Archive for the ‘Politics of Knowledge Systems’ Category


Fifteen years ago, I delivered before the Regents’ Society at UCLA a lecture entitled, “Violence in the 21st Century:  The Terrorism of Categories and Invisible Holocausts.”  Mike Davis had published in late 2000 his magisterial book, Late Victorian Holocausts, but I do not recall that it was his work that had inspired the title of my talk; rather, it was the critical literature on the largely unrecognized genocidal aspects of “development” that had led me to my title.  A colleague who was present at my talk later told me that in Israel, where he had spent a good part of his life before moving to the US, such a lecture would be inconceivable.  He pointed, rather surprisingly, to my use of the word “holocausts” in the plural:  in Israel, only one holocaust is recognized as such.  It is “The Holocaust”, and to suggest that there may be other holocausts apparently diminishes the enormity of the Shoah, the only and only Holocaust which took the lives of six million Jews—and, though this is not always mentioned, a sizable number of homosexuals, the Roma, and those earmarked by the Nazi state as ‘unfit to live’ on account of mental or other disabilities.  In Berlin, at least, there now exists a memorial to the others who were felled by the Nazi state’s murderous policies.

Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, or, in Hebrew, Yom HaShoah, marking the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  A full page announcement, or “Open Letter”, published in the New York Times (24 April 2017) and authored by Dr. Moshe Kantor, President of the European Congress, commences with an observation by the British philosopher John Gray, who adverts to the fact that while “intellectual and scientific values accumulate in the world”, and are transmitted from generation to another, “unfortunately ethical values” are not transmitted in this fashion and must be learnt anew by each generation.  This point has been argued by many others who have similarly pointed to the fact that technological changes have taken place at lightning speed over the last few decades but that the capacity of human beings for moral thinking has not changed very much.  To Dr. Kantor and Professor John Gray alike, the inescapable truth is that though everyone is aware of the Shoah, the new generation is “ethically uneducated” about its meaning and implications.   As Dr. Kantor points out, the numbers of Holocaust survivors are “dwindling”, but this is of course unavoidable; however, much more alarmingly, anti-Semitic incidents in English-speaking countries, which have been more hospitable to Jews than other European countries, have been rising sharply.

That there should be a “Holocaust Remembrance Day” is one of those truths that dare not be contested, except at the peril, as Dr. Kantor’s “Open Letter” unfortunately suggests, of being labeled anti-Semitic.  Not just on this day, but nearly every day, there is always the occasion to remind the world that it “should never forget” the unspeakable atrocities of the German killing machine.  The dozens if not hundreds of Holocaust Museums around the world stand forth as vivid reminders of the fact that one community at least has the power to invoke its past and shame everyone else into remembering. Who, however, remembers the perhaps half a million Bengalis who were killed in the genocide in what was then East Pakistan as it made its bid for independence in 1971?  Hardly anyone—indeed, I should say no one, barring the people of Bangladesh themselves.  Some people, but not very many, remember the 800,000 Tutsis butchered in the Rwandan genocide from a little more than two decades ago, but those numbers have already been dwarfed by those who have been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Rwanda will soon go the way of Bangladesh; it is doubtful that even the Congo will stay very much in the collective memory of the West or indeed the rest of the world.

Africa interests the West very little, except as a place for “investments”.  Let us, therefore, take a more complicated example.  56,000 American soldiers, or something in that vicinity, were killed during the Vietnam War, and the United States is littered with memorials to them.  To the best of my knowledge, not a single memorial mentions the three million Vietnamese who were killed in this war. It is not their names that I am suggesting should be recounted:  the very fact that 3,000,000 Vietnamese were killed is not recorded at any war memorial site.  It isn’t even certain how many Vietnamese were killed; in all such instances in Asia or Africa, some nice round figure seems to suffice.  Every single American life, on the other hand, must be etched in memory forever, doubtless because God has an especially soft spot for Americans, dead ones as much as those who are living—thus the familiar and noxious incantation of American political speeches, ‘God Bless America’.  The search for American soldiers “Missing in Action” in Vietnam is still on going; the budget for that mission runs into millions of dollars.  Every American life counts, as indeed it should.  Why American lives alone should count is a question that few are prepared to ask, though, paradoxically, many are prepared to answer.

Some Americans might well ask why the Vietnamese should be remembered in American memorials, since such memorials very much do the work of the nation-state and are intended to commemorate the lives of the Americans who laid down their lives.  Presumably, they will add, the memorials to the Vietnam War in Vietnam honor their own dead.  But one would think that in a Christian nation, which is what the United States has called itself, it should be as least just as important to remember those we hate, and those in whose killing one has been complicit.  What did Christ say on the Sermon on the Mount?  “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” (Matthew 5:46-47)  There is nothing whatsoever that is exceptional in remembering the American dead:  if at all forgiveness was sought, it is the Vietnamese dead who ought to be remembered?  Or perhaps it is only given to America to forgive, not to beg forgiveness?

The ethics of forgetting is not any less important than the ethics of remembering.  But of this I shall speak some other time.  For now, it suffices to stay with the idea that the call to remember cannot be dismissed.  But what exactly is to be remembered?  Only that six million Jews were killed and that the Nazis were engaged in annihilationist terror?  Does this entail submission, howsoever tacit, to the view that the suffering of Jews takes precedence over the suffering of others?  If it is “Holocaust Remembrance Day” that we are called upon to observe, does this confer recognition upon the Holocaust as the paradigmatic instantiation of genocide in modern times? Does Holocaust Remembrance Day give rise to the supposition that there is a hierarchy of suffering?  Does the suffering of some people count more than the suffering of others and, if so, on what theological and ethical view?  Unless “Holocaust Remembrance Day” is decisively disassociated from an insistence on the singularity of the Holocaust, it is very likely going to breed resentment rather than understanding and compassion.



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Review-article on Ruby Lal, Coming of Age in Nineteenth-Century IndiaThe Girl-Child and the Art of Playfulness (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  xvii plus 229 pp.).

More than twenty-five years ago, the Indian economist and public intellectual Amartya Sen helped ignite a debate on the “endangered” status of girls and women in Asia and Africa when he argued that 100 million women were “missing”, a third of that number from India alone.  Discrimination against girls in India begins, as is now commonly known, in the womb itself. I recall reading, some three decades ago, a report about a hospital in Bombay where 50,000 fetuses had been aborted: one, just one, fetus was male.  Sen was by no means the first person to have broached this subject:  indeed, the girl-child in India had, by the 1970s, already been the subject of numerous government committee reports, but there was still little awareness of the various largely invisible forms of discrimination that affected girls and women adversely.  The various government commissions may, not all that ironically, have helped to bury the problem; but India is attentive to the likes of Amartya Sen, who has wide recognition in educated liberal circles in the West and has been lionized in India.  Just three years after Sen’s article was written, the Government of India outlawed prenatal sex discrimination with the passage of the Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act [1994].  Soon thereafter, one could see the following sign at least some hospitals:  “Here pre-natal sex determination (Boy or Girl before birth) is not done. It is a punishable act.”

It is Indian feminists rather than Sen, of course, who must be credited with whatever little reforms the Indian state has undertaken in the matter of rights of unborn girls, female children, and women.  Those who are familiar with the Indian principle of jugaad, which means, among other things, making do with the situation at hand, bending corners, and finding a way out, would not be surprised to hear that sex selection still takes place.  It is not merely the case that most Indian laws are seldom and certainly imperfectly implemented, though this is part of the story:  more than ten years after the legislation was passed, only 400 cases had been registered under the 1994 act, and a mere two convictions had been procured.   What is more germane is that under the guise of aiming to screen for birth defects, amniocentesis is still carried out without any fear of penalty.  At Amritsar’s New Bhandari Hospital, for example, amniocentesis is widely practiced and openly advertised.  Kanan Bhandari, who is herself a gynecologist and married to the hospital’s proprietor, defends her clinic’s practices by distinguishing between amniocentesis and the “medical termination of pregnancy of fetuses older than 20 weeks.”  However, the measure of the girl-child in India can be taken in myriad other ways.  In many Indian households, to take one illustration, girls eat after boys, and women after men; moreover, girls are given less to eat than boys, and they may be given smaller portions of milk, eggs, and poultry.

Considering what the sociological literature on the girl-child has to say, the work of the historian Ruby Lal comes as a breath of fresh air.  Her monograph on the girl-child in 19th century India is of an altogether different genre, even if it is similarly animated by the desire to make visible certain forms of experience that undergird the lives of what she describes as the girl-child/woman.  By the early 19th century, the colonial state in India had embraced the view that a civilization was to be evaluated, and placed in a hierarchical scale, on the basis of how it treated its women.  India was found sorely wanting in this respect:  colonial texts offered lurid accounts of the practice of sati (widow-immolation), female infanticide, child marriage, and the prohibitions placed on widow-remarriage, even among widows who had not yet achieved puberty and had never consummated their marriage.  We need not be detained here by such considerations as whether the position of women in Britain was all that much better, and whether the sexual exploitation of girls was not rampant, particularly in view of the vulnerability of working-class women under the new conditions of industrialism.  In Britain, as in India, girls generally had little access to education. Likewise, there is by now a sufficiently large literature which has alerted us to the politics of representation and the difficulties that inhere in unmediated readings of colonial narratives  What is most germane is that throughout the 19th century, the picture painted of Indian girls and women was generally one of doom and gloom, ensnared as they were by domesticity, servitude, or the iron laws of patriarchy that bound them to be unflinchingly obedient (as in the classic formulation of the Hindu law-giver Manu) to the authority, successively, of father, husband, and oldest son.

In Coming of Age in Nineteenth-Century India, Ruby Lal argues for a very different reading of the spaces available to girls and women for the expression of their subjectivity in 19th century north India even as “entire stages and spaces of female lives” were “wiped out” (39).  While she is mindful of the duties imposed upon females, and recognizes that many of her subjects found the spaces of freedom fleeting, she nevertheless takes it as her task to argue that a certain playfulness informs female lives, thus “allowing forms of self-expression and literary creativity that are not dependent on masculinist definitions of fulfillment” (39).  For too long playfulness has been seen as the prerogative of males, as their “exclusive province”, but Ruby Lal attempts to understand it also as “a nonpaternal practice of the feminine” (55).  To delineate the contours of such “playfulness”, she distinguishes between “making” a “woman”, which she characterizes in India and other societies as an invariably “male project”, and “becoming” a woman which allowed greater room for negotiation (30-34).  Becoming a woman, in her view, is not a mere “teleological proposition” (33), one that takes us from a girl to a young woman and then to the exalted state of motherhood and finally the aging matriarch.  Her hyphenated girl-child/woman figure points, in fact, to her interest in the idea of liminality—and where there is the liminal there is also the transgressive.

The ethnographic substance of Lal’s argument is played out in four chapters where she considers the space of the forest, the school, the household, and the rooftops.  She turns to an early 19th century text, the tale of Rani Ketki by the writer Insha-allah Khan (1756-1817) where the hero and the heroine meet in a forest.  She recognizes, of course, that parallels can be drawn with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the scholar of Indian literature has to take great pains to ensure that these great pan-Indian epics do not colonize our understanding of texts and practices drawn from very different times and denude them of their local particularities.  Ruby Lal is not only sensitive to these considerations but shows how the trope of play is at work in this text:  as she points out, “the claim of writing a story in the Perso-Arabic script without using a single word of Persian or Arabic becomes all the more a claim about authorial agility and playfulness” (65).  In a similar vein, she describes Insha as “a theorist of playfulness” who systematized Urdu grammar and placed a heavy emphasis on decorum while being “committed to linguistic and gender playfulness” (69).  But what is singularly important for her argument is how the characters are constantly leaving behind the mohalla (the neighborhood) and the duties concomitant to respectable family living for the forest.  Lal describes this as a movement from the spaces of pedagogy to the spaces of pleasure.

The most distinct space for pedagogy, initially for boys alone, was of course the school.  By the third quarter of the 19th century, textbooks for girls had come into shape.  Lal’s narrative at this juncture revolves around Raja Shiv Prasad, an inspector of schools in the Benares region and a writer of books such as Vamamanranjan, or ‘Tales for Women’. In 1856, when he first assumed his post, there were no schools for girls; within a decade, 12000 girls had been enrolled (98).  The matter of textbooks, particularly those focused on the study of history and morals, is too complex to be given any lengthy consideration; but Shiv Prasad’s textbooks are of interest to Ruby Lal since she seeks to understand how girls navigated the space of the school and received the learning that would enable them to engage in various forms of self-making.  The emerging centrality of the school in the 19th century as a form not only of socialization of children, but as a technology of governance and as a mode for creating national subjects, can scarcely be doubted.  Against such a backdrop, Lal’s analysis of the school as a site for “playfulness” is less than persuasive; indeed, the greatest strength of this chapter resides in her discussion of the debates surrounding “the standardization and the homogenization of languages, scripts, religions and communities” in late 19th century India (124).

Lal’s chapter on the “Woman of the Household” has similarly little to say on (to borrow from the subtitle) the “art of playfulness” and is focused on “a number of significant texts concerned with the upbringing and training of respectable (sharif) girls and women” (125).  These texts, not surprisingly, were concerned rather with the duties of girls and women, the modes of respectability, and the protocols of domesticity.  Her gaze extends to several texts, the “dominant motif” of which is sharafat or respectability (137); one of the texts in question has a section entitled “Concerning the Chastisement and Regulation of Wives” (139), not really a subject calculated to inspire hope that girls and women could readily escape the constraints placed upon them.  A much more promising space for tasting forbidden fruit was the rooftop of the home, which Lal in an imaginative stroke describes as the “the forest” that is transplanted.  The rooftop was the extension of the home, used by women and servants, to take one illustration, to put up the day’s washing; however, in another register, it was also the place, not just for dalliances, but for reading and writing.  The scholar who is attentive to the practices of reading in India would do well to devote some attention to Indian homes with their rooftop terraces.  It was similarly the rooftop from which women, when they were still forbidden to take part in the political life of the nation, observed marches and demonstrations.  Drawing on Fatima Mernissi’s memoir of growing up in Fez, Morocco, in the 1940s, Ruby Lal quotes her to suggest what possibilities came to mind atop the terrace (198):  “So every morning, I would sit on our threshold, contemplating the deserted courtyard and dreaming about my beautiful future, a cascade of serene delights.  Hanging on to the moonlit terrace evenings, challenging your beloved man to forget his social duties, relax and act foolish and gaze at the stars while holding your hand, I thought, could be one way to go about developing muscles for happiness.  Sculpting soft nights, when the sound of laughter blends with the spring breezes, could be another.”

While Lal’s close readings of the texts and the literary history of 19th century north India yields some arresting insights, her argument seems forced at times just as her neglect of a large swathe of literature that may be useful for her arguments is puzzling. More than six decades after it was first published, Johan Huizinga’s Homo LudensA Study of the Play Element in Culture (1950) has still not been superseded in its depiction of the civilizing function of play and the play-forms that are encountered in poetry, philosophy and art.  Considering Ruby Lal’s interest in the categories produced by aesthetics, even Huizinga’s analysis of the play element in the baroque and the rococo could have been productive for her own work.  If Huizinga seems too far removed from the Indian context, though his canvas extends to the Mahabharata and the Upanishads, Indian readers might ponder over the relation between the Indo-Islamic or Urdu literature that she peruses and the stories that proliferate in north India on the playfulness of the gopis or the village women who engaged in constant play with the god Krishna.   As Ruby Lal doubtless knows, the mythopoetic world in which Krishna and the gopis are immersed was construed by the most positivist of the Indian nationalists as one of the principal sources of India’s subjection to colonial rule.

Ironically, then, for a book that promises to open up our understanding of the “art of playfulness”, Ruby Lal’s monograph gives insufficient play to the idea of play itself.  Nevertheless, her social history of play and pedagogy, refracted through the lens of the girl-child/woman, is not without promise.  Whatever the limitations of education in India, and those are severe, and whatever the merits, which are likewise considerable, of the meta-critique of education as the indispensable element in the liberal pharmacopeia, the education of the girl-child in India still remains the first door leading to a more enhanced and dignified conception of human life. The criminal neglect of the girl-child and woman in India will haunt the nation for decades to come. However, as Lal’s study amply shows, girls and women have displayed remarkable ingenuity and resilience alike in giving play to spaces to make them less restrictive. It is in the imaginative dialectic of play and pedagogy, as it were, that the promise of Indian girlhood and womanhood will come to fruition.

[Adapted from a review published in The Journal of Social History 49, no. 3 (Spring 2016), 752-54.]


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(after a viewing of “The Man Who Knew Infinity”)

No matter how often one might have heard the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, it never ceases to astound.  G. H. Hardy, the Cambridge mathematician with whose life Ramanujan’s story is inextricably intertwined, put it poignantly when he remarked that his collaboration with him was “the one romantic incident in my life.”  Even those who are mathematically illiterate are touched by the story.  It is a romance that nothing can kill.  And when the life of a mathematician appears as a romance to ordinary people, then one can only turn to Hamlet’s admonishment to his friend:  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”


Srinivasa Ramanujan with one of his legendary notebooks.

However sophisticated the interpretations surrounding Ramanujan’s life and his extraordinary genius, the bare outlines of the story appear in a form that is inescapably present to every reader of the narrative, which goes something like this:  A little-known, indeed rather obscure, Indian mathematician was toiling away as an office clerk in Madras in the early part of the 20th century.


Srinivasa Ramanujan’s birth home in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu.

Though recognized by his peers in Madras as man of unusual mathematical gifts, Ramanujan could find no one in his vicinity capable of understanding the theorems which he had a habit of recording in his notebooks.  Meanwhile, Ramanujan had been published in the journal of the Indian Mathematical Society.  Ramanujan eventually, and altogether fortuitously for the history of mathematics, came to the attention of G. H. Hardy, quite possibly the greatest mathematician of the day in the Anglo-American world. The two would commence a famous intellectual collaboration after Ramanujan had been brought over to Britain.  Alas, five years in Britain, while they would bring Ramanujan to the notice of fellow mathematicians all over the world, would also be his undoing.  The inhospitable climate and food took its toll of the fastidious Brahmin, and a year after his return to India in 1919 Ramanujan passed away at the age of 32.

GH Hardy

G H Hardy, Cambridge mathematician.

At first glance, a casual reading of Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, which has inspired the film of the same name, might appear to convey the impression that the Ramanujan-Hardy encounter is best read as a ‘culture clash’.  Hardy, writes Kanigel, was a “Fellow of Trinity College, the mecca of Cambridge mathematics, hence of English mathematics” (111); Ramanujan, on the other hand, was largely an autodidact, and was bereft of any degree.


The Great Court, Trinity College, Cambridge, 1914.

Though Ramanujan spent five years at Trinity College, and the two worked in close proximity throughout this time, Hardy was little aware that Ramanujan was a strict vegetarian and that his complete rejection of meat, fish, poultry, animal lard, and, I suspect, eggs was leaving him starved in a country that for centuries had remained clueless about vegetables.  (Now that Britain had been civilized by South Asians, at least this problem has been addressed.)  Even less would Hardy have understood that vegetarianism alone is construed by some as a religion—though, as shall be seen, Ramanujan’s religiosity went well beyond dietary preferences.  Watching this film, where episodes that point to the difficulties that Ramanujan encountered in being able to satisfy his hunger without violating the tenets of vegetarianism with which he had grown up appear intermittently, brought to mind an evening in 1992 I spent with T.G. Vaidyanathan, a comparatively little-published but maverick thinker (and even more so teacher) of great reputation.  TGV, as he was known to friends, was visiting New York; we walked to dinner; and when I inquired whether he had any preference for a particular cuisine, he stated only that he was a strict vegetarian.  What stays with me from our conversation that evening is TGV’s remarkable rendition of his faith:  Vegetarianism is my Bhagavad Gita, he told me.


So with Srinivasa Ramanujan, except that he further expressed himself as inspired by the Goddess.  Hardy, by contrast, was an unflinching atheist.  But this was not, as is commonly supposed, a clash between the mysterious and spiritual East and logos-centered West.  True, there are moments when the film might appear to descend into such clichés, as when Hardy, in a moment of exasperation, berates Ramanujan for ignoring “proofs” and relying on “intuition”.  However, Kanigel wisely eschews the satisfaction of embracing the easy distinction between the spiritual Orient and the material Occident that continues to inform many popular readings of their encounter, gesturing instead at least at what are some of the more fundamental questions that emerge from the collaboration of these two minds.  Both Ramanujan and Hardy were consumed by numbers, though there is the arresting question about what we mean by numbers at all—and particularly very large numbers, broaching, shall we say, infinity.  What did either of them understand by numbers?  What, in turn, were the sources of their creativity, and what might the fact that Ramanujan was unschooled have to do with Hardy’s inability to comprehend how Ramanujan’s mind worked?  How, Hardy asks Ramanujan more than once in the film, do you know what you do know?  How do you arrive at these theorems?  Is there, in other words, a method to this madness—for surely it was madness that drove Ramanujan to his results and then to extinction?


The Hardy-Ramanujan narrative is a parable about the politics of knowledge and the incommensurability of knowledge systems. Against Hardy’s repeated insistence that Ramanujan offer “proofs”—which I would liken to the stations of the cross, the steps that culminate in the apotheosis of mathematical truth—for his theorems, the South Indian Brahmin countered that the “proofs” barely mattered. If a theorem was correct, then what need was there for proofs?  Hardy’s knowledge was more than merely bookish; nevertheless, he had been schooled in certain styles of mathematical thought and was bound to a bookish conception of mathematical rigor.  What Hardy barely recognized was that his own knowledge, formidable as it may have been when measured against other mathematicians, had constrained him; Ramanujan, in contrast, was unburdened by formal learning, and that was also the source of his extraordinary creativity.  To me, Sir, Ramanujan told Hardy, “an equation has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.”  Now Hardy could simply have dismissed this as a nonsensical remark, the residual effect of superstition from which the mind of a Hindu, no matter how much given over to the work of logos, is never entirely free.  Or he could have assimilated Ramanujan’s statement to a worldview for which he had some affinity, namely that mathematical truths have something of the ineffable about them, a beauty and purity which approximates spiritual truth.  Or he could have taken Ramanujan’s strange expression of truth as a tacit invitation to at least momentarily unburden himself, desist from proof-seeking, and allow a less charted framework of knowledge to inform his work.


Ramanujan (center) with other scholars at Cambridge University.

There are, as the film amply suggests, a great many other features that are important to an understanding of the Ramanujan-Hardy narrative and an appreciation of the immense odds against which Ramanujan had to struggle.  The racial element was always present, if not in their relationship, certainly in Cambridge and in wider mathematical circles:  an unschooled, “bloody Indian” had slowly but surely established himself in the Mecca of mathematics and cut the venerable dons of this institution down to size.  Kanigel misses out, however, on the politics of sexuality that is incipient in a narrative which has tacitly opposed a masculinized Hardy representing the imperial and ratiocinative vigor of Britain to an effeminized, vegetarian, superstitious Brahmin belonging to a subject race.  Their story, though it has never been read this way, is also a parable about how ostensibly neutered and highly objective forms of knowledge are also captive to dominant registers of masculinity.  But, amidst these and many other strands of thought that emerge from this story of the meeting of two minds, it is the politics of knowledge to which we must remain supremely attentive as we continue to grapple with this story.


The first of three postage stamps released by the Government of India in honor of Ramanujan, this one on the centenary (1997) of his birth. Few Indians have been conferred such official recognition.

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On an October evening in 1977, Manubhai received word of the unexpected demise of his younger brother Dipak, an orthopedic surgeon based in New Jersey.  Manubhai has described his brother in Living, Dying thus:  “Dipak was a tall, handsome person, athletically built and inclined.  He had neither diabetes nor high blood pressure, nor excess weight—none of the ‘risk’ factors.”  No one in the family had ever complained of anginal pain; and, yet, at 30 years of age, Dipak had suffered a massive heart attack and passed away in his sleep.  It was a “rude shock” for Manubhai, but then “the head consoled the grieving heart, persistently driving home the point that death’s mathematics does its task governed solely by Pascalian probabilities, irreverent in the face of medical attempts at prevention, diagnosis and treatment.”  On reading this, I was reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s starkly beautiful essay on “Compensation”, where he described the loss of his small son as akin to the “loss of a beautiful estate, no more” (or words to that effect).  He wrote of his experience, “I cannot get it nearer to me”, words that have disturbed his detractors and some of his admirers who opine that Emerson was unable to feel anything.  Quite to the contrary, Manubhai, as Emerson much before him, had a deeper understanding of death as a soulmate, a profound awareness that the laws of compensation cannot be denied, and that what appears as a tragedy in one’s own personal life “is but a part of the impartial, fully just, greater order.”  It would be superfluous to add that, as with the case of cancer, Manubhai remained an unrelenting critic of coronary care, which he did not deign to redeem even as a form of dignified plumbing.  His conclusion to the article that he wrote on “Coronary Care” for the aforementioned The Future of Knowledge and Culture sums up his views:  “Our advice to the lay and the learned is to stay away from the well-conceived but useless and harmless procedures comprising invasive coronary care.  The cardiologists and coronary surgeons are riding a tiger they fear to dismount, lest the dollar Niagara come to a sudden end.  Angiography, by itself untrustworthy, inevitably spawns—plasty and/or bypass, the trio comprising costly iatrogeny on a global scale.  A wise person avoids any assault on the coronary tree, no matter how sophisticated the laser, reamer, rotor or what have you.”

Any tribute to Manubhai that does not acknowledge his wry sense of humor, erudition, love of literature, and cheerfulness would be woefully incomplete.  I last saw him, I believe, in or around March 2009.  He invited me to a leisurely breakfast at his home with him and Jyotibehn and two memories of that visit will persist with me to the end.  We had been discussing politics in Gujarat, and he was just as bothered as I was by the obscenity of some of the violence perpetrated in 2002.  Quite suddenly, Manubhai threw this question at me:  ‘What do you think is the holy book of the Gujaratis?’  I knew that he did not have the Bhagavad Gita in mind, nor the Tulsidas Ramacaritmanas, certainly not the Vedas; for a moment, I thought he might have had in mind the songs of Narsi Mehta, the great devotional poet.  But somehow I also sensed that Manubhai was laying a trap for me; and yet I could not bring myself to think of an answer beyond the ordinary.  I don’t now recall what I said; but whatever it was, it was not a patch on the brilliantly funny and incisive answer Manubhai had:  the cheque book!  We had a hearty laugh.  Later that morning, as we left his apartment, we made our way to the train station: for years, Manubhai had taken the local to KEM Hospital.  It was absolutely characteristic of him that he should travel in modesty:  however dreadful the cliché, “simple living, high thinking” seemed to furnish the motor to his life at every turn.

Manubhai died as he lived; moments before his death, I am told, he had been chatting and laughing away.  Not accidentally, one of the men he admired the most was J B S Haldane, a polymath who made significant contributions to physiology, genetics, evolutionary biology, statistics, biometry, and various other fields; more to the point, Haldane, an Englishman of considerable pedigree who was educated at Oxford and had published his first scientific paper at the age of 20, migrated to India in 1956 and eventually took up Indian citizenship.  Haldane, to Manubhai’s mind, stood for the other West—a West that was critical of its own past, tolerant of dissenting traditions, aware of the homology between colonial dominance and the suppression of women, religious minorities, and people of other ethnicities, a West with which, in other words, India could enter into partnership.  Haldane thought of India as a freer country than any other, and some of his thoughts may be surmised from his observation that “the people of Calcutta riot, upset trams, and refuse to obey police regulations, in a manner which would have delighted Jefferson. I don’t think their activities are very efficient, but that is not the question at issue.”  Percy Bysshe Shelley, be consoled:  it is not only poetry that makes nothing  happen.  Haldane passed away in 1964, but not before he had written a poem on his hospital bed, “Cancer’s a Funny Thing”, from which Manubhai quoted frequently:

I wish I had the voice of Homer

To sing of rectal carcinoma,

Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact,

Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked . . . .

Cancer could be “rather fun”, says Haldane,

Provided one confronts the tumour

With a sufficient sense of humour.

I know that cancer often kills,

But so do cars and sleeping pills;

And it can hurt one till one sweats,

So can bad teeth and unpaid debts.

sort of laughter, I am sure,

Often accelerates one’s cure;

So let our patients do our bit

help the surgeons make us fit.

Manubhai was far ahead of his times, and it may take a few generations or more for us to understand the manner in which he lived and how he helped us all to become “fit”.

Coda:  Shortly after I finished writing this, by sheer coincidence my friend Ajay Singh sent me the following joke:

कार्डियोलोजिस्ट और गब्बरसिंह में क्या समानता है?
दोनो यही सलाह देते है कि तूने नमक खाया है अब गोली खा ।
(What is common to the cardiologist and Gabbar Singh?  Both come forward with this advice, ‘You ate salt, now bite the bullet.)
To audiences familiar with the world of the commercial Hindi film, this joke will resonate strongly:  The outlaw Gabbar Singh, featured in the immensely poplular film Sholay (“Embers”, 1975), shoots dead one of his henchmen, one of those who ate his salt, when he finds him no longer competent in discharging his duties.
See also parts I and II

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In 1973, Dr. Manu Kothari and his associate, Dr. Lopa Mehta, published their voluminous tome, The Nature of Cancer, which I am tempted to describe as a war on the “war on cancer”.  The military metaphor has, of course, long been regnant in the US:  for well over a decade the American public and people overseas have been hearing about the “war on terror”, but this war was preceded by the “war on drugs”.  Neither war has been concluded; neither war is likely to be brought to a close; indeed, neither war has a foreseeable end, and the prosecutors of such wars, and their allies and friends in and out of government, have too much to lose if either war was brought to a decisive end.  All this is certainly true of the “war on cancer”, which has consumed hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps trillions of dollars, thus far.

However, the war on cancer differs from the war on drugs the war on terror in some fundamental respects.   The war on drugs is increasingly being recognized, except by the Republican Party – not, it should be noted, by some outlandish or extreme members of the party, since such a view presumes that there are sane or even intelligent members of the Republican Party, which is very much to be doubted—as an egregious error which has needlessly committed hundreds of thousands of Americans to prison terms, and similarly the war on terror has had more than its share of detractors.  But the “war on cancer” is construed, by every sector of the American public, as a holy mission:  to be sure, there are those who think that there might have been some scams, and a few people have doubted whether all forms of cancer research have been productive, but there is an overwhelming consensus that cancer is a deadly disease that must be exterminated and that no effort must be spared to stamp it out.

Cancer research draws in more funding than any other medical endeavor; the war on cancer has its foot-soldiers and generals; and donors and philanthropists, whose wealth is often ill-begotten, easily become heroes and celebrities in a culture where donations in the name of cancer research earn one goodwill and, if the gift is substantial enough, cultural capital in the form of a building or institute named after the donor.  It is a telling fact that in his highly celebrated “biography” of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, the talented writer and doctor, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, entirely succumbs to this dominant narrative.  On reading him, one inescapably reaches the conclusion that if we soldier on, achieve “early detection”, and eliminate the scourge of smoking—but apparently not bother with the monstrous-sized polluting SUVs and pick-up trucks with which America has an undying love affair—victory will be at hand.

Dr. Manu Kothari had an entirely different view of cancer and what passes for “cancer research”.  His views would be distilled in two much shorter works, both co-authored with Dr. Lopa Mehta:  Cancer:  Myths and Realities of Cause and Cure (1979) and Living, Dying:  A New Perspective on the Phenomena of Disease and Dying (1992).   He unflinchingly put forward the view, which certainly did not win him any friends from among those in the cancer(ous) industry, and even gained him the opprobrium of establishment doctors alarmed at his broader views about the nature of disease, that the billions of dollars expended on finding  a cure for cancer had not advanced our knowledge of the “disease” an iota.  Writing on cancer for The Future of Knowledge of Culture:  A Dictionary for the Twenty-first Century (Viking Penguin 2005), co-edited by Ashis Nandy and myself, Manubhai put the matter quite succinctly in expressing his agreement with the view of some patients that the “treatment [was] worse than the disease.  Macfarlane Burnett, the Australian immunologist of wide renown, summed up in the 1970s the outcome of all cancer research in just two words:  precisely nil.”  As Manubhai was to add towards his conclusion, “On the medical claims about the early diagnosis and treatment of cancer, one could invoke Churchillian rhetoric:  Never in the history of science has so much untruth been told by so few to so many for so long.”

How, then, was Dr. Kothari inclined to think of cancer?  His views may, at first, seem wholly unpalatable:  “Cancer—far more benign than malignant mankind—is what it is, and does what it does, because of unalterable, unabrogable biorealities that attend this fascinating phenomenon.” Manubhai took it as an imperative that we must first understand death and look at it not something that is to be feared, delayed, managed, ostracized, and repelled but rather as a friend, even as something that is to be revered.  He was critical of medical science for representing one disease or the other as the cause of death:  as he put it in Living, Dying, “Disease and death, in fact, are inherent components of man’s development, are governed by time and regulated by the herd, behave independently of each other and, in essence, are causally unrelated, death by itself being a programmed normal function performed by a living being.”

He argued that cancer occurs throughout the human lifespan; moreover, it is very democratic, and cancer’s “benevolence” could be inferred from the fact that it occurs everywhere “but in excess nowhere.”  He described cancer’s distribution as one in five:  one person bears the cancerous cross so that the other four might live.  Manubhai does not ask of us that we love cancer; but he does ask of us that we not hate it.  Once one understands that cancer is always with us, the very fibre of our being, we are no longer inclined to seek treatment:  he entirely rejected the idea of early screening, and deplored chemotherapy and radiotherapy as “despicable overkill by medicine.”  The fact that as a doctor, one remembered by his students as a very good one who did his profession proud, he was able to advance such views is a remarkable testament to his courage.  What is not less striking is that he had been articulating such a position for over four decades:  not surprisingly, one of his most ardent admirers was Ivan Illich, whose own Medical Nemesis, published one year after Manubhai’s The Nature of Cancer (1973), still remains the most trenchant critique of institutionalized forms of modern medicine.  Illich would go on to write the foreword to Manubhai’s smaller book on cancer.  Interestingly enough, the most recent exhaustive study on “early detection” all but confirms Dr. Kothari’s claims:  as reported by the New York Times on 20 August 2015, in an article headlined “Doubt Is Raised Over Value of Surgery for Breast Lesion at Earliest Stage”, “As many as 60,000 American women each year are told they have a very early stage of breast cancer — Stage 0, as it is commonly known — a possible precursor to what could be a deadly tumor. And almost every one of the women has either a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, and often a double mastectomy, removing a healthy breast as well.  Yet it now appears that treatment may make no difference in their outcomes. Patients with this condition had close to the same likelihood of dying of breast cancer as women in the general population, and the few who died did so despite treatment, not for lack of it, researchers reported Thursday in JAMA [Journal of the American Medical Association] Oncology.”

(to be continued)

See also Part I on this blog

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I have a reasonably good recollection of the exact circumstances under which I first met Dr. Manu Kothari (1935-2014), or Manubhai as he was known to his friends and others accustomed to the mode of address common among Gujaratis.  I had heard of him many years before I had the pleasure of setting my eyes upon him:  as with many of the most interesting people I have met either in India or a dozen other countries, I was first introduced to the work of Manubhai by Ashis Nandy.  I had been advised by Professor Nandy that no visit to Bombay was complete without a stop at the home of Manubhai, described to me as a superb doctor who was nonetheless a radical dissenter from the medical establishment and as an intellectual maverick who was as much at home in the classics of English literature and Indian philosophy as he was in the technical literature on cancer, anatomy, and genetics.

Through a set of fortuitous circumstances in September 1999, I found myself staying with another common friend who lived across from Manubhai and Jyotibehn’s flat on Swami Vivekananda Road in Santacruz (West).  My wife and I were returning from Pune with our baby daughter and we were being hosted by the late Jayesh Shah, a kind soul and magnanimous man who had given up an extremely lucrative career as a stock-broker to found the fiercely independent journal Humanscape, to which Manubhai and I were both contributors.  Manubhai and I both served in later years on the journal’s editorial board.  When I expressed a desire to meet Manubhai, Jayesh just walked me over to his home!  That visit is etched in more than my memory:  Manubhai was being visited by his long-time associate and colleague, Dr. Lopa Mehta, and at the end of the day they gifted me a copy of their magnum opus, The Nature of Cancer, with the following inscription:  “To Dr. Vinay Lal, with warm regards for a kindred spirit.”  While being extraordinarily moved by their gesture, I was also greatly intimidated:  900 pages in length, the Nature of Cancer is fortified by some 6,000 references and dense discussions of carcinoma, immunotherapy, chemotherapy, and much else; more to the point, as a cultural historian, even (as at least I imagined) one with wide-ranging intellectual interests, I was entirely clueless about cancer beyond knowing how to spell the word.   However, with a twinkle in his eye, Manubhai gave me an assurance that I was none the poorer for being ignorant about the literature on the subject; as I was to find out in short order, Manubhai held to the opinion, one which he would defend to the end of his life with great vigor, that the tens of thousands of researchers who had dedicated their lives to cancer research had not contributed an iota to furthering our understanding of the nature of cancer.  As Manubhai might well have said, they were barking up the wrong tree.

The academic and intellectual career of Dr. Manu Kothari is better described by those who were fortunate to know him as a colleague or as a fellow traveler, even if a dissident one, in the medical fraternity.  Our friendship, which led me to a heighted awareness of the extraordinarily radical nature of his thinking, arose from very different considerations.  Though Manubhai was a doctor by training, he had an abiding interest in literature, philosophy, and a broad swathe of what one might describe as humanist writings.  He belonged to a small fraternity of people in India who were seriously questioning the received categories of thought and probing the politics of knowledge systems.  Though the conditions under which medicine is practiced in India are vastly different from those which obtain in the US or the affluent nations of western Europe, what has been true of the social sciences is also the case in medicine:  the concepts found in textbooks generated in the West have been adopted wholesale for use in Indian medical colleges, and with respect to medicine on the ostensibly more justifiable grounds that physiology is a universal science.  The neuroses and psychoses of the white man, if one may put forward such an example, were thus to furnish the models by which the neuroses and psychoses of colored people were to be diagnosed and treated.

To be sure, Manubhai was critical of the commercialization of what is called “modern medicine”, and he was fully aware of the nexus of interests that bound hospitals, pharmaceutical firms, manufacturers of medical equipment, philanthropists, and all too often medical practitioners, some more than others, together in an unholy alliance that compromised the health of those very patients in whose name “medical research” and expensive cures were carried out.  But had this been the extent of his grave misgivings about the modern medical establishment, Dr. Manu Kothari would scarcely have been alone.  He adopted unusual positions about the superflousness of most medical treatments and even what are called ‘investigations’, the imperative for the doctor to learn from the patient and indeed recognize the patient as oneself, and the necessity of understanding “disease” as something not alien and repulsive to oneself but rather as intrinsically a part of one’s own being.   Dr. Kothari’s views led him to some fundamental epistemic breaks with the models of modern medicine emanating from the West; indeed, he questioned whether there was anything intrinsically “modern”, apart from some obvious technological interventions, in modern medicine, and similarly he held such conceptions as “holistic medicine”, favored in the West by those who are critical of allopathic medicine and its vivisectionist tendencies, to be little better than tautologies.   Health is holistic; if it is not, one is speaking of something else.  In a word, Manubhai was sharply critical of modern or rather commercialized medicine’s deep grounding in violence.

By the late 1990s, when I met Manubhai, there was a growing if still distinctly minority indeed miniscule literature which questioned the wisdom of conventional thinking on such matters as treatments for cancer and heart disease.  In India, “five-star” and “super specialty” hospitals were just beginning to mark their presence on the scene, catering to the medical “needs” of not only the super-rich but growing numbers of middle-class and affluent Indians who had been the beneficiaries of the neo-liberalization policies of the preceding decade.  The Fortis Hospitals, now a vast enterprise with over fifteen hospitals in India’s metros, initiated its operations with a hospital in Mohali in 2001.  But nothing furnishes a better gauge of the tide against which Manubhai was swimming than the meteoric rise of Dr. Naresh Trehan, a cardiovascular surgeon who had returned from a career in the United States to establish the Escorts Heart Institute in Delhi in 1988.  By the mid-1990s, Dr. Trehan had become a celebrity, a cult figure on the Delhi party scene who hobnobbed with film stars, media moghuls, and powerful politicians when he was not performing surgeries or otherwise building his medical empire, and it became virtually a badge of honor among the monied class in the city to claim that Dr. Trehan had performed a triple or quadruple bypass on them.  To have had one’s arteries worked upon by Dr. Trehan, an aggressive proponent of surgical intervention for patients with cardiac problems, was rather like being admitted to an elite club.

(to be continued)

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One of the many stories, based on a Sanskrit tale, that the late U R Ananthamurthy [21 December 1932 – 22 August 2014] used to tell often is    AnanthamurthyLondonBookFair2009of a cow named Punyakoti which would go out to graze in the forest in the country called Karnataka.  One evening, as the other cows made their way home, Punyakoti meandered into a particularly grassy area that was, however, the territory of a tiger.  As Arbutha was about to pounce upon the cow, Punyakoti pleaded with Arbutha that she might be allowed to go feed her calf before returning to become his dinner.  If the tiger was hungry, so was her calf; and the tiger ought to be sufficiently well-informed in dharma to know that a promise thus given would not be broken.  The tiger relents:  Punyakoti reaches home, feeds her little one, bids her farewell, and then presents herself before Arbutha.  Astounded by Punyakoti’s fidelity to truth and her capacity for sacrifice, Arbutha has a sudden change of heart and begins to undertake penance—or so states the Sanskrit original.  Recounting this popular story some years ago in an essay entitled ‘Growing up in Karnataka’, Ananthamurthy had this to say:  ‘It is the dharma of the tiger to be a flesh eater.  By a change of heart he cannot become a vegetarian.  He has no choice but to die.’  Contrary to the Sanskrit storyteller, the Kannada poet has Arbutha leap to his death:  ‘The Kannada poet is more convincing.  By a change of heart, the tiger can only die.  It is as absolute as that.’


Encapsulated in Ananthamurthy’s pithy commentary on ‘The Song of the Cow’ are many of the principal themes which shaped the literary oeuvre and worldview of an immensely gifted writer and critic whose death a week ago has robbed Kannada of its greatest voice, India of an extraordinary decent man and supple writer, and the world, which sadly knew too little of him, of a storyteller and intellectual whose fecundity of thought and robust play with ideas shames many of those who style themselves cosmopolitans.  Much has been written on the manner in which Ananthamurthy, not unlike other sensitive writers and thinkers in India (and elsewhere in the global South), negotiated the tension between the global and the local, tradition and modernity; but, as is palpable from more than a merely cursory reading of his criticism and fiction, Ananthamurthy also remained engaged throughout his life with the tension between Sanskrit and the bhashas, the marga and the desi, and what he called ‘the frontyard’ and ‘the backyard’.  Ananthamurthy completed a doctorate in English literature, taught English at a number of institutions, and was completely at home in the masterworks of Western literature; and, yet, he was profoundly rooted in Sanskritic and especially Kannada literary traditions. In reading Ananthamurthy, one is brought to an overwhelming, indeed humbling, awareness of his deep immersion in a thousand year-old tradition stretching from Pampa, Mahadeviyakka, and Allama Prabhu through the Vijayanagar-era poet and composer Purandaradasa to his contemporaries Shivarama Karanth, Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, Bendre, Kuvempu, Adiga, and others.  In this, as in other respects, Ananthamurthy also inhabited a world where the simultaneity ‘of the ancient, the primitive, the medieval and the modern’ was ever present, not only in social structures but ‘often in a single consciousness’.  It is doubtful that anyone among the most celebrated of our writers who have made a name for themselves as notable exponents of the English novel or what might be termed global non-fiction have anything even remotely close to the knowledge that Ananthamurthy had of Indian bhashas.  In his essay, ‘Towards the Concept of a New Nationhood’, Ananthamurthy gave it as one of his ‘pet theories’ that ‘in India, the more literate one is, the fewer languages one knows.’  In ‘the small town where I come from,’ Ananthamurthy was to write, ‘one who may not be so literate speaks Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, some Hindi, and some English.  It is these people who have kept India together, not merely those who may know only one language.’


Few Indian novels have been discussed as much as Ananthamurthy’s Samskara.  Fewer still, especially in India, are the number of creative people who have been entrusted with the care of institutions and intellectual enterprises and not left them diminished.  Ananthamurthy was not only a celebrated writer, but someone who stood at the helm of important institutions—Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, and the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune—and strengthened them.  As President of the Sahitya Akademi, he strove to ensure that all the languages under the academy’s jurisdiction received parity; moreover, he ensured the autonomy of the institution by prevailing upon the academy to reject the Haksar Committee’s recommendation that the academy’s president be appointed by the government on the advice of a search committee.  Those familiar with the Indian literary, artistic, and intellectual scene that extends well beyond the metropoles and even “provincial” capitals are more likely to remember Ananthamurthy as the principal mentor of that unique experiment which for decades has been taking place in Heggodu, Shimoga District.  Here, in the midst of areca nut plantations, the cultural organization Ninasam attracts students, workers, and villagers for a week-long annual course to discuss literature, movies, music, philosophy, and science.  Ananthamurthy unfailingly graced this gathering every year, nurturing the young and facilitating spirited conversations that lasted long into the night.


Ananthamurthy might, thus, be remembered for many different things, but nevertheless it is the categories through which he worked that mark his contribution to Indian literature and thought as distinct and enduring.  It would be a grave mistake to view him merely as staking a middle ground:  taking a leaf out of Gandhi, Ananthamurthy was quite certain that Western civilization was not good not just for India but even for the West.  Consider, for example, his literary, emotional, and intellectual investment in the idea of the sacred, though this is something that his Hindutva critics, who fancy themselves custodians of the Hindu tradition, can barely understand.   He has told the story of a painter who was traveling through villages in north India studying folk art; on one of these sojourns, he encountered a peasant from whom he learnt something bewildering:  ‘Any piece of stone on which he put kumkum became God for the peasant.’  Ananthamurthy understood well that nearly every place in India is sacred:  here Sita bathed, there Rama rested his weary body, and over there the gods dropped nectar.  But he takes the idea of the sacred much further:  place, bhasha, childhood—all these notions, so centrally a part of the worldview of Ananthamurthy, revolved around the idea of the sacred and the untranslatable.  Sacred, too, is the dharma of the writer, laid bare by Ananthamurthy in his Jnanpith Award acceptance speech:  ‘There is something wrong with us writers if we do not lose a few of our admirers with every new book that we write.  Otherwise, it may mean we are imitating ourselves . . .  We should never lose the capacity to say those things in which we believe when we are absolutely alone.’


First published in the Indian Express, 30 August 2014 (print and online).  


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