Plane truths and sky labs

The Illegitimacy of Nationalism - The Savage Freud
June 9, 1995

Ashis Nandy once dedicated an earlier volume to those who "dare to defy the given models of defiance". This is something he himself always does, for he is impossible to categorise. He is, among other things, a psychologist, historian, cultural critic and political and literary theorist. A leading Delhi intellectual, he has been at the forefront of heated controversy about the political options facing contemporary India. Theoretically, he could only (inadequately) be described as a neo-Gandhian, though he spurns the label; and I have long been struck by the peculiar power of his own noble brand of essentialism.

His transgressive defiance is apparent in "The discreet charms of Indian terrorism", the magnificent opening essay in The Savage Freud. Here he traces the events surrounding two hijackings of Indian Airline jets by Sikh militants in 1984. For Nandy, the interior of a hijacked aircraft is a kind of laboratory in which his suppositions about morality and politics can be tested. What he finds is that in this claustrophobic space, external identities quickly start to break down. There is no Hobbesian jungle: instead a cooperative pattern of behaviour informed by a sense of common humanity starts to emerge. Following the hijacking, events unfolded within "the limits imposed by another moral order".

A significant element in the articulation of this new morality was the meeting ground afforded by popular Hindi film music. A young hijacker sang melancholy love songs from Hindi films and the passengers asked him to sing more. At this time of crisis, in which all of them were staking their lives, learned techno-rationalist codes were jettisoned and "real convictions about the nature of their interpersonal world" and "deepest private theories" were tested. They were not found wanting, Nandy concludes. He finds it highly significant that it is the sentiments of commercial Hindi movies that encode a "vestigial dialect" which has survived India's mimicry of the West.

Elsewhere in The Savage Freud, Nandy suggests that such films are the only ones which seriously engage with the problems of "those trying to survive the processes of victimisation let loose by modern institutions". This theme is further explored in case studies of Girindrasekhar Bose - the first Indian psychoanalyst - and Radhabinod Pal, the dissenting Indian voice at the Tokyo war crimes trial, as well as contests over western medicine, the politics of sati, and the two selves of Satyajit Ray.

All the essays in The Savage Freud have previously appeared elsewhere and all deserve the larger audience they will find as part of one volume.

The Illegitimacy of Nationalism is substantially new and here it is Rabindranath Tagore who bears the mantle of defiance. Tagore is one of the "dissenters among dissenters" who proposed a plurality of lifestyles to counter the simplicities of nationalism and whose conclusions can serve as a valuable political theory for Indians and the victims of other violent modern nation-states in the mid-1990s. For Nandy nationalism, though it was opposed to colonialism, was nothing but a product of colonial duplicity. It too would corrupt the androgynous innocence of colonial subjects - nationalism was a cure that was also a poison though Nandy would disavow this Derridean allusion.

But Nandy's archaeology also reveals an "ambivalence towards the idea of a monocultural nation-state and towards nationalism itself" among its early Indian proponents - preeminently in the later works of Tagore that so interest Nandy. He perceptively scans Tagore's three explicitly political novels for a dissident perspective on the nature of nationalism.

In The Home and the World (Ghare Baire), he finds an exploration of an alternative unheroic consensual politics that prefigures Gandhianism; while Tagore's final novel, Four Chapters (Char Adhyay), and other writings in the mid-1930s, considered the link between colonialism and the growth of practices of "distant violence" such as aerial bombardment, noting the insidious mimicry this violence inculcated in its victims. One such was Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, an early supporter of revolutionary terrorism whose "loss of self" Tagore claimed to have been the inspiration for the novel. For Tagore, all theologies of violence entailed a self-destruction: there was no possibility of salvation through counter-objectification but merely a spiral of alienating mimicry, a further self-colonisation.

The eponymous hero of Tagore's third novel, Gora, maintained that "one kills the past by talking about it as if it were dead and gone". Nandy recognises that in the face of modern middle- class statism, Tagore's and Gandhi's view of the nation has almost ceased to exist, but as always his intelligent and vital analysis brings these ideas to life once again.

In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin cautioned that the good tidings which the historian of the past brings may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth. One must hope that the the lessons from the past uncovered in both these books will be perceived to be some of the present's most pressing concerns; and that the various selves that Nandy so brilliantly retrieves, will come to be seen as possible selves once more.

Christopher Pinney is lecturer in South Asian anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

The Illegitimacy of Nationalism: Rabindranath Tagore and the Politics of Self

Author - Ashis Nandy
ISBN - 0 19 563298 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £5.99
Pages - 94

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