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A Dialogue Between Two Dissenters

Harsh Sethi

A Project of
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 149, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 9 September 2006

Ashis Nandy is no unfamiliar name. His contrarian positions on a range of issues – even sati, have continued to intrigue, if not irritate many of his readers. He is also, as he claims, consistently misunderstood. Take his writings following the infamous case of the Deorala sati. When most commentators were railing against the barbarous custom, arguing for the use of state force to root out a heinous practice, Ashis Nandy chose to defend the idea of sati, even while denouncing the specific instance at Deorala as murder. The fine distinction was lost on most readers, missing his critique of urban middle class moralizing about the beliefs and cultural credos of the marginalized as a defence of the custom. But then, ‘most urban, modern, educated Indians see their diversity as a source of national disunity – of communalism, casteism, regionalism, parochialism and factionalism.’ Nandy, basing his understanding of our possible futures on ‘persons and communities who insist on living with “unreliable” and “invalid histories”, who live with selves that originate and are grounded in ahistorical modes of constructing the past – in legends, myths and epics’, can appear a little quaint, if not reactionary. That, I believe, would be an error.   Conversations with Nandy, though fun, are rarely easy. Not only because so many of his views run counter to the dominant positions, but equally because of his non-linear, if not elliptic manner of responding to questions. Also disconcerting is his tendency to draw on a bewildering range of sources – from the latest in psychoanalysis, opinion poll surveys, epic literature to social science theorizing. It is to the credit of Ramin Jahanbegloo, Iranian philosopher and cultural critic that what may have been intended as interviews have been transformed into a conversation – a dialogue between two dissenters, each drawing upn the legacies of their rich, and troubled, civilizations. The result is a peek into the minds and ways of thinking of two creative individuals, engaged with both their own evolution as also their take on some of the most troubling questions of the times. Adding poignancy to the dialogue is the fact that Ramin Jahanbegloo, the 2006 Rajni Kothari Fellow at the CSDS, is currently lodged in an Iranian prison on unspecified charges.   At a time when dominant political and intellectual elites seem to have acquiesced in the inevitability of globalization and bought into the hegemonic narratives of nationalism, secularism, patriarchal science and cultural universalism, ...

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