June 26, 2020
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Me And My Couch

The versatile Sudhir Kakar’s autobiography is without conceit, and dissects the self with professionalism

Me And My Couch
Me And My Couch
A Book of Memory— Confessions and Reflections
By Sudhir Kakar
Penguin/Viking | Pages: 318 | Rs. 499

On my list of Indian writers who must be read is Sudhir Kakar. On a scale of ten, I’d rate him as a nine. I make it a point to read everything he writes because he writes on a variety of subjects which no one has written about before—and is easy to read.

His latest is his own life story. I was fascinated because he trod the same ground as I had twenty or thirty years earlier. He spent his early childhood in Sargodha; I in a village a few miles from Sargodha. Like me, he was in and out of Lahore and went to the same school in Delhi. His father was a magistrate who was often transferred from one post to another. So at the age of eight he was admitted to Modern School in Delhi as a boarder. My father was president of the school’s board from its inception and I did my matriculation from there.

But unlike Kakar, I was a day scholar and knew nothing about what went on among the boarders. He gives a lurid account of the rampant buggery that went on in the hostel: “A hurried exploration of another boy’s genitals while offering one’s own for a similar grope. It had to be rushed, since other nine-and ten-year-olds...were lined up in front of the washroom door, impatiently awaiting their turn. After a couple of months of indiscriminate gropings, partners were selected for the rest of the year....”

In his next school, St Edwards in Shimla, run by Irish Christian Brothers, he talks of the beatings by sadistic teachers: “Brother Conway...once started caning a plump, good-looking Kashmiri boy who had played some innocent prank. (He) could not stop the beating even after the boy had dirtied his pants. In his flushed face and his inability to stop...we boys could sense (this) was more than punishment, there were other, darker forces propelling Brother Conway’s cane and blocking his ears to the boy’s screams.”

After he finished school, his family decided to send him to engineering college in Ahmedabad. He stayed with his aunt, Kamla Chowdhury, who was the mistress of the nuclear scientist Vikram Sarabhai. After college, Kakar had to decide what he wanted to do with his life. His first choice was engineering. He set sail for Germany to do a post-graduation in industrial engineering and spent four years in Mannheim, studying economics and industrial management. He learnt to read and write German and his articles and short stories appeared in German journals. He returned home without a clear picture about his future.

The decisive point came when he met Erik Erikson, who was working on a psychoanalytical portrait of Ambalal Sarabhai, whose family owned Calico Mills in Ahmedabad. Erikson’s Gandhi’s Truth was acclaimed as a masterpiece of psychoanalysis of a family split after a workers’ strike. Kakar decided to follow his example and become a psychoanalyst. For some time he lived with his aunt Kamla. It was during his stay in Ahmedabad that he married a beautiful Gujarati girl, with whom he had two children.

When Vikram died, Kamla moved to Delhi. She bought a spacious apartment overlooking Lodhi Gardens. Kakar and his family also moved to Delhi. He set up practice and started writing books. He was successful in both. He was much sought after by good-looking society ladies of Delhi. Kakar had many affairs. He also found family life boring and decided to ditch his wife and children, replacing them by marrying a German lady in the same profession. Kamla was soured by his second marriage and cut off relations with him. So Kakar and his German wife decided to get out of Delhi and set up home in Goa.

One of the delights of Kakar’s memoir is his keen observation of his own feelings. He writes, for instance, about what it felt like when he kissed a girl full in the mouth for the first time: “At first, I was startled when she put her tongue in my mouth. My Hindu self, brought up on the notion of jootha in which spittle is a source of pollution, at first recoiled at the incursion.” Or his feelings after he had sex with her—a sort of self-analysis. No one has done this with such finesse as he did.

Another plus point in this autobiography is the sets of pictures of people he writes about. They tell you his life story as much as the text.

Kakar begins his book by admitting candidly that there’s a degree of vanity involved in writing one’s own memoir. But this is that rare autobiography without a trace of conceit.

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