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Understanding Sudarsen

Attending the seminar at the University was quite a good experience. On one level, the close interaction with the students, researchers and staff was good in that it gave me a feel of the current concerns and attitudes in the department as well as in the discipline. On another level , it made me take a look at myself, my acts of distancing myself from the department and my seemingly contradictory commitment to support whatever they got up to.

It was a fascinating experience to see minds like Sudarsen’s at work – he is a leading anthropologist and is well known for his work in different fields of anthropology. He has 35 years of experience, and since I first knew him as my teacher ten years ago, I can safely say that I have known him, however slightly, for about ten years now – that is slightly more than a quarter of his unarguably illustrious career. Yesterday, as he was presenting his paper, he made a statement that I never thought I would hear from him – he said that subjectivity in social sciences was acceptable. Here was the man who had taught me objectivity. Here was the man who had taught me that value judgements, those cornerstones of subjectivity which blinds a researcher to all realities but her/his own, were to be risen above. And he was saying, in a National Seminar, no less, that it was okay for social scientists to be subjective. I was thrown by this. I sat next to him and listened to him making a case for a social cause, on what kind of interventions we should be doing, and he was causing to be done and doing himself. I watched as slowly and methodically he took apart everything that I believed to be the centre of our roles as anthropologists.

Then, I began to rationalize. I set aside emotion, not a easy thing to do, but necessary. I tried to understand what was at work here. The easiest explanation for this would be to say that this is a sign of age and the crankiness associated with it. This would also be totally false – the mind is as sharp and decisive as ever. One just needs to stop being shocked and listen for a moment to realise this. Then, as I sat there listening to him argue the case for intervention that caused specific changes, it struck me. The man had made his choices. Three and a half decades of growth was bearing fruit, as it had been for the past few years. Having been objective for over a quarter of a century, and seeing humanity in all its nakedness, he had deliberately become subjective.

The foundations of his subjectivity were already firmly in place when I first met him in 1995 – he was strongly opposed to discrimination on any basis – caste, sex, age or anything else, and reacted strongly to it. But he never let it colour his work or his research. Remaining objective in spite of having strong feelings about the issue was his strength and we learned from it.

Today, he has put that great mind to work trying to right whatever wrongs he sees fit. He has crossed the line from being an academic and has become an activist. His subjectivity is born out of his objectivity.

Which leads me to think – what about all those around him. I have heard him being criticised that he “is not like the old Sudarsen.” I agree that he is not the old Sudarsen. And it may be disconcerting to many who knew him then. But we should also understand that what choices he has made have been out of his immense experience. His making of the choice itself was an intellectual exercise and an extended process. I have also heard the words of those who blindly follow him, unwilling or unable to discern for themselves his choices or the processes which lead to them. Those who are unwilling to ask him about them, unwilling to attempt an understanding, but nevertheless willing to follow him to the gates of hell.

My only worry is that these people should not presume to make such choices, or believe that they have made such choices, and still remain in the belief that they too are social scientists of the highest order. If I work for Sudarsen and do his bidding, I am his instrument, an instrument of his choice, and clearly understand that my choices may or would have been different.

Watching the evolution of an intellectual, being able to see the changes taking place, and trying to undertand the related processes is fascinating on its own. When it is that of a colossus like Sudarsen, it is also an honour.

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