Born in a Srivastava Kayastha family, in the village of Babupatti (Raniganj) in the district of Pratapgarh, U.P. near Allahabad in the United Provinces (modern Uttar Pradesh) he was the eldest son of Pratap Narayan Shrivastav and Saraswati Devi. He was called bachchan (meaning Kid at home). He received his formal schooling in a municipal school and followed the family tradition of attending Kayastha Paathshaalas (कायस्थ पाठशाला) to learn Urdu as the first step to a career in law. He later studied at the Allahabad University and Banaras Hindu University. In this period, he came under the influence of the independence movement, then under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.
Realizing that this was not the path he wanted to follow, he went back to the university. However from 1941 to 1952 he taught in the English Department at the Allahabad University and after that he spent the next two years at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, Cambridge University doing his doctoral thesis on W.B. Yeats. It was then, that he used ‘Bachchan’ as his last name instead of Srivastava. Harivanshrai’s thesis got him his PhD at Cambridge. He is the second Indian to get his doctorate in English literature from Cambridge. After returning to India he again took to teaching and also served at All India Radio, Allahabad.
In 1926, at the age of 19, Bachchan married his first wife, Shyama, who was then 14 years old. However she died ten years later in 1936 after a long spell of TB at just 24 years of age. Bachchan again married, Teji Bachchan, in 1941. They had two sons, Amitabh and Ajitabh.
In 1955, Harivanshrai shifted to Delhi to join the External Affairs Ministry as an officer on Special duty and during