirad C Chaudhuri – is a nod to Niradbabu’s own The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, which came out in 1951.

It is being written by his longtime friend Alastair Niven, who was variously director of literature at the British Council, president of English PEN, and has written books on DH Lawrence, Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand.

Niven examines Niradbabu’s major works in a fresh appraisal of his stature, “rejecting the notion that he was an arch imperialist, but asserting his place as a unique literary bridge between Bengal and Britain”.

“How in an age of extreme opinions and cancel culture does Nirad Chaudhuri’s reputation for the fastidious assertion of civilised values stand up today?” is the question Niven asks.

“I first approached Nirad Chaudhuri in the early 1970s, when I was living in Scotland, to give a talk at the University of Stirling,” Niven tells me. “He came back to receive an honorary degree there.

“When I moved south in 1978, I made contact with him at his home in Oxford, where he had settled for his old age, and thereafter saw him regularly up to his death at the age of 101.

“He was always friendly and engaged, though intellectually challenging. His wife Amiya humanised him and kept their finances on an even keel by careful husbandry. Nirad Chaudhuri had a reputation for vanity and brusqueness. I only encountered a vast relish for life and great kindness.”

There was a time when I would frequently visit Niradbabu and Amiya at their home at 20, Lathbury Road in Oxford. The first time I met him was when I was still an undergraduate, involved in running the university’s India Society, and invited him to come and speak about  “The Ruling Class of India”.

Then, when he published his Clive of India, taking a sympathetic view of the British imperialist, he asked me to review it for the Daily Telegraph, which I did.

But when I did a long piece on Indian politics in the Sunday Telegraph, he disagreed with
it so vehemently that he gave his reaction in a 20-page denunciation in an Indian magazine called Sunday (then edited by MJ Akbar). He said his “fingers felt soiled” copying out some lines that he particularly disagreed with, penned by “this Bengali creature”.

Niradbabu was controversial in Bengal because of the dedication in The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. It was “to the memory of the British empire in India… all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule”.

He was impressed that I never once raised the matter of the disobliging article he had written about me. He thought it was so English.

Niradbabu was born in Kishoregunj, Mymensingh, East Bengal in British India (now Bangladesh) on November 23, 1897. He decided to make his home in Oxford when he was over 70, and moved to 20, Lathbury Road, in 1982.

After he died, aged nearly 102, on August 1, 1999, a blue plaque was erected outside the property. It says: “Nirad C Chaudhuri. 1897- 1999.  Writer. Lived here 1982-1999.”

“The blue plaque is given only to those who are outstanding, head and shoulders above others in their field,” Eda Forbes, secretary to the Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board, told me at the time.

Niradbabu would have delighted had the plaque ventured something closer to the truth such as: “Writer – and a very naughty man.  Loved Bengal and making trouble.”

A statement from the board said: “Nirad C Chaudhuri, a distinguished Indian writer and remarkable personality, was an internationalist, in the sense of one who takes the best of all cultures but never loses his own, and published many works on Indian and European civilisation. He was an original thinker, forthright in his opinions, and a passionate admirer of western culture ….He was always impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit, although he wore Indian attire at home. He wrote his last book The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse only a year before his death.”

Niradbabu was a charmed by an attractive woman and told her: “I like you even though you are Punjabi and wear trousers.”

He told me he took only beef and boiled vegetables “because you cannot write good English on Indian food”.

In fact, he wrote fluently in Bengali as well. After delighting in making controversial comments, he would share lunch with me – invariably Indian meals from Marks & Spencer.

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