Avijit Pathak’s Culture, Politics and the Aesthetics of Living: The Spirit of being a Wanderer (Aakar, 2020, pp174) reflects his socio-political journey beyond the academic boundaries of disciplinary domains. Each chapter is qualitatively different from the others because of the varied nature of topics it speaks of ranging from existential realities, cinema, theoretical traditions, education and religiosity among others. The reading experience of each chapter is completely different from that of the other. Each of these experiences makes for an eminently readable standalone delight. The diversity of themes renders the unevenness in chapter lengths from 13 page chapter three to 31 pages of chapter four as intellectually exciting. Yet there is an essential unity in a thread of interconnectedness with which the chapters come together. The book flows with the reader like ‘a river undertaking a journey from the grand Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal.’
Chapter 1 expresses the author’s reflexive quest of life as he transcends his limited self-identity as an academic tapping beyond the ‘intellectual’ into his own deeper realms of consciousness. It is striking how this reflexivity comes to him simply by wandering here and there, while keeping his eyes open. He describes his frequent journeys to Rishikesh sharing his conversations with the mysterious mountains, Himalayan villagers and flowing rivers. His philosophical acceptance of a spiritual world is revealed in his descriptions of the physical journey. He enters a different layer of consciousness during these journeys which provide him moments in which the provocation to search the deepest meaning of existence is irresistible and the search for a pathless land to overcome existential anguishes opens up. It is here that he contemplates on two of the deepest problems of human existence: first the art of dying and second that of living here and now. The first leads to a recognition of the ultimate Vedantic reality that our surrounding phenomenal world with all its name, object and form is transient and waiting to wither away. That which begins in time, exists in time is bound to end in time which is the basis of learning to get ready for death. The second deeper realisation is that of being able to simply live in the present, the moments that are here and now. The author discovers this effortlessly when he walks, drinks a cup of tea or sits by the banks of a river; that being able to appreciate just the moment at hand, as ordinary as it may be, is a ‘meditative act with absolute mindfulness’. This realisation of the present moment as perfection; overcomes individual alienation from the world in an appreciation of the cosmic interdependence between all phenomenon around us leading to a ‘rhythmic merger of the outer as well as the inner’. Face to face in the natural world during an ordinary physical journey the author simply surrenders to the infinite at every fold of the mountains. It becomes a journey which reveals glimpses of the extraordinary.
It is while reading the first chapter itself that I realised that as a reader I had to become something more than what I am in order to read this book. The book pushes its reader into an ascent of consciousness forcing one to examine the everyday from a new self-awareness. It is here that I identify the author and my own self, as a reader, as two birds on the same tree. One sitting anywhere on the tree but silent, clam and effortlessly flying in the sky from time to time. The other foraging for food from the lower branches, alternating between misery and happiness, as it finds bitter and sweet fruits. Both in the world but one dwelling in the extraordinary within the day-to-day. Reading the subsequent chapters I knew was going to be like aspiration to be like the other bird from time to time; of which only the shadow was falling on me so far.
In Chapter 2 the author speaks of cinema that has filled his everyday moments of leisure with beauty, added rich aesthetics to his daily life and almost become a part of his being. His selection of great films is varied. The first a cinematic text of love, femininity, surrender and joy: Mahanagar. He celebrates the film by looking at the woman protagonist not as a textbook ‘self-defining subject who contests a socially constituted gender identity of a caring mother/wife constrained by the chores of domesticity’ feminist but as someone who managed to find possibilities of emancipation within the familial constraints. The author evocatively describes both her psychic turmoil and inward flowering during the process of transition from a conventional bhadralok housewife to a working woman struggling in the outside world; who enjoys the ecstasy of relatedness in her own limited world.
His next selection Ghare Bhaire emotively stirs up the author’s historical imagination transporting him to the political turmoil following Bengal’s division in 1905 as also into the inner world of its three principal characters, each completely different from the other. The film ends by raising the existential questions related to feminist assertion, labour-capital dialects of swadeshi and emerging political ideologies of the times. His selection of 1973’s Garam Hawa is probably because its subject resonates even in contemporary times with rising neo-conservatism all over the world. As the uneven trajectory of secularism, communalism and social harmony unfolds in India; and contemporary debates about Muslim identity accentuate the deeply political film becomes relevant. The author perhaps dedicates a fair deal of space to the film for highlighting the dangers of fervent nationalism (like Ghare Baire though in a much more directly political stance), a theme to which he returns in the end of the book again. The protagonist undergoes one trauma after another in his life facing the brunt of belonging to a particular community. One hopes for an India in which a Muslim identity does not become an obstacle in a majoritarian ethos of narrow mindedness to our people’s freedom, life-opportunities and personal growth; like it happened to its protagonist.
At another level the author watches Garam Hawa as one’s search for a home. As the protagonists mother refuses to die in a rented space and coerces her son to take her to the ancestral home it is in the cinematic imagery captured by the movement of her eyes around the physical space that she re-lives her life with memories in the few moments before passing on. We all have at some point in time in our lives lost a home. I grew up and went to school from Karol Bagh of 1970’s. The house I lived in is unrecognisable from the one I grew up in turning it into a home I crave for but will never find again.
Social discrimination exists in most societies but caste-based discrimination with its tight hierarchy, untouchability, pollution-purity codes and tacit social approval of humiliation is presented with brutal honestly in Sadgati. The suffering of its Dalit protagonist in material and non-material terms and his dehumanisation by the Brahmin victimizer is a cinematic depiction of the sociology of caste violence, something students from urban backgrounds study about in textbooks but do not come across more directly, making it a pedagogically valuable inclusion. Later in the chapter the author presents his romance with Guru Dutt’s Pyassa and Kaagaz Ke Phool; among other cinematic pieces; which to him appeal like ‘black and white existential poetry’. He looks at Dutt’s cinema like a mystic’s vision of the fallacy of maya of the temporal, ephemeral almost at the threshold of a spiritual, beyond-aesthetics experience.
In making his eclectic selection the author celebrates fine art in a contemplative process. So while he discusses Ghaire Bhaire for its ability to translate the interiority of the three characters into the language of cinema; I was curious at the notable exception of a similar woman-centric Bandini, also set in pre-independence India; with lyrical outpouring of the protagonists inner truth in O Mere Majhi since he looks at Mahanagar as the story of its woman protaganist’s liberation and Ghare Baire also as self- initiated breakdown of a woman character’s own moral compass.
The chapter is not written in a style that a scholar of cinema studies would typically write in. It is thoroughly enjoyable to read this chapter several times over for the author’s compelling narration of the stories of the films. The author does not forget to remind the reader that reading a great piece of literature in the true sense of the term is very different from reading the same piece for an examination syllabus which largely involves ‘detached intellectual cognition’. It was awkward but I contrasted the author’s approach with my limited use of cinema as a pedagogical tool. I was teaching Gandhi’s Nai Talim to young urban woman students who wondered how anyone could imagine such an egalitarian education system which remained a non-starter in independent India. I suggested that they watch a re-run of the TV show Buniyaad to appreciate Nai-Talim’s socio-historical context of how the selfless idealism of the freedom movement degenerated into Machiavellian self-aggrandizement of post-independent India politicians. To the author cinema is much more an experience of ‘deep seeing’ or ‘engaged reading’; a deeply pleasurable foray into one’s own inner world.
Limits of techno-progress
The short chapter 3 expresses the author’s disenchantment with prevailing ideologies of progress. It looks at how so called technological advancements in society alienate the modern man leading to a psychological and social void in life. Techno- indulgences in the name of progress involve for example a tendency to be present on virtual platforms like twitter, facebook or instagram which chain the user in a vortex of ‘new technology, new gadgets, new demands, new needs, new anxieties.’ These are unnatural ways of living and in fact interfere with a ‘creative engagement with life’. A life where one simply has time to stand and to stare; with ability to hear the trees whisper, rejoice to look at the radiant moon, fly with the birds in the sky and relish the stories retold by older folks in society. The technocratic society with its prioritising of the ‘productive’ over the personal or domestic also converts time into a commodity to be spent or saved. The chapter points towards some of the by-products of this flawed ideology of progress that are now coming up: personal loneliness, alienation between extended families, technology de-addiction centres, new modes of anonymity in social life and the establishment of technology-driven surveillance regimes by increasingly totalitarian states. Technology has come to have a hold on our everyday lives as it also leads to some of these major discontents of our times.
I have often tried to get rid of my mobile phone in an attempt to go through my daily life with greater attention to the natural world surrounding me. It is not possible to do that as professional work related communication is also supported by the phone now in the name of digitally empowered. Is the screen’s constant gaze on my everyday life progress? I also wonder what the fate of our mother earth will be as the millions of phone sets, tablets and their attendant accoutrements accumulate as solid waste that is never going to join the elements. It surprises me why the votaries of a new world technocratic order are unconcerned with what to my ordinary mind appears to be emerging as one of the gravest ecological challenge plaguing mankind.
Reading this chapter the reader is reminded of the author’s earlier critiques of modernity and his quest for a uniquely Indian modernity, one in which there is space to reclaim the art of life in deeper civilizational terms.
Sociology with a literary sensibility
In a voluminous Chapter four author engages with the works of revolutionary philosopher Karl Marx, father of our nation Gandhi, monk sage Vivekananda, radical Bhagat Singh, polymath Tagore prime minister Nehru and scholar-social reformer Ambedkar. The selection can be read as among the major ideas that have influenced the author’s life and thinking, in some way or the other. Contemporary Marxist analysis has evolved to newer stances focused on analysis of modern power but the author begins by ‘paying homage to prophet of modern times’ Karl Marx particularly the ‘oceanic currents in his thinking’. The author does not desist from announcing that he is no marxist. No wonder the tone of the section is non-dogmatic. He recognises some of the key aspects of Marxist thought which can be insightful for even Marx’s non-believers: immorality of capitalism, the reality of a class-divided society, dialectics of conflict generating new social formations and the structural limitations of human agency. He looks at Marx’s works Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Communist Manifesto, Capital and The German Ideology as seed ideas of a pluralistic intellectual tradition that has been reduced to a limited monopoly of interpretation by doctrinaire followers.
He draws possibilities from Gandhi’s religiosity, which was not life-negating or other-worldly but opposite in direction rooting him in the everydayness of his political work. Gandhian religiosity involved an inner self-cleansing journey linking his inner churning to the outer world in search of one’s own emancipation, a creative openness to ideas so long as they did not violate his morality and recognition of his human failings. It was through such a religiosity that he was seeking to recover a unity between the self and the cosmos. Such a version of religiosity is deeply life-affirming even for someone like me who is not a practising Hindu.
The author communicates to the reader Tagore’s inner Upanishadic longing for the infinite expressed in his novels, stories, songs, poems and essays. The illumination provided by The Poet’s Religion which is a unique religiosity not of a narrow sectarian ideology but much similar to ‘an ideal of perfection, a sense of unity and harmony with surroundings’. Tagore in his essay My School expresses how he believes in a spiritual world with the invocation that the aim of education should be nothing short of the highest aim of life which is ‘to give man the unity of truth’ providing ‘inner light, not of power but of love’.
I started reading the fifth chapter on the practices of education when student-teachers whom I taught a course in educational studies in the 3rd year of their pre-service teacher education programme were approaching me to identify research themes. The student-teachers were looking for themes for their 4th year curricular projects. To develop research projects I suggested that they re-examine previous year’s course readings, their own term papers and theoretical essays in a search for personally engaging project topics. I suggested that they re-read their prescribed readings, position papers and personal essays more carefully to begin this quest. The collective reading of chapter four was an act of serendipity since the students were like the author in this chapter ‘Rethinking the Practice’ of their own 3rd year education for which the chapter provided an unambiguous direction.
The student-teachers read the educational theories of great educators Tagore, Gandhi and Krishnamurti in their first introduction to educational studies. They are only undergraduate students. To begin with the theories are read as mere academic bodies of knowledge in a ritualization of completing the course work syllabus. Yet they contain seeds of ideas that continue to grow within. Several students come back to the ideas of these illustrious educators in a quest for their research topics. A deeper re-reading ignites ‘the creative spark of human agency’ that provides alternate lens to re-look at the same ideas. A shared reading of this chapter in which the author undertakes a similar quest of ‘Rethinking the Practice of Education’ was extremely illuminating. There was a rethinking of the notions of freedom, discipline, authority, aims of education and what constitutes the right kind of education; as also a new churning towards a unique inner vision. Just the way the author comes to his rethinking of educational practices by shedding the armour of outer discipline including fragmented boundaries of moral philosophy and sociological theory; likewise the reader of the chapter is encouraged to tap within beyond Education discipline. This establishes contact with one’s own self as a learned space which reveals to the student- researcher a rethink of these notions in a personal way.
A careful reading of chapter five enabled a deeper re-reading, re- thinking and re-conceptualisation of my students own theoretical essays. They discovered how much more space these curricular tasks provided to ‘look at their own selves’. This inspired a journey to conceptualise their own projects, in a voice of their own; beyond academic knowledge. In freedom, relatedness, integration of courses of study with life; aiming at what Krishnamurti has called self-knowledge, inward flowing and a quiet inner revolution. A collective reading of this chapter was uniquely humanising.
In his rethinking of education the author rejects the prevailing schooling practices for their emphasis on narrow, mechanistic and largely meaningless pursuit of rote memorisation in the name of knowledge; marks in the name of accomplishment. Such practices separate the intellect; a dry, inert cognition of reality of our world from intelligence that is aimed at an original understanding of the realities of our world. Such an education cannot liberate or humanise or even lead to ‘Education is fundamental for achieving full human potential’ the avowed aim of education which is the very first sentence of NEP 2020 policy-text.
The rest of the chapter is a poignant account of how schools place disciplinary domains in a hierarchy whereas each discipline or subject stream is a form of epistemology of its own. Closely associated with my own child’s school I have spent considerable time within the school premises. The school takes great care not to place school subjects and select streams in hierarchical layers yet I continued to witness how deeply ingrained these gradations were. The section A of the senior secondary grades was a class of 34 students who had opted for the STEM disciplines of Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Economics. Even the room that was section A inspired awe among the fellow students. One day while walking in the corridor towards this classroom some girl students came to me saying ‘Madam don’t walk from this side of the corridor. Science students are that side. They are studying’, as if the other students do not have courses of study.
Subversive edges of nationalism
The book concludes with a note of caution on how nationalism can become a double-edged phenomenon. On one hand it is a powerful emotive force that comes with a meaningful purpose to live for others in one family of the nation. The author invokes both the civilizational national ideal of unity in diversity as well as Swami Vivekananda’s Practical Vedanta as the nation’s swadharma which he aimed to awaken in his walks from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari. The other side of nationalism is its ideological distortion as ‘hegemonic apparatus for a totalitarian society’ that threats to turn the nation-state into a bureaucratic standardised surveillance machinery. Such nationalism sidesteps the questions like: Whose nation is it? Is it sufficiently inclusive? Does it foster communal harmony? Does it unify its people or ‘other’ some? Does it render the mind without fear?
It is against the backdrop of these double-edged subversive edges of the trends of our times that the core of the author’s being comes to the fore. This core which is his personal identity concludes the book with an aspiration: a quest for an alternative pedagogy of love and resistance. A pedagogy that is based on an inter-connected rhythm of life which ‘resists violence and generates love’. In hindsight all the sections of the five chapters of the book can be read as an articulation of the myriad elements of this pedagogy. Such pedagogy is the pedagogue’s gift to the student providing our rising younger generation with both memory and a new dream; and the author’s gift to the book’s reader.
Throughout the course of the book the author desists from invoking categories left, right, liberal, progressive, believer, non-believer; but his essential belief in a spiritual world as a new infinite world within the domain of day-to-day living and one’s work as it’s basis are reflected in all the chapters. The book provides to the reader a peek into how this spiritual uprising is the basis of the author’s personal-philosophical worldview while shaping his political, aesthetic and ‘academic’ sensibility in a life-affirming pedagogy of hope. It will be thoroughly enjoyed by anyone aspiring for an ascent of self-consciousness in one’s own life.
Jyoti Raina is Associate Professor, Gargi College, Delhi University, New Delhi.