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On the nature of Indian Gothic

What is the nature of Nandy's project? Time Warps crystallises his efforts to fashion a commentary on what can only be called the Indian Gothic. A review essay by AMIT CHAUDHURI.


THE first time I met him, Ashis Nandy said to me that Mushirul Hasan had once described him as a "de-professionalised intellectual". We were having a conversation over lunch during which I was reflecting on my host's status as a maverick and an outsider. It is not a status one acquires by ambition; it comes, rather, from the compulsions of background and temperament, and, as Nandy pointed out to me helpfully, from not only the nature of one's work but also of one's employment. The Centre for Studies in Developing Societies in Delhi has, over several decades, with the benevolence of a patron rather than an institution, fostered and enlarged his position as maverick-employee. Outsiders have generally faded from public life in India, and one of the reasons is institutional intolerance of them in this country. The place we had met for lunch, the dining room of the Indian International Centre Annexe, was itself a room bursting and crowded with rank and caste, a small area where the entrenched émigrés that comprise Delhi's political and intellectual life congregate to nourish themselves physically and, more importantly, socially. The reason for Nandy's survival in this world is his personal charm and that he seems to have made his peace with it outwardly; the fact that he seems to be on handshaking terms with many members of the establishment conceals, at least temporarily, and in everyday life, the astringency and deep oddity of his own position. (This charm is reflected in the range and generosity of the footnotes in the present book, Time Warps, where he acknowledges a range of sources and stimuli, some of which emerge from ideological stances subtly, and crucially, different from his own.)

What is the nature of Nandy's project? I think this book crystallises what, for me, is one of its most powerful thrusts: to fashion a commentary on what I can only call the Indian Gothic. It is a discourse whose antecedents we must locate in 19th-century England. The Gothic is a category whose critical impulse was almost single-handedly defined in the middle of the 19th Century, by the English art critic beloved of Gandhi, John Ruskin. The term's polemical meaning had been circulated by William Hazlitt, but it was Ruskin who put it to fullest and most audacious use. Although Ruskin's ostensible subject was a style of architecture, he was also, in his essay, "The Nature of Gothic", critiquing the Enlightenment values of an England that would, in a few years, officially assume the mantle of Empire.

Ruskin completed this essay in 1853. Britain was on the verge of becoming a global imperial power, and Ruskin's essay on architecture is not untouched by the politics of Empire; it is, in fact, an early and radical critique of that politics. Mainstream European architecture is, according to Ruskin, streamlined and perfect. In bringing this to fruition, the Renaissance church or the Greek one suppresses, says Ruskin, the "rude", the wayward, the "imperfect". The Gothic, on the other hand, allows these elements expression in its architectural space; and among the characteristics Ruskin notes as unmistakably Gothic are "Savageness, or Rudeness", and "Grotesqueness". The Gothic is the self-expression of the "rude" and "barbaric" Northern temperament whose time, Ruskin believes, has come. It's worth noting that the "barbaric" and the "civilised" are not, for Ruskin, and as they certainly were in the time of Empire, terms used to dichotomise "backward" states and "enlightened" nations, or coloniser and colonised; they are a means of problematising "Englishness" itself as a stable category. The "barbaric" elements Ruskin enumerates in the context of the Gothic are within Englishness, not outside it. The Gothic becomes an occasion on which Ruskin rewrites "Englishness" in the terms of "difference".

"Rude", "barbaric", "savage": the political and imperial resonance of these terms becomes clear if we read Ruskin's contemporary, John Stuart Mill. The latter's Considerations on Representative Government was published in 1861, roughly 10 years after Ruskin composed his essay, although the individual pieces that comprise it, and the rhetoric they reflect, had already been in circulation. The contradiction in Mill's work is well known: his enthusiasm for democratic governance, and the conviction he held at the same instant that democracy was unsuited to certain "inferior" peoples. Mill's concept of the nation-state argues for the suppression of the "rude" in the way Ruskin diagnosed its suppression in mainstream European architecture. Thus, Mill: "A rude people, though in some degree alive to the benefits of civilized society, may be unable to practice the forbearance it demands... " For "any people who have emerged from savage life", only a "limited and qualified freedom" is appropriate. "Civilized government," Mill continues, "to be really advantageous to them, will require to be in a considerable degree despotic... "

Placed in juxtaposition with Mill's essay, we begin to see that Ruskin's "Gothic" is an extraordinarily prescient critique of Mill's conception of the colonial nation-state. Ruskin's account of mainstream European architecture makes it a trope for Mill's nation-state; the master-workman, the necessary "despot", suppresses the "rude" impulses of the "inferior" workman; for the latter — who, according to Ruskin, becomes a "slave" in the Greek tradition — only a version of Mill's "limited and qualified freedom" is possible. Gothic architecture, on the other hand, doesn't suppress the "rude" or "savage"; it incorporates these qualities as constituents of its style by "allowing independent operation to the inferior workman". The freedom of the "inferior" workman, in this equation, is inflected with the colonised's right to self-determination; the Gothic affirmation of "rudeness" — "betraying... imperfection in every touch" — resonates with the political liberty of the marginalised in the imperial world.

When India gained Independence, it inherited an Enlightenment concept — the modern democratic nation-state — but, at once, embarked upon an unprecedented experiment. By opting for universal suffrage from the moment of Independence, at a time when the electorate was not largely middle-class — in fact, quite the opposite — the Indian nation-state included in the political process, besides its bourgeois citizenry, a peasant class, and, as a result, "the agency of gods, spirits, and other supernatural beings": I am quoting Dipesh Chakraborty on Ranajit Guha's critique of Eric Hobsbawm. The Indian state has had, thus, to negotiate two languages, two (I am borrowing from Ruskin) architectures, from its inception. The first is an Enlightenment conception of the democratic nation-state which most of us, in the middle class, inhabit mentally, and none literally or physically: an ideal of perfection, an ideal democracy. The achievement of this ideal is contingent upon the suppression, or amelioration, of the wayward. Much of our polemical energy is expended upon measuring the distance between the political "ideal" and "real", and one mustn't dismiss this polemic: it is a crucial part of our democratic life.

The other language or architecture of the Indian state might be called a Gothic experiment, a space in which the "rude" or "savage" are indispensable to the life of the structure; where unequal groups, like Ruskin's "inferior" workmen, allow their imaginative capacities and loyalties to mark (or, from another point of view, mar) the design of the building or nation. There are commentators who have been trying to fashion a critical and cognitive language with which to speak of the Gothic political experiment; among the foremost, and most idiosyncratic, of these is Nandy; among those whose interpretation is more exclusively political are the subaltern historians. As to the latter's philosophical analyses: Guha's critique of Hobsbawm's "premodern", Chakrabarty's of Walter Benjamin's "empty homogeneous time of history", Partha Chatterjee's formulation, in response to Benedict Anderson, of the "heterogeneous time of modernity" — all these are attempts to arrive at a discourse that doesn't divide the historical "present" in India into pre-modern and modern components, but to create something like a Gothic paradigm, in which unequal elements alike combine to produce a single architecture, and, by implication, political and historical process.


Both Nandy and the subaltern historians are critics of the Enlightenment. The difference between them seems to me to be this: the Enlightenment, for the subaltern historians, is situated in Europe; their discourse is addressed at least substantially to the Western academy; this gives to their project its particular urgency. Nandy, on the other hand, seems to be directly confronting the Indian middle class in its incarnations as polity and intelligentsia; even closer to home, he is confronting the self. Although he speaks of the "European" Enlightenment, the Enlightenment and the self, for him, are deeply implicated and linked; it is his "higher" self, in a sense, he is addressing and scolding. This gives his project its particular urgency.

Anteriority, or posteriority, is a characteristic of the Gothic, in that it gives expression to what Enlightenment culture pushes to the back. Mikhail Bakhtin's attendance to Rabelais's portraits of the human posterior is related, for him, to being a historian of the grotesque and the carnivalesque — the latter being his metaphor for the self-expression of marginalised cultures, in the way the Gothic was for Ruskin. The Gothic relationship with anteriority in Indian modernity was an aesthetic project even before it became a political one: think of Tagore's relationship with the Santhal and Baul; moving on, of U.R. Ananthamurthy, teacher of English, drawing upon the traditions of the "back yard" for his Kannada fiction; of A.K. Ramanujan, whose "outer" forms, he claimed, came from English, his "inner" from Tamil and Kannada.

But Nandy is not only our poet and theorist of the vernacular energies; he is our poet of the Indian grotesque. Just as the Indian use of the word "secular" is both related to, and subtly different from, the Western "secular", so the Indian word "backside" is both akin to, and somewhat differs from, the same word in proper English parlance (although to speak of "backside" and "proper English parlance" in the same breath is itself a paradox). "Backside", in English, means, as we know, the human posterior; "backside", in Indian English, or any Indian language, refers to the rear entrance of a building, or the back of an object. That the word has a political dimension in our country was revealed to me once when I was entering Delhi in a taxi, and the driver informed me: "Sir, that is the backside of the Lok Sabha!" True: much of our trade in modern India is conducted in this "backside", in unofficial quarters; most of our politics is negotiated in this "backside". The word, in India, has both the hint of the grotesque and the political resonance that Bakhtin once identified in it: and Nandy has been exploring those hints and resonances.

Unlike the subaltern theorists, he is not so much interested in "resistance from below" as in the excremental echoes of "below", in the grotesque as a counterpoint to the Enlightenment idea of the state. Thus: "Of this Indian state... the romantic realists have no clue... It is... fair to argue that more [sic] realistic analysts of the Indian state today are the criminalized elements in the polity." The enlightenment concept Nandy calls the "shadow state" or, echoing Anderson but inverting his meaning, an "imagined state"; the Indian state as Gothic experiment he calls the "present Indian state", punning on the other meaning of "state" — as in "state of affairs".

Architectural tropes that conflate the Gothic and the nation-state recur in the book; and, as in Ruskin's Gothic cathedral, religion and the marginalised's self-determination are brought together: "Religion has entered public life, but through the back door". Nandy has little time for the Hindu chauvinism of the upper-caste bourgeoisie, which he calls "an odd form of reactive Westernisation" in "the garb of cultural nationalism". But he is interested in the different belief-systems that constitute our Gothic national experiment, and configures this in architectural terms; here he is on deities outside the mainstream: "They are not permitted into the main hall, but they are there, just outside the door, constantly threatening to enter the main hall uninvited... " This is from the enthralling "A Report on the Present State of Health of the Gods and Goddesses in South Asia." It is about the beliefs that engender tolerance in our country; but the sentence I've quoted is also about a political process. The paradigm is the Gothic; and the essay, in its way, is as important in its metaphorical eloquence on our Indianness as Ruskin's was in relation to Englishness. The person who, generationally and figuratively, links these commentators together is, for me, Gandhi; Gandhi, who absorbed Ruskin, and who is an exemplar to Nandy. Like the Indian nation, Gandhi can be seen to be at once modern and pre-modern, political and non-political; or we could see him, and our nation-state, as a frustrating but mesmerising Gothic paradigm, definitively political, definitively modern.

Time Warps, Ashis Nandy, Permanent Black, Rs. 495.

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