The Free Radical

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

IN FEBRUARY 1980, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the English cricket team flew down to Bombay (now Mumbai) for a one-off test match. Known as the Golden Jubilee test, the game ended in a humiliating 10-wicket defeat for India, with Ian Botham scoring a century and taking 10 wickets.

The match is remembered, however, for another reason. At 85 for five, chasing India’s modest score of 242, England lost Bob Taylor to a catch behind the wicket. The batsman felt he hadn’t got an edge; the umpire was certain he had. Standing at first slip, GR Vishwanath, captaining India for the second and final time, felt the verdict was unfair. He withdrew the appeal, overruled the umpire and invited Taylor to continue batting. Taylor and Botham had a big partnership and took the match away from India.

That decision by Vishwanath became the key takeaway from the Golden Jubilee test — the turning point, the moment for the ages. Was it a noble, sporting gesture or was it misplaced generosity? Cricket buffs have been arguing for decades.

The question intrigues Ashis Nandy as well, and not just because he is a cricket fan. Among India’s foremost social scientists and public intellectuals, Nandy — who turned 75 on 19 May — has often used cricket “as a device through which to make a larger social, even philosophical point”. Drawing an analogy that is breathtaking in its sweep, he compares the criticism of Vishwanath with middle class attitudes towards Gandhi.

He draws in Nathuram Godse’s impassioned statement at his trial for the murder of the Mahatma — later published as May it Please Your Honour — and makes a reference to Veer Savarkar’s organic, and to Nandy’s mind antiseptic, nationalism. He sees in the hostility to Vishwanath’s recall of Taylor the same roots as the conflict between Savarkar’s and Gandhi’s conceptualisation of India.

Injecting an irrational element into an ordered framework; going against the normative structure and its rules; overruling the umpire — to Nandy, Vishwanath’s critics represent Savarkar’s advocacy of a clinical polity and an idea of nation-State designed from a European, Mazzini-inspired template. The Indian captain of 1980, like the Mahatma of the 1940s, disturbs those postulates.

“[He] could thrust his… fads… by resorting to such a simple trick as threatening a fast… The Congress had to surrender its will to his and had to be content with playing second fiddle to all his eccentricity, whimsicality, metaphysics and primitive vision… He alone was the judge of everyone and everything.” That was Godse’s complaint against the Mahatma. Could it also be the cricket purist’s grouse against Vishwanath? Nandy has his interlocutor hooked.

Indian chronicles Nandy brings to his analysis the clinical gaze that only a psychologist can lend to history
Indian chronicles: Nandy brings to his analysis the clinical gaze that only a psychologist can lend to history

DEPENDING ON how you see it, the story and analogy above could be intriguing, gripping or just a waste of time. What is undeniable, however, is that it does represent an original idea and novel analyses. In a sense, it is classic Nandy — an audacious, daring academic who has ventured into new streams and jumped from the ivory tower of academia to the low-culture marshes of cricket and popular cinema to comprehend his world and society.

Disagree with him or otherwise, it is difficult to come away and not be enthralled by his sense of curiosity, and not be left mulling a few thoughts and ideas along the way. In a city of conformists, Nandy is unafraid to walk a different path. In a time when the very discipline of humanities is under such pressure, he is the last of Delhi’s professorial eccentrics.

His family would chuckle that he’s always been like this. His wife, Uma, talks of her mother-in-law relating how Ashis walked home from school hours after his brother, Manish, had reached. They would both leave Calcutta’s (now Kolkata’s) Scottish Church School and take the same bus home, with just enough money to pay the fare. Manish would get off at the right stop. Unerringly and inevitably Ashis would be lost in a book and would jump off the bus several hours later and be forced to walk back.

Childhood habits stayed on. Ashis became the absent-minded academic. Manish, two years his junior, studied economics and business management, joining Dunlop, the World Bank and finally ended up in the United States government. He is now a consultant in Washington, DC, his career the very antithesis of that of the older brother he so cherishes. If there is antithesis, fittingly, there is synthesis as well — in the form of the third of the Nandy brothers, Pritish, 10 years Ashis’ junior, and a man who has combined creativity with commerce and become the intellectual entrepreneur that Ashis could never have become and would probably have wanted to become.

Nandy is unafraid to walk a different path. In a time when the very discipline of humanities is under such pressure, he is the last of Delhi’s professorial eccentrics

Ashis Nandy was born in 1937 in Bhagalpur, where his maternal uncle lived. His parents were schoolteachers in Calcutta, part of a family that had converted to Christianity in his grandfather’s generation. Asked if he ever interrogated that decision to switch religions, Nandy sips his coffee, thinks, comes up with two answers and dismisses them both, and finally says, with the disarming candour that so many of his interlocutors have found so endearing, “Among Bengalis of that time, it must have been a fashionable thing to do. Some became Brahmos, some became Christians. Everybody was imitating the British!”

The comment is laughed away but the commitment is serious. Unlike many other academics in the social sciences in India, Nandy is not anti-religious or contemptuous of faith. Colleagues talk of the open house he keeps every Christmas day, both as a social ritual and as a marker of his identity.

This is perhaps a secret tribute to his father, a man who refused to reconvert to Hinduism after an aunt told him to do so, promising him her wealth as inheritance. The senior Nandy would not be led into temptation; his son is proud of that integrity, but also, one suspects, captivated by it as only a curious student would be. More than faith or observance, it is the power behind that faith that engrosses Ashis Nandy and his work. Few social scientists have studied faith and religious motivations with as much interest and — dare one say it — sympathy in contemporary India.

‘CSDS is one of the key factors that has made me what I am. It offered intellectual freedom, and a collegiate yet critical ambience,’ remarks Nandy

THE LANDSCAPE seemed decidedly rockier in 1957, when Nandy dropped out of Calcutta Medical College. He was 20, had thrown away a dream career for a middle-class lad and left his parents aghast. “It was just not me,” he maintains, about those years in medical college. He went off to Nagpur for a holiday, staying with his father’s sister who was an educationist there, and enrolled in Hislop College for an undergraduate course in sociology, psychology and political science.

Having done his MA in Nagpur, Nandy got a fellowship to go to the BM Institute of Mental Health in Ahmedabad, which “had an excellent psychoanalytical clinic”. He also enrolled at Gujarat University for his PhD, the subject of his thesis being: “What role do fantasies surrounding economic success and failure play in business culture?” It was a response to the thriving business, commercial and entrepreneurial underpinning of Gujarati society.

The subject seems fascinating and perennial, especially in the era of liberalisation. Surprisingly, Nandy rarely refers to his thesis and has not even published it. He does not consider it as among his memorable works. “I was trapped between psychoanalytical insights and my newfound interest in mathematical statistics. Somehow it didn’t gel. Also my guides kept changing. I had three of them, but eventually submitted my thesis on my own.”

Nandy finally got his PhD in 1969 but by then he had long moved to Delhi. It was in 1965 that he accepted a job as research methodologist (essentially a survey statistician) at the Shriram Centre in the capital. He needed good employment because he was now married to Uma, a Gujarati girl and fellow clinical psychologist he had met in Ahmedabad. The job lasted only a few months, as Nandy was soon to find his permanent home, his own Elysium: the Centre for the Study of developing Societies (CSDS).

The recruitment process was what told Nandy this was a different sort of place. “There was no formal interview,” he remembers, “I was never asked about my degrees and educational background. We had an intellectual chat for five or six hours. At the end of it, Rajni Kothari asked me to wait for a few minutes, and then said, ‘Okay, join tomorrow’. I said, let me give the Shriram Centre a decent notice. Eventually we agreed to a three-day notice period.”

CSDS was where Nandy flowered. The interview panel that accepted him comprised several stalwarts who were to become friends and colleagues, mentors and peers — Kothari himself, the pioneering political scientist DL Seth, the historian Gopal Krishna, Bashiruddin Ahmed, who made a name for himself in political sociology and early electoral studies.

“CSDS is one of the key factors that has made me what I am,” admits Nandy, “it offered intellectual freedom, and a collegiate yet critical ambience. I cannot imagine it being easily duplicated in India.”

What made it so special? “Frankly, other institutions were perhaps less ambitious. They didn’t go into future studies, for example. At CSDS, we were daring. I think we succeeded in changing the face of social sciences, in India of course but internationally as well.”

Big influence Rajni Kothari (left) was Nandy’s mentor at CSDS, which offered plenty of intellectual freedom
Big influence: Rajni Kothari (left) was Nandy’s mentor at CSDS, which offered plenty of intellectual freedom

THE MULTIDISCIPLINARY and cross-disciplinary leeway that CSDS allowed him was perfect for Nandy. He bloomed and became controversial among fellow academics for his use of motifs from cricket and popular Bombay cinema, as well as the frequency with which he began intervening in the media or being quoted by the press in an attempt to validate what was sometimes not so much a social trend but just a journalist stringing together three examples.

Did this overexposure worry him? “Well, I have suffered and benefited from it,” he says, “there are people who have not read my books but only heard me on television or read my newspaper columns. On the other hand, there are academics who are not as aware of the technical nature of the subject I work in — clinical psychology has a fuzzy ‘agony aunt’ image. The broad area of cultural anthropology is also unknown to many.”

This could have been a trap for a lesser person but Nandy had the intellectual gumption and sheer brio to make it an opportunity. “Journalists accuse fellow journalists of being academic,” he jokes, “similarly academics accuse fellow academics of being journalistic.” Behind that one-liner is a carefully thought-out strategy. “Rajni Kothari believed academics must participate in public debates,” he explains, “if you don’t, the gap will be filled by someone else and what you want to say will remain unsaid. It is our duty as intellectuals to participate. It is the only form of political participation that can work to our advantage, where we can use our background, our knowledge and our data.”

Others remained sceptical of his persistent use of Hindi cinema and cricket as tropes. His friend and film critic Chidananda Dasgupta (actor-director Aparna Sen’s father) was perturbed at the attention Nandy was showering on Hindi cinema. How could there be serious academic work amid such potboilers? “Well, simply because it is so successful,” says Nandy, “it tells you about society. Hindi cinema deals with stereotypes, caricatures and emotions that have been banished from serious cinema, books and art. But these emotions haven’t vanished from society.”

The idea struck him when he went for an academic conference once and an African philosopher sitting next to him entertained him at the end of each session with a different Hindi film song. He decided to explore the fount of Hindi cinema’s appeal.

“Studying Hindi cinema opens a window not just to our society,” Nandy suggests, “but also to other societies where it is popular, such as the Caribbean and the Maghreb. Melodrama has been banished from serious art and creativity. But it survives, perhaps solely, in hindi films. Portraying a mother-son relationship in a serious work is not possible; people will read a complex into it. Coincidences have been banished. But all of these are there in people’s minds. Goldsmith and Shakespeare were melodramatic and used coincidences. Great art has included them in the past, but current literary fashions don’t. Popular cinema bypasses that.”

If it was the bottom-up energies of hindi cinema that Nandy found irresistible, ironically it was the top-down construct of cricket that he found compelling. he has been drawn to his two principal tropes for opposite reasons. He saw cricket as part of the imperial project: “It’s not an accident that cricket, not football, was shown as England’s national sport to Indians.”

If it was the bottom-up energies of Hindi cinema that Nandy found irresistible, ironically it was the top-down construct of cricket that he found compelling

The arcane rules; the umpire in the white coat who is infallible and inviolable; the constrained aggression; the idea that the close-in fielders are not opponents but the first line of spectators before whom you must not behave in a ‘wrong’ manner: it was Nandy who demonstrated that the cricket match was a means of sublimating colonial class hierarchies.

To Indians it became a means to grapple with issues of ethics and chance. “Cricket is a game of fate passed off as a game of skill,” Nandy argues, “it is not a game against the opposition; it is a game against your own destiny. The weather conditions may change when you are batting, the ball may swing more when the opposition is bowling. That’s why I used it to explore, for instance, the phenomenon of astrology.” The full name of his frequently quoted book of 1989 is telling: The Tao of Cricket: On Games of Destiny and the Destiny of Games.

How does Nandy look back at his obsessive promotion of cricket and hindi cinema as devices for social scientists? “I was looking for alternative baselines for social criticism,” he says, “and envisioning plural ideas of a desirable society. I think our democracy is mature enough to play with such pluralism. After all there is an India outside the urban middle class that is asserting itself.”

In the process, Nandy mentored and inspired a whole generation of academics and public thinkers. As social anthropologist and writer Amitav Ghosh puts it, “Ashisda is one of the most brilliant people I have ever known. Listening to him was like watching a fireworks display in which the spectators become a part of the show: his thinking was so unexpected, so provocative that he would light fuses in the heads of everyone around him.”

Game theory Nandy demonstrated that cricket was a means of sublimating colonial class hierarchies
Game theory: Nandy demonstrated that cricket was a means of sublimating colonial class hierarchies

IT WAS exhilarating and exciting intellectual experiment, but it came at a price. It took years for Indian academia to give Nandy the recognition he deserved. Indian sociologists, Nandy’s friends have long held, have been niggardly and even churlish in grudgingly embracing him as one of their own.

The breakthrough year was 1983, when Nandy published The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta calls it “Nandy’s best book, a highly insightful work”; “It shows that while we claim to despise the English, we have imitated them in our manners and customs, and it shows the shallowness of our nationalist endeavours. The name itself is telling. The ‘Intimate Enemy’ are the English, whom we claim to oppose but whom we have borrowed from on the rebound.”

When Gupta read the book, his mind went back to his student years. “I was assailed by my professor, JS Uberoi, on this idea of one language, one religion and one State, and how the European notion of a nation-State had been adopted by the nationalists in India. In reading The Intimate Enemy, I found many of the same themes. I guess Uberoi and Nandy must have been intellectual collaborators at some stage.”

Yogendra Yadav, who was Nandy’s colleague at CSDS— Nandy retired at age 65 but still retains an office at the centre and goes there regularly, though he no longer draws a salary — read The Intimate Enemy while still a student. It left a deep impress on him.

“This is one of the most outstanding books to come out of India in the past 50 years,” says Yadav, “it gave people like me a new language and enabled us to say things we knew but didn’t know how to express. My social science taught me to talk about class struggle, colonialism, and to some extent gender. But it was clearly a derivative radicalism. I came to Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1981 to find that the radicalism of JNU was more English than radical, if you get what I mean. I didn’t have a conceptual language to express that discontent. Ashis Nandy gave us that language.”

Given the central argument of The Intimate Enemy, it is ironical that Indian academics began to give Nandy his due only when he was acknowledged on American campuses. “In western academic circles,” Yadav emphasises, “Ashis Nandy is a cult figure. He was a founder of disciplines such as cultural studies and literary criticism in India. He anticipated the big intellectual currents like post-colonialism and post-modernism. This is a man who has refused to reconcile and put his life in a straitjacket. He does not think of consistency as a virtue.”

Family drama Melodrama has been banished from serious art but survives in Bollywood, says Nandy
Family drama: Melodrama has been banished from serious art but survives in Bollywood, says Nandy

THAT REFUSAL to get into a straitjacket has also made dissent — as practice and principle — a central pillar of Nandy’s life, enterprise and calling. He admires Marx and Gandhi, but has little time for either the CPM or the congress. He has been sharp, strong and occasionally may be overblown in his criticism of the BJP and the hindu right. His attack on Gujarati society and Narendra Modi in the years following the 2002 violence has been personally problematic at times — given his wife’s family is Gujarati and lives in the state. An article in Times of India in January 2008 earned him a court case from the Gujarat government for allegedly fomenting hate between communities.

Nevertheless, this is also a man who protested against the Emergency while it was happening. One piece in New Quest that might have been interpreted as incendiary but got away — because nobody understood it, he quips — was called “Invitation to a Beheading”, and suggested that assassination takes place when other forms of grievance are curtailed. In another context, while discussing Noam Chomsky, Nandy waved his hand and told a colleague, “The global establishment has its headquarters in New York. The trouble is these fellows think the headquarters of global dissent should also be New York!”

In the end, Nandy stands out for the integrity of his intellectual enterprise. An exposition of this would be “Religion, Mass Violence and the Exiled and Secret Selves of a citizen-Killer”, a paper he wrote following a series of encounters and interviews with Madanlal Pahwa, a partition-refugee-turned-hindu-vigilante who threw a bomb at a meeting the Mahatma attended and served time in prison for his role in the assassination.

Nandy meets Pahwa as an old man in Bombay and despite his personal opinions, offers a detailed and remarkably neutral assessment of the Mahatma’s assailant and the religious rage that accompanied partition. In one penetrative assessment, he encapsulates the essential pathos and tragedy of Pahwa, and indeed of all those who become fixated by a moment in time, rather than attempt to move with time.

“He [Pahwa] was not in touch with serious politics after his release,” Nandy writes, “and Indian politics also had passed him by. Contemporary politics did not enter his narrative, even though his ideology had become more salient in India during the previous two decades. His was the story of a person trying to re-enter life as a householder after a life-altering ‘heroic’ experience. The only politics that mattered to him was the politics of the 1940s and, psychologically, he had continued to live in that decade. When interviewed, he was suffering from a kidney ailment for about seven years. That too he had to relate to his pivotal experience; it was, he claimed, ‘due to the torture in 1948’.”

It’s only a short paragraph, but in it Nandy achieves many things. He tells you about his subject, Pahwa. He makes his own position clear, without superimposing it on the narrative. He establishes his credentials as a rigorous interviewer and chronicler of a social phenomenon or a historical phenomenon and a person who represents it. Above all, he brings to his analysis the clinical gaze that only a psychologist can lend to history and society. It takes a polymath to do this. It takes an Ashis Nandy.

Ashok Malik is Contributing editor, Tehelka.