Ashis Nandy and the Intimate Enemy

Published: January 30, 2013 - 18:33 Updated: January 30, 2013 - 20:08

Q: There was a time when Sahir Ludhianvi or Kaifi Azmi would be accessible to everybody. Dissenting intellectuals, Left or non-Left, public intellectuals became part of the mainstream.

Ashis Nandy: By definition a public intellectual is part of the mainstream debate on public affairs, public discourse. But that doesn’t mean great intellectuals are all public intellectuals. A huge majority are not public intellectuals because they are afraid of jeopardising their professional status — basically, their status is not high because what they say with the help of jargon could have been said in a much simpler, direct form. It’s true of all disciplines. This may not be true of the laboratory sciences, or mathematics — in every science or discipline there are some areas you can’t enter unless you cultivate them, just as you can’t enter great art unless you cultivate it. There is another game at work. So much of importance is given to expertise or professionalism that it becomes a closed guild. The more you project your specialisation, the more saleable you are.

Q: The power of language, it can be oppressive, alienating, it can be used as power — the power of knowledge…

Nandy: Not knowledge. The power of language, how do I say it, can be used as a vehicle of status, of power.

Excerpts from an interview with this reporter, ‘I don’t want to live in a society where one-third of the people go hungry’ (Tehelka, December 2005).


It’s an unhappy irony, that ‘public intellectual’ Ashis Nandy, also a beautiful human being with a ‘consistent’ social conscience, has yet again rediscovered not only the Time Warps, but also The Intimate Enemy, titles of two of his many acclaimed books amidst a rich, nuanced and complex body of work. In the current scenario, both tell literal and metaphorical narratives of the ‘cultivated’ crassness and intolerance of contemporary India.

It’s like The Tao of Cricket, another of his best-selling books; now, it tells a twisted IPL tale of how cricket has been turned into an obscenely cash-rich magic potion, like much of ‘mainstream’ hedonism in current times.

If popular culture is where the public intellectual should situate himself, but, outside the essence or contradictions of that narrative, then there is always the danger of slipping into a quagmire. In that inevitable sense, tragically, Nandy has rediscovered his Tao, his time warps, and the intimate enemy, at the same time.

In this club of ‘cultivated’ celebrities, the shallow becomes the sublime, the blabbering becomes nirvana, mediocrity becomes genius, the third-rater becomes the best-seller, and the charlatan becomes the saviour

This is the political economy of the free market of literary festival aesthetics which has come to drown us with its incessant blabbering, shallow dialectics, and instant salvations. This is the ‘high culture’ where at once, ‘everyone’ is excluded while ‘everyone’ so desperately wants to be included. Not ‘everyone’ perhaps — Arundhati Roy, amidst a host of ‘great’ writers and ‘invisible’ intellectuals, especially from regional languages, has refused to be part of this contrived carnival.

In this celebrity circus and caricature, if you can’t make it, you really seem to have missed the ultimate hard cover of your biography, never mind that you can so easily spot a host of dubious characters seeking instant fame, while there are others who want to ride the gravy train to immortality at any cost. Because, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote in another context, in this exclusive power zone of success and commerce, both immortality and immorality have become commonplace.

Therefore, in an inverted and perverted sense, it can become dangerous, this big business, sponsored, refreshing cola, single-malt game. One, you can be discovered, like those who organise similar festivals near seaside five-star resorts sponsored by corrupt ruling party regimes and the mining mafia, and so on. Two, you can be seriously misinterpreted, misunderstood and mishandled, as Nandy discovered. Surely, if you are complex, and surrounded by abjectly mediocre chirkuts and charlatans, your kaleidoscope can quickly shatter into a nightmare of rapid reductionism. Rest, leave it to the ‘herd’ of TV anchors.

In this ‘closed guild’ of manufactured ‘experts’ and the club of ‘cultivated’ celebrities, thus, the shallow becomes the sublime, the blabbering becomes nirvana, mediocrity becomes genius, the third-rater becomes the best-seller, the charlatan becomes the saviour (like Asaram Babu and the like), public interest becomes free market interests, and the ‘way of life’ becomes the ‘way of success’. All other aesthetic options are blocked. Failures and dogs are not allowed. In this Tao of a vicarious and voyeuristic time warp, all that is intimate and authentic becomes an enemy. As Ashis Nandy has rediscovered, while defend him we must.

This story is from print issue of HardNews