Talking India: Ashis Nandy in conversation with Ramin Jahanbegloo. Delhi: Oxford UP, 2006. ISBN: 019567898-2. 149 pp.

Reviewed by Vinay Lal

At a time when India and Iran are mentioned together as countries whose nuclear aspirations have gained the ear of the world, Talking India furnishes a salutary reminder of other conversations that can take place between ancient civilizations and of the rich history, now only occasionally remembered, of the intellectual, cultural and political exchanges between India and Iran. In 1989, explains Ramin Jahanbegloo, one of Iran’s leading intellectuals, he became interested in the work of Ashis Nandy, and over the course of the next decade he lured Nandy into several lengthy conversations. By the late 1980s, certainly, Nandy had already established an international reputation as a leading Indian voice in debates on modern science, the political cultures of India, secularism, violence and modernity, the logic of development, and the politics of knowledge; down to the present day, he remains Îndia’s most distinctive intellectual figure, alluringly independent of the conventions of the academy, the intellectual fashions of the day, the platitudes of social science discourse, and the comfortable certitudes of the middle class.

One of the alarming features of the present age is its inability to live with ambiguity, and it is not surprising that Nandy, who cannot easily be assimilated into known political and intellectual camps, should have been subjected to assault by a diverse group of critics, from Marxists and positivist historians to secularists and feminists. Many of Nandy’s observations are not calculated to win him the goodwill of his critics. ‘I have seen in my life’, Nandy tells Jahanbegloo, ‘that most Marxists hate the proletariat. Only they do not know that. The proletariat doesn’t seem to them adequately revolutionary, knowledgeable, or conscientized’ (15). Among some of the canards circulated by Nandy’s critics is his supposed empathy for Hindu nationalists and affection for the RSS, a paramilitary group often described as keen on turning India into a Hindu fascist state. These critics have no patience for the nuances developed by Nandy, who tellingly informs Jahanbegloo that Hindu nationalists have reserved their most ‘venomous attacks’ not for Muslims and Christians, but for Hindus: ‘They think that the Hindus are disorganized, effeminate, fractious, constantly quarreling amongst themselves’, and so on (15). We might say that Nandy’s critics have similarly reserved their choicest abuses for him, a Bengali intellectual who, forswearing the intellectual trajectory of an uncritical Indian modernity (with particular Bengali inflections), has endeavored to find in the experience, cultural practices, and worldviews of colonized and marginalized people a more humane and sensitive moral and intellectual framework by which we all might live.

Nonetheless, whatever the price Nandy may have paid for his dissenting views, it is instructive that he has operated within something of a democratic space. Ramin Jahanbegloo, unfortunately, has no such protection: as Talking India was coming out earlier this year, he was taken into custody by Iran’s police. Jehanbegloo has now been released after several months of solitary confinement, though the price of his freedom has, in part, been a televised ‘confession’ where he admitted that he had been led astray by vendors of ideologies fraught with hazards for the Iranian state and society. Though his tormentors are unlikely to read this book, if they were to do so the preposterousness of imagining Jahanbegloo as some kind of traitor to the nation would become all too apparent.

Though Talking India commences with questions from Jahanbegloo designed to acquaint us with Nandy’s early education and formative intellectual influences, it is mainly organized around the principal cultural issues and political questions on which Nandy has, over the course of the last three decades, lavished his attention. The culture of the Indian state has long been of interest to Nandy, and here he discourses on the discomfort of Indian élites with democracy and their disdain for, and fear of, Gandhi — the original article, not the namesake who proclaimed an Emergency in 1975 and had little opposition from intellectuals for doing so (30-31, 38-39). Apropos of his controversial views on sati, or the practice of widow-immolation which the British outlawed in their territories in India in the 1820s but which has made the rare occasional reappearance in more tradition-bound parts of the country, Nandy affirms that a ‘respect [for] the principle enshrined in the mythology of sati’ can be sustained alongside a vigorous repudiation of ‘the practice of sati in historical time’. He suggests that Rammohun Roy and Rabindranath Tagore (about whom Jahanbegloo penned a book) alike stood by this view (52-53). This is perhaps Nandy’s clearest statement on sati, though it is doubtful that it will reassure the bulk of his feminist critics.

One pressing question to which Nandy continually returns might be put thus: why is it that plurality is admitted in some spheres of life, but not permitted in other domains? Nandy argues that the ‘Enlightenment vision and secular ideologies allow one to pluralize the domains of spirituality and religion’, but that a ‘plurality of knowledge, particularly that of science, is seen as dangerous, subversive, and a challenge to the intellectual and moral status of the most deeply entrenched elites of our times’ (58). The West stipulates what shall count for knowledge, cosmopolitanism, and even dissent — and it is all too clear what Nandy thinks of the supposed universalisms of Western thought. The ‘Indian peasant is more cosmopolitan than the New York intellectual after centuries of colonialism’: she or he has to have some theory of the West, some tacit knowledge of the West if only to ensure survival, but the New York intellectual requires no such awareness of other worldviews or folkways, accept as officially sanctioned forms of multiculturalism (116).

Even those who have an intimate awareness of Nandy’s work will find Talking India intellectually engaging. Unlike many Indian intellectuals, such as A. K. Saran, Jit Singh Uberoi, and the late T. G. Vaidynathan, whose relatively small body of written work bears no relation to their intellectual presence in classrooms or public forums, Nandy cannot be described as a reticent writer. Indeed, his surprising confession in The Intimate Enemy (1982), ‘English is not my language’ (p. xix), is belied by the enviable elegance of his expressions and the sheer mastery of English idioms. Nonetheless, the interview or extended conversation affords a different opportunity to enter into a thinker’s mind, and Talking India will not disappoint those who, even if they have encountered Nandy’s arguments in his previous writings, expect to find a small interpretive twist to formulations that otherwise appear familiar. Nandy’s extended comments on the nation-state and civilization are a case in point. We have all heard that the last Englishman is now to be found in India, but Nandy provides a political edge to this observation with the remark with ‘India also holds many parts of the West in custody or trusteeship’ (79). Gandhi’s critics derided his idea of trusteeship, which they averred was an expression of his acute distaste for class warfare and originated from his cunning and utopian desire not to strip his capitalist friends of their wealth but rather to persuade them to hold it in trust for the poor. Nandy knows, much better than most others, that Gandhi was far more than subtle than has been commonly imagined, and that his idea of trusteeship can be understood in many registers. India was to hold in trusteeship what the West had jettisoned from its own intellectual and cultural practices that could not be reconciled with a draconian conception of modern science and instrumental rationality, but, even more so, it was incumbent upon people to treat nature as if it had been entrusted to their care. Contemporary ecological movements cannot be disassociated from the civilizational notion of trusteeship that Gandhi and now Nandy have brought to the fore.

Nandy’s interpretation of the idea of trusteeship points us to the work of civilizations: the ideology of the nation-state may have created a rift between India and Pakistan which seems unending, but he avers that ‘Delhi and Agra are more important to Pakistan today than Peshawar and Multan’, and the ‘Pakistani elite cannot connect to living cultures of their own people as enthusiastically as they can connect to the memories of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal empire’ (77). Though Nandy worries that formerly colonized peoples are more attached to the idea of the nation-state than are Europeans, he is perhaps comforted by the thought that they have not altogether abandoned civilizational categories. For much too long Indians, Iranians, Indonesians, Africans and others have not conversed with each other, each reserving their cultural and intellectual exchanges for the ‘West’. Talking India, which brings an Indian intellectual into conversation with an Iranian one, is a refreshing sign of the possibilities of forms of interculturalism other than those which have been bequeathed to us by the West.

Vinay Lal is associate professor of history at UCLA. He is the author of Empire of Knowledge: Culture and Plurality in the Global Economy (2002), Of Cricket, Guinness, and Gandhi: Essays on Indian History and Culture (2003), The History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India (2003), Introducing Hinduism (2005), the editor of Dissenting Knowledges, Open Futures: The Multiple Selves and Strange Destinations of Ashis Nandy (2000), and the co-editor of The Future of Knowledge & Culture: A Dictionary for the 21st Century (2005) and Fingerprinting Popular Culture: The Mythic and the Iconic in Indian Cinema (2006).