Nirad C. Chaudhuri
Nirad C. Chaudhuri; drawing by David Levine

Nirad C. Chaudhuri is in many ways a most unusual Indian. Fellow Indians tend to dismiss him with a casual flick of the wrist. “Oh, him,” said a journalist from Bombay, whose opinion I sought, “just a cantankerous old fellow.” A more charitable Bengali scholar called him “a kind of museum piece, a nineteenth-century relic.”

Chaudhuri, ninety years old, has spent a lifetime kicking against the myths and shibboleths held by the majority of his countrymen: he has ridiculed the pacifism of Mahatma Gandhi; he has exposed Hinduism as a form of xenophobic power-worship; he has castigated Indian nationalism for being corrupt, self-seeking, and destructive; he has mocked the pretentions of Anglicized Indians, and vented his spleen at the stupidity and philistinism of the British in India, while at the same time beginning his first and most famous book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian,1 with the following dedication:

To the memory of the British Empire in India, which conferred subject-hood 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.

It was this sentiment, perhaps more than anything else, that most irritated Indians, not to mention British liberals, the former because of nationalist pride, the latter for reasons of colonial guilt, or, as Chaudhuri himself would put it, degeneracy of national character.

“Just a cantankerous old fellow.” “Totally irrelevant.” “A reactionary relic.” No matter how often these mantras of dismissal were recited, Chaudhuri refused to go away or shut up. His voice is as strong, idiosyncratic, erudite, garrulous, and at times cantankerous as ever. His latest chronicle of the intellectual life and times of a no longer unknown Indian is almost a thousand pages long. Indians, as Chaudhuri himself tells us, and as anybody who has ever sat next to an unknown Indian on a plane or train will know, love to talk. It testifies to Chaudhuri’s eloquence, wit, and intellectual brilliance that he can go on at such length without once becoming a bore.

Chaudhuri’s theme is decadence. It permeates everything he writes. “It is a fatality with me,” he writes in the introduction, “that wherever I go the spectre of decadence treads at my heels like the Foul Fiend.” The title itself, a quotation from Alexander Pope, refers to this foul fiend: “Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall; / And Universal Darkness buries All!” In his first book, he already described the decadence of Bengal, specifically the decline of high culture in Calcutta, which flowered briefly in the nineteenth century, inspired by Western learning that came with British rule. This decline, in Chaudhuri’s account, is but part of a larger decadence, that of the British Empire itself, which, like all decadent empires, “ceased to create or defend values associated with [it].”

In his latest book, the Empire dies, in Chaudhuri’s view, squalidly and ignobly, leaving at least a million slaughtered Hindus and Muslims in its wake. The death of Empire spelled the death of the British people. They died, as Chaudhuri put it to me this summer in his Oxford house, savoring his words, “not as the noble Roman perishing in his marble bath, but as cheap hussies in a whorehouse.” But even that is only part of a much greater death, for the Universal Darkness is descending upon us all—upon America, where he thinks the gulf between technological mastery and social and cultural depravity is widest, but also upon “the least civilized of the non-European human groups, e.g. those in Africa,” who are “socially and culturally as decadent as the Europeans.”

Personally, Chaudhuri tells us, it has been his aim in life to navigate through the currents of history—never to be carried away by them. His prescription to remain untainted by the decay around him is to cultivate the “capacity to shake off the fetters of the present. No one who is in bondage to it can have any true view of life…Fashion, the tyrant of humanity taken in the mass, had no hold on me.” This has lent an aristocratic detachment to his views and the ability to see through the received opinions that give comfort to lesser minds than his. While he picks his way through the debris of modern civilization, he sounds a warning to his fellow men. But Chaudhuri’s writing is so much more than a mere warning; his vision of doom is integral to his art, an expression of foreboding, but also of fascination. There are loud echos of Burke in his elitist conservatism, to be sure, but also of the refined urbanites of Cavafy’s poem, obsessed by the barbarians at the gates. He wants to warn us about the impending disaster, but cannot avert his fascinated gaze, not wanting to miss a minute of the action. As he put it in his first autobiography:


In my student days I used to be specially drawn towards these periods of history in which some great empire or nation, or at all events the power and glory of a great state, was passing away. I was induced to agonized fascination by these periods, and the earliest experience I had of this feeling was when I read about the final defeat of Athens at the hands of Sparta. I seemed to hear within me the clang of the pickaxes with which the long walls to the Peiraeus were being demolished, and was overwhelmed by a sense of desolation which men have when they see familiar landmarks suddenly disappearing or witness the unexpected bouleversement of the purpose they had assumed to be inherent in the unfolding of their existence.

The curious thing about highly civilized men drawn to the spectacle of barbaric violence done to high civilization is that it is never entirely clear which holds the greater attraction; the dying civilization or the Sturm und Drang that topples it. Chaudhuri is a connoisseur of everything that is fine and lofty. He is at home in the literature of Europe; he is an amateur of classical European music, testing his wife on her knowledge of Beethoven on their wedding night; he is a student of Mogul miniatures and architecture, and a proud champion of the great Bengali writers and poets. He is also a student of war, with a deep knowledge of military history. In his house in Oxford hang several portraits of Napoleon. When I commented on this, he remarked: “We are great Napoleon worshipers, you know.” For a moment I was taken aback. Admiration for great power and the love of high culture do not always exist in harmony. But one can imagine why a Bengali born at the zenith of the British Raj would associate the one with the other. And one can also see why the decline of power can be relished and deeply regretted at the same time.

Bengal, especially Calcutta, was and still is a perfect place to observe cultural, social, political decay. “Life in Calcutta,” wrote Chaudhuri in his first book, “was the symbol and epitome of our national history, a true reflection of the creative effort in our modern existence as well as of its self-destructive duality.” It was there, in the grandiose capital of the Raj, that high-caste Hindu babus imbibed European civilization during the nineteenth century, partly through mimicry of their British masters, but mostly through literature. Great libraries were founded, grand houses built, stocked with books, fine European furniture, and paintings. There they still stand, for the inspection of tourists (“that abomination, the White tourist,” says Chaudhuri), who pose for pictures before the busts of Queen Victoria covered in bird droppings, and gaze at the cobwebbed chandeliers, and the gilt-framed prints of the Battle of Waterloo. Calcutta, for the Hindu gentry, the so-called Bhadralok, was a city of poetry readings, religious reform movements, and musical evenings. This modern Indian culture was known as the Bengali Renaissance. Chaudhuri came of age in its twilight.

In many ways he is a typical Bhadralok, an aristocrat of the mind, who taught himself to read, and, where possible, quote from the European classics in English, of course, but also French, Italian, Latin, and Greek. Steeped in this remarkable high culture of Calcutta, Chaudhuri saw it gradually deteriorate into the sad caricature it has become today. Bengalis still chatter away in their crumbling coffee shops about structuralism, deconstructionism, and postmodernism, and there are Satyajit Ray’s films to admire, but the great days of the Renaissance ended around the turn of this century. And, writes Chaudhuri, “from 1921 onwards the influence of Bengal in Indian politics began to decline.” India’s fate was to be determined more by Gandhi’s mass movement than by Calcutta’s cultivated Bhadralok. “In the cultural field the same decline became perceptible to me, and I myself took some part in what might be called the Bengali Kulturkampf. With independence, the eclipse of Bengal was completed.”

Again and again, Chaudhuri points out the confluence of power, or decline in power, and cultural decay. Later in his new book, referring to the postcolonial British, specifically to Sir Richard Attenborough’s naive and sentimental, though highly lucrative, liberalism (“The worship of Gandhi is, in the British above all, unqualified imbecility and a sure proof of the degeneration of the British character”), he turns a famous saying upside down: “Loss of power corrupts, and absolute loss of power corrupts absolutely.” Maybe so. But was loss of power really the reason for cultural decadence in Bengal? What is the connection between culture and power? Are they truly like Siamese twins, who live and die together?


At first sight Bengal would seem to prove Chaudhuri’s case. Having created more or less in their own image a vigorous Bengali elite, the British, like a suddenly panicked Dr. Frankenstein, did their best to snuff it out, or at least rob it of power. First there was the attempt to divide Bengal in 1905 between Muslims and Hindus, causing riots, communal bitterness, and a permanent British distrust of unruly Bengal. Then there was the transfer of the Indian government from Calcutta to New Delhi in 1912. There were practical reasons for this, to be sure, but behind it was a cultural prejudice. The British who ruled India during the jingoistic age of New Imperialism were no longer the hearty adventurers and high-minded gentlemen who arrived in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

In An Area of Darkness, a book that irritates Indians almost as much as Chaudhuri’s works do, V.S. Naipaul described how in the latter half of the nineteenth century the Raj had become a swaggering fantasy, expressed in bombastic monuments and racial arrogance: “To be English in India was to be larger than life.”

An imperial ideal well on the way to a necessarily delayed realization, was foundering on the imperialist myth, equally delayed, of the empire-builder, on the English fantasy of Englishness, “the cherished conviction,” as one English official wrote in 1883, “which was shared by every Englishman in India, from the highest to the lowest, by the planter’s assistant in his lowly bungalow…to the Viceroy on his throne…that he belongs to a race whom God has destined to govern and subdue.”2

So there was Chaudhuri, lover of Mozart, Pascal, Burke, Wordsworth, and Dante, ruled by Englishmen whose intellectual tastes were adequately served by Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads. Their fantasy of Englishness did not include the literary Bengali babus, for whom they felt contempt and distrust. More congenial to the British New Imperialists were the brave and philistine warriors of the northern frontiers, Muslims whose tribal pride mirrored the “muscular Christianity” of the British. The British mission civilatrice had run into the sand and Chaudhuri felt betrayed: “Any exhibition of knowledge of European life, civilization or history drove the British community in India to make the gesture which peasant boys in India make at a passing train. They expose themselves and wave their hips.”

The fantasy of Englishness had the unfortunate effect that Indians, especially Bengalis, retreated into fantasies of their own, the fantasy of ancient India, a civilization whose magnificence put even its modern, humiliated descendants on an unassailable plane, or the fantasy of superior spirituality, beyond the reach of the materialist West. Bengali intellectuals, made defensive by English contempt, often became showoffs, ridiculed by Kipling in The Jungle Book. (It is a weakness that Chaudhuri points out and, it must be said, often exemplifies.) Kipling likened Bengali intellectuals to monkeys, the Bandar Log. When Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for a book in English in 1913, Kipling remarked in a letter to Rider Haggard: “Well, whose fault is it that the Babu is what he is? We did it. We began in Macaulay’s time. We have worked without intermission to make this Caliban.” Caliban would have his revenge by gloating over every British setback during the two world wars, a show of petty hatred that disgusted Chaudhuri as much as did British arrogance.

Chaudhuri felt the British contempt particularly keenly because he believed in the mission civilatrice. He took Queen Victoria at her word when she said the imperial mission was “to protect the poor natives and advance civilization.” He can still say without a hint of self-consciousness that “I remain a Bengali, an Indian, an Englishman, while being a citizen of the world.” He is the embodiment of the highest imperial ideal, a man Queen Victoria would have been deeply proud of, and precisely for that reason a man utterly out of sync with modern India. “L’Inde c’est moi,” he wrote in his first autobiography. Perhaps “Bengal c’est moi” would have been more accurate, but even that may have been too wide a net in which to catch this lifelong maverick. He thought of giving his latest book the title “One Man against his People.” He gave that up, though, because, as he put it, he is not against any people, but against historical trends.

Chaudhuri’s defense of imperialism is interesting and not easily to be dismissed. Empires are by definition hierarchical, but also cosmopolitan (one of the greatest promoters of the British Empire, Benjamin Disraeli, was a Levantine Jew): “There is no empire without a conglomeration of linguistically, racially, and culturally different nationalities and the hegemony of one of them over the rest. The heterogeneity and the domination are of the very essence of imperial relations.” But this domination, in Chaudhuri’s view, is perfectly justified if power is exercised morally, indeed to protect the poor natives and advance civilization. Chaudhuri distinguishes imperialism from mere colonialism. The conquest of the Americas, and the consequent slaughter of the native population, was colonialism. The Roman Empire and the British Raj worked to the benefit of all.

History, says Chaudhuri, “had shown empires as protectors and reclaimers of civilization, and empires had taken over the keepership of civilizations when its creators had become incapable of maintaining them.” To a Calcutta Bhadralok this may have been so, but does history show it to be generally true? The Romans might have been the keepers of Greek civilization, but did the Manchus who founded the Qing Dynasty help to preserve Chinese high culture? Who was to blame for the steady degeneration of that same culture into kitsch? Has the Soviet Empire been a good keeper of the high culture of Mitteleuropa? Did the Japanese imperialists, whose courage Chaudhuri admired, do much for the culture of Chinese and Koreans? Did Javanese culture thrive under the Dutch?

It is true that empires impose order and often preserve native elites, whose assistance they require. The Manchus did that and so did the Dutch and the British. The Soviets, of course, did not—they murdered the old guard. The British Raj, despite its skill at dividing to rule, kept the peace in India better than its Indian successors have done. So, for that matter, did Soviet imperial rule; it is only now that Moscow’s grip is loosening that serious ethnic strife, repressed for so long, is starting up again. But that is the trouble with empires. They tend to freeze the existing social order artificially; social conflicts are not solved but frozen into place. Old elites are kept in power, symbolically, without retaining real authority; their high culture survives but becomes lifeless. New hybrid elites, the compradors and middlemen, are created in the imperialists’ own image. But as soon as the imperial rulers leave, the tensions break out again, the high culture turns to dust, the new elites find themselves isolated and betrayed and in the unlucky event of a revolution up against the execution wall.

This does not excuse the way in which Britain left India. Chaudhuri is quite right to feel bitter about Attlee and Lord Mountbatten, the Richard Attenborough of the Empire’s dying days, more interested in his own liberal image than in the consequences of his actions. India was left wholly unprepared for the mass migrations and massacres that came with partition. But I am not convinced that prolonging British rule would have done all that much for the things that Chaudhuri holds dear.

Chaudhuri is an unashamed elitist, as were the great writers of the Bengali Renaissance. Tagore, he says, “never had any friendliness for anybody who did not belong to an elite.” Bankim Chandra Chatterji, Bengal’s first novelist, and a Hindu nationalist, wrote, to Chaudhuri’s approval, “It is, indeed, a matter of hope for the Bengali people that they are imitating the English.” But, writes Chaudhuri, also with approval, what Chatterji “wholly condemned and regarded as despicable was imitation by those who were devoid of talent.” And, still on a high cultural note, when Chaudhuri himself learned to appreciate European classical music, he observed that “if I had heard pop music then, my chance encounter with European music would not have had any sequel. A man moored to the highest in one’s own culture does not go over to barbarism, nor is he beaten by it, even if it were as strong as King Kong.”

Chaudhuri’s favorite word of condemnation is “crude.” Bengali revolutionaries were crude. Middle-class Indians are crude. The British in India were crude. The British in their own country today are crude. Crude people cannot be good rulers. They cannot advance civilization. And so Congress rule in India is turning the country into “a Caribbean island on a continental scale.”

There is a seeming contradiction between Chaudhuri’s elitism and his assertion that the greatest betrayal by the British was their leaving India without having achieved a social transformation of Indian society. But there is no real contradiction there. Chaudhuri’s elitism has little to do with class. He did not think his own class, the upper-middle-class Hindus, were fit to rule, for they only looked after their own interests. But neither did he have any trust in the Indian masses, or any masses for that matter, for they did not understand politics; all they knew was communal hatred, which should be kept in check at all times, if necessary by force. Gandhi’s greatest crime, in Chaudhuri’s eyes, is that by mobilizing the masses he effectively unleashed the primitive emotions that the British had kept under control for so long. Chaudhuri’s elite, the only one fit to rule, is a cultural and moral aristocracy. Only this enlightened elite could have effected a social transformation, from the top on down, with the help and might of the British, but this, as we know, was denied them.

Gandhi tried to do the exact opposite: he had no time for high culture, indeed he tried by example to return India to the primitive level of folk religion and the spinning wheel. His transformation had to come from the bottom up. Chaudhuri does not deny that Gandhi was a moral man, but “even after the best had been said about it, it still remained the morality of the servus, very pure and lofty certainly, none the less bearing in all its manifestations the unmistakable stamp of its lowly origin.” But that was of course Gandhi’s whole point. Only through the morality of the servus could he make the Indian masses feel proud of themselves.

Chaudhuri’s defense of high culture is deeply antidemocratic:

Neither biological evolution nor human history reveals anything like equal status for all. They do not bear witness to the achievement of anything good, great, wise, abiding, or new, by the exercise of the equal vote. The cosmic process is revealed as a living and evergrowing pyramid, whose apex is rising higher and higher, leaving more and more strata underneath.

This idea, owing as much to the influence of Darwin as to Burke, went out of fashion some time ago. Perhaps that is a sign of decadence. If so, democracy advances if not political then certainly cultural decadence. And it is true that aristocrats of the spirit are going through hard times everywhere. But even that is, if Professor Allan Bloom will forgive the expression, relative: nowhere are the fruits of high culture so abundantly available as in the democracies of the decadent West; and many of those fruits were sown in democracies, beginning with ancient Greece. Still, when the Attlee government decided to relinquish British power in India the preservation of high culture was not high on its list of goals; the very idea of a mission civilatrice had become an embarrassment. Britain was not prepared to rule by force, because it no longer seemed moral to do so. Instead it was hoped that the instruments and institutions of law and democracy would last beyond the Raj. And, to an astonishing degree, despite corruption, economic mismanagement, political demagogery, and communal violence, it has turned out that way. India is still a functioning democracy, one of the few in Asia. This might have resulted in a loss of aristocratic values, but it is perhaps a price worth paying.

It would be hard to convince Chaudhuri of that, however. His sense of betrayal goes too deep. It is a sign of his decency and common sense that, unlike some European participants of the Kulturkampf against democratic vulgarity, Chaudhuri never fell for fascist poseurs in fancy uniforms. There were plenty of them in Bengal; Gandhi’s greatest political rival was the Bengali politician Subhas Chandra Bose, known to his followers as Netaji, the Bengali word for Führer.

Chaudhuri’s revenge against his betrayers was more subtle than that. In 1970 he moved to Britain, where he is not just a cantankerous old fellow, let alone totally irrelevant, but a literary celebrity. His newly found role is to castigate his former masters for their crudeness, ignorance, and illiterate philistinism. The Bengali babu has finally come into his own as an arbiter elegantiarum in the pages of the Tory press. “Why I Mourn For England” was the headline to a recent piece in The Daily Telegraph in which Chaudhuri analyzed the decay of the English mind by pointing out the sloppy, ungrammatical, imprecise use of the English language as it is spoken by the British today. He has great sport by inserting literary allusions which he refuses to identify and which he can be quite sure few of his readers will recognize.

Seventy years ago in Bengal Chaudhuri was hurt by the contemptuous laughter of arrogant Englishmen who mocked him for knowing more about their culture than they did. Now he has the last laugh. But irony still finds a way of catching up with its most elusive targets. Now that every politician feels compelled to talk about “values” again, Nirad C. Chaudhuri is fast becoming the very thing he had avoided with such success for ninety years: fashionable.

This Issue

December 8, 1988