Ashis Nandy: A Life in Dissent is a very unusual festschrift. Neither a celebratory retrospective nor elegiac souvenir on the occasion of his 80th birthday, the festschrift is actually a primal, sacral, hymnal ‘gift of song’ for India’s most celebrated dissenter and also ‘resolutely original and invariably’ controversial public intellectual. For those interested in diagnosing ravages of modernity and violence of development, this is also an imaginary oriental rug-draped Freudian couch on which victims (patients) reveal their fears and fantasies. For many friends or critics of Ashis Nandy, he is a deeply emotive experience, sort of a curlicued script of lived and illusory memory or nightmare. The genealogy of the double-journey of genial-genius Nandy has been scratched over and recopied many times by his colleagues and admirers.
But what makes this festschrift an extraordinaire tour de force is that it is also an ambitious, impossible musical extravaganza of post-colonial India in which Nandy sings with radical Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna the Raag Malkauns in the sharp, piercing ‘mother tongue of leaves, lizards and parrots’, baffling his listeners, interlocutors, and foes. No wonder, he and his controversies thrive at the edge of psychology. Though Nandy whimsically defies all sorts of geographical coordinates and traffic signals to identify the location of his ‘very popular exile’ in Delhi’s east Nizamuddin, his reputation as the ‘Frantz Fanon of our time’ remains undiminished across continents, communities and generations, with or without the Internet.
The son of Prafulla Nalini Nandy and Satish Chandra Nandy, Nandy is unconventional, maverick, heretic and often blasphemous, as if he were Kabir, Akka Mahadevi or Basavanna. The festschrift fittingly reconfirms that Nandy, like Nachiketa, grew suspicious very early of all truths, including his own, and audaciously challenged all forms of patriarchal, sexist, racist authority, including the god of death (Yama). We also know that Nandy is a ‘prosaic social psychologist and a doomsday futurist at large’, but ‘never a misfit or an outcast’. But perhaps it is not widely known that he is so generously child-like that he won’t mind exchanging his ever-smiley, honeycombed dentures with you, provided you promise him zany-zippy adventures of incongruity and transgression in the La-La land of imperfect ananda (bliss).
Happily cotching under a lantern of memories in the bougainvillic skies, the broodingly virtuoso editors of the volume—Ramin Jahanbegloo, a dissident Iranian-Canadian philosopher, and Ananya Vajpeyi, an intellectual historian—admit that the title of the volume is both accurate and misleading. “It is accurate because Ashis Nandy’s is a dissenting imagination par excellence. It is misleading because it suggests a life full of conflict and turbulence, in a state of exile perhaps, the story of an angst-ridden protagonist caught in the torque of perpetual protest.” This sounds like a typical Derridean aporia. Or it might be a case of schizophrenic border-blurring with traces of teenage flirtations and bloodless utopias.
Instead of reading the opulently beautiful 23 chapters, I started listening, and rummaging through them the truth and lies, and also troubles of our times at Ghare-Baire (home and the world). With lyrical delicacy, and jagged unruly cantos, ebbing in the melancholic acceleration of luscious and fragrant memories, the chapters in the volume are mostly freewheeling, extroverted conversations (real and imaginary) about the hallucinatory lives of Nandy’s heteronyms (proto and para), while also being about politics of awareness in general.
Departing from tab-top professional historical writings, the festschrift assembles not only the usual high priests of the world of intellect and dissent, including Fred Dallmayer, TN Madan, Richard Faulk, Lydia Liu, Dipesh Chakrabarti, David Blaney, Tridip Suhrud, Ziadduin Sardar, Shiv Visvanthan and others, but also offers an aesthetically delightful assortment of celebrity novelist Amitabh Ghosh, TM Krishna and Nandy’s younger brother Manish Nandy to enliven the dough of memories with or without sacred wings. In a reminder of Ten Meditations of Reveries of the Solitary Walker of Rousseau, Shiv Visvanathan’s autobiographical essay Walking as Philosophy is an astonishing piece of sociology; it is also a meditative and mnemonic reflection of his father’s fascination for walking, and Nandy’s less known habit of walking as semiotics of agency and dissent.
Similarly, Amitabh Ghosh’s alluringly original chapter, At Home and the World in Iraq 1915-17, is a poignant retelling of Bengal’s minor literary figure Mokkhoda Debi’s tribute to her daughter’s son Kalyan Mukherjee, who was a casuality of the Mesopotamian Campaign of 1915-16. In narrating the story of her grandson’s death by imperial war, Debi claims her right to rebellion through grief and bereavement as a grandmother’s privilege, writes Ghosh. In invoking the ancient lament, biraha (separation), Ghosh, in a ghost conversation with Nandy, mirrors a uniquely Bengali (Bihari-Odia) trait of revealing maternal anxieties about war and peace. In contrast, Tridip Suhrud’s ‘tale about our hyper-masculine selves’ playfully interrogates how the new Gujarat of Nandy’s Gandhi has become an ‘encounter’ state, and how rapidly and rabidly it has ejected Gandhi from our collective psyche, while retaining a solitary, sombre Gandhi with a Swachh Bharat slogan on the new currency notes.
Note, Gandhi and Suhrud are born Gujjus, but Nandy is born-again-Bengali by marrying Gujarati Uma Nandy. Unsurprisingly, all of them are constituted by multiple identities, including remembered ones. Though written separately, TM Krishna and Ananya Vajpeyi’s essays are allegorically entwined in a melodic percussive conversation with Nandy around the language of music, artistic creativity and ‘re-enchanting the world’ with ‘unfettered liberty engrained in every child’. Also, read Vajpeyi’s essay with your ‘third eye’, as it explores the uninhibited fusion of poetry (akam) and songs between TM Krishna and Perumal Murugan to describe ‘a parade of phonemes, an explosion of syllables—each sound, each word, each image clear as crystal, sharp as knife’ in the hands of Parvati, the consort of god Shiva.
Very few people know that Nandy is a music genius. He often retreats into silent murmurings of intermingling of streams, rivers and sea in the rising and falling svara of the classical musical to rediscover and regain his self within himself. Uncanny it might appear, but this could be the source of his ‘lucid openness and calm detachment’ amidst ‘a burning rage against logocentric injustice’, as noted by philosopher Jahanbegloo. On a personal note of disclosure, I have known Ashis-da intermittently for more than three decades as an early mentor and a major source of unclaimed ‘political unconscious’ in my poetry. No wonder, in the fictional prolegomena to my anthology, My Grandfather’s Imaginary Typewriter, Ashis-da unconsciously drops the hint of his totemic fantasy—autobiography in the making.
Some minor quibbles. The festschrift could have been far more symphonic and seductive if some of Ashis-da’s friends or interlocutors from the world of painting, poetry, politics, journalism, cricket, and films had lent their voices. Missing is the voice of Uma Nandy. Ashis and Uma are the singing and silent soulmates—inseparable and solitary—for more than five decades. Wondering what Nandy would have been without Uma and Aditi (his daughter). Also, I would have loved to see a couple of chapters, polemical or otherwise, from the trenches of Intimate Enemy of Nandy. Perhaps Ashis-da himself would have written a fictional conversation between himself and his would-be assassin in a psychological thriller mode, revealing the uncensored inner workings of his ‘beautiful mind’. To conclude, there is only one catch here as you read this festschrift; it is an enchanting wilderness—once you enter, you will never be able to go back.
Ashwani Kumar is a poet, author and senior fellow of ICCSSR at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
His recent book is titled Banaras and the Other, the first of a trilogy on religious cities in India