December 14, 2019
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A Biting Pen

IT was an unexpectedly sharp obit of Nirad Chaudhuri that V. S. Naipaul wrote for the Royal Society of Literature. A better part of that text:

A Biting Pen
"Nirad Chaudhuri was an old fool. He wrote one good and unexpected book, The Autobiogra phy of an Unknown Indian , and then took to clowning. He pretended to interviewers that he was a great reader and scholar. But he wasn’t. Much of the reading he did was really a form of idleness. His subject was always himself; and when he appeared to speak or write with humour he wasn’t; he was always dead serious. (I was taken in.)

Away from that subject of himself he nibbled, he flitted, he had no means of making a whole of anything. He quoted to impress. It was hard to know what his moral centre was. When in his later books he touched important subjects he babbled.

"In The Continent Of Circe , his second big book, he attempted to explain the extraordinary dereliction of India. The reader interested in this fearful subject would do better to consult the simplest school primers of Pakistan, just across the border. They teach, in the triumphant way of Islamic converts, that Hindu - Buddhist India was ravaged, perhaps beyond redemption, by the Muslim invasions after 1000 AD and the five- six centuries of fierce Muslim rule. There is more truth there — and cause for meditation — than in Chaudhuri’s idea in Circe that the people of India are really "Europeans" who have been debilitated and ravaged by the Indian climate.

"Scholar Extraordinary: The Life Of Friedrich Max Müller (1974) should have dealt with the 19th century development of the Aryan idea. Chaudhuri didn’t have the scholarly equipment. The book was no more than an uncritical trawl through the Max Müller family papers. It was the last time I tried to read Chaudhuri.

"In 1966 I worked very hard to persuade my fellow judges to give Chaudhuri the Duff Cooper prize — not, of course, for The Continent of Circe, but for The Autobiography. John Julius Norwich told me later that Chaudhuri (who was ill- favoured and dwarfish) had spent some part of his prize on "male toiletries". This was unexpected enough.

I had no idea then that the prize was going to lead to the man settling in England and setting himself up as a clown in Oxford for his last thirty years." If only dead men could talk. Or will Paul Theroux pen a rejoinder?

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