How do we tell the story of an age? In a way that makes it come alive?

Do we find these stories in magisterial histories, such as Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi? In epochal novels like Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities? Or in the works of memoirists who situate the personal within the sweepingly historical?

When I’m asked to review Ashis Nandy’s Breakfast with Evil, it so happens that I am reading, in parallel, for pleasure, memoirist Annie Ernaux’s The Years.

The Years provides a narrative of over six decades of French history, where the personal and the collective are told together, and hold together, in ways I have not seen before. Here is an example, one that may be of some relevance:

“At the end of the 1970s, at family meals, a tradition maintained in spite of the distances that had to be traveled, memory grew short.

Over coquilles Saint-Jaques…and a side dish of potatoes a la dauphinoise, frozen but as good as homemade… the talk turned to cars and brand comparison, projects for building a home or buying an older property, our most recent vacations, the consumption of time and objects. We instinctively avoided topics that awakened the old social longings and cultural differences, and instead examined the present we shared: the bombings in Corsica, the terrorist attacks in Spain and Ireland, the diamonds of Bokassa…The women managed a sidelong exchange on domestic issues – the folding of fitted sheets, the wear and tear on the knees of jeans, the use of salt to remove wine stains – within a conversation where the men retained the monopoly on subjects.”

Something strange happens as I continue to read both books, in confluence. Ernaux’s narrative, though very beautifully written, begins to feel flat, and shorn of meaning, and seems to capture little. Nandy’s ephemera, which I am ostensibly reading for work, becomes reading for pleasure.

Harsh pleasure

As I read through this collection of Nandy’s “scattered writings,” which have appeared before in newspapers and journals and in now-defunct magazines likes Debonair, I feel sixty-odd years of the society in which I live come alive. In rich, novelistic, painful, disturbing, humorous, and indeed, pleasurable, ways.

A harsh pleasure though, for what Nandy says in the titular essay about the writings of Vijay Tendulkar could well be applied to his own work: “Readers should be warned that Tendulkar never guarantees a good bedtime read, not even when dealing with ‘dead’ history. He never fails to make you feel that you have entered a dentist’s chamber with an undiagnosed abscess in the molars.”

Today, it is not a great exaggeration to say that many of us feel like we are living inside abscessed teeth, while others feel that we are living in good days. What Nandy provides both sides with is the pleasure of understanding; the satisfaction that comes from tracing how we may have gotten here.

In Breakfast with Evil we can find clues, partial answers and starting directions to solving some of the great puzzles and questions playing out in India today.. Collections of ephemera leave it up to the reader to do the thinking; the work of linking. Through piecing together the fairly disconnected pieces in this book – with some deep reflection, questioning, and indeed wikipedia-ing on the part of the reader – the story of an age can be found.

Scholars of South Asia of my generation, and older, have long engaged with Ashis Nandy, and in more detail, through his monographs and more coherently ordered books of essays. It seems to me that the ideal audience for this book is a younger one, one that might respond to the work of someone who declares of himself, in an imaginary conversation with Indira Gandhi, which appeared in a magazine that billed itself as the Indian playboy, “Some call me a psychologist, others a political sociologist. At the moment, I am a mythographer, trying to find out the minimum ethical frame within which this polity can survive…”

Sass on show

Indeed, Nandy’s writing – original, sardonic, prescient, often provocative, often inaccurate, always thought-provoking – appeals to this younger generation in ways that might have been less apparent to my more stolid one. Two years ago, after reading one of his essays, one of my students – a beginning writer herself, who went on to work for a major television channel – exclaimed, “I like reading him. He’s sassy!”

Sassy, for those not in the know – and I’m only in the know because of my students – is a term of millennial praise par excellence. To take up one of the many meanings available on Urban Dictionary, to be sassy is to be “impudent, bold and spirited, cheeky and saucy with attitude.”

Nandy is all these things and more. And if we are to delve into the festering abscess of the contemporary condition, a little sass is balm. So for younger readers who are looking for the short declarative punchline, for the fun raconteur, for the intellectual who is at least as sharp as the last meme you looked at, here are some examples:

On elections: “North Korea regularly holds elections and its dynastic rulers regularly win these elections, getting more than 90 percent of the votes. Nobody has accused the country of being a democracy.”

On terrorism: “In some ways, the politics of South Asia have failed to capture the imagination of their youth; sizeable sections of them are in search of a cause and are willing to be shot for it like rabid dogs in at least five of the seven countries in South Asia.”

On copycat developmental models: “The states are presumptuous enough to claim to be the guardians of the people who inhabit the SAARC countries, but would be happy to get rid of their peoples and populate the empty spaces with local versions of the human beings that periodically catch their fancy. These versions have at various times included the rational, national-interest-minded English and the French in colonial times, the diligent Japanese and the disciplined Germans in the inter-war years, the progressive and egalitarian Russians and Chinese in the second half of the twentieth century, and the rich, powerful, consumption-driven, individualistic Americans now…This dislike for one’s own people, in those who most stridently proclaim their ethnic and religious nationalism, is coupled with a sneaking respect for one’s declared enemies.”

On over 6000 cases of sedition being filed against an entire village in Tamil Nadu for opposing the Kadulakum nuclear reactor: “The villagers are still trying to find out what sedition is, and why, if the reactor is such a safe and beautiful thing, it cannot be built in places where the rich stay.”

On the good life: “The definition of a happy citizen itself is changing in modern democracies. Citizens are the ones who are free to vote, consume, travel, and entertain themselves to death.”

On Consumerism: “Many talk of consumerism as a form of conspiracy to cheat the ordinary, innocent citizen with the help of smart, high-pitched advertisement. The ordinary citizen is not that easily cheated. They are influenced by advertisements, but first a void has to be created in their lives, so that the magic of advertisement and its seductiveness can work on them. The creation of that void is crucial. Only when his or her life is emptied of a deep sense of belongingness…does the atomised individual begin to seek meaning in various pseudo- solidarities, one of the most important of which…is the solidarity of consumers.”

On the painfulness of change: “When gods die, they leave behind the ruins of a moral order and a fragile and transient set of aesthetic and ethical values that defy all existing hierarchies and priorities.”

On what ails us: “Dramatic or spectacular social changes extract a heavy toll on any society. After a point many being to feel uprooted, deracinated, and buffeted by forces that strike like natural calamities…The uprooted then come to see the new world unfolding before their eyes as one running on principles and conventions that are clearly disjunctive with the older moral order, ways of life, and gods and goddesses. It is not easy to live with such an experience, and the result, often, is vague, unfocused anger, anomie and anxiety that become nagging, integral parts of the self. The blend can be deadly. Violence – wide-ranging, unpredictable, seemingly unprovoked – is almost always a natural outcome of it.

On Sanjay Gandhi: “Ultimately, he died of politics.”

Joining the dots

For all his wit, Nandy is no compendium of quotable quotes, but rather a thinker who makes connections between various realms of human experience. Connections that are always suggestive, often inventive, and may just be true. You can read Breakfast With Evil backwards and forwards, into the past, into the present, and, like a soothsayer, even into the future.

Consider the question of the violence of everyday life in India, by looking at two essays in the collection, the titular essay, and the essay, “How to Live Happily with Torture.”

Many who are reading this review may have heard of, and been outraged by, the horrifically violent deaths of a father and son, Jayaraj and Bennicks, that took place in police custody in Tamil Nadu during the coronavirus lockdown last year. How did this happen? What is the source of this type of sickening and irrational violence?

Nandy shows us that there’s always something deeper at play in what unfolds in the present, and that this rage and this impunity has a long history in independent India. To understand the deaths of Jayaraj and Bennicks today, Nandy might suggest, we should watch a film made way back in the 1980s, Ardha Satya, and read more of the great writer Vijay Tendulkar, who wrote the screenplay for that unsurpassed, and powerfully grim, film.

For those of us who care to delve into the more disturbing interstices of our society, Nandy offers a great deal. Alarmed by the recently-diagnosed crises of mental health and unhappiness in India, for the many who are tirelessly striving to ameliorate these, Nandy offers the following insight: “[t]he idea of the nation-state, when wedded to visions of urban-industrial life and development, is a potent concoction. It almost invariably goes with uprooting, breakdown of communities, and an inner sense of exile. The combination is turning India, too, into a country of the psychologically uprooted.”

There are broader problems involved in India’s ascent to the upper levels of world unhappiness indexes that simply importing the latest Cognitive Behavioural Therapy worksheets from the US, and loading them onto homegrown Mental Health apps, are simply not going to solve.

For readers, not academics

What Nandy gives us in this book is a way to interpret the world that we see around us, and the many changes that we are experiencing, and witnessing, every day. This way of seeing is not keyed to one particular ideology or political allegiance, but is broad-ranging, and keenly critical of violence across political and ideological spectrums. In Breakfast with Evil, people of many political colours may find insight and understanding, if they read with an open mind.

To be sure, it doesn’t all come together, for if you collect ephemera, you risk a certain level of incoherence. There are essays which different people will find differently vexing or indulgent. For some, it might be that imagined conversation with Indira Gandhi, which I loved; for others, born in the 1990s perhaps, it might be the discussions of the world before the collapse of the Soviet Union, which might seem utterly irrelevant.

For me, it was all the words on Gandhi. I tire of Gandhi, who is undeniably at the centre of thought for Nandy, but about whom so much has been said, by so many people – including Munnabhai – that perhaps the time has come to talk of other things.

Nandy has said he isn’t writing primarily for other academics, but for a larger reading audience. Breakfast with Evil is a broad-ranging, at times bewildering, and deeply rewarding book. I hope that it reaches a younger reading audience. An audience such as the students I teach; an audience that encompasses both the first-generation-college-goers in my English Language Teaching (ELT) seminars, who might seek to understand the exclusions with which they are continually faced; as well as the deeply privileged students who are trying to understand their role within a larger society that is so very different from them.

I would especially recommend this book to someone on the right who is trying to understand why they might feel continually under threat, even while undeniably comprising the largest majority in the country. I would especially recommend this book to those on the left who deride religion, and tradition, and the beliefs of others, with a dismissiveness that can only be described as arrogant. There’s a Nandy here for everybody.

Some titles are a set-up, and Oxford University Press knew exactly what they were doing when they subtitled the book The Non-Essential Ashis Nandy. But we must never let our desire to be clever overtake our desire to speak the truth, so I’ll just go ahead and say it. The Non-Essential Ashis Nandy is essential reading for our times.

Durba Chattaraj teaches writing and anthropology at Ashoka University. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Breakfast with Evil and Other Risky Ventures

Breakfast with Evil and Other Risky Ventures: the Non-Essential Ashis Nandy, Ashis Nandy, Oxford University Press.