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Obituary: Nirad C. Chaudhuri

NIRAD C. CHAUDHURI was India's most distinguished writer of English prose in the 20th century. He was also perhaps his country's most controversial commentator since Independence: a lonely position he never regretted, maintained with real courage and indeed grew to relish. Throughout his immensely long life, which began in Bengal in the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, the physically diminutive Chaudhuri was fiercely independent of received opinion; his energy, analytical power and impatience with cant were the antithesis of the oriental stereotypes he confronted in his dozen or so books in English and Bengali.

His first and justifiably most famous book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, a memoir of his childhood and youth, was described by V.S. Naipaul as "maybe the one great book to have come out of the Indo-British encounter" (thus dismissing Kipling and Forster). Its much-quoted dedication page shows how deliberate was Chaudhuri's occidental orientation and how he loved to provoke. It read: "To the memory of the British Empire in India which conferred subjecthood on 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."

Published in London in 1951, when India was in its first flush of freedom, the book infuriated many Indians, particularly the official class. "The wogs took the bait and having read only the dedication sent up a howl of protest," commented Chaudhuri's friend, the editor, historian and novelist Khushwant Singh. Chaudhuri was effectively forced out of government service, deprived of his pension and virtually blacklisted as a writer in India for some years. (Ironically, in the book's latest, 1998 edition, the dedication page was simply omitted by the publisher, without the knowledge of the author.)

But as more thoughtful Indian readers realised even in the 1950s, and especially later, the Autobiography is actually a heartfelt, often wonderfully lyrical pleading on behalf of the best in Bengal: anti- nationalistic, but patriotic in the manner of, say, Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country. Chaudhuri's restless intelligence and extraordinarily wide learning in Bengali, Sanskrit and European (notably British and French) culture, could not allow him to fudge his growing conviction that Indians, particularly Bengalis, were failing to maintain the intellectual and moral standards set by their predecessors in the 19th century, and that independent India was heading for disaster.

In Delhi, during the 1947 Partition, Chaudhuri had witnessed the riots, and the memory had seared his mind. "Political independence arrived for the Indian people on 15 August 1947. For a whole year before that they were engaged in making a red carpet for it to step on. It was dyed in the blood of hundreds of thousands of Indians who perished in the mass murders committed by the Hindus, the Muslims and Sikhs on one another," he wrote.

Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri was born a Hindu in 1897 in a small town in riverine East Bengal (now Bangladesh), where he was surrounded by religious rituals. His father, a lawyer of considerable breadth of mind, was however distinctly unorthodox, and by the time Nirad was in his late teens, he had freed his mind from orthodox Hindu beliefs and developed a passion for England and English literature (though he was almost 60 before he visited Britain). But this early religious immersion would enable him to write, when he was 80, his iconoclastic Hinduism (1979) - a book disliked by scholars but arguably the most personally informed, accessible and honest summary of that multifarious religion.

Like most Bengalis of his time, Chaudhuri moved to Calcutta for his higher education, but soon found himself incapable of the sustained application required for a university degree; he failed to achieve the brilliant result he deserved. Instead he drifted into unsuitable work as a government clerk, followed by editorial attachments to leading Calcutta magazines, and marriage.

These were years of penury and reflection that he recounts compellingly in his second, monumental volume of autobiography, Thy Hand, Great Anarch! (1987), published in his 90th year. What little money he had, he spent on books - including luxury editions - and on western classical recordings, becoming one of the first Bengalis to appreciate such music seriously.

At last, aged 39, he was appointed for four turbulent years, 1937-41, as secretary to a well-known Bengali politician, the elder brother of Subhas Chandra Bose who led the Indian National Army against the British in the Second World War (soldiers despised by Chaudhuri, who was an avid military historian, as turncoats and incompetent tacticians).

Here he enjoyed a ringside seat from where he could observe the maneouverings of Indian National Congress politicians before they obtained absolute power in 1947, and it set the seal on his antipathy for Indian nationalism and for some aspects of Gandhi. This did not prevent him, though, from swallowing his reservations and writing a mainly flattering, if premature obituary of the fasting Mahatma in 1943 while working for All India Radio in New Delhi - where he had recently shifted with his long-suffering, devoted wife Amiya and young family, abandoning Calcutta physically, though never mentally, for ever.

Gandhi survived, but his obituary, Chaudhuri discovered, had not survived the scrutiny of his Indian superiors who had deleted all the laudatory references. Five years later, after Independence, when Gandhi was assassinated, the obituary was finally broadcast - now with the deleted passages restored by the very same officials.

One can understand the contempt aroused in Chaudhuri by many such incidents, which he expressed in his prize-winning The Continent of Circe (1965). From the 1950s, and especially after 1970, when he and his wife settled in Oxford, he increasingly turned his fire upon modern Britain too, always with wit and sometimes with accuracy, in articles for British newspapers and periodicals, and asides in books such as A Passage to England (1959) and Clive of India (1975). Not that earlier he had endorsed the bulk of British policies and racial behaviour in India - as opposed to the beneficent influence of British (and other European) literature and thought - but the post-war British struck him as going rapidly and willingly into decline.

Au fond Chaudhuri was radically out of sympathy with the century in which he was destined to live. That was both his strength and his weakness; and the source of his uniqueness and contradictions. It was wholly characteristic of him that (like Gandhi) he rejected the technological art form invented in his lifetime, the cinema, in which one of the greatest artists was a fellow Bengali, Satyajit Ray. While respecting Ray personally, Chaudhuri was critical of the few Ray films he admitted to having seen. Probably he sensed that their sophistication and humanity might undermine his own brilliantly constructed vision of Bengal's descent into anarchy.

In 1990, following Ray and that greatest of Bengalis, Rabindranath Tagore, Chaudhuri was happy to be awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford University; and in 1992, he was delighted to be appointed an honorary CBE. He hardly ceased to write, despite failing eyesight - producing a slim and provocative polemic in English at the age of 100 (Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse, 1997) - and never stopped talking, often scintillatingly, always with the vigour of someone a third his age. To hear him recite from memory lengthy extracts from his favourite writers in Bengali, Sanskrit and English was a moving (and shaming) experience.

His final work in Bengali was a last effort to alert Bengalis to the real worth of Tagore, a giant writer and human being for Chaudhuri whom, he said with satirical truth, Bengalis were treating as "the holy mascot of Bengali provincial vanity". Like Tagore, Chaudhuri never quite lost the desire to appeal to his countrymen: he was always, as he once gleefully told me, a bestseller among those who most reviled him.

Andrew Robinson

Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri, writer: born Kishorganj, East Bengal 23 November 1897; Secretary to Sarat Chandra Bose 1937-41; FRSL 1975; Hon CBE 1992; married 1932 Amiya Dhar (died 1994; three sons); died Oxford 1 August 1999.