A peek into an unusual mind

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By: Probal Dasgupta

To celebrate the life of an unusual intellectual, Ramin Jahanbegloo and Ananya Vajpeyi have come up with an unusually designed feast of writings and conversations, with Ashis Nandy, about him, around him. A title like A Life in Dissent or an epithet like “a critical traditionalist” serve as viable bookmarks if you already know your Nandy. But some readers are unfamiliar with the species of counter-intuitive thinking he has introduced us to. Nandy questions the casting of India as an ex-loser nation, once conquered by Britain, making a comeback as a winner. Trained as a psychologist, Nandy asks what it was like for India to be in a student-teacher dyad with Britain’s dominant cognitive and affective systems. His interrogation opens up dominant/recessive polarities on each side of that dyad. Nandy focuses so intently on the ‘patients’ he interrogates that we find his friend, T.N. Madan, contributing to this volume, not an article about Nandy himself, but a re-examination of M.N. Srinivas – a figure both Nandy and Madan have always been fascinated by. How often have you seen this in a volume of personal homage?

Apart from standing received views of the British raj on their head, Nandy has also emphatically shown that viewing our times in terms of Anglo-American neo-colonialism is a sidetrack. The sharp and miniaturized instruments we wield with pride as we rush into the high-tech, automated world provide the context for the much admired Indian ‘comeback’ today. Under Nandy’s therapy, we realize that the sharp instruments of automation lead to systematic self-wounding. That the stress of workaholism, in an insidious compact with our pursuit of well-designed leisure, leaves us in a baffling predicament. That we can hope to escape from the perilously good intentions of these systems only if we attach ourselves to blunt instruments. To myths. To utopias. To superstitions. If we wish thereby to unlearn the lessons inflicted on us by the systems, we must view these antidotes not as wisdom that shall outwit the knowledge machine that is in power, but – perversely – as discredited bits of debris. To try to assemble them into a magical counter-system locking horns with the system is a category mistake. Might does not surrender to ‘right’, Nandy shows, but we can recover from its worst effects under the soothing ministrations of the night.

Taking a leaf out of Nandy’s book, I am making an unconventional request. Please visit – the table of contents gives you a sense of the sheer range of the articles, letters, reminiscences, real and imaginary dialogues featured in this fittingly non-standard volume of homage. Most of them are addressed to or in conversation with Nandy; some contributions, such as the one by Madan I mentioned, deal with issues he has been focally interested in. Those of you who know Bengali may want to read his book-length conversation with the psychologist, Jayanti Basu, Footpath perolei somudro: Ashisbabu apni ki atmogato? (the title can be roughly rendered as The sea right beyond the pavement: Ashis babu, are you subjective?). It serves as an aperitif for the real challenge of reading The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, or Science, Hegemony and Violence: A Requiem for Modernity, or The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves and other classics. Serious and thoughtful readers who have not yet taken part in the non-optional project of collective therapy Nandy has initiated will no doubt do so without further delay.

What does this volume in particular add to Nandy’s own writings, though? It brings out the not immediately obvious ways in which his mood, his style, his bearing (a term one would hesitate to use in the case of most other thinkers) are infectious and have ended up reaching persons who used to turn a deaf ear to him and felt virtuous about doing so. The authors contributing to this volume are no commentators. They are stellar workers in several domains from an impressive range of countries, who see Nandy as a kindred spirit; they articulate this sense of affinity without papering over their differences of perception and approach. The editors, who provide a seriously thought-provoking take of their own, have ably juxtaposed these articulations; the result is a fruitfully jumbled cluster of voices; if I cheer for Tridip Suhrud and Raghuramaraju, this implies no uncheers for other colleagues. The production of the book is of standard OUP quality, but a reviewer has to nitpick: satsangh on page 106 should read satsang; Dresdom on page 121, for Dresden, is the kind of misprint that gladdens Ashis da’s heart.


ASHIS NANDY: A LIFE IN DISSENT Edited by Ramin Jahanbegloo and Ananya Vajpeyi, Oxford, Rs 750

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