Sudhir Kakar (1938-2024): Sexuality, scholarship and secularism

Psychoanalyst, novelist, and cultural critic, Kakar dissected the Indian identity in profound and provocative ways. 

Published : May 01, 2024 20:36 IST - 9 MINS READ

Sudhir Kakar

Sudhir Kakar | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

My friends talked of the psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar as a cult figure, the golden boy of Indian psychology, the immaculate conception. They felt that even cliches came alive, acquired an anima, when they applied to him. Sudhir and I were colleagues at The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), and by the time I met him, he and Ashis Nandy had turned psychoanalysis into a dualistic world of styles and politics. Ashis was more political, had a larger canvas of the colony as a hegemonic world. Sudhir mapped the psyche around words such as intimacy and identity. I must confess I hardly spoke to him in the decade I was at CSDS. It was as if an invisible Maginot Line separated us. The centre was divided between the everyday professionals and what their office staff called Wednesday intellectuals. Sudhir dropped in every Wednesday, turned the day into an event that one watched voyeuristically. How does one portray such a man? Perhaps by beginning at the beginning.

Sudhir was born on July 25, 1938 in Nainital. His father was a magistrate in colonial India, and Sudhir spent his childhood flitting between towns such as Manali and Ludhiana. The sense of the small town gave Sudhir a deep sense of everydayness, a folklore, of how people constructed themselves. He described the ease with certain aspects of sexuality, of how certain ordinary people had an intimacy of social relationships. He recited the story of how his cook came back from a short vacation and announced that he had a son. When people pointed out that he had not been home for that long he answered, “my brother was”.

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Desirable illusions

There is a sense of laughter about colonialism and its hierarchies. Sudhir describes how his father equated English accents with success, making ruthless fun of his own accent. Sudhir adds, ironically, that in his later years he tried recovering his lost Punjabi accent. There is something indelibly frank about all his stories. Anecdotes, from all his stories, map an era. Sudhir captures the dialectic of old and new, citing myth and religion. His grandfather moved within the Protestantism of the Arya Samaj, but his grandmother rebelled against it to convey that religion was a plain of enchantment, the uncommon places, beyond the commonplace reality of lives. Myths, he claimed, were desirable illusions that light up the mundane world of daily existence; they let him transcend the desolation of everyday reality given the aridity of Arya Samaj’s credo.

Sudhir Kakar in Kozhikode.

Sudhir Kakar in Kozhikode. | Photo Credit: RAMESH KURUP S.

Partition and Indian nationalism were the events that Sudhir understood, through historicity and everydayness. There is a complexity and a clarity to his memories, and yet one wishes that he had formally articulated a theory of memory, especially of its catalytic impact on identity and the psyche. Sudhir’s narrative is crisp and sharp, and his autobiography sounds like an army of footnotes. One wishes his narrative was more confused, at least providing a deeper form of storytelling. Sudhir sacrifices nuance for clarity. If Ashis focussed on the colonial mind, Sudhir excelled in capturing the colour of Indian nationalism, and how Hindus constructed the Muslim as a culture and a mentality. Sudhir explains that Indian nationalism is a wishful form of thinking, adding that “To ask Muslims to protect themselves in the Hindu nationalist’s form of thinking is to ask them to erase their collective memory; that’s when they become indistinguishable from their Hindu neighbours.”

Sudhir remarks that the Muslim fear was about being swamped by its Hindu neighbours. Sudhir hints that a secularism, which is not shaped by the cultural imagination, becomes an empty cliche that belongs to the dustbin of history. One cannot create an effective public realm if consciousness and conscience mediated by memory do not play their everyday role. Sudhir said religious nationalism was a rampant force and Indian secularism an idea with few takers. He felt the need to develop an inclusive kind of nationalism and not a progressive kind that pays exaggerated homage to man’s reason and materiality.

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The idea of the other becomes fundamental to Sudhir’s work. He relishes the sense of membership and community that includes animals. He wants his Franciscan construct to convey a richness of reciprocity where doing good to others is a more lasting basis of inclusive nationalism. He cited the Dalai Lama stating, “Paying attention to one’s needs is a production of suffering; cherishing others is a giver of happiness“. He said this as a dictum for inclusive nationalism. Sudhir is at his strongest as a scholar here.

An exploration of sexuality

Two commentators, Ramin Jahanbegloo and Alka Pandey, captured his methodological insights. One cannot resist the temptation to quote from Ramin’s interpretation. Ramin shows that Sudhir’s idea of Freud in the 20th century is an expansive one. It sees the unconscious as having a much larger role in mental life than Freud did. Sudhir traced two political pathways in Freudian works: two tools that made Freudianism a critical discipline. One was the hermeneutics of suspicion, which was associated with science, and the other was the hermeneutics of idealisation, which goes beyond science and appeals to the imagination. Yet Sudhir adds that Freud and C.G. Jung both belong to a colonial context that one needed to rewrite; both saw the colonial Indian as weak, soft and feminine. Sudhir wanted to battle such stereotypes.

One will consider Sudhir’s exploration of sexuality in terms of his later work. He used the Kamasutra to capture the tension between the explicit nature of the text and the repression in contemporary Indian society. The Kamasutra, which he translated with Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, went beyond Richard Burton’s work, but Sudhir is generous enough to acknowledge that Burton’s work was a courageous act in the Victorian era. The text, however, was flawed. Sudhir points out that one must rethink sexuality, for example one must rethink the relationship between the courtesan and the client. A courtesan cannot be bowdlerised into a prostitute. She is highly respected, cultured and accomplished. Sudhir’s Kamasutra is literally a contemporary tract and not just a manual on intercourse. One wishes that Sudhir, who began by studying Frederick Winslow Taylor, had compared Taylorism with the Kamasutra, showing how manuals literally codify a society. Capitalism and sexuality acquire a different relationship than they do in Weber’s work on Protestantism.

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One aspect of Sudhir that is strangely ignored is that he wrote many volumes of fiction. Yet his novel around the Kamasutra is more a scenario. He invents a background for Vatsayana, but to censor the novel is more like ballast filling in the obvious. Social Science is more imaginative and inventive than his novels. One realises that the erotic is unforgiving in demanding a language to give life to a different rhythm. The erotic, which unties the sexual and the literary, the aesthetic and the creative, strangely eluded Sudhir’s grasp. A lot of his writings were about mysticism, yet the mystic as a category is not as profound as it is in the works of Raimundo Panikkar. One wishes that Sudhir had internalised Raimundo’s work on mysticism as an experience open to democracy.

Sudhir’s collection of bestsellers would have made any social scientist envious. He was awarded that Goethe medal for culture, Germany’s highest civilian award. But I wish a critique of Sudhir was more nuanced and demanding. While he is impressive on intimacy and sexuality, one category missing from his work is boredom. Boredom is not a superficial category, it is as profound as monotony, or as vacuum in physics. Sudhir confirmed he was bored with his work as an economist and an engineer. One wishes that there was a meditation on boredom in his work. An exploration of boredom in his erotic world would have been fascinating.

I discovered that Sudhir was a competitive athlete and a superb table tennis player. The historian Ramachandra Guha has a delightful piece on his efforts to defeat Sudhir at table tennis while they were in Germany. One wishes that the sense of play had stuck with Sudhir. The opposition between play and boredom would have added to his works.

Among profound friends

As one encounters Sudhir, especially his book on memory, one senses a limitation of style. He was a brilliant writer, candid and explicit, but his very efficiency eluded literary nuance. Reading his work on sexuality one senses a missing depth. A friend described it as the difference between a confession and an admission. An admission nibbles at truth, a confession embraces it completely. Sudhir’s admissions don’t have the depth of a confession. In fact, in that sense, he is Nehruvian in style. There is an intelligence, but deep down one wants more. There is almost a glibness in his writings, yet he lived among profound people, both Kamla Chowdhry and Vikram Sarabhai, and recognised their profundity and depth.

There is one story that is incomplete or at least needs to be told from different angles. It is his encounter with the CSDS. The CSDS was a most eccentric institution, embodying a dissenting social science between the emergency and the 2000s. Sudhir was distant from such politics. The clash when it came was banal. It was over attendance. Giri Deshingkar insisted that all scholars report between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Sudhir described it as clerical. One senses an Orwellian “more equal than others” politics at play. It is difficult to portray Deshingkar as clerical; he was as eccentric as possible in his own way. Each morning, he would read Chinese till noon before he moved to the world of English. I wish the centre’s story had been told in a different way.

Thinking over Sudhir’s career, one senses a social scientist who lived an exciting life, peopled by powerful characters from Kamla Chowdhry to Erik Erikson. Yet here one senses a lacuna: a decade that produced such characters as Sudhir and Ashis, Amartya Sen and Sukhamoy Chakrabarty needs a larger common of storytelling. One wishes that there were more stories in Sudhir’s work; one also wishes there were more storytellers like Sudhir: brisk, muscular, but always with a sense of generosity.

Shiv Visvanathan is a sociologist associated with the Compost Heap, a network of academics exploring alternative imaginations.

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