What do you make of a Punjabi student in Germany with a fondness for keema mutter who was “not only Mannheim’s best table tennis player but also a published (fiction) writer”? Sudhir Kakar is now 72, and as he says in his new memoir, the same age as his father when he died. The famed psychoanalyst and writer studied mechanical engineering and business economics before having an epiphany that he wanted to follow in the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s footsteps. Kakar went on to get a doctorate in economics and then trained at the Sigmund Freud Institute in Frankfurt. Apart from a psychoanalysis practice in Delhi and his global, multi-disciplinary teaching work, he has authored 17 nonfiction titles and four novels.
His superb memoir outlines the making of a modern Indian — how a ruminative, restless mind realised itself in the folds of a vocation of understanding. It also begins to show how this well-heeled, globetrotting student became a doctor of the Indian psyche. A Book of Memory somehow makes a gentle read out of Kakar’s bruising candour, buoyed by his fluently meditative and occasionally lyrical prose. He coins easy and apt metaphors, and in at least one instance betters the Nabakov phrase he quotes (describing masturbation on page 84). Kakar answered Gaurav Jain’s questions from his home in Goa about a life thoroughly lived across mind, body and spaces and his prevailing “Punjabi bawdiness”. Edited excerpts:
Why are Indian memoirs usually so antiseptic? Are we resistant to self-analysis?
It has to do with an Indian tradition of memoirs where the self is primarily defined in terms of outer achievements. The inward look rarely comes to rest on a biographical self with all its complexity, ambivalences and contradictions. All too often the Indian memoirist tends to drape a flag of achievement around his shoulders as he takes a victory lap around the memory track.
What antecedents did you look to for writing a memoir?
I did not consciously look to any antecedents. But, of course, I’ve read many memoirs, Indian and foreign. If pressed, I’d say the two I admire most are Nabakov’sSpeak, Memory and Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth. Speak, Memory for its sheer literary delight and Gandhi’s for a candidness that was unprecedented and remains rare in Indian autobiographical writings.
Did you seek permission from anyone before writing about them? Where did you face the biggest inhibitions? Were you exhilarated or discomfited at your candour about your loves and sexual experiences?
I did seek permission from an ‘old love’ but I didn’t feel I needed it from others since, if there’re any harsh judgments made in the memoir, they’re liable to be directed against myself rather than others. There were times when in writing about my loves and sexual experiences the press to conceal was far stronger than the wish to reveal. But the greatest resistance was in describing incidents where I had behaved badly, where I had to confront the guilt of having hurt persons, especially my mother, whom I had loved so dearly. These were the times when I was going against an unwritten commandment of memoir writing — the narration of the memories of life shouldn’t do any real damage to one’s feelings of self-worth.
Did you dream of the book while writing it?
I dreamt a lot writing this book but I’m a big dreamer in any case. I don’t remember any particular dream but only that my parents, disguised or as themselves, figured more prominently than they normally do in my dreams.
After arguing about studying management, were your parents disappointed when you dove into psychoanalysis?
No, they became proud of me. Not of psychoanalysis, which they didn’t understand, but of my academic ‘achievements’ or affiliations: Harvard, IIM-A, IIT. My father always pushed me to write more — “You’re lazy,” he maintained. He was a proud collector of reviews of my books, more dismissive of my critics than I ever could be. Which was nice. The father as delegate of the son!
What was your biggest fear while writing? One reviews one’s life constantly even while living it every day — did it help to ‘look back’ intensely?
My biggest fear was whether it’d hurt people who’re nearest to me now — my wife, children — and also others in my past who I’ve loved and who loved me. What looking back more intensely did was mitigate my feelings of hurt and any desire for revenge, although I am aware that they never disappear completely. The writing refined rather than changed my opinions of persons or events. Remember, I had undertaken a similar exercise, 50 minutes every day for five days a week for five years on the couch when I was training to be an analyst. The big changes had taken place then. The memoir was then a further part of a movement, not a big break.
Why did you choose to skate over some of your ‘most intimate relationships’, such as your first marriage and its disquiets? Aren’t such elisions a chink that collapses the whole project of a memoir?
I believe I’ve reflected on the disquiets, painful as they were, to the limit of a memoir. Exceeding this limit would be, in Graham Greene’s phrase, “infringing the copyright” others have on their lives.
Why did you skew heavily to your life’s first half? Did you find you’ve had fewer moments as you grew older that made you feel intensely alive or did you just lose patience in the writing?
Life was brighter, more vivid in its first half. Its palette has muted colours now, which are equally appreciated. One must learn to appreciate the colours of a rainbow and not remain fascinated by the cloudburst that preceded it. Turmoil makes for a better story, unhappy love for better poetry, than do contentment and happiness that have the quality of a gently flowing stream.
‘Rahul Gandhi’s success depends on how he deals with the smoke of flattery. What will be the psychic effect of the hilarity greeting his jokes, even the undeserving ones?’
Given your observations about Rajiv Gandhi and most Indian leaders that they lack nonfawning information, how do you rate Rahul Gandhi’s chances at political success?
It will greatly depend upon how he deals with the smoke of flattery. What’ll be the psychic consequences of subconsciously registering people involuntarily nodding their heads in agreement even when they disagree with what he says, the hilarity greeting his witticisms, even the undeserving ones? It may be universally true that a leader is always surrounded by liars, but the danger is acute in the Indian setting. It’s hard not to start believing in your ‘greatness’ when those surrounding you are constantly testifying to your perspicacity and wisdom.
What “occasional Punjabi bawdiness” has stayed with you over the years?
I still like to hear jokes about male and female anatomical parts but I don’t tell them myself anymore because people get shocked at grey-haired people telling them.
Still addicted to keema mutter?
I still like to eat it but don’t make it anymore. I’ve progressed much beyond… to mughlai chicken.
Now that you’re fulfilling your long-time desire of writing fiction, do you ever regret not becoming a full-time novelist?
No, not at all. There is a time for everything, ‘a time to sow, a time to reap, a time to….’