IN FEBRUARY 1980, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the English cricket team flew down to Bombay (now Mumbai) for a one-off test match. Known as the Golden Jubilee test, the game ended in a humiliating 10-wicket defeat for India, with Ian Botham scoring a century and taking 10 wickets.
The match is remembered, however, for another reason. At 85 for five, chasing India’s modest score of 242, England lost Bob Taylor to a catch behind the wicket. The batsman felt he hadn’t got an edge; the umpire was certain he had. Standing at first slip, GR Vishwanath, captaining India for the second and final time, felt the verdict was unfair. He withdrew the appeal, overruled the umpire and invited Taylor to continue batting. Taylor and Botham had a big partnership and took the match away from India.
That decision by Vishwanath became the key takeaway from the Golden Jubilee test — the turning point, the moment for the ages. Was it a noble, sporting gesture or was it misplaced generosity? Cricket buffs have been arguing for decades.
The question intrigues Ashis Nandy as well, and not just because he is a cricket fan. Among India’s foremost social scientists and public intellectuals, Nandy — who turned 75 on 19 May — has often used cricket “as a device through which to make a larger social, even philosophical point”. Drawing an analogy that is breathtaking in its sweep, he compares the criticism of Vishwanath with middle class attitudes towards Gandhi.
He draws in Nathuram Godse’s impassioned statement at his trial for the murder of the Mahatma — later published as May it Please Your Honour — and makes a reference to Veer Savarkar’s organic, and to Nandy’s mind antiseptic, nationalism. He sees in the hostility to Vishwanath’s recall of Taylor the same roots as the conflict between Savarkar’s and Gandhi’s conceptualisation of India.
Injecting an irrational element into an ordered framework; going against the normative structure and its rules; overruling the umpire — to Nandy, Vishwanath’s critics represent Savarkar’s advocacy of a clinical polity and an idea of nation-State designed from a European, Mazzini-inspired template. The Indian captain of 1980, like the Mahatma of the 1940s, disturbs those postulates.
“[He] could thrust his… fads… by resorting to such a simple trick as threatening a fast… The Congress had to surrender its will to his and had to be content with playing second fiddle to all his eccentricity, whimsicality, metaphysics and primitive vision… He alone was the judge of everyone and everything.” That was Godse’s complaint against the Mahatma. Could it also be the cricket purist’s grouse against Vishwanath? Nandy has his interlocutor hooked.
DEPENDING ON how you see it, the story and analogy above could be intriguing, gripping or just a waste of time. What is undeniable, however, is that it does represent an original idea and novel analyses. In a sense, it is classic Nandy — an audacious, daring academic who has ventured into new streams and jumped from the ivory tower of academia to the low-culture marshes of cricket and popular cinema to comprehend his world and society.
Disagree with him or otherwise, it is difficult to come away and not be enthralled by his sense of curiosity, and not be left mulling a few thoughts and ideas along the way. In a city of conformists, Nandy is unafraid to walk a different path. In a time when the very discipline of humanities is under such pressure, he is the last of Delhi’s professorial eccentrics.
His family would chuckle that he’s always been like this. His wife, Uma, talks of her mother-in-law relating how Ashis walked home from school hours after his brother, Manish, had reached. They would both leave Calcutta’s (now Kolkata’s) Scottish Church School and take the same bus home, with just enough money to pay the fare. Manish would get off at the right stop. Unerringly and inevitably Ashis would be lost in a book and would jump off the bus several hours later and be forced to walk back.
Childhood habits stayed on. Ashis became the absent-minded academic. Manish, two years his junior, studied economics and business management, joining Dunlop, the World Bank and finally ended up in the United States government. He is now a consultant in Washington, DC, his career the very antithesis of that of the older brother he so cherishes. If there is antithesis, fittingly, there is synthesis as well — in the form of the third of the Nandy brothers, Pritish, 10 years Ashis’ junior, and a man who has combined creativity with commerce and become the intellectual entrepreneur that Ashis could never have become and would probably have wanted to become.
Nandy is unafraid to walk a different path. In a time when the very discipline of humanities is under such pressure, he is the last of Delhi’s professorial eccentrics
Ashis Nandy was born in 1937 in Bhagalpur, where his maternal uncle lived. His parents were schoolteachers in Calcutta, part of a family that had converted to Christianity in his grandfather’s generation. Asked if he ever interrogated that decision to switch religions, Nandy sips his coffee, thinks, comes up with two answers and dismisses them both, and finally says, with the disarming candour that so many of his interlocutors have found so endearing, “Among Bengalis of that time, it must have been a fashionable thing to do. Some became Brahmos, some became Christians. Everybody was imitating the British!”
The comment is laughed away but the commitment is serious. Unlike many other academics in the social sciences in India, Nandy is not anti-religious or contemptuous of faith. Colleagues talk of the open house he keeps every Christmas day, both as a social ritual and as a marker of his identity.
This is perhaps a secret tribute to his father, a man who refused to reconvert to Hinduism after an aunt told him to do so, promising him her wealth as inheritance. The senior Nandy would not be led into temptation; his son is proud of that integrity, but also, one suspects, captivated by it as only a curious student would be. More than faith or observance, it is the power behind that faith that engrosses Ashis Nandy and his work. Few social scientists have studied faith and religious motivations with as much interest and — dare one say it — sympathy in contemporary India.
‘CSDS is one of the key factors that has made me what I am. It offered intellectual freedom, and a collegiate yet critical ambience,’ remarks Nandy
THE LANDSCAPE seemed decidedly rockier in 1957, when Nandy dropped out of Calcutta Medical College. He was 20, had thrown away a dream career for a middle-class lad and left his parents aghast. “It was just not me,” he maintains, about those years in medical college. He went off to Nagpur for a holiday, staying with his father’s sister who was an educationist there, and enrolled in Hislop College for an undergraduate course in sociology, psychology and political science.
Having done his MA in Nagpur, Nandy got a fellowship to go to the BM Institute of Mental Health in Ahmedabad, which “had an excellent psychoanalytical clinic”. He also enrolled at Gujarat University for his PhD, the subject of his thesis being: “What role do fantasies surrounding economic success and failure play in business culture?” It was a response to the thriving business, commercial and entrepreneurial underpinning of Gujarati society.
The subject seems fascinating and perennial, especially in the era of liberalisation. Surprisingly, Nandy rarely refers to his thesis and has not even published it. He does not consider it as among his memorable works. “I was trapped between psychoanalytical insights and my newfound interest in mathematical statistics. Somehow it didn’t gel. Also my guides kept changing. I had three of them, but eventually submitted my thesis on my own.”
Nandy finally got his PhD in 1969 but by then he had long moved to Delhi. It was in 1965 that he accepted a job as research methodologist (essentially a survey statistician) at the Shriram Centre in the capital. He needed good employment because he was now married to Uma, a Gujarati girl and fellow clinical psychologist he had met in Ahmedabad. The job lasted only a few months, as Nandy was soon to find his permanent home, his own Elysium: the Centre for the Study of developing Societies (CSDS).
The recruitment process was what told Nandy this was a different sort of place. “There was no formal interview,” he remembers, “I was never asked about my degrees and educational background. We had an intellectual chat for five or six hours. At the end of it, Rajni Kothari asked me to wait for a few minutes, and then said, ‘Okay, join tomorrow’. I said, let me give the Shriram Centre a decent notice. Eventually we agreed to a three-day notice period.”
CSDS was where Nandy flowered. The interview panel that accepted him comprised several stalwarts who were to become friends and colleagues, mentors and peers — Kothari himself, the pioneering political scientist DL Seth, the historian Gopal Krishna, Bashiruddin Ahmed, who made a name for himself in political sociology and early electoral studies.
“CSDS is one of the key factors that has made me what I am,” admits Nandy, “it offered intellectual freedom, and a collegiate yet critical ambience. I cannot imagine it being easily duplicated in India.”
What made it so special? “Frankly, other institutions were perhaps less ambitious. They didn’t go into future studies, for example. At CSDS, we were daring. I think we succeeded in changing the face of social sciences, in India of course but internationally as well.”
THE MULTIDISCIPLINARY and cross-disciplinary leeway that CSDS allowed him was perfect for Nandy. He bloomed and became controversial among fellow academics for his use of motifs from cricket and popular Bombay cinema, as well as the frequency with which he began intervening in the media or being quoted by the press in an attempt to validate what was sometimes not so much a social trend but just a journalist stringing together three examples.