Chaman Nahal's distinction lies in writing about India without any touch of exoticism; he scrupulously avoids the stereotyped "East" of maharajahs, tigers and snakecharmers. The actual town of Delhi (in My True Faces and The English Queens) and the typical Punjabi town of Sialkot are presented vividly, and we get a good idea of middle-class life in India. Azadi is the best of the Indian-English novels written about the traumatic partition which accompanied Indian Independence in 1947. The Crown and the Loincloth and The Salt of Life portray Mahatma Gandhi as a complex character with human failings. The English Queens breaks new ground by using the comic mode to treat a problem which has concerned all Indians—the tendency of the educated elite in India to ape the West.
Azadi ("Freedom"), which won the award of the Sahitya Akademi (India's national academy of letters), employs an entirely different style. It is a straightforward account of a rich Hindu grain merchant and his family. The novel begins in mid-1947 with the people of Sialkot (now in Pakistan) hearing the announcement regarding partition, but they refuse to believe that they now have to move. Nahal shows how Kanshi Ram the Hindu, Barkat Ali the Mohammedan, and Teja Singh the Sikh share the same Punjabi culture and language, and consider Sialkot their homeland. Meticulous attention to details and a firsthand knowledge of the life of the characters enable Nahal to make the plight of the refugees real to the reader. The novel ends with a sadly depleted family trying to begin life anew in Delhi. Azadi has none of the sensationalism of other novels about India's partition, such as Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan or Manohar Malgonkar's A Bend in the Ganges. Nahal shows the cruelty as well as the humanity of both sides. The novel also shows the maturing of Arun, Kanshi Ram's only son, but the account of his love, first for Nur, the Muslim girl left behind in Pakistan, and then for Chandni, a low-caste girl who is abducted on the way to India, is not as gripping as the rest of the novel.
Nahal's next novel, Into Another Dawn, is basically an East-West love story, set chiefly in the U.S.A. Nahal's fourth novel, Sunrise in Fiji, is a psychological study of Harivansh, a successful architect in his forties, who finds his personal life empty and meaningless. He goes to Fiji to bid for a building contract, and uses the break from routine to do some much needed soul-searching.
The English Queens is unique in Indian-English fiction; it is a very funny but hard-hitting satire against the elitism of the English-speaking groups in India, such as the officers of the defense forces, the nouveau riche, the highly placed civil servants, or Indians having foreign wives. Nahal unfolds a fantastic plot hatched by Lord Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy of India, to ensure India's subjugation to Britain. On the eve of handing over political power he prepares a charter for the "safe transfer of linguistic power" by which he gives the English language to India. To "preserve, propagate and spread" English in India he appoints six women in New Delhi to "The Order of the Queens." Rekha, the daughter of one of these queens, horrifies them by wanting to marry a young man from a working-class slum; worse still, he wears Indian clothes and is an expert in Indian classical music. The novel takes a further fantastic turn when the bridegroom reveals himself as an avatar of Vishnu, who has come to destroy this pernicious second-hand English culture. He flies back to heaven with the charter, but it drops out of his hand accidentally, and comes back to continue its destructive work; perhaps even God cannot help India! Of course, Nahal is not against the English language as such; his satire is against the kind of Indian who thinks that it is shameful to know anything about his own culture. One wonders whether non-Indian readers would enjoy the book as much as Indians do, because much of the humor rests on topical allusions.
"The Gandhi Quartet" covers three decades of Indian history, from 1915 to 1947. Azadi, which describes the last phase of the struggle for independence, was the first to be published. The Crown and the Loincloth is the first of three novels with Mahatma Gandhi as central character. Nahal presents Gandhi directly as well as in terms of the effect he has on the family of Thakur Shanti Nath, a landowner in a Punjabi village. This novel is set in the period from 1915 to 1922, and deals with many historical events such as Gandhi's return to India in 1915 and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Sunil, the landlord's son, and Sunil's wife Kusum are followers of Mahatma Gandhi. Sunil dies in 1922 while saving the Prince of Wales from an attack by terrorists, and Kusum joins Gandhi's ashram at Sabarmati with their young son Vikram. The second novel, The Salt of Life, centers on Gandhi's salt satyagraha of 1930. The heroine, Kusum, leaves the ashram when she gets married to Raja Vishal Chand, the ruler of a small princely state in the Himalayas. Her son Vikram stays on with Gandhi and participates in the Dandi march. When Vishal Chand dies, Kusum comes back to the ashram. The Triumph of the Tricolour, the third volume, deals with the Quit India movement of 1942. The narrative style of the later novels is quite complex, integrating Indian modes of storytelling with Western techniques like the stream-of-consciousness novel. But they lack the power of Azadi, which remains Nahal's best novel.
- My True Faces. New Delhi, Orient, 1973.
- Into Another Dawn. New Delhi, Sterling, 1977.
- The English Queens. New Delhi, Vision, 1979.
- Sunrise in Fiji. New Delhi, Allied, 1988.
- Azadi (Freedom). New Delhi, Arnold-Heinemann, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1975; London, Deutsch, 1977.
- The Crown and the Loincloth. New Delhi, Vikas, 1981.
- The Salt of Life. New Delhi, Allied, 1990.
- The Triumph of the Tricolour. New Delhi, Allied, 1993.
- The Ghandi Quartet. New Delhi, Allied, 1993.
- The Weird Dance and Other Stories. New Delhi, Arya, 1965.
- Uncollected Short Stories
- "Tons," in The Statesman (New Delhi), 12 June 1977.
- "The Light on the Lake," in Illustrated Weekly of India (Bombay), 22 July 1984.
- "The Take Over," in Debonair (Bombay), August 1985.
- Moby Dick (for children), adaptation of the novel by Melville. NewDelhi, Eurasia, 1965.
- A Conversation with J. Krishnamurti. New Delhi, Arya, 1965.
- D.H. Lawrence: An Eastern View. South Brunswick, New Jersey, A.S. Barnes, and London, Yoseloff, 1971.
- The Narrative Pattern in Ernest Hemingway's Fiction. New Delhi, Vikas, and Rutherford, New Jersey, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971.
- The New Literatures in English. New Delhi, Allied, 1985.
- Jawaharlal Nehru as a Man of Letters. New Delhi, Allied, 1990.
- Editor, Drugs and the Other Self: An Anthology of Spiritual Transformations. New York, Harper, 1971.