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My Brief Encounter with Nirad Chaudhuri - Sue Darlow
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I lived in Oxford, England, for many years as a young adult in the late 1970s and 80s. I once made an awful gaff when I attended an evening of entertainment during the Festival of India. I was sitting next to a rather attractive middle-aged Indian woman with striking light eyes, dressed in a Bengal cotton sari. During one of the intervals we started to make small talk, and when she mentioned that she was the wife of Raychaudhuri, my ears only picked up only the Chaudhuri and I responded brightly "Oh, your husband is Nirad Chaudhuri!" and she blushed and answered rather huffily "My husband is Professor Tapan Raychaudhuri! Nirad Chaudhuri is SO MUCH OLDER!" Now it was my turn to die of embarrassment, because in fact there was a good thirty years difference between the two locally known figures.

Afterwards, living for many years in the same vicinity as Nirad Chaudhuri meant that he became a familiar sight around the local shops. He was short and very slight, and with glasses and a cloud of fine white hair he looked quite benign - in fact he reminded me quite a lot of the 'everyman' figure that appears in R K Laxman's cartoons. Quite the opposite of the fearsome reputation he seemed to have developed among his many visitors. Tales abounded of him gleefully tripping people up by grilling them in their supposed areas of knowledge and expertise and finding them wanting.

When I decided sometime in 1989 to do a series of portraits of notable Indians living in the UK, Nirad Chaudhuri seemed an obvious choice to start with due to his geographical proximity. By then I was somewhat familiar with his writing, having read his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, and the more recently published tome, the second part of his autobiography - Thy Hand! Great Anarch! I was very nervous of asking him, so I wrote him a note requesting a photo session, followed up by a phone call. He was very pleasant and courteous and we made an appointment for me to go over one morning.
When I turned up he was immaculately attired in trousers and tweed jacket, set off with a pink kerchief in his breast pocket. It was obviously one of his English gentleman days. He was very talkative, accommodating, and unconscious of the camera. He certainly didn't appear anywhere near his age, which was nearly 93 at the time. Although he did seem a little hard of hearing, it may well have been because I was mumbling with nervousness behind my camera.

I asked him whether he took it as a compliment when people told him he looked much younger, and he replied that he was the sort of man who didn't care what other people's opinions of him where. He seemed very much at ease with himself, smiling and laughing and taking a childlike interest in my camera equipment, asking if I had a telephoto or zoom lens like his son had. He told me he was content with his life in England, relying on home help, in spite of calling England a 'servantless society'.

When I was leaving I presented him with a set of black and white postcards of mine showing scenes of Oxford, which pleased him quite some. So, I emerged from the lion's den unscathed!

PS Tapan Raychaudhuri was Professor Emeritus at St Anthony's College, Oxford.



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