Aniket Jaaware was never my teacher formally. He was in Pune, and I was in Delhi as a student. Yet, I learnt so much from him. Ever since I was introduced to him by a mutual friend, I relied on him for feedback and advice, which always came with a lot of humour and intellectual support. In this era of self-aggrandising ways of being scholarly, it is worth emphasising that Aniket always stood up for new voices and new ideas.
Aniket trained in English literary studies and taught English literature all his life. He taught at Ferguson College in Pune, then at Savitribai Phule Pune University, and eventually at Shiv Nadar University in Noida. But anybody who knew Aniket would also tell you that “English literature” is a very narrow tag to describe his intellectual life. He could as easily teach a class on, among other things, Dalit studies, Indian literature (especially Marathi), critical theory, European philosophy, popular culture, science fiction, detective novels and many other things. In fact, it was a challenge to match his erudition in any of these fields. I always used to get a list of books to read from him. He was, in the truest sense, a polymath.
This is also evident from his publications. He published a futuristic sci-fi novel Neon Fish in Dark Water in 2007 – though the volume came with the stern warning that it was not “sci-fi”, one could easily see how invested he was in the genre, and how he wanted to transform it. Some of Aniket’s best pieces came out in anthologies. He actually managed to write a whole essay – and keep his readers glued throughout – on two sentences of two Marathi novels. Writing on Manjughosaa (1868) and Mochangad (1871), he showed us through this essay, titled “Two Sentences: A Speculation on Genre in Marathi Novels,” how much can be gained from close reading, and how much can be taught without preaching.
Many students from my generation learnt so much about literary criticism from this essay that it would be difficult to know just how much, even if imperceptibly, he taught us. A similar case can be made for another significant essay titled “Eating, and Eating with, the Dalit: A Reconsideration Touching upon Marathi Poetry” (2001). In it, Aniket argued that reducing “Dalit sahitya” to ethnographic or historical detailing is problematic. He showed, instead, that Dalit writing had been absolutely central to Marathi modernism, a sense of linguistic self in the wide-open world. It is difficult to gauge the importance of this essay – but my sense is that it brought about a fundamental change in contemporary Dalit studies.
A teacher like no other
I also want to highlight two of his books. The first one, Simplifications: An Introduction to Structuralism and Post-Structuralism (2001), is probably one of the best guides to understanding these complex authors and their arguments – just read the introduction to the book that explains complex ideas through a tennis ball. It may sound absurd, but Aniket knew how to make a tennis ball speak. And that was precisely his brilliance. He could teach forbidding authors like Lacan and Derrida with a minimalist prop, often making his point with the objects on a table. This was always accompanied by lots of laughter and a mischievous smile.
I have often wondered how much he believed in these ideas; but at a lecture at the Goethe Institute in Kolkata, Aniket said that he has always been “seduced” by European philosophy. This book is the confession of a seduced lover. At the same time, it does not compromise on quality. He teaches with probably the lightest chip on his shoulder.
But his magnum opus is yet to come. He finished Practising Caste: On Touching and Not Touching (to be published in December 2018) before his untimely death. It promises to be a major break in our academic and everyday understanding of caste in India. Many of us who listened to Aniket’s presentations of chapters from this book in conferences and seminars believed that this would be the book not only to take Dalit studies into uncharted lands but also to cement his name as one of the most important intellectual voices of our time. In this book he takes the idea of Dalit studies from its familiar ideas and tropes into an unpredictable encounter with contemporary theoretical writings. It is unprecedented, and, at the same time, it is also a call to new scholarship.
How eagerly we waited for this book, and just when we were planning discussions around it, Aniket suddenly chose to leave us. We have unfinished dialogues with Aniket and someday, somewhere, I really look forward to encountering that mischievous smile once again, and to listen to that enigmatic beginning of a sentence, “You know, the problem with this argument is...”