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NATURAL PROCLIVITIES
- So little fruitful dissent, so much private discontent

Reading Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s response (“A guru and his followers”, The Telegraph, August 8) to my two-part article has left me feeling more puzzled and less enlightened than before. My article was written not so much to take sides as to consider whether civilized and intelligent debate is a part of the discourse of the Indian secular intelligentsia; if not, why not. Part of the reason why a free exchange of ideas and airing of disagreements in an illuminating manner is so difficult in India is evident from Subrahmanyam’s article itself.

Subrahmanyam may be a good historian, but he’s an uninteresting polemicist. Argumentativeness, not argumentation, is his characteristic manner. Ideas don’t really interest him as much as supposedly maleficent personalities; and just mentioning their names — Dipesh Chakrabarty, Ranajit Guha — is apparently enough to make us aware of their mysterious culpability, as if these weren’t the names of historians with a long body of work behind them, but words in a magic spell. Since debate has descended to personal attack (a strategy Subrahmanyam resorts to here whenever he’s in need of an argument) and bickering, I’d like to conclude my own participation in this matter by remarking on a disturbing aspect of Subrahmanyam’s analysis, and leave it at that.

Before I go on to do so, however, I should address some of the numerous lacunae and slips in Subrahmanyam’s piece — instances of factual errors, idle speculation, rumour-circulation, and pure invention. I think it’s important to mention these, not least because Subrahmanyam seems to be someone on the side of the facts, if not of the imagination. But the article suggests Subrahmanyam is a more imaginative person than he perhaps gives himself credit for.

According to Subrahmanyam, my pieces in The Telegraph are the latest in a series of such pieces by me in praise of Nandy. In reality, I have only written one article on Nandy, which Subrahmanyam mentions by name, and which appeared in The Hindu; to my knowledge, an article doesn’t constitute a series. Subrahmanyam says I’m an admirer of Ranajit Guha. As I’ve never put on record my feelings about Guha’s works, one way or another, mentioning him only in passing in a recent review-essay I wrote in the London Review of Books, I must presume that Subrahmanyam has access to information no one else has, including myself.

Another strange invention: the idea that Partha Chatterjee and Ranajit Guha had a public disagreement in the pages of the Economic and Political Weekly. No one, not even Chatterjee and Guha, will be able to remember when this exactly happened, since it never did. And wilful misrepresentation, disturbing in one whose job it is to interpret the archive and the written word: I did not say Subrahmanyam writes NCERT textbooks. I wrote, “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” — a statement completely different from the one Subrahmanyam purports it to be, and one I still, despite my growing reservations about Subrahmanyam’s approach toward factuality, feel compelled to stand by, such is one’s fear of the right-wing revisionist. Nor did I say that Subrahmanyam was part of the new ruling class that came into existence in Delhi around Rajiv Gandhi. Here, too, his response is curious: he dismisses this group as a “bogeyman” I’ve created, and, at once, disavows any connection with it. Why dissociate oneself so vehemently from something that has no credible existence' I mentioned this class, anyway, not in relation to Subrahmanyam, but to contextualize the rhetoric of secularism in India in the last twenty years.

Speaking of “low canards”, Subrahmanyam is so anxious to justify his attack on Nandy that he now introduces gossip and apocrypha into the debate. Saying Nandy once defended the RSS is a serious charge, and to have no basis for it except one’s hardly objective reportage of an event is also a serious matter. Subrahmanyam will know that Gautam Bhadra, whom he claims to admire (though the admiration must be based on tenuous material, since almost all of Bhadra’s work is in Bengali), also had the absurd charge of being a BJP man levelled against him by certain Marxist academics in the Bengali magazine, Naiya, in 1990. The ad hominem attack and the threat of being made into a pariah — these are what seem to pass for civilized disagreement amongst our secular intelligentsia. No wonder there is so little open, fruitful dissent, and so much private discontent.

What I find most distressing, and dismayingly familiar, is Subrahmanyam’s inability to engage intellectually with his interlocutor during a disagreement; to think beyond camps and group affiliations. Subrahmanyam begins by saying I’m an admirer of Nandy’s and Chakrabarty’s — he does not seem to comprehend that intellectual admiration is never entirely unqualified and exclusive; that is, it’s never merely an enthusiasm. By the end of the piece, tellingly, intellectual admiration and the membership of a camp have become one thing. The unobtrusive, seamless transition from one to the other tells us something about how Subrahmanyam’s mind works. And a motley crew comprises this camp — Guha and Chakrabarty, two subalternists of different generations; Nandy, a psychologist/sociologist; Nirad C. Chaudhuri, a dead memoirist; and myself. Borges’s odd and comic taxonomies come to mind. What unites us (besides the fact that we’re all Bengali) is, I suppose, Subrahmanyam’s disapproval of ourselves, and, I suspect, our perceived disapproval of Subrahmanyam — at least, those of us who are still alive. The creation of this group, then, and the critical method in his piece, are directed principally by Subrahmanyam’s narcissism, his unspoken but powerful immersion in what people feel about him and what he feels about people.

I should point out, in spite of the impression Subrahmanyam gives of a cosy but sinister bonhomie between these club-members, that I’ve met Nandy and Chakrabarty properly only once, and never met Ranajit Guha. In fact, my relationship to Nandy’s or Chakrabarty’s work is anything but straightforward and natural. I am a novelist whose imaginative provenance, unlike that of some of my contemporaries, owes little to the social sciences. As a critic, I’ve often been impatient with post-colonial theory. Intellectual admiration, however, can sometimes transcend natural proclivity, territorial affiliations imposed by education, training and background, and temperament. I don’t think Subrahmanyam understands this; I don’t think he’s even interested in it. In this, sadly, I don’t think he’s alone in our country.

In the end, I was impressed by how various antithetical intellectual positions were used by Subrahmanyam with a peremptory, even — to use a word he uses of Nandy — an “innocent” confidence in the service of an overarchingly noble mission: to confirm the absolute correctness of his own position. When calling Nirad Chaudhuri a colonialist, and chiding me for citing Blake, Lawrence, Auden and Eliot, he sounds like the sort of nativist-jingoist he would have us imagine Nandy is; when, in turn, he accuses Nandy of being an “indigenist”, and jeers at him by calling him a “guru” and his admirers his “followers”, he sounds like an old colonialist, an inheritor of Nirad Chaudhuri’s prejudices against the local, though not Chaudhuri’s feeling for English prose. Before telling us what to read and whom to admire (always grandly, and conveniently presuming that we don’t already do so), Subrahmanyam must learn to listen to others, and to trust the value of silence.

Postscript: I composed the piece that appears above before reading Swapan Dasgupta’s contribution on Friday morning (“Cultural cringe”, August 13). About a couple of years ago, I felt a sense of disquiet when I read a laudatory review of Nandy by Dasgupta. Nandy is better off without such supporters, I thought to myself. Nandy is a critic of power; Dasgupta has a weather-vane-like susceptibility to it. Subrahmanyam should think seriously about why he’s found an admirer in Dasgupta.

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