The Intimate Enemy by Ashis Nandy


To most of the finest critical minds of West, Colonialism was a necessary evil, the first portal towards a more even homogenized world. But for the Colonized, the psychological after effects and the trauma of subjugation, in all postulated merits, have not yet let them embrace the egalitarian world the apologists conveniently then envisioned. In the prospect of creating a technologically and morally advanced society, even if we ignore hierarchy of market economy, it has created a polarized world that clearly defines between the modern and the primitive, the secular and the non-secular, the scientific and the mystic, the expert and the layman, the developed and the third-world, the protected and the expendable. Nandy argues that Colonialism has not only colonized the geographical material entity but also the mind; by compelling colonized societies to modify, if not alter, their cultural priorities towards the concepts of modern West. This psychological aspect permeates into contemporary politics, rather conspicuously, even after absolute demise of empires and shift in world orders. In this book, Nandy consciously connives to uncover what Western colonialism has done to its subjects unconsciously, and the alternative language of discourse colonized Indians might have created in the process.

I know the intro sounds like the first snooze button in a long boring lecture, but I find myself ill equipped to articulate the things that I enjoyed and found enlightening during the read. Even using Nandy’s own language, which is academically tharoorized like Khilnani’s, isn’t enough to produce my thoughts and disagreements, or even appreciation towards the things I couldn’t repudiate though I wanted to. As counterproductive as it is, I had no other option but to paraphrase Nandy a bit to make myself a comprehension in this review.

“Even in opposition, the dissent remains predictable and controlled. It is possible today to opt for a non-West which in itself is a construction of the West. One can then choose between being the Orientaist’s despot, to combine Karl Wittfogel with Edward Said, and the revolutionary’s loving subject, to combine Camus with George Orwell. And for those who do not lik the choice, there is, of course, Cecil Rhodes’ and Rudyard Kiplings’ noble, half-savage half-child, compared to whom the much-hated Brown Sahib seems more Brown than sahib.”

The book is comprised of two long essays, first one of psychology of colonialism where Author examines the nature of sex, age and ideology in British India, and latter about post-colonial view of West and India. And they both speak of victims than victors, and when victors are addressed they are considered as camouflaged victims in their earlier stage of psychological decay. Nandy’s logic is interesting, which in itself is an anti-thesis for the generalized categories by which world is viewed today – a recurring element in reading. According to him, one must choose the non-modern slave over the modern master. In this choice, author denies any effort to deify suffering or moral cajoling for slave is oppressed; rather, slave represents a higher cognition for regarding his master ‘human’, whereas master’s cognition perforce reduces the salve to a ‘thing’. Modern oppression, he argues, as opposed to traditional oppression is not a battle between the self and the enemy, or the oppressor and the revolutionaries, or the god and the demons. “It is a battle between de-humanized self and the objectified enemy, the technological bureaucrat and his deified victim, pseudo-ruler and their fearsome other selves projected on to their ‘subjects’.” Though I think a detailed look into the traditional oppression, taking the time period in consideration, can render them less monochromatic, I found this take very appealing and well in line with book’s title.

“The Hindu, for instance, is aggressive while talking of pacifism, dirty in spite of his ideology of purity, materialist while preaching spiritualism, and comically Indian while trying to be Western.”


It would be safe to say that Colonialism, at least over time, wasn’t concomitant with the economic and political gains that lured Imperial empires in inception. For France and Portugal, South Asian or African colonies have consumed more than they returned, and in Manchuria, Japan constantly lost money. But that didn’t make the subjugated land any less of a colony; and from this view point, Nandy tries to show the state of mind as the primary differentia between colonizers and the colonized, where a shared culture might not find its commencement with alien rule or closure in its departure. To illustrate it, author explores the homology between sexual and political dominance, and concludes it not just as a by-product of colonialism, but after effect of the sexual stereotypes and philosophy West possessed- denial of psychological bisexuality, acceptance of dominance by men and masculinity over women and femininity. During the early British rule in India, 1757 to 1830, British middle class were not dominant in ruling culture and administration was devoid of lordly prerogatives and race based evolutionism. Though rapacious, first two Governor Generals were committed to things Indian; proselytizing was banned, and Indian laws and system of education were followed. But towards the later stages of Industrial revolution that caused the rise of middle class and British-evangelical spirit, they began to ascribe salvatory meanings to British domination. Raj began to see India as uncivilized in their ‘white man’s burden’ and Indians began to see their progress in becoming more like the British, in friendship or enmity. In this ‘identification with the aggressor’, western view of hyper masculinity began to permeate into the socio-religious-literature-art movements of India, with ‘Kshatriyahood’ (the martial portion of Indian caste system) becoming the indicator of authentic indianhood. Indian concepts of purusatva (masculinity), naritva (feminity) and klibatva (hermaphroditism) were polarized against one another and the existence of later two or any forms of androgyny were now perceived as negation of man’s unalloyed political identity. Author identifies the moral and political dilemma this transition caused, and it’s chronic after effects in colonial India through two works of Rabindranath Tagore, Car Adhyay and Gora, which were twenty seven years apart in publication. This reader was able to identify, to some extent, the suggested transition in depiction of Gods, who are getting increasingly martial, or masculine or feminine, every day against earlier androgynous ardhanarishwaran (half man half woman God).

Arthanariswaran – Half part woman God

After the psychoanalysis between sex and political identity, author explores the subsidiary homology between childhood and state of being colonized. According to Philippe Aries, the modern concept of childhood, child as an inferior immature version of adult who needs to be educated than a smaller version of adult, is a product of seventeenth century Europe. Playfulness of a child remained lovable, but, any childishness or immaturity from adults became unlovable, even savage and primitive. Also along with delegitamization of femininity and childhood, Modern Europe also undermined old age. Semitic religious elements saw or a natural aging as decay or unfolding resulting from man’s inherent sinfulness, and according to this European ideology of ‘male adulthood’, only adult male can be representative of a perfect human being. The principle of productivity and performance, axioms that drive technology even today, eventually began to replace the wisdom of grey hair and render the elderly socially irrelevant. How Nandy plugs this into the psychology of colonization was fascinating and inline with the categorization of oriental scholarship by Amartya Sen in his book- The Argumentative Indian. Western civilizing gospel that worked well in Africa and other parts of the world was a bit handicapped when it came to India and China; for they both had a living past that Europe admired for long, however strange they were from western standards, with century old tradition of literati, philosophy, art and science. To circumvent this problem, colonial ideology drew a thick line between the once glorious bygone past and its senile vestige which is the present (This remind me of AL Basham’s ‘The Wonder that was India’ with my mind getting fixated on ‘was’ part in title; on second thoughts it might be an ill placed example for this discussion considering the historical age book graciously covers). To concrete this, colonial rule asserted existence of ‘yin’ in the ‘yang’ that is traditional Indian culture and presented themselves as the liberator from ancient retrogressive elements.

Cultural response to this colonial ideology is visible even now, in present day politics and social media, where constant validation is being sought out by Indians, often creating hilarious stereotypes. Author explains it based on works by Benkim Chandra Chatterjee, the social reformer who gave us the iconic song and slogan ‘Vande Mataram’. Revival of hindiusm on reinterpretation of scriptures unknowingly borrowed its core values from colonial world view, Nandy argues. In Chatterjee’s Anandamath, Hinduism was shown as an organized religion, hero hailed from an order of sanyasis similar to semitic priesthood, with a sense of history and passive acceptance for Raj as an inevitable phenomenon. He tried to recreate the imagery of Krishna as a martial God giving wisdom to Arjuna in battlefield than the lovable playful butterthief everyone was familiar with. And further, following the Semitic creeds, there were attempts to introduce the concept of singular holy Book, linear history unlike the cycle of ages and acceptance of ideas akin to monotheism. Such school of thoughts viewed cultural regression and even subjugation, earlier by Muslims and now by British, as a result of loss of original Aryan qualities which they shared with Westerners. Author gives the popular example of Vivekananda and Dayanand on this Chritianization of Hinduism and failed example of Iswarachandra Vidyasagar on primarily Eastern, anarchic federational version. And Gandhi, who later organized Hindus as Indians, not Hindus in his open ended mass mobilization against colonialism.


The ideological damage wasn’t a single sided aspect. Though ideology of colonialism induced a false sense of cultural homogeneity in Britain and gave the Island primacy over Napoleanic France and rest of Europe, long term cultural damage to the society was greater. Social Darwinism under the colonial ideologies de emphasized speculation and reduced softer side of human nature feminine and femininity altogether into limited cultural role. This is interesting if viewed through the later history of Britain where it wasn’t until 1918 did all men have voting rights, and 1928 for women to reach there, and as far as 1969 for lowering it to 18 years. For illustrating further cultural pathologies, author tries to reflect the ethical-religious responsibility and critic for totalitarianism through works of two British authors with Indian roots- Kipling and Orwell. Those who didn’t belong to or rebel out of this hyper masculine over socialized aspects of European personality were ostracized (classic example being Oscar Wild) and some, like Sister Nivedita, Annie Besant, Mira Behn found in Indian, a greater tolerance for androgyny, better legitimacy for women participation and mode for dissent. It will be a stretch and probably wrong to bring contemporary aspects to this argument – by binging early and continuing presence of women in political representation in South Asian nations than Western counterparts – but the idiot in me is yearning to do so. Nandy’s essay ‘Woman versus Womanliness in India’ can give a better picture about the difference in female participation in Western and Eastern society.

“Gandhi was a living antithesis set up against the thesis of the English”

The foremost and most creative response to this western modernity came from victims, in the form of Gandhi, who became the living symbol of the ‘other West’. His definition of ‘Swarajya’ was self-realisation, by liberating Indians from the British, in the realm of history and psychology. In his critique against modernity, through the idea of Non Violence (Nonviolence cannot be construed as an original Indian concept, Gandhi himself attributed Sermon on the Mount as his point of reference, and was influenced by the other marginalized West who had no place in colonial social construct, the likes of Thoreau or later Tolstoy), he wanted to liberate English as well as Indians. He challenged the existing neo stratification – superiority of masculinity over femininity and that of womanliness over femininity in men. Against the hyper masculinity or Khatriyahood, the forte of colonial ideology, Gandhi borrowed the tradition of saintliness in India- the divine bi-unity, superiority of ability to transcend the dichotomy of man-woman. He further elevated the essence of femininity over that of masculinity, implications of which can easily be lost by someone applying the framework of western definition. In Indian female identity, maternity has primacy over conjugality, and female principle is more powerful, dangerous and uncontrollable, like the Goddess Shakti and other manifestations. Thus he completely negated western cosmology and Khatriya world view, the colonial culture that was built on ability for violent activism. His principle of non-violence was not merely non-violence of the weak, but non-violence of the strong- liberation of courage in activism from aggression by being non-violent while having the means to be violent (Gandhi’s response to Arms Act would be the best example). Gandhian worldview also opposed the western or modern academic conception of history, a chronology of good and bad events with dis-junctions of revolution that defines a nation. History when seen as the authentic reality in this sense reduces ‘myths’ as pseudo history and cultures that follow them as primitive. In Gandhian view, ahistoricity affirmed dignity and autonomy of modern people, for unlike history, myths allow no strings attached access to processes which constitute history, and hence widen human choice than restricting them. It allows real time hold on present without any need to avenge the past. On the other hand, as rightly demonstrated in Independent India by the Hindu Right, historicization of myths can cause serious fissures in secular fabric and greater false pride to avenge the past.

“Gandhi’s concept of a free India, his revolution for racial, caste and inter religious conflicts and his concept of human dignity were remarkably free from the constraints of history. If the past does not bind social consciousness and future begins here, the present is the ‘historical’ moment, the permanent yet shifting point of crisis and the time for choice”.

In the second essay, author takes his psychoanalysis to the post-colonial view, of both India and the West. It gets into the nitty gritty details of Kipling’s life in relation with his literary view, and the materialistic obfuscations of internal critiques like Nirad C Chaudhuri and V.S.Naipaul, who in their loss, wanted to identify India as a martial opponent to the West. Nandy’s polar opposite is Aurobindo Ghose, who denounced his western middle name and western education to embrace India as India, not the non-West. To the former Orient should defeat the Occident in its own game by embracing ‘this-worldiness’ of Kshatriyahood, and to the latter the already superior ‘Spiritual India’ was the real India. Though pluralities of ideologies are always accommodated, this split is in present continuous tense, and when everything material fails people retract to the spiritual self for answers. This made me recall the title of Edward Luce’s book on modern Indian economy – Inspite of the Gods, a vocal affirmation to the notion that religion and technological progress cannot coexist except in rare exceptions. The major western worldview separates both philosophies, with conspicuous hierarchy and exclusivity. And this is where Gandhi stands as an original critique to modernity. He attacked the moral statement and civilizing mission of colonialism based on cultural superiority in their home ground-by declaring it evil through judgement via Christian values. And he further disproved the historical conception of colonization as an instrument of progress using western conception of ‘history’ itself. Gandhi endorsed a non-modern Indian cognition that viewed western model unsuitable for both parties, with its unequal distribution of power and social hierarchies.


“there are many kinds of failures, some of which succeed.”

A Passage to India, EM Foster

Idea of India was always compromising, fluidic and in a way ahistoric, with tolerance and willingness to learn the ways of outsider or civilized, provided its profitable. It would be more correct to put this aspect as something out of necessity than intrinsic trait, a survival strategy that keeps somewhat dynamic boundary conditions, to preserve one’s self-image. Here the ‘Spiritual India’ maintains pragmatism even with its weak grasp on reality and provides ductility over brittleness of egoistic identity. I can’t say I have grokked this unfathomable unheroic Indian response, and to the occident in me and you, these questions may offer more clarity than the answers author provides for them.

“But the question remains why every imperial observer of the Indian society has loved India’s martial races and hated and felt threatened by the rest of the India’s ‘effeminate’ men willing to compromise with the victors?

What is it in the latter that has aroused such antipathy?

Why should they matter so much to the conquerers of India if they were so trivial?

Why could they so effortlessly become the antonymous of their rulers?

Why have many modern Indians shared this imperialist estimation?

Why have they felt proud of those who gought out and lost, and not of those who lost out and fought?”

Nandy’s take on post-colonial literature reminded me of the permeation of romanticism of tragedy into Indian literature/movie scene and sensationalism getting accoladed in unwarranted places. Tragedy in literature as we know now had no precedence in classical Indian traditions; for, tragedy didn’t revolve around the final defeat of ungodly here, but rather in the majestic sweep of time and unavoidable decay that affected everyone, God-demon, mighty-humble alike. If we can compartmentalize complex characters and open dialogue between different philosophies out of discussion, it would be safe to assume that Tradition of tragedy of Greek theater entered in its might to Indian sub culture through European colonialism. And even after half a century, it is reflected in the typecasted National Award winning movies. More than their narrative brilliance or technological marvel, the decisive metric for award mostly is its social value. I am not saying that it is necessarily a bad thing, but a movie or book stands a better chance at being recognized if story ends or follows tragic path, than something uplifting or positive or anything that isn’t gloomy. Of course, this pattern has a lot to do with representation of contemporary ill practices and marginalized societies that are reduced like anomalies in modernity. Still, the empowering emotion in the winning piece is romantic sympathy than empathy, with the accepted notion of finding beauty in tragedy and divinity in suffering.

Colonialism might have opened secular hierarchies previously incompatible with traditional orders; its effect on cultural revives should also be acknowledged alongside the cultural baggage it brought up. But it would still be wrong to attribute all the secular elements as predominantly western, for India as a civilization has thrived on an argumentative culture that accepted and assimilated various opposing philosophies to its stream. But, Like Tagore says, it should not be a obstacle for accepting the proven good elements from other civilizations, by the stupid logic that they aren’t Indian enough. Unlike the ‘melting pot’ scenario of America where a dominant culture overtakes the less fortunate sub stratas though by popular choice, In South Asia and more specifically Indian case, culture continuous as ‘salad bowl’ or more specifically ‘thali meals’ where several separate identities coexist in the civilization enriching each other without losing their distinct essence. The post-colonial insecurity for validation and anxiety for separate nationality acceptable to the western norms, exists in modern India; and manifests itself through absurd political claims and orthodox logics. Recent efforts of Hindi imposition , compulsion of National Anthem in theaters, branding every expression of dissent anti national, construction of unwarranted statues, glorification of martial historical figures, direct and indirect forcing of religious logic into other fields under the excuse of ‘preservation of culture’, rising religious fanaticism aimed at righting the wrongs done centuries ago etc. are perverted efforts to make the salad bowl into a melting pot. Nandy’s analysis, in my eyes, doesn’t offer any counterpoise or solution, but a better understanding into its psychology and even better understanding on the reasons for their continuous failure in disrupting the cultural fabric.


The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism comprises of two parts, or rather two essays,

  1. The Psychology of Colonialsim : Sex, Age and Ideology in British India
  2. The Uncolonized Mind : A Post-Colonial view of India and the West

I would also like to give a shout out to the essay ‘History, Change and Permanence: A Classical Indian Perspective’ by Madhav Deshpande that examines the superimposition of Western notion of history on Eastern culture.


Gulamgiri by Jooterao Phooley / Slavery by Jyotirao Phule

9788187496885-551008361e777-largePhule’s text dated 1st June 1873, adorns this little subtitle-‘In this Civilized British Government under the cloak of Brahamanism’, which clearly emanates the dual nature of his struggle, against upper caste chauvinism and imperial oppression. Writing opens with a Dedication towards coloured people of America, as a token of appreciation and affirmation of co-fraternity towards struggle for equality and equity.

English used to portray themselves as the anointed saviors of colonial land with the moral burden to uplift its people to modernity. Though the fallacy of this claim can easily be proved by the figures of their plunder,pillage and vested interests, western education did benefit its people, in exposing themselves to liberal thoughts. Liberal reformers like Ram Mohan Roy encouraged Freedom of Press and writings in vernaculars, and Missionaries, though with an eye for conversion, helped transcend education to lower strata of society. India has an uneven social structure with obvious prerogatives, which doesn’t really have much parallels in the world. Unlike the usual social structure where class is determined by profession and wealth, in India, ones caste, determines and defines the boundary of ones attainable class, from a time as early as ones birth. Brahmins who occupies the Priestly class, is at the receiving end of all privileges. Kshatriyas take care of governance, Vaisyas foresee trade and business, and Shudras, are doomed to do everything otherwise. This system, though occupation based in first sight, used to be, and somehow still is, very rigid, with prevailing taboos on intermixing(the extend was extreme during remote past due to practices like untouchability). In Discovery of India, Nehru calls it as a system that allowed specialization of labour in ancient India, which later got perverted into an excuse for excising supremacy. Ambedkar, Chairman of Indian Constitution draft committee and a member of ‘Dalit’ community, called it modern day slavery, and personally called up for denunciation of Hinduism in its entirety.

Jyotirao Phule is better known by his contributions towards the education of Sudras and ‘Dalits’(Term Dalit is complicated as it mostly denotes the collective of various lower caste groups who are in lower strata than Sudras. The term is more popular in modern days, and Author has been sticking to the usage of word Sudras, to represent the whole of lower class), the lower caste people, who were denied knowledge, for secrets of knowledge were secrets and privileges of Brahmins. Lower caste people weren’t allowed to listen to vedas or learn sanskrit, the divine language, and were kept checked in their ignorance by twisted philosophies of Dharma. Phule’s narrative calls for an educated look into the exploitation by Brahmins (or upper class in general), under the light of conquerors history. He argues that, dark skinned Sudras were the real occupants of the land, which Brahmin outsiders came over to exploit. Aryan invasion involved practice of atrocities by Brahmins on aborigines of the land, for fertile planes and wealth, much like modern day European Imperialists. He extends the common notion of subjugation by British, to the condescending nature of Brahmanism as well.

In Hindu tradition, Brahmins are styled as Lords of Universe, demanding veneration and obligatory favours, form rest of the class. Like Asimov’s rules of Robots, For a Sudra, to kill the Brahmin is considered to be the heinous of all crime. Phule argues that the existence of these rules and the likes are ploys in co existence, by upper class, to exert power and enjoy privileges, on and from the lower caste. An eternal entitlement of immunity and veneration through religious rules. I will share some excerpts from Manava Dharma Shastra, which Phule had included to illustrate this assertion of superiority.

“A Brahmin can do no wrong.
Never shall the king slay a Brahmin, though he has committed all possible crimes.
To save the life of Brahmin any falsehood maybe told. There is no sin in it.
No one is to take away anything belonging to a Brahmin.
A king, though dying with want, must not recieve any tax from a brahmin, nor suffer him to be afflicted with hunger or the whole kingdom will be afflicted with famine.

so on and so forth.

Basically these are the born privileges that Hesse’s Sidhartha exploited to manipulate others in his personal quest for nirvana. The other side of this superiority is of couse the inferiority of Sudras, and Dalits (there is a fine line of distinction when we use the word Dalit, as the word Sudra includes, in a broader sense, what is today known by OBC(Other Backward Communities) as well). Among many other ridiculous restrictions, Sudras were prohibited from superfluous wealth accumulation, while Brahmins claimed entitlements to their work.Phule takes readers into writing of Puranas, explaining the underlying narrative preference, which, on more educated read, looks like ridiculous fooleries than equitable laws. Most of the mythological stories can be interpreted as conflicts between Aryans and Dravidians or the aborigines. He argues that, even if we take them by half of their face value, the British atrocities will look widely insignificant. Again these are not my personal claims to make, and transistorizing mythology, in my opinion, is a dangerous habit, in present day interpretations (Babri Masjid Incident for example).

Phule isn’t the only one who has made this claim in history, his contemporary and townswoman Tarabhai Shinde called for a feminist interpretation of Hindu epics, in her writings, against the Brahmanic and Male chauvinism. Same can be reflected in Ambedkars writing, who viewed the hagiography of many of the Gods with their devotees, as a subtle ploy to assert brahmanical supremacy and infuse obedience among lower class. VS Naipaul, in his controversial India Trilogy, criticizes the caste system and fixation on ancient history as the biggest hindrance for achieving any sensible social progress. The path of Dharma advises strict adherence to ones duty, adherence to which promises the incentive of a hierarchical upper class birth in next life. Thus the system not only openly endorsed this hierarchical treatment, but involved measures to sustain the tradition till end of times. I must add that there are many contratry arguments to this school of thoughts, which this writing doesn’t give credit to. Still, this psychological enslaving of the lower class, in their self acceptance towards exploitation, is not something that can be unseen, no matter how different your views are.

JyotibaBrahmins have basically been despoiling the Sudras for centuries, in their capacity as Priest and exclusiveness in higher studies. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t any Sudras in olden days, who had risen to the upper strata, there are plenty of historical examples to suggest otherwise. Interestingly, the immediate tendency among those who made it big, coming from a lower caste, was indirect denunciation of their caste, by embracing the practices of upper caste. Despisal of the very practices that they once cherished as identity, became their entry doors into societal pseudo assimilation. For example, the practice of Dowry, shift into vegetarianism etc. In fact, even in present day India this scene isn’t much different, and its a bit sickening considering constitutionally guaranteed affirmative actions. Reservation for Scheduled Caste and Tribes, was initiated as a temporary arrangement for representation of lower caste, but it soon got graduated to an expansive eternal business of vote politics. Some might argue that it has done more harm than good in compartmentalizing the caste system, as a privilege card for entry and even promotion in jobs and academics.

“The Beef, the Mutton, the intoxicating beverages stronger and more fiery than the famed Somarasa, which their ancestors once relished, as the veriest dainties are fast finding innunerable votaries among them.”

British Government, which literally been working by taxing on the poorest necessities of lower caste, was invested in patronizing its virtual high class. The basic nature of colonization has been on this ideology, whether its South Asia or America – join the aristocracy, and induce locals to work and provide for them. British appeasement of upper class bought western education and liberal thoughts as well, and though it did help a significant group of people to stand with the oppressed, majority opted to stay in their cocoon of privileges. Phule seems to have been highly disappointed in the prevalence of this regressing mentality. He says that they are not only condescending enough not to acknowledge their errors but also in constant lookout for excuses to cherish their false notions of superiority. And in this 21st century, I am finding it easy to vouch for him, than contradict ancient ignorance with modern liberalism. There are anomalies to this claim, huge ones in heavy numbers, from blue collar jobs to current President of the country. But they are all lost on this clincher- caste based marriages. This supposed to be monopoly field of younger generation, still suffers from the intricasies of caste system, making the infamous term ‘Arranged Marriages’ all the more literal.

He ends the essay with a call for schools in every village, where Sudras can learn, but without brahmin school masters. Pretty regressive, If you ask me, and in lines with the very doctrine of inclusiveness he been writing against. But, the narrative will make sense once read with the rigidity of caste system during those days, where Brahmin school masters refused to teach Sudras. And this call for education, for future generations free of oppression and equitable in their efforts, was the very cause Phule dedicated his whole life for, which in turn changed the course of India.


Jyotirao Govindrao Phule(11 April 1827 – 28 November 1890) was an Indian social activist for the Dalit people, an thinker, anti-caste social reformer and writer from Maharashtra.

His work extended to many fields including eradication of untouchability and the caste system, women’s emancipation and the reform of Hindu family life. He and his wife, Savitribai Phule, were pioneers of women’s education in India. He is most known for his efforts to educate women and the lower castes. Together, they were among the first native Indians to open a school for girls in India, which they did in August 1848.

The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This often debated and allegedly misattributed quote says a great deal about modern schools of free speech and tolerance. In this collection of essays, Nobel winning Economist Amartya Sen celebrates the long history of argumentative tradition in Indian subcontinent, and its contemporary relevance in often neglected modern cultural discussions.

Paraphrasing Sen himself, a defeated argument that refuses to be obliterated can remain very alive; and opening of the book is a research into the mentation of univocal messages of century old epics and history, by broader argumentative wisdom. Independent India became the first country in the non-Western world to choose a resolutely democratic constitution, though drawing heavily on what it had learned from institutional experiences in Europe and America, a great deal was drawn from its own tradition of public arguments and intellectual heterodoxy. Which according to Sen has kept democracy and coexistence of different political ideologies in check, unlike many other countries where democracy has intermittently made cameo appearances. The essay narrative is not trying to impart some sort of uniqueness in Indian history or to side-line democracy as a Western gift, but argues that the it becomes easier to impart and preserve democratic principles where traditions of public discussions exists, West and East alike. Sen then looks back into this tradition in ancient India, from, ‘Buddhist councils’ of Asoka in 3rd century BCE to Akbar’s 14th century ‘pursuit of reason’ and other royal sponsorships for practise of public reasoning. This historical analysis then goes into an unavoidable cliché that every book on India tends to overdo, celebration of subcontinent’s secularism- like how it has been home for Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Zorastrians, Bahas etc, inter cultural art, literature and music, traditions of Bhakti and Sufi, yada yada yada (no disrespect intended, just casual irritation out of repetition). But interestingly, Sen’s defence for this tolerance of diversity were ancient historical arguments in favour of richness of variation, need for interaction and mutual respect through dialogue.

Akbar’s Durbar

This epistemological departure from orthodoxy provided a catholicity of approach in cultivation of observational science, allowing an interactive openness to Indian work involving both give and take, Sen argues. Though Indian texts majorly involve elaborate religious expositions, there are protracted defences in agnostic or atheistic writings as well. I absolutely adored and enjoyed author’s take on works by Aryabhatta and others in Astronomy and Mathematics, through writings of Iranian astronomer Alberuni and outsiders of the like, thus acknowledging global interactions as opposed to the extreme nationalistic view of indigenous sufficiency.

To celebrate India’s argumentative tradition it is important to distinguish popular philosophies of Hinduism from the fairly crude unique assertion of ‘Hindutva’, which is currently on political offer. The statistical argument of seeing India as a pre-eminent Hindu country (colonial narrative), according to author is a conceptual confusion, for our religion is not our only identity, nor necessarily the identity to which we attach the greatest importance. The Hindutva political propaganda thrives on ‘historical guilt of Muslim conquerors’, by arbitrarily highlighting special chosen anecdotes, often as per convenience, of Muslim maltreatment of Hindus, aimed at generating desired anti-Muslim sentiment; and it undermines by far Indian secularism in broad current of social cultural or intellectual history. History of India, like every other part of world, does contain nightmarish elements, but it also involves people of dissimilar convictions coexisting peacefully in creative activities of literature, music, painting, jurisprudence etc. Sen argues, with much conviction, that India’s past is important for an adequate understanding of the capacious idea of India. He then destroys early BJP government’s ill efforts in rewriting history on NCERT text books and other similar propagandas in creating pseudo history that suites political motives, with well referenced research and scholarship; and compares this exclusive narrowness within the country as cultivated ignorance of a kupamanduka (well-frog).

Tagore and Gandhi

Amartya Sen illustrates the argumentative tradition in modern day using Gandhi and Tagore, who had a relationship of great respect for each other while sharing completely contradicting viewpoints towards nationalism, education, economy and many more. Tagore called for appraisement of Western civilization in an open minded way, for he never saw India’s culture as fragile and in need of protection from Western influence. Author greatly discusses Tagore and ‘sovergnity of reasoning’ in a very delightful manner, and further compliments the same with later discussions on India’s aggregation of heterogeneity, using something this reader least expected- films of Satyajit Ray.

In lines with Said’s ‘Orientalism’, Sen classifies Occident approaches for understanding the Orient, especially India, into three distinct categories – exoticist, magisterial and curatorial. Greater chunk is the romantic narrative of first category, whose major focus is on the wondrous and strange aspects of the country. The ‘magisterial’ approach assimilates a sense of superiority and guardian-hood to its narrative, and wants to view the country as ‘a great scene of British action’. The third category, Sen argues to be relatively free of preconceptions, as it doesn’t rely on the exhibit value (exoticist) nor is weighted down by ruler’s priorities. He illustrates this catholic approach using Alberuni’s ‘Tariq-al-hind’ of early seventh century and the writings of later Chinese travellers, and the more modern works by dedicated scholars like William Jones. Author in fact uses these curatorial works to expose the fallacy of magisterial readings like the ones by James Mill, who wrote voluminous demeaning work without even visiting India for once. Consequences of ‘exotic’ approach are the hallowed position’ mysticism’ and ‘exoticism’ enjoys in Western understanding of India over the traditions in mathematics, science, logic, medicine etc. (specialists in the streams are an obvious exception here). Immediate response of this exotic admiration is the tendency of Indian writers to exaggerate the non-material and arcane aspects (spiritual), often disregarding the more rationalistic and analytic elements (material), thus selectively alienating India from a very substantial part of its past.

Chinese_Sources_of_Ancient_Indian_HistoryContemporary anthropological obsession is to classify world population into civilizations on religious grounds. Sen, dissects this phenomenon using historical closeness of India and China. Though Buddhism could be attributed as the initiator and catalyst for the ‘balance of trades’, the intercultural interactions in trigonometry, creative arts and linguistics weren’t always religion centric. The research provided in this realm is a fascinating read in history and extends to present day economics.

What follows then is a survey on Indian economics in retrospection with Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’. Though India has successfully avoided famines and abuse of coercive power in relative comparison, the ‘integrational’ and ‘institutional’ issues of class is a pertaining concern. Though data suggests handicaps in both ‘agency’ and ‘well-being’ in India and its neighbours, they collectively excel West in certain areas of woman participation like female heads of governments. Though no particular effort is being done in the book to explain this, the final concluding remark is a correlation between social achievements and greater voice of woman in that society. Observations are really interesting and contradictory to popular notions, since our general leaning is to connect everything with better access to education. Sen argues that, Fertility rate reduction in certain states like Kerala through consequential efforts of woman agency is often under looked, as we are eager to credit the coercive and brutal measures of China in the field.

Kargil war (May 1999 – July 1999)

The essay that follows (India and the Bomb) discusses geopolitics of India and its relationship between China and Pakistan in relation with existing Nuclear Policy. It is a critique on the asymmetry created by overestimation of persuasive power of the bomb; which crippled India’s massive superiority in conventional forces against Pakistan (as seen during Kargil war) and elevated the role of China as a regional status quo power (US-China joint non-proliferation efforts of 1998).

Much of Sen’s discussions on reasoning as a strong source of hope and confidence, went over my head like an early morning lecture, thanks to the high philosophies by intellectuals whose name I am bound to mispronounce. The undisputed Western dominance of the world today has created a tendency to identify and define other cultures by their contrasts with contemporary Western culture. Common notion is to attribute the origin of values like ‘liberty’ and ‘autonomy’ with West and that of ‘discipline’ and ‘order’ with East. There is often a dialectic of conferring identity by contrast, which though ideally should not, may sometime have a dampening effect on assimilation of values elsewhere than its area of confinement. Sen tries to break this culture specific aspect using historic examples from Asia and Africa. He offers words by Ashoka, Akbar and the likes in defence of India’s judicially guaranteed multiculturalism and constitutional secularism, with role of reasoning. I would like to quote Akbar criticizing Indian sages who preach ‘good deeds’ for favourable after death outcomes- “To me, it seems that in pursuit of virtue, the idea of death should not be thought of, so that without any hope or fear, one should practise simply because it is good”. When criticized for embracing the practise of smoking tobacco, as it is a European custom, Akbar ignored it on the ground that “we must not reject a thing that has been adopted by people of the world, merely because we cannot find it in our books; or how shall we progress?


The final essays are more of an effort to understand the unique nature of ‘Secularism’ in India, with the arguments that are against it. Scepticism about Indian secularism is often argued in lines of non-existence of the same in ‘Hindu’ India, ‘pseudo-secularism’ by Muslim favouritism, absence of homogeneous identity criticism, rather dangerous Muslim sectarianism argument, Anti modernist argument like those who criticized Akbar and prevailing ‘Hindu country’ narrative. Sen compares the Indian status quo with those of its neighbours in terms of constitutional laws to counter argue these rhetorics, thereby illustrating the dangers of each. To explain the argument of secularism being a folly of modernism, he takes readers through the connection between calendars and culture, for functioning and utilization of calendars involve cultural sophistication and urbanity. Indian subcontinent can boast co-existence of at least six calendars in systematic use as per Whitaker Almanak; and all of them suggests distinct elements of basic structure, interconnections and constancies suggesting the existence of definitive identity despite heterodoxy. The concluding remarks in this book celebrates the basic idea of plurality in modern India, and ends with the complex subject of one’s identity, which often calls for ‘homogenization to hegemonize’. Identity is quintessentially a plural concept in India, If I may quote Sen himself, ‘While we cannot live without history, we need not live within it either’.

Unlike contemporary books on India, which takes the matter casually, Sen’s writing is a bit high on the scholarly side with passing references and detailed footnotes. And I believe, this research is the fundamental difference between his optimistic take and Naipaul’s pessimistic vision of India, former looking the past for enlightenment and learning, while latter seeing it as a source and excuse for present to blame on. Also the essays in this compilation seems to have been formed over different time, occasions and narrative intentions, thus making some core substances slightly repetitive.

I would like to enhance the opening quote of this review with another stolen one as an end note, one undisputed this time, by 19th century Bengali reformist Ram Mohan Roy.

“just consider how terrible the day of your death will be.

Others will go on speaking, and you will not be able to argue back.”

Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation by A.K. Ramanujan

In several of the later Ramayanas (such as the Adhyatma Ramayana, sixteenth century), when Ram is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out, ‘Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?’ That clinches the argument, and she goes with him (Adhyatma Ramayana 2.4.77-8; see Nath 1913, 39).

ramanujan-ramRamayana and Mahabharata are easily identified as the two great Indian epics, though the word “epic” is a weak translation for ‘ithihasa’, popular Sanskrit narrative genre they belong to. In this well researched scholarly article, AK Ramanujan takes readers through the influence of Ramayana in particular, on Indian diaspora and the various tellings of the same basic story structure in South East, Peninsular and Central Asia over past twenty five hundred years.

Author starts by efforts to de-orientalize readers, by differentiating ‘katha’ and ‘kavya’, using ‘story’ and ‘discourse’, ‘sentence’ and ‘speech act’, and finally explains the subtle yet important differences between Ramakatha(Story of Ram) and Ramayana. He uses Ahalya story excerpt from Valmiki Ramyana and Kampan’s Iramavataram to hyphenates the variations in narratives, the increasing God character of Ram in the later, which accordingly was written with knowledge of pre-telling, arguably of the former. Ramanujan carefully compares Thai, Malaysian and South East Asian tellings of Ramayana on the basis of linguistic studies and geopolitical routes over which the ithihasa reached orally, and the culture it got assimilated into. Not to mention the exponential number of variants hosted by Indian vernacular languages in classical and folk traditions.

ravana-3It was fascinating to learn about the Jain traditional tellings which consider Ravana as a noble Shaivite king who met his end by falling for material desires, instead of the classical text book villain figure we are used to (a good place to refer Asura book). There are even traditions where Lakshmana and Ravana are considered as ‘yin-yang’ stye ‘good-evil’ force pair destined to fight time and again, and in this version Lord Ram is venerated as the righteous elevated soul abstaint to violence, which is very understandable once read alongside Jain ideologies. It doesn’t end there, author moves through separate narratives where Sita is Ravana’s daughter, Hanuman is depicted as a ladies man, versions where Vanaras are celstial beings than monkeys, Dashamukha tradition that doesn’t literally considers Ravana’s notorious ten heads and even the variation where Hanuman is credited as the writer of Ramayana who scattered it across the world from Himalayan mountain tops, of which Valmiki is said to have captured only a fragment.

Ramanujan calls for a Ship of Theseus style philosophy and open mindedness to rejoice the similarities, and cherish the differences. He ends the essay with a funny folktale about the power of Ramayana, where the listener is entranced and caught up in the action, who is compelled to enter the world of the epic rather than being a mere by stander, thus erasing the line between fiction and reality.

Few years before, this essay was a hot topic of controversy, over ABVP objecting its inclusion in Delhi University syllabus, under the argument that there is/was only one version of Ramayana. Though Supreme Court ruled out the radical’s arguments, University decided not to include them in syllabus over obvious reactionary discords.

Unlike the Abrahmic faiths, Hinduism has always been a highly decentralized religion, like sages say, Hinduism is different for everybody. While West has Jerusalem or Mecca for pilgrimage, East relish in multiple holy sites; When Semitic religions depend on a single religious founder, Hinduism seem to be little interested in historisizing their religion, not until recently; and while West tend to base their theology on single religious text, East has got multiple religious texts to base it from. All these vast differences had always caused huge discrepancies for Said’s Orientalists in understanding the culture and religion of West.

There is a Vedic philosophy which roughly goes like this – ‘You are limiting God by giving him/her/it human attributes’. My personal view is that, (I could definitely be wrong over educated arguments) In efforts to semitize the religion, like Orientalists, radical nationalists are confining Hinduism to Abrahmic religion lines, than the way of life, which it has always been over centuries; not just for people who identify as Hindus, but for people of different faith and ethnicity over the Peninsular region.