It cannot be decided convincingly whether Ashis Nandy is the stalwart forerunner or the resolute and defiant backbencher of the various schools of thought and discourse dominating the Indian public sphere.
While Nandy’s voice is synonymous with original critique and a conspicuous, contentious presence in the public and academic debates, the man is often more comfortable in the garb of an ‘intellectual street fighter’, a thorough and complete dissenter, whose defiance of epistemic defiance has lent him the sobriquet of ‘India’s most irreverent Social Scientist.’
Nandy has been variously branded as ‘unclassifiable’, nostalgic and accepting of tradition, anti-secular, almost Gandhian in his evocation of the past as a reservoir of the ‘secret and the latent selves’, critic of modernity – Indian and western, anti-middle class, anti-disciplinary and even non-interdisplinarian — thus testifying to the broad swathes of his intellectual range and effect, often contrarian and antagonistic, on the nature of Indian public and political discourse.
Christine Deftereos’ book, Ashis Nandy and the Cultural Politics of Selfhood, therefore, is both a great starting point for those grappling with Nandy’s vast corpus (he’s easily one of the most prolific and provocative of social thinkers from India) for the first time, as also, it is an intervention within the gamut of criticisms that overlay the psychopolitical universe that was birthed (at least in India) by the mind that has been the harbinger of the alternative research culture emanating from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi.
Deftereos, an Australian social scientist herself, based at the University of Melbourne, has certainly done a commendable job — first, by daring to take on critically one of the most confrontational and incendiary of Indian political scientists; and second, by arriving at a balanced and, most importantly, an intuitively agreeable assessment of the intellectual works of a purportedly anti-intellectual public thinker.
It is not easy to collate and coalesce all the divergent strands of Nandy’s explosively anti-secular, anti-modern philosophy, yet Deftereos handles them beautifully, pinning and unpinning each of the threads from and within the larger spool of the ungovernable ‘Nandyisms’.
At the outset, Deftereos tells us that Nandy has ‘secured’ his position, ironically enough, as the most passionately divisive yet important contemporary thinkers, particularly with his unwavering stance on the unsettling nature of multiple identities, the never-ending shadow of the past resurfacing as the ‘latent selves’, the terrible tendency of global modernity to flatten and homogenise lives (inner, outer, mental, sexual and political) by severing links with the past by the knives of rational thinking, the hypocritical position that is ‘middle-class liberal secularism’, and myriad other ideological facets that have been splintering and multiplying from the time he emerged into the sociopolitical firmament with his scathing anti-secularist manifesto in a 1985 issue of Seminar magazine.
Ever since, Nandy’s contestations have been termed on the one hand as outrageously ahistorical, particularly by trenchant Marxists, and as brilliantly intuitive, by psychoanalysts such as Julia Kristeva, who have pointed out terrifying biases of class, race and gender in the economic and political histories that have been written respecting the boundaries of disciplinarity (or even interdisciplinarity) in mind. Deftereos rightly argues that Nandy’s interjections (and there is a striking resemblance with terrorism and serial blasts) are disruptive, that blow away the smug compartmentalisations of histories and philosophies, that bring in radical and stray thoughts into the hallowed seminar rooms of academic ivory towers, that usher in the street-fighter into the intellectual wrestling ring of global scholarship.
For Nandy is the eternal outsider, as the recent controversy surrounding his comments on the leveling effect of corruption on caste at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January this year aptly testifies. Nandy, in a masterstroke of intellectual honesty and rebellion, demolished the distinction between the strict abstractions of academic self-indulgence, indeed arrogance, and the diluted, more haphazard and more accessible, as also more incorrect, nature of public discourse, which, as the mayhem over a (mis)interpretation demonstrated, clearly has the potential to snowball and transmogrify into something ugly, though less pretentious and less self-reflexive than the former.
Clearly, Nandy likes to work at the margins of both, uncomfortable as he is with the notion of being the absolute insider. Nandy accommodates dualities, but he’s also widely popular because his tendency to speak and write in an anecdotal, epigrammatic manner. He writes from a position, of a defiant defiance, of being doubly oppositional, of making a virtue of disagreeableness, of looking at the other side, of being the non-non-normative, of the other Other. Deftereos empathetically arrives at this position, as she unspools Nandy for herself and the reader, as much as she interprets Nandy for the thinker himself to reflect and work upon.
Evidently, Deftereos is at pains to understand Nandy’s notion of tradition, which is, in a sense, quasi-Gandhian. Nandy comes from a family of Bengali Christians that took to converting as a mark of rebellion against the Brahminical tyranny of caste and Vedic scholarship. But, even Gandhi’s notion of self-control, self-sacrifice, order comes from a Christian theology, and less from strictly Hindu modes of thought. Like Gandhi, Nandy fuses together many disparate elements into his anti-secular, anti-modern stance, with could be called a ‘slums-eye view’ of the Indian cultural politics. There are pluralities, disjunctions, assimilation of opposites and the sense of inhabiting a space that is shifty, neither inside nor outside of an imagined tradition, that is the fulcrum of a resurrected Indian selfhood.
Hence, Nandy falls back on popular expressions and folk lore to put forward his theses, which are wary of modernity’s instrumentalist rationality, morality of secularism, of the iron hand of law and its unsympathetic eyes, of the destructive consumerist drive, of the atomistic self-centredness of the modern world.
This, along with his stringent critique of rightwing Hindutva, resurrected under the firebrand Narendra Modi, makes Nandy very hard to pin down. Deftereos, fortunately, attempts only to understand, and not classify, the unclassifiable Ashis Nandy.