From cricket to caste, communities to clashes, Ashis Nandy has explored it all. Agree or disagree with him but you can’t ignore this home-grown don, writes Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty
Allow me to take you a little back in time. To May, 2009. To a critique published in a news magazine on that year’s seemingly unforeseen general election results. It was written by eminent social scientist — and a name mired in controversy these days — Ashis Nandy.
Nandy wrote, “In India, we live in a country where the gods are imperfect and the demons are never fully demonic. I call this an ‘epic culture’ because an epic is not complete without either the gods or the demons. They make the story together. This is a part of our consciousness, and ultimately, I think it influences our public life. People go up to a point with their grievance (but) realise that to go further is a dangerous thing because it destroys the basic algorithm of your life. They say, enough is enough….”Being a psycho-analytical sociologist — and an incredible one at that considering the oeuvre of his work in human psyche – it is Nandy’s job to examine minds that people society, tweak the nuances, document what he deciphers. So coming from someone who can be called a rare home-grown don we have in the country today (he doesn’t have the foreign degrees that usually add leverage to many academics in India), you take this 2009 observation as informed, feel good that beneath the veneer of chaos, there is order in our society. Because the masses know, when to say “enough is enough”.
Then comes 2013 when Nandy himself has been made a “demon” by a clutch of people for a remark plucked out of a greater intellectual idea he was trying to state at this year’s Jaipur Literary Festival. So I knock at Nandy’s door carrying with me the piece he wrote then, with the aim of checking the veracity of this public stand he took on the majority of the country then. Would he like to reconsider it, do poeple really know, I want to ask him. Did he anywhere spot the thought after the controversy erupted that “to go further is a dangerous thing”? Are we becoming a tribe looking for “issues” to get provoked, vent anger without leaving space for reason, want sacrificial lambs at the altar of media sensationalism and ‘hurt sentiments’, forgetting in the process to remind each other, “enough is enough”?
Flashing a feeble smile, the venerable thinker says he can’t talk about the controversy because the subject is sub-judice. The Supreme Court has stayed his arrest for making the “anti-Dalit” remark, but is yet to take a decision on Nandy’s plea to quash the four FIRs against him.
There is a sub-text to my visit to Nandy’s though. It is also to conclude conversations I have been having with him in snatches for about three-four months now, with the idea of writing his profile in this space. Now that Nandy is not talking, I resort to my notes.
Controversy is nothing new to Nandy. He has magnetised it several times. Be it from feminists on his observations on the tradition of sati, from the Gujarat Government after the carnage — which nearly got him arrested, from the media lately for “supporting” RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s remark after the Delhi gang-rape case, among others. If through his work Nandy, 75, has gained admirers in India and outside of it, he has also made some people very angry.
“As a clinical psycho-analyst, I am interested in human subjectivities; it is my job to examine society. I am open to opposition but being angry is not enough. I have provided evidence to state my ideas, you provide yours,” has been his response throughout. In the context of his remarks on Sati, he says, “Nobody has reverted till today.” Nandy’s argument on the subject has been that Sati was never a tradition of the Indian religious life unless there were crises. “You saw it during the Rajput fight against the Mughals, when the Vijaynagar kingdom was collapsing. In eastern India, it was primarily confined to the upwardly mobile upper class in Calcutta and its suburbs. It was not a product of normal Hindu religious life but was used as a pathology, so it tells you something. Even the Christian missionaries, who were anti-Hindu, recognised it. One British viceroy recognised it too,” he says.
Nandy says his clinical gaze has helped him. "I can take a lot of bitterness."
And if you follow Nandy’s life trajectory, you find that he can take a good degree of indigence too, if allowed to do the kind of work he likes to do. He started his professional life in social research with a salary of Rs.850 at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), the think tank that he has associated himself with his entire life. A brilliant student who passed his intermediate at 16, he joined medicine initially. Three years later, he quit, his father didn’t speak to him for three years. “Most people in my mother’s family were doctors, I saw their life. I was already bored of my future,” he says laughing.
To study sociology, he had to start at the undergraduate level. “Clinical psychology came later after I got interested in Freudian psychology,” he fills in. Nandy studied and later worked at the Shivrath Centre of Excellence in Clinical Research in Ahmedabad.
What kept him tied to India when he could have taken up plump posts in prestigious foreign universities? “Two-three main considerations,” he says thoughtfully rubbing his fingers through his woolly beard. “India seemed a fascinating country for me, the liveliness of Indian life, the kind of interactions I had by being located here couldn’t have happened if I were outside. It is a complex, chaotic, diverse country, these elements attract me, I recognised it early in life.”
The second consideration was a group of people he met at CSDS “who were genuinely interested in the life of the mind.” This year, CSDS is rounding off half a century of continuation and Nandy, Senior Honorary Fellow after retirement, says he has never rued the time there. “Because my first line of audience has been the people from the Centre. They are the people I have fought the hardest to convince a point.”
In his book, The Tao of Cricket, he has drawn a similar parallel; the first row of audience in the game is not the people but the opposite team. The umpire might not notice a batsman’s fault but the opposition does. “The book was more about political issues. I was stating that certain norms depend on the personal morality of the player, as in cricket, in politics too.” Morality may be difficult, but “it is not impossible even in contemporary times.” He has noticed that “there is no moral tension in our politicians now.”
“Nehru had it. Probably, the last one who had a touch of it was Atal Behari Vajpayee.”
In the “aggressively democratic environment” of CSDS, Nandy went on to make breakthrough studies, also through unconventional tools such as the prism of cricket (he is a big cricket fan himself) and Bollywood yarns.
“The Centre never imposed any restrictions on us, on ideas, on the nature of interpretation.” The third reason why he stayed back in India, and continued to influence critical thinking in the academic circle without being a part of the formal system. Some of his books are part of college syllabus. In between he went abroad for a year to teach though. “That was during the Emergency, I was feeling suffocated,” he replies.
Nandy’s reflection on the Delhi gang-rape is thought-provoking. “I don’t see anything as disjunctive but as a part of a continuity. Murders, the gang-rape, the protests, all are part of a continuity. To me, those youth at the India Gate shouting for death sentence for the rapists, suggesting death by torture, there is a continuity. There is violence in the air in India, even those who were protesting displayed the culture of violence.”
“There are others,” he says, “who are talking about how to tinker the law, bring in more security, etc. to stop such an occurrence but my job is to go for how to rethink our nature of life, the way we treat children who work in garages, street-side hotels, etc. They themselves are brutalised and ultimately, they immerse as insipient monsters. That part of the story is also there.”
He calls this anger a measure of desperation. “People now live in a cocooned life; there is no access to the other side. There is a lot of narcissism too; others are looked at as spectators.” Why? “It is no longer fashionable to study ethics, neither in philosophy nor in social sciences. If someone who is taking an ethical line fails, we are delighted, we want to see him fail for being too moralistic.”
Among the multitudes of issues he has dissected, has there been anything that he has baffled him? “I have seen that all my writings which have become controversial have actually said what people knew in the heart of hearts, they are not something strange and new to them. But I am holding it up, like a mirror, which is discomforting for them.”
Yes, we are in transient times, “moving through dramatic changes which took 200 years in many countries to take place.” Nandy says, “So we are looking for certitudes, feel very uncomfortable when somebody examines these certitudes.”
Time to say “enough is enough”?
“Have you seen any Indian politician apologising ever? Bill Clinton apologised to Black Americans. Manmohan Singh apologised to the Sikhs for the anti-Sikh riots. Whatever one may say about him as a Prime Minister, kudos to him for taking that moral position.”
“My problem is, I can’t write hagiography or pamphlets.”
“Asish has written the foreword of the book of the TV anchor who took umbrage to his recent comment at the Jaipur fest,” says Uma Nandy.
This article has been corrected for typo errors on February 16, 2013