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Distant Thunder

'Back in Calcutta after a month in England, I found that a debate, or a public difference of opinion, between two Indian academics had gone all but stale...'. Amit Chaudhuri writes on the articles by
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Distant Thunder

This article originally appeared in two parts, Part I under the above title on July 25, 2004, and Part II under the title A Climate of Opinion, on August 1, 2004 in The Telegraph of Calcutta. Reproduced here by permission of the author and the publication.

Back in Calcutta after a month in England, I found that a debate, or a public difference of opinion, between two Indian academics had gone all but stale. Its venue had been an unlikely one, a national newsmagazine known as much for its secular credentials as it is for grading the schools, colleges, and restaurants of the nation somewhat arbitrarily: a cross between (to think in terms of the media in the country I had just left behind) The Guardian and Time Out. That this erudite quarrel had been conducted in these pages reminds us that there is still no highbrow journal of the ideas in our country that could claim to have a decent nationwide circulation. The academics in question were Ashis Nandy, a psychologist by training, a sort of cultural theorist/ sociologist by vocation, lately retired from the Centre for Studies in Developing Societies in Delhi; and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, who holds a chair in South Asian history at Oxford.

"Debate" is perhaps not the right word. Nandy had written an article in response to some remarks made about him in the same newsmagazine by the journalist Kuldip Nayar; Subrahmanyam had written a riposte; several letters to the editor had followed, including one from Subrahmanyam. But Nandy, as far as I could tell from the back issues I consulted, had been silent after the appearance of his piece. I was struck by this business; public airings of intellectual differences by academics in India are rare. This is partly because the liberal intelligentsia in India has become, one suspects, such a complex orchestration, in the last twenty years, of hierarchies and affiliations, of publications, papers, conferences, university chairs, committee appointments — an orchestra playing a limited number of tunes, or limited variations on one tune — that to disturb your precise relationship to this arrangement is to pass into silence, or intellectual non-existence. When differences are infrequently thrashed out, their intellectual content too often is, you feel, a mask for territorial anxieties. All in all, you conclude that, in the circles I’m referring to, there has been relatively little scope for genuine debate, criticism, and irreverence in the last two decades; the interesting and even important intellectual developments have been swiftly translated into territorial identities.

And so, an intervention — to use the fashionable academic term — by a historian as good and serious as Subrahmanyam in response to Ashis Nandy is both welcome and overdue; it creates a break, a rupture, in our monotonous observance of intellectual propriety. But, for a riposte that is so scathing and obviously outspoken, I found Subrahmanyam’s article puzzlingly obscure in some ways, and unwittingly illuminating in others. In the end, it seemed to reaffirm the difficulties of critical language and thinking, and the unique elusiveness of Nandy in our cultural landscape.

Very briefly, Subrahmanyam makes the following points in his piece: firstly, that Nandy is both wrong and guilty of repeating himself when he states his old objection to secularism — that it’s a concept that’s inadequate to the social and political experiences of our multiply-formed nation, a concept whose inadequacy is underlined by the fact that it is a Western import. (In his piece, Nandy had cited — as he has before — alternative grass-roots forms of tolerance and pluralism that had enabled most of the country’s population, who live as they do outside the major urban centres, to co-exist with each other despite differences in religion. He pointed out that most riots actually occur in urban areas.)

Subrahmanyam angrily reminds us (and Nandy) that the European idea of the "secular" is quite different from the Indian one: the "secular", in the West, is a space in which the church, or, simply, religion does not operate; in India, it is a space in which a multiplicity of religions co-habit with each other. In fact, "secularism", to all purposes, is an Indian coinage; it has had no long-standing usage in the West, and it does not have one there today. These are not particularly new insights — in fact, they’re becoming pretty venerable themselves — but the context of this argument gives them a new charge; besides, it’s entertaining to witness these insights being employed to turn the tables on what Subrahmanyam calls Nandy’s "indigenist" rhetoric.

In the course of the article, Subrahmanyam pulls up Nandy for errors to do with European history in a few grand pronouncements the latter had made, and calls Nandy, as a consequence, "ignorant", "an innocent". A few errors made in a domain somewhat outside the writer’s natural one would probably have led to the charge of recklessness being made against the culprit; "ignorance" suggests that Nandy is in a classroom with a very exacting teacher. Subrahmanyam ends by identifying Nandy as a progeny of the "lachrymose tradition of the romantic underside of the so-called Bengal Renaissance"; and punctures Nandy’s self-image of being someone who’s had recourse, in his thinking, to life-experiences outside the secular mainstream by suggesting that, after the death of Nirad C. Chaudhuri, he is, indeed, our "last colonial thinker".

At first glance, Subrahmanyam’s article falls within a recognizable tradition of polemical debunking: an enfant terrible attacking an older, establishment figure. However, more than once, Subrahmanyam’s tone changes, and he begins to sound like an establishment voice, sanctioned by Oxbridge, educating a person who’s got his PhD from a minor university. By the end of the piece, he comes to represent sound historical thinking and knowledge, as well as rationality and logic, in contrast to Nandy’s whimsy, romanticism, and lack of clear thinking. In other words, for a young polemicist attacking an older mandarin, Subrahmanyam begins to sound older and wiser than Nandy: an effect he may or may not have wanted to achieve.

His description of Nandy as an "innocent" — as, in effect, a childlike figure — is intriguing. It reminds one of how dissenting figures in English cultural history — those who didn’t fit into mainstream paradigms — were characterized as innocents, naturists, and muddled thinkers; were, in other words, exoticized and, to a certain extent, subalternized. The wide currency of the image of Blake sitting naked in his garden comes to mind. So does Eliot’s condescension towards Blake as a Swedenborgian autodidact. D.H. Lawrence is another case in point; a sort of shaman-figure in English modernity, derided by Eliot, among others, of being "incapable of what is ordinarily known as thinking". That such simplifications were class-driven in England seems more or less clear now; one can’t help thinking, reading Eliot on Blake and Lawrence, of those writers’ lower-middle-class and working-class origins, their imperfect (in Eliot’s eyes) education.

Moreover, Subrahmanyam gives the impression — in the ironical asides, sometimes in scare quotes, about Nandy being a "celebrated" and "great thinker" — that there is a general consensus about Nandy’s iconic status, a status which he now proceeds to dismantle. This construction, though, is fraught with difficulties. For, though its reputation has grown over the years, Nandy’s work doesn’t fit into any of the major social science discourses in this country: not even, despite certain resemblances, into the subalternist one. He is too unrigorous, too dissonant, to inhabit their contours; he is fated to be a minority voice. Is there a place for such a voice in our community of liberal intellectuals?

Part II

Is there a place for a minority voice like Nandy’s in our community of liberal intellectuals — especially since we live in a context in which we’ve been ruled by a right-wing government, and may be in danger of being ruled by one in the future; when the forces of reason need to muster what energy and vigilance they can against the forces of darkness?

Subrahmanyam is right, after all, to point out (in his letter to the editor more than in his piece) that by rejecting "secularism" for being a Western import, Nandy risks an "indigenist" rhetoric that might be too close for comfort to the fraudulently patriotic exhortations of the right-wing and of crackpot nativists. The charge that Nandy, as a critic of secularism and modernity, might be an irresponsible, if unwitting, facilitator of the right wing, is not a new one; nor is the charge made against Nandy alone. It has been levelled by Marxists against the subalternist historians too, in their capacity as critics of the European enlightenment; and it’s an argument that keeps resurfacing.

There is a question here, then, of what can be said and what can’t, and of the pitfalls of language. For me, Nandy’s importance lies in his role as a critic of the post-Independence Indian middle class, a role he began to fashion for himself about 25 years ago, when there were few others to take a similar burden upon themselves, except from positions located in larger political articulations like, say, Marxism. But by identifying modernity too closely with the West, by adding the adjective "Westernized" to "Indian middle class", he’s left himself open to the criticism of a loose, inadvertent romanticism of the indigenous.

I believe the problem arises from the darkness of our inherited language of self-definition, the tragicomic language of nationalism, full of tricks and pitfalls. Nandy belongs to a generation for whom the "indigenous" was integral to an anti-colonial critique; it’s a term that has transformed itself, subtly, into becoming part of the ammunition of the Hindu right wing. It’s the paradox of the language of our nationalism; that it contained within it the seeds both of our secular middle class and its fundamentalist other, our pluralism and our intolerance. Subrahmanyam has inherited this language as well, and falls into one of its traps, lapses into its opacity, when, for instance, he authenticates secularism by calling it "Indian". On first reading, there seems to be no reason to contest this. On second reading, you begin to wonder what he means by "Indian", and in what sense a historian can use the word in this absolute and possessive way. The word at once gives historical specificity to, and takes it away from, Subrahmanyam’s argument; it raises as many questions as it answers. "India" is a nationalist construct, a secular construct, a right-wing one; as an idea and location, it is heterogeneous and conflicted in terms of class, region, and history. Which "India" is Subrahmanyam talking about?

Whether or not there are local forms of pluralism, as Nandy claims there are, it’s increasingly clear that secularism, as an ongoing creation of our post-Independence middle class, is indispensable to our lives and polity. But it’s also important to have a critic like Nandy around, because every useful ideal, from the moment it comes into being, also becomes a piety, and secularism is no exception: it’s the job of a robust, self-critical intelligentsia to recognize the fact. Why is secularism at once a serious responsibility, a crucial ideal, and, not infrequently, a hollow piety among our middle classes? It’s because our middle classes, after Independence, did not emphasize the need for transparency and accountability in its own public and private practices, and the importance of equality as a realizable ideal, as much as it has emphasized secularism; it’s when those who speak of secularism are also seen to benefit from, and perpetuate, their own advantages as members of an educated elite that it — secularism — begins to sound like a hollow moral dogma.

Our educated elite may, at least in substantial part, be secular, but it is also deeply hierarchical, both in its internal composition and in relation to those who don’t belong to it. You cannot blame the waning of secularism on the fanatic alone — it cannot flourish in a climate that has been so increasingly inimical to egalitarian impulses, a climate in which the "enlightened" classes are so reluctant to acknowledge their own complicity in pursuing a path of self-promotion and self-interest through nepotism and compromise.

Subrahmanyam says secularism is an Indian invention; but it has an approximate counterpart in Britain’s "multiculturalism". I think "multiculturalism" has worked quite successfully in Britain in the last 20 years partly because the old class-structures were weakened, especially in Thatcherite, free-market England. In India, around the same time, a new "secular" ruling class began to form, after the death of Indira Gandhi, around Rajiv Gandhi, in Delhi. This class has on occasion made secularism part of it civilizing mission, its pre-destined, quasi-imperial role in India.

I’m not saying we can do without the values this class claims to represent; I’d rather have my history textbooks written by Romila Thapar and Sanjay Subrahmanyam than by someone favoured by the political dispensation recently thrown out of power. But this class, to survive, to be credible, must be open to self-enquiry; its civilizing mission is not enough to justify it absolutely. We’re in a situation today when almost all criticism of this class risks being interpreted as having a right-wing provenance. This is unfortunate, because it imposes a kind of moral censorship upon us that’s comparable to the one that Israel imposes upon the world, where every protest against it becomes a form of anti-Semitism. Our secular middle class can’t become a kind of metaphorical Israel, defined by a constant sense of beleaguerment and moral righteousness, ignoring its own forms of oppression and infatuation with power. You cannot preach secularism on the one hand; and be socially discriminatory, exclusivist, and unegalitarian on the other.

In this context, Nandy, despite the limitations of his position, will continue to be a significant, provocative, and necessary figure. The idea that we can do without him simply because he’s been around for a long time, or because we might have disagreements with him, doesn’t hold, I think; there are few enough of his kind as it is. As a sort of psychologist ayurved, he brings a touch of humour to the high-seriousness of our historical deliberations; and it would be unfair to characterize him as principally a romantic "indigenist". He may be too eccentric, too much a minority voice, for us to call him, as Auden called Freud, quoting Alfred Whitehead, "a whole climate of opinion". But he is a more complex, and complicating, thinker than the one Subrahmanyam portrays; for, if Nandy, as Subrahmanyam says, gives us a caricature of Europe, Subrahmanyam gives us a caricature of Nandy. Nandy the indigenist is also the Nandy who was one of the first Indian commentators to take urban, "low", hybrid cultural forms like popular Hindi cinema seriously; he’s the same Nandy who gave us that fascinating and influential account in The Intimate Enemy of Kipling’s self-loathing and creativity. This Nandy’s discussions of androgyny have, for a long time now, alerted us to the deeply patriarchal nature of our "seriousness". This is the Nandy who critiques Satyajit Ray’s classical, Bengal Renaissance sensibility in his art-house canon by turning to the filmmaker’s infantile universe, his children’s films. This Nandy is hardly an "innocent" or simple nativist; he’s an extraordinarily shrewd and cosmopolitan observer.

The subject of Ray brings me to Subrahmanyam’s conclusion, where he situates Nandy in the "lachrymose tradition of the romantic underside of the so-called Bengal Renaissance". I find this formulation obscure; it’s as if Subrahmanyam, the careful historian, had given in to a subterranean agitatedness. Nandy’s relationship to the Renaissance is anything but conventional or, for that matter, lachrymose; here is a man whose principal interest in Tagore is his politics and his critique of nationalism, and who has little time for the affective domain of his poetry and songs. The leap made from here to comparing Nandy to Nirad Chaudhuri, making him the latter’s successor as our "last colonial thinker", is breathtaking. No two people could be more different; one, a Christian, fascinated by local, ecstatic forms of worship, the other, Brahmo-influenced, acutely embarrassed by them; the one resenting and resisting the ways in which he’s been formed by Empire, the other celebrating it. Explaining away the bewilderingly unexpected ways in which two people are shaped by similar historical lineages by using the word "romantic" of one of them is hardly enough; if anything, these two figures attest to the utter heterogeneity of the legacy of that so-called Renaissance. The only thing the two have in common is the fact that they’re Bengali.

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