Iconoclastic Hellraisers: Nirad C. Chaudhuri

From reading my previous post, I’m sure you were dumbfounded when you found out that there were Black opponents to the Civil Rights Movement. Well, prepared to be baffled again. If you’ve watched Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi, from 1982, I’m sure you’re familiar with the Indian struggle for independence. But did you know that there were Indians who were actually opposed to the prospects of self-rule?

Nirad Chaudhuri is one of a kind. An anomaly some might say. Despite possessing a body of a dwarf, the magnitude of his intellect and mental stamina knew no bounds. Chaudhuri was born in a village called Kishoreganj, located in present-day Bangladesh. He was educated in Calcutta and aspired to earn an MA in History, though failed to complete his course. He was later hired as a clerk for the Accounting Department of the British Indian Army and worked there for several years while moonlighting as a essayist, contributing articles for Modern Review, one of the most prestigious English magazines in Calcutta.

In 1938, at the age of 41, Chaudhuri was recruited by Sarat Chandra Bose, a freedom fighter and brother of the now-venerated Subhas Chandra Bose, as his personal secretary. Chaudhuri’s interaction with the influential freedom-fighting trailblazers fermented a deeply-held cynicism for the Indian National Congress and the Quit India Movement. In fact, Chaudhuri commented that Jawaharlal Nehru, who would later become India’s first Prime Minister, was “completely out of touch with Indian life even of his time, except with the life of the self-segregating Anglicised set of upper India who lived in the so-called Civil Lines”. In addition Chaudhuri remarked that Gandhi was “the apotheosis of all the primitivist tendencies of Indian culture that the Bengal renaissance had sought valiantly to defeat”.

 In 1941, Chaudhuri was appointed as a political commentator for All India Radio, where he unhesitantly pontificated his pro-British views to the listening masses. 

Every morning, before he departed for work at the All India Radio station, Chaudhuri contributed a few paragraphs to what eventually became his autobiography entitled The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, which was published in 1951.

The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian chronicles Chaudhuri’s life from his early childhood to early adulthood, making apt observations of vanishing landmarks through the dual perspective of an Indian and a British subject. It was Chaudhuri’s magnum opus, lauded for its eloquent prose, poetic metaphors and astute wit. 

Unfortunately, Chaudhuri’s work ignited a wave of rage throughout the newly-formed India. Many of his critics referenced Chaudhuri’s dedication as evidence of his unforgivable anglophilia:

“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 Brittanica Sum”

Because all that was good 

and living with us

Was made, shaped and quickened

By that same British rule ”

The outraged masses didn’t realize that Chaudhuri was making an allegory, comparing Indians under British rule to the Ancient Sicilians in the Roman Empire, who longed for respect and dignity from their imperial overlords. Nevertheless, Chaudhuri was branded as an irredeemable British CCP(chi-chi poo, a Hindi slang for ‘shit-wiper’). 

Nevertheless, Nirad Chaudhuri seemed to revel in the hate. For the next couple of decades, he contributed a number of intentionally provocative essays with colorful titles like “Why I Hate Indians”. In other words, Chaudhuri was trolling long before it was cool! 

Chaudhuri even found the time to write another book, The Continent of Circe, which earned him the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize, being the only Indian to achieve that feat. In his 1965 work, Chaudhuri contradicts the pacifist narrative propagated by Mohandas Gandhi that depicted India as a ‘peace-loving nation’. Instead, Chaudhuri asserted that Indians were always war-hungry since the days of Ashoka, through the Guptas, until the invasion of the Mughals. Epic works including Mahabharatha and the Ramayana were also cited to support Chaudhuri’s thesis. 

By the 1970s, Nirad Chaudhuri decided he had enough of India, and promptly relocated and settled in Oxford, England. He redirected his brutal critiques toward post-war Britain, which he perceived as a “civilization in decline”. Like most old, grumpy retirees, Chaudhuri nostalgically longed for the idyllic picture of his young adulthood. He was often seen taking a stroll through the streets of Oxford, sticking out like a penguin in Africa as he donned a three-piece suit and a top hat in the sea of casually-clad pedestrians. He held tremendous admiration for Britain as an imperial powerhouse, fueled by high-brow sophistication and cultivated refinement. As the UK gradually relinquished its colonies, Chaudhuri felt Britain had lost its cultural identity and national essence. He saw his English neighbors as a people “without a culture”

In 1987, at age 90, Chaudhuri published a sequel to his 1951 autobiography, Thy Hand, Great Anarch. In his work, he provides his idiosyncratic perspective of the Indian political scene during the 1920s and 1930s. While he reserved several critiques for Mohandas Gandhi, Chaudhuri also expressed admiration for the man who managed to unite an entire subcontinent. 

Nirad Chaudhuri lived to be 101 years old. In his last days, as a centenarian, the old geezer continued to write! He compared himself to a fox, “like a fox hunts, I write”. Whether you like him or hate him, you’ve  got to admire the fortitude and stamina of the guy! 

Nirad Chaudhuri passed away on August 1st, 1999 in his home at Oxford. India paid no tribute to him. 

Nirad Chaudhuri was the last-surviving member of a now-extinct species: The quintessential  Babu. 

The Babu class consisted of urban, often upper-caste, educated Indians who were typically employed as low-level Civil Servants. Unlike their village counterparts, the babus were refined, groomed, cultured and classy. They were well-mannered, often to the point of being excessively polite. Their liberal arts education enabled them to quote from a plethora of poems, sonnets, and other renowned literary masterpieces, from Shakespeare to Keats. In fact, you could say that despite their sepia complexion, they were more English than the English. 

The babus absorbed every facet of English high culture in their desperation to be accepted. Unfortunately, their dark skin cursed them to second-class citizenship. Thus, the babus were doomed to embrace a contrary, hybrid identity. 

As the last member of his species, Nirad Chadhuri watched the world of his youth be swept away. The British left, leaving him stranded in a country that hated him. When he finally found the opportunity to move to the UK, he realized that everything he admired about British life was no more. 

Even his childhood home of Kishoreganj is now situated within the boundaries of an Islamic nation called Bangladesh. This probably led to his aversion towards everything Muslim. After the bombing of the Babri Masjid by Hindu extremists, Chaudhuri commented:

“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”

If Nirad Chaudhuri was alive today, he would find himself in good company with Narendra Modi and Donald Trump!!

Chaudhuri represents a chapter in Indian history that is frequently skipped over. In a nation that deifies Gandhi and Nehru while desperating seeking to repudiate everything that is British, Chaudhuri’s legacy, unfortunately, has been extinguished. However, despite his contentious views, a prolific writer like him should be remembered.



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