And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair –
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin –
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

TS Eliot’s lines from The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock wind into new meaning in Mohammad Hamid Ansari’s stairway of essays and speeches titled Dare I Question? Just published by Har Anand, the volume starts with a deeply troubled and troubling Preface by the author.

The opening piece describes with the vivid clarity of a live telecast the last day that Ansari spent in the Rajya Sabha’s high seat as its Chairman. That rather exquisite perch (like its twin, that of the Speaker, Lok Sabha next door) is on a raised plinth, reached by rather few but strangely elevating steps that climb up from the “floor of the House”, culminating in the socket-seat surrounded by gleaming wood and burnished brass. The little grotto resembles a caparisoned howdah on a stately elephant. It is as stately as the office is, inspiring its occupant and beholder, alike.

Ansari occupied that seat for a full decade, over two uninterrupted and un-attenuated terms as India’s Vice President and by virtue of that two-in-one office, as Chairman of the Rajya Sabha.

He is the only to have done two continuous terms in that office, after the nation’s first Vice President, the philosopher-statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Truth to tell, he should have repeated the “Radhakrishnan formula” to move on after those two terms as Vice President to become the nation’s President. Why India was denied that felicity is best explained by one word – politics.

It is not my intention to go into that lamentable loss, nor nurse any regret over the choice of the reputable gentleman who now occupies that highest office of the land and deserves our faith and respect.

But it is very much my intention to go into why the Preface to this book seems to me to be “troubled” and “troubling”. The Preface is that because it explains Hamid Ansari’s choice of the book’s hesitantly brave, reticently bold, courteously cocky title – Dare I Question?

Why should the recent-most past-Vice President of India, widely respected as a scholar and a thinker, need to have to “dare” to pose questions, share thoughts, and just reflect?

Is he expected by the political air of the day to not question, not share his thinking, in fact, to not think? Is he expected to just button his collar up to his chin, keep his thoughts to himself because to give those thoughts voice would be to “disturb the universe” of today’s politics ?

To say more about Hamid Ansari’s experience of that last day in the Rajya Sabha and his “recollections in tranquillity” of that experience would be to give the book away and I will not do that. But this much I will and must say: Dare I Question? gives us the questions agitating an Indian sensitive to India’s troubled mind, her traumatised body and her tormented soul. And also an Indian determined to not let that deeply depressing awareness break his spirit. It shows us, gives us, the example of an Indian thinker who (to adapt Longfellow) “stands with reluctant feet where hesitancy and courage meet”.

Is India being manipulated by the religious bigot, the political bully and the techno-commercial behemoth?

The 28 essays in the book covering education, gender, foreign relations, media, rights and the rule of law, security, society and polity, social justice raise that disturbing question. They have an unmistakable “dare” in them, a dare that is so essential in times when to think, speak or write non-conformingly is subversive, to question is saucy, to oppose is seditious.

Dare I Question? becomes, in this situation, not just a collection of essays but a catechism of what may be called, a la Radhakrishnan, “An Idealist View of Life” in the India of counter-idealism. It is a book to be read with pride in the courage of the idealist who sees his descending of a red-carpeted stairway as an ascending to a new resolve.