Ashis Nandy: on Pakistan’s latent “potentialities”

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Ashis Nandy (38 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

Ashis Nandy, our sparkling Sage of New Delhi, is in effect a psycho-analyst of post-colonial South Asia. On the way home from Lahore, we stopped to ask the great man about Pakistan — and the “myth of Pakistan” which, he has written, “originates in India and dominates India’s public life,” too. “Pakistan is what India does not want to be… both a double and the final rejected self… the ultimate symbol of irrationality and fanaticism.”

Such is the myth. The reality and the possibility of Pakistan, and Ashis Nandy’s feeling about India’s neighbor come out very differently in conversation. “I feel at home in Pakistan,” said the poster version of the Bengali intellectual. “I miss only the vibrancy, the stridency of the political opinions that are articulated against fundamentalism and the state.” Pakistan is “a troubled country,” he is saying, “but not moribund, not a failed state” and not about to become one.

Ashis Nandy has just made his own study, in 1500 interviews, of the wounds of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan — among the searing and decisive memories of his own boyhood in Calcutta. The snippet that leaps out at him now is that 40 percent of his sample called up stories of themselves and others being helped through that orgy of blood and death by “somebody from other side.” In no other genocide, Nandy says, can he find a comparable measure of mercy. “There is that part of the story, too,” he is saying. “That is South Asia.”

I have seen other faces of Pakistan too, other faces of the Pashtuns who have supplied us with the Taliban and hosted Osama Bin Laden. Gandhi called them the finest non-violent freedom fighters of India. Not once, more than once. So there is another story, which is no longer told, which seems very old-fashioned, which doesn’t seem to have a place in contemporary statecraft and contemporary political culture. I find that very odd. Human potentialities are not adequately recognized. I think we live with stereotypes, and once a stereotype becomes unfashionable, then pick up another stereotype. But there is another way of looking at it: the potentialities that are inherent in some of the cultures in this part of the world have never been fully explored. People are afraid of them, they become so nervous about the darker side of human nature that they do not like to know of them; they think this would be a compromise with realism, a compromise with statecraft. …

What we saw during the Partition was ultimately not only the pathology of rural India and urban India, but also the forces that can be mobilized for a different kind of effort, to fight the violence… I think my study of partition violence has made me more respectful towards ordinary Indians and Pakistanis, and I would in the future be more open to the multilayered selves of people in this part of the world, perhaps people everywhere.

Ashis Nandy with Chris Lydon, at home in New Delhi, mid-summer 2011.

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