When V S Naipaul died on August 11, 2018, at the age of 86, the news triggered a train of thought that evoked another name of similar, or perhaps greater, stature – Nirad C Chaudhuri. The two were equally arrogant, despised India and its culture, and were vitriolic in their criticism of their ancestral background. Naipaul was 35 years younger than Nirad, but their literary lives dominated the latter half of the 20th century. Before discussing Naipaul, let’s have a look at Nirad.
Nirad Chaudhuri was born in 1897 in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and lived for more than a century, dying in 1999 in Oxford, UK. It is interesting to note that literary fame came to him rather late in life, when he was already in his 50s, as opposed to Naipaul who had become a renowned writer by the age of 30. To understand Nirad, some knowledge of the milieu in which he grew up is important. Bengal, in the first half of the 20th century, was going through a literary and social renaissance that had been initiated by Raj Ram Mohan Roy in the early decades of the 19th century.
Bengali intellectuals such as Roy and Debendranath Tagore (father of Rabindranath Tagore) were very critical of the backwardness of Indian society and its cultural mores. Writers of the time – including Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Bankim Chatterjee, Aurobindo Ghose, Rabindranath Tagore and others – highlighted in their novels, poetry and short stories the social evils prevailing in India, particularly in Bengal. This was the literary atmosphere in which Nirad Chaudhuri grew up and observed the decline of the Bengal Renaissance, and the unravelling of a united India that resulted in riots, killings, destruction of property and uprooting of millions of people, especially in Bengal.
Nirad Chaudhuri’s first book, ‘The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian’, written in 1951, took self-criticism in India to new heights. Earlier writers had written about the discrimination, caste system, patriarchy and other wrongful practices, but their focus was on the overall betterment of society rather than an outright condemnation of India, its culture and people. Other Indian writers who used English in their literary pursuits – such as Mulk Raj Anand, R K Narayan and Raja Rao, who all lived for almost a century – were also critical of Indian society but not in the same manner as Nirad Chaudhuri.
Perhaps no other writer was so blatant in being an Anglophile. He wrote his autobiography when he was in his early 50s – a rather young age to write an autobiography – especially when one does not have much to his credit apart from having worked as a small-scale journalist. So what was it in his autobiography that attracted so much attention? First, even when you read it today it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth if you are not an Anglophile. If you are, you will be amazed at Nirad’s scathing attacks on the follies of the Indian society, and praise for everything British.
His disillusionment with India and his enchantment with and gratitude to the colonial capital, Calcutta, was mesmerising for the British, and demeaning for Indians. Perhaps the most impressive feature in his prose is not only his style but also his erudition. If you can tolerate his arrogance, you will enjoy his erudition. He was a self-proclaimed ‘cartographer of learning’, but his dedication of the book to the British Empire in India betrayed his lopsided learning, as he declared “all that was good and living with us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule.”
Needless to say, Churchill loved the book; and Naipaul called it the “best account of the penetration of the Indian mind”. Nirad continued to expose Indian society in his 1965 book, ‘The Continent of Circe’, which was a collection of essays with a sociological bend. He comments on Hindu society from pre-historic to modern times. His most controversial observation was about the non-violence preached by Gandhi. According to Nirad, India was never a peace-loving nation rather it has had an inherent love for violence, from Emperor Ashoka to every major Hindu dynasty, to present day. He cites epics like Mahabharata, Ramayana and others which give graphic details of wars, including the Bhagavad Gita – the most sacred of the Hindu texts.
Coming to V S Naipaul, who was born to Hindu parents in Trinidad in 1932, but moved to Oxford to study literature in 1952. Just like Nirad, Naipaul also had a couple of stints as an editor and journalist before settling down as a writer. His first books: ‘The Mystic Masseur’ (1957) and ‘Miguel Street’ (1959) focused on society in Trinidad. But perhaps the best of his early books was ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ (1961). It is mostly a recollection of his father’s life in Trinidad. He was not even 30 years old but had established himself as a writer of considerable repute.
He soon disentangled himself from his life in Trinidad, and his first novel set in England, ‘Mr Stone and the Knights Companion’, appeared in 1963. From then onwards there was no looking back. His novels explored more political themes and his interest in colonial and post-colonial societies prompted him to write ‘The Mimic Man’ (1967) and ‘In a Free State’ (1971). As opposed to Nirad, who mostly wrote about India, Naipaul explored new territories by writing about Africa, such as ‘A Bend in the River’ (1979) and ‘The Enigma of Arrival’ (1987) – a personal account of his life in England.
While Nirad Chaudhuri never wrote any fiction – his entire oeuvre is mostly non-fiction – Naipaul indulged in both, sometimes combining fiction and non-fiction in a historical portrait. Naipaul followed in the footsteps of Nirad when he wrote three books about India: ‘An Area of Darkness’ (1964), ‘India: A Wounded Civilization’ (1977), and ‘India: A Million Mutinies’ (1990). As the titles suggest, he had almost nothing good to say about India, much in the same fashion as Nirad had done before him. One major difference between the two is that Naipaul appears to be much more superficial, whereas Nirad makes his mark as an intellectual and scholar of many disciplines.
Naipaul continued to spit venom in his two books about Islamic societies, ‘Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey’ (1981) and ‘Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions’ (1998). The Nobel Prize awarded to him in 2001 made him even more prominent and the sale of his books increased manifold. Perhaps the prize was awarded to him purely on his superb style of storytelling and fiction-writing. Otherwise, if you read his non-fiction work, especially the books cited above, he appears to lack intellectual depth and empathy. In fact, most of his non-fiction writing flaunts his antipathies towards non-Western societies.
One wonders how someone who had nothing good to say about the rich civilisations of India and Islam can be considered a great writer. Both Nirad and Naipaul lacked a fundamental balance in their writing and an objective – rather than subjective – approach that makes a good writer great. Both were prone to making preposterous comments and run others down – though Nirad stood on a firm ground of his wide readings, Naipaul was almost always shaky with his superfluous observations. For example, Naipaul repeatedly made fun of those who speak incorrect English or are unable to pronounce certain English words.
The writer holds a PhD from theUniversity of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.