An Ambiguous Journey To The City: The Village and Other Odd Ruins of the Self In the Indian Imagination

An Ambiguous Journey To The City: The Village and Other Odd Ruins of the Self In the Indian Imagination

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Item Code: IDI591
Author: Ashis Nandy
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Edition: 2007
ISBN: 0195683978
Pages: 154
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.2"X 5.3

This book is an expanded version of the first series of Jerusalem Lectures in Indian Civilization, given at Jerusalem in December 1997 under the title of 'Imaginary Journeys'. It tells the story of India's ambivalent affair with the modern city through the myth of the journey between the village and the city and the changes that myth has undergone. The lectures were at the initiative of the Hebrew University and they remain associated in my memory with the fascinating intellectual exchanges I had with psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, philosophers, social and political theorists, anthropologists and, above all, David Shulman, the moving spirit behind the series. This book reflects that cultural context in its concern with uprooting, mega-deaths and, particularly, the fear of the self that has turned the urban-industrial vision into a patented cure for every ontological insecurity and the last word in human civilization not merely in Europe in the 1930s and India in the 1940s, but also in Israel and India in the 1990s.

I write these words a few months after India and Pakistan have exploded a series of nuclear devices. In India at least, the new generation of well-educated, urbane elite has been bristling for years at the limits imposed by the legacy of the country's freedom movement on hard-eyed political 'realism'. In the fiftieth year of the execution of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi by an assassin wedded to such realism, this elite has now finally shed the cultural and ethical encumbrances associated with his name. In place of these encumbrances have come the grim instrumentality and rationality of the rootless, deracinated, massified, urban middle classes, and a set of civic virtues that these classes believe will fight the romanticism sired by the region's nasty, sterile, rustic past. These classes are willing to mortgage their children's future to dedicated necrophiles in order to ensure that the country does not remain mired in that past. To the psychologically homeless person living in an adversarial neighbourhood, the fantasy of the devastated homes of neighbours does not always seem repellent. They may even be a part of normal political cost calculation.

In the whole southern world, the beckoning magic of the new colonial metropolis frames the mythic journey to the city. Such a city vends a dream of total freedom for the individual and the reasoning self, both organized around an ego so autonomous that it yields agency to nothing floating around in post-colonial societies, the journey to the city is a journey from a self buffeted by primordial passions and an authoritarian conscience-the village is seen as the repository of these-to a self identified with fully autonomous ego functions.

This dream of the city usually comes with a cultivated forgetfulness about the violent record of the last hundred years, a record which shows the complicity of the secular city of citizenship, civility, and civic virtues with a particularly ruthless form of self-indulgent, unrestrained, asocial individualism. Such individualism shelters at its centre not the classical, potentially emancipatory Freudian ego, but an overly protected gilded ego that has only apparently shed its encumbrances. For it is now buffeted by another kind of primordiality-the crackpot rationality and objectivity in which the modern public self has specialized, and with which the seemingly autonomous Freudian ego of the western Homo psychologicus seems to be deceitfully in league. The imagined city in South Asia symbolizes the belated attempts of defeated civilizations to break into the hard 'realism' of the world of winner where, to stretch the metaphor of Ivan Illich, specialist skills in hydrology and water management transform the waters of dream into a scarce commodity called H2O.

The attempts at a controlled 'regression' to the village in the South Asian imagination, then, can be read as a form of play with visions that chalk out another possible point of departure for the city. It consecrates the hope-as in the case of Gandhi' triumphant march to Dandi through the villages of Gujarat in the 1920s, or his magical walk through the riot-affected villages of Noakhali in East Bengal in 1946-7-that the city of the future will be more modest and skeptical about its privileged access to realism, its social-evolutionary edge over other lifestyles, its monopoly on multiculturalism and creative individualism. As some of the most urbane thinkers of South Asia have recognized during the last hundred years, the 'return' to the village from the city is often a search for an alternative cosmopolitanism. That cosmopolitanism has a place for the humble vernacular, often incompatible with any iconography of the nation-state, with the compulsions of a global market, and with the demands of a global knowledge industry. What Freud said about war, we can say with minor adjustments about the imagined village that figures in the following pages. With the recovery of the village in the South Asian imaginary, the cities of the region might become interesting again, and we may rediscover their 'full content'. That recovery has also been the concern of thinkers, writers, and activists who define the underground of contemporary civic culture-from William Blake to Henry David Thoreau to the defiant movements for alternatives that plague global capitalism today-the way dysentery once plagued Europe's triumphant civilizing mission in the tropics.

Makarand Paranjape has reminded us recently that crosscultural travel, when not a pilgrimage, is often encased in a neocolonial hierarchy. In our times, only some have the prerogative of travelling to other people and lands and reporting on them. Contemporary travel presumes the Dostoyevskian opposition between the anthropologists and the subjects of anthropological Journey as a metaphor, however, can also be a way of bearing witness: psychogeographically, it is almost always an expedition to the borders of the self. Al Beruni's journey to India was not so much a one-sided, Columbian discovery of India as a dialogue of civilizations in which the stranger mirrored the self and the self mirrored the stranger. By trying to understand the stranger in the stranger's terms, he not merely confronted his own self but also extended its borders. At this plane, Al Beruni's account of his journey was a play on the double meaning of reflection. His work became a testimony to forms of consciousness to which a philosopher-mystic like Jalaluddin Rumi, not enamoured of terrestrial journeys and clear self-other differences, would have been no stranger. We live in an age of testimony, some have claimed. Perhaps we do, but that testimony should encompass not merely the experience of organized mass violence based on self-other differences in our times. It should also pay homage to the often unheroic, everyday ability to mass violence. To pay that homage, we are obliged to stand witness to the many lost worlds of culture and culturally-based systems of knowledge that have been proclaimed obsolete and, along with the millions of their living practitioners, exported to the past with a remarkable intellectual sleight of hand. So much so that references to these living cultures and to the sufferings and indignities of the millions who live with these cultures are seen as a romantic time travel to the past.

I have finished writing these words sitting in Cochin, a bustling, addictive, medieval city that retains almost nothing of its pre-colonial past in structures and architecture, but still bears the stamp of its distinctive, deviant cosmopolitanism. In Cochin's version of civic virtues, strangers, whom we like to call 'others' these days, can be disliked but not eliminated; indeed they have to be given the right to dislike you without nurturing annihilating passions within themselves or in you. Cochin shows that in many cultures the self can be incomplete without its distinctive notselves; indeed, it is partly defined by these not-selves. What looks like a possibility in the future, the city seems to proclaim, may lie scattered or hidden at the margins today, making the futurist's search a disguised self-exploration in the present. Cochin shows that the journey to homelessness in not yet complete in South Asia.

Cochin also suggests that in South Asia the cultural psychology of space usually ends up as a political psychology of time. As the region's obstreperous cultural diversity has become a political liability in the age of globalized civility, anxieties about the region's persisting cultural 'backlog' have grown. Modern India's response has been a heavy-handed use of the theory of progress as a new psychological defence: its job is to index the unknown and the strange as a new set of the anachronistic and the retrogressive Gradually, whatever in contemporary India is distant from or incongruent with our favourite intellectual categories has become disposable; it is repackaged as history and banished to the past. We talk of living communities and systems and banished to the past. We talk of living communities and systems of knowledge struggling to survive now as if we were talking of the distant past. Perhaps in the entire postcolonial world, the 'dream work' of creative imagination establishes an easier convertibility between time and space to turn all psychogeographical journeys into psychopolitical ones. These lectures, which began as a mythography of journey in the Indian imaginary, have imperceptibly changed their course to become a political reconstruction of the passions invested in journeys to and from the city.

Pack of the Book

This entrancing book confirms Nandy's stature as probably the most suggestive and accessible, the most insightful and delightful of our resident Indian intellectuals.'

-Harish Trivedi, India Today

'Ashis Nandy illuminatingly joins the methods of a cultural anthropologist and a Freudian psychologist to illustrate the "function" of the popular film in representing social mores. The later part of the book widens the scope of the journey symbolism to incorporate the actual traumatic journeys of the victims of Partition.'

-M. L. Raina, The Tribune

'Ashis Nandy, as usual, is quixotic, proactive, and brilliant.'

-Gurcharan Das, Outlook

'Nandy's process of overturning fixed narratives, discovering the lost parts of the self and of history, and re-admitting the exiled or repressed, is a truly fascinating one. By holding great complexity and contradiction in place for us as we travel through them, the journey of the title emerges as an essential are along which one cannot help trying to locate oneself.'

-Rana Dasgupta, Biblio

'Using examples as diverse as Karna, Gandhi, P. C. Barua, Raj Kapoor, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and finally the terrible post-Partition riots of 1947, Nandy investigates the subtle and complex co-existence of the village and the city¬Ö a thought provoking book and a lucidly written one.'

-Amrita Shah, The Express Magazine

1The Journey to the Past as a Journey into the Self
The Remembered Village and the Poisoned City1
2The City as the Invitation to an Antique Death
Pramathesh Chandra Barua and the Origins of the
Terribly Effeminate, Maudlin, Self-destructive Heroes
of Indian Cinema.
3The Journey to the Village as a Journey to the Centre of The Self
Mrinal Sen's Search for a Radical Cinema72
4The Invisible Holocaust and the Journey as an Exodus
The Poisoned Village and the Stranger City 98
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