Sudhir Kakar, the alchemist | Publisher David Davidar recalls his connection with the formidable  psychoanalyst and writer

Sudhir Kakar, hailed for his originality and insight into the Indian psyche, passed away on April 22 at the age of 86

April 25, 2024 09:44 am | Updated April 28, 2024 11:28 am IST

Sudhir Kakar wrote several foundational books that will influence generations of scholars and readers.

Sudhir Kakar wrote several foundational books that will influence generations of scholars and readers. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It’s one of the paradoxes of life that in death a person whom one has known well comes alive most vividly in your mind. I hadn’t been in touch with Sudhir Kakar for a while, but when I learnt of his death a few days ago, I was immediately transported to the time I published some of his books in the 1990s — and the considerable impact he had on me at the time. Simply put, Sudhir was one of the most original writers this country has produced — an alchemist who fused Western tools of psychoanalysis and scientific enquiry with a deep knowledge of Indian myth, religion, culture, and society to produce extraordinarily insightful books on India and Indians.

Also read: Sudhir Kakar (1938-2024) | ‘Passionate analyst of Indian culture’

I first met him about a decade after he had published his most seminal work, The Inner World, a ground-breaking, psychoanalytic enquiry into the infancy and childhood of Hindu Indians, and how it shaped their identity and culture. Ranging widely through myth, folklore, religion, anthropological evidence, history, clinical data, and case studies, it was hailed for its originality and remarkable insights into the Indian psyche. Sudhir was 40 when he published the book, his fourth, an age when academics and serious non-fiction writers are just beginning to establish their reputations but The Inner World immediately established him as one of India’s most formidable intellectuals. He was sought out and feted around the world — among his admirers was V.S. Naipaul, who told me once that his conversations with Sudhir about India had dispelled many pre-conceptions he’d had about the country and its culture.

Of sex and love

When I met him, I was in my mid-20s, a callow youth who hadn’t yet published a single book, but he received me courteously enough in his house in an upscale Delhi neighbourhood. A slim, handsome man, with piercing eyes and a high forehead, he was dressed all in black — a turtleneck (it was winter) and pants — and wore a friendly expression. I’d read his best-regarded books — the aforesaid The Inner World, as well as Shamans, Mystics and Doctors (an exploration of a variety of Indian healers and healing traditions concerned with “the restoration of what is broadly termed ‘mental health’ in the West”), and Tales of Love, Sex and Danger, co-written with John M. Ross, which examined sex and love through some of the world’s most enduring love stories. To my mind, a writer of his stature would gild my fledgling publishing list. However, there was no guarantee that this would happen. Although he had agreed to see me, at the time Sudhir was published in India by the brilliant Ravi Dayal at Oxford University Press and around the world by a host of other equally legendary publishers — including Sonny Mehta at Knopf. Given this reality, I couldn’t see why he would choose to place any of his books with an untried publisher, but I needed to try. 

A secondary concern I had was that the books he had published until then were all rather scholarly, and I wanted him to write for the general reader. In any event, our meeting went well, and marked the beginning of a productive publishing relationship and friendship. He brought his great gifts of analysis, scholarship, and expression to bear on a variety of important subjects and published lucid, accessible books on sex and sexuality (Intimate Relations), an astonishingly original work on sectarian violence (The Colours of Violence), and, unexpectedly, a superb novel (his first — at the age of 60) entitled The Ascetic of Desire, about Vatsyayana, the author of the Kama Sutra (which classic Kakar translated with Wendy Doniger).

I shouldn’t have been surprised by Sudhir’s foray into fiction for he wasn’t your average scholar or intellectual tucked away in an academic ghetto cobwebbed with op. cits. and ibids. Rather, he was a man who had arrived at his field of expertise through a somewhat twisty path, as was common with bright young things of his generation who had limited career options at their disposal. Sudhir was born into a prosperous upper middle class family (his father was a district magistrate who was posted to a succession of small towns in West Punjab, now in Pakistan). As was the norm, he was expected to study a worthy subject in college, one that would fit him out for a steady if not stellar career. As Sudhir wrote in a revelatory personal essay that prefaced one of his books, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do as a young man, so he went along with his family’s suggestion that he become an engineer, and went off to study engineering in Ahmedabad. After he obtained his degree, he sailed to Germany to further burnish his engineering credentials, but it was while he was in Hamburg that he decided the subject wasn’t for him. He wrote: “My first actions after I settled into my cheap lodgings in Hamburg arranged for me by the shipyard (where he was to apprentice), was to buy a large bottle of inexpensive red wine, enroll myself in a school for ballroom dancing, start on the first page of a novel, and write to my father that I had no intentions of going further with engineering and would like to study philosophy instead.”

Engineer to psychoanalyst 

This missive threw the family into a tizzy but Sudhir would not back down. Letters flew back and forth between India and Germany, and while they did, he wrote: “I learnt German… I learnt to dance the boogie woogie and the cha-cha, the most popular dances of the time, and took music lessons on the clarinet. I heard my first Mozart, read my first Brecht, slept with my first woman”. Finally, he and his family arrived at a compromise — he wouldn’t need to continue with engineering but would instead study economics. Although Sudhir acquiesced in the decision, he wasn’t happy with it. He explained: “I studied economics as I did engineering, with half my mind and with none of my soul. In my youthful affair with the world I needed passion and surprise; engineering and economics had neither.” 

All of this turmoil would be magically resolved a few years later when he met the man who would change his life and set him on the path to becoming one of our most interesting minds. He met Erik Erikson, the American psychoanalyst of European origin, quite by chance in his aunt’s house in Ahmedabad, and was so taken with his genius (this was the man who had invented the term ‘identity crisis’ so it was quite appropriate that he sorted Sudhir’s youthful confusion and ‘identity problems’) that he decided that “what (he) wanted more than anything else was to work with him as an apprentice and, if possible, learn the psychoanalyst’s craft. It became clear to me, as if in a sudden revelation, that he was the guru my Indian self was searching for”.

Sudhir would become one of Erikson’s most illustrious pupils, and over the course of the next several decades, go on to be hailed as an exceptional writer and thinker, using his powerful intellect and immense curiosity to plumb core aspects of India’s psyche. Many of his books were foundational and will influence generations of scholars and readers. He will live on through them and in the minds of those (such as myself) who were privileged to have been part of his journey.

The writer is a publisher and author.

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