The particular pleasure of Kesavan's prose is that the drama of Indian history is enhanced, in his telling, by the drama of thought. The writing constantly asks questions to itself, wheels and roves in search of adroit juxtapositions or historical parallels, hammers away at key points. A historian by training and one of our sharpest columnists, Kesavan is also distinguished by the breadth of his expertise: he is equally at home on each of the subjects that make up what might be called the holy trinity of Indian public discourse: politics, cricket, and cinema (or more properly Bollywood). If cricket is by and large absent in Ugliness, it is because Kesavan’s appetite for the game is so vast, and his dismay with the game's governing body, the ICC, so total, that all his essays on cricket was siphoned off into a separate collection, Men In White, published in 2006.
The material of Ugliness is arranged much like the way a team traditionally built an innings in one-day cricket. Early on the tempo is more relaxed, the style of the play more various. Kesavan declares his disdain for Indian documentaries, asserts that the Indian male is not only born ugly, but hones that trait through regular practice (on which more later), dissects the various kinds of patriotism found in Hindi cinema. He can be seen attending a political rally in Uttar Pradesh, looking at statues in Madras, enjoying a junket in Australia, bathing in Istanbul. It is only in the last section of the book, "Politics", that his tone rises to a kind of slog-overs crescendo, with a constellation of high-octane arguments about the distinctive colour and character of Indian secularism and nationalism.
Kesavan's argument runs something like this. Indian secularism is not only highly unusual (all the neighbouring states in South Asia privilege one religious community or another), it is also confused, to its disadvantage, with the Western version of that practice. The origins of Indian secularism lie not in the battle to separate the church from the state, as in the west, but in our anti-colonial national movement, and in particular the strategies forged by the Indian National Congress.
Unlike the other provincial political bodies that sprung up in India late in the nineteenth century, the Congress from the very beginning was self-consciously and pluralistically "national", of a mind to represent all the classes, religions and communities of India on the common plank of anti-colonialism. "The uniqueness of Congress's nationalism," writes Kesavan,"is its near-complete freedom from mystical and mystifying notions such as blood, soil, or national essence which are the stock-in-trade of narrower patriotisms”:
The Congress, as its name suggests, saw itself as a cross between a party and a parliament (or at least an assembly of representative Indians). Typically, till 1939, members of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League could be members, even presidents of the Congress. For the Congress, being secular meant making different types of Indians equally welcome; secularism in this context was a way of being comprehensively nationalist. […] The emotional charge of Congress nationalism came from anti-imperialism – not the myth of a suppressed identity waiting to be born.Even if, in the beginning, the Congress's pluralist definition of nationalism was strategic, designed to bring the largest number on board in a Noah's Ark kind of way, over the sixty years of the independence struggle it became something like a reflex. Thus it was that, despite the horrors of Partition, India did not go down the road of being a Hindu nation. Our secular constitution, in Kesavan's telling, enshrined this liberal and hospitable nationalism in law. Although the Congress itself has been unable to live up to its legacy, the historical triumph of the Congress, writes Kesavan, "is that every party must now lay claim to the virtue of being secular. The meaning of secularism can be contested (truly secular/pseudo-secular), but it is a value, like democracy, that no mainstream party can publicly repudiate.”
Because we don't fully appreciate the ingenuity of the Congress's construction of nationalism, argues Kesavan, we tend to confuse it with the more pedestrian, majoritarian ideas of nationalism that have forged nations around the world. Paradoxically, it is this race-and-religion conception of nationalism, which we bypassed, that is now advocated by a powerful force in Indian politics: the BJP and its allies. Although many secular Indians are horrified when their friends and family members support what they see as the bigotry of the BJP, the fact is that BJP supporters never think of themselves as communal, only as nationalist. And indeed, if we look at the history of the nationalist movements of Europe, it is possible to credit this argument. Hence,
Since the dominant sense of nationalism the world over is derived from the European experience, when a Hindu chauvinist arguing for the primacy of Hindi asks rhetorically, “Doesn’t France have a common language?”, the French example begins to seem a sound nationalist precedent for supporting Hindi. When he asks, “Don’t the English acknowledge that their culture and morality are derived from Christian values?”, this becomes a persuasive reason to support the demand that all Indians acknowledge that they are constituted by Hindutva. The proper secularist response to this is that the nationalism of Gandhi that won us our freedom as a nation state and shaped the pluralism of our constitution has very little in common with this hectoring, homogenizing patriotism. These derivative arguments don’t apply. They’re irrelevant because they aren’t rooted in our experience of the freedom struggle; they don’t emerge from our nationalist practice.“For secular Indians, the dreadful track record of intolerant nationalisms [the world over] and their failure in containing secession or managing dissent is a gift,” Kesavan argues. "Instead of reflexively denying the BJP's claim to nationalism, secularists should ratify this claim enthusiastically. They should then distinguish it from the nationalism of Gandhi and the freedom struggle, and encourage an undecided public to study the self-destruction that BJP-like chauvinisms wreaked on countries misguided enough to harbour them" – in neighbouring Sri Lanka, for example, where an aggressive Sinhala majority and an embattled Tamil minority have been locked in a murderous conflict for decades. The day Indians accept that those in the majority deserve to have their beliefs and sensibilities deferred to by the rest – the prevailing climate in the rest of South Asia – our marvellous pluralist experiment will have foundered. "Invisibly, we shall have become another country" – that is the ringing close of Kesavan's book.
The density of Kesavan's engagement with these questions, and the sophistication of his responses in general, is perhaps intentionally absent in his irreverent title-essay. "Some years ago I was struck by the contrast between the beauty of Hindi film heroines and the ugliness of Hindi film heroes," he writes. The explanation for this is simple: Indian women are radically better-looking than Indian men. Indian women are, to Kesavan's eye, "delicate and vivid"; Indian men "coarse, dull, and squab-like". Their native ugliness is accentuated by their deficiencies of hygiene (nose-picking, crotch-scratching), hair (moustache-wearing, nose- and ear-hair growing) and other assorted personal and sartorial habits.
It seems to me that Kesavan has set up a slanging match here: responses to these assertions are likely to depend on whether the reader is a man or a woman. As for myself, I can only attest from that Indian women, even if they are more fastidious than men on the body-hair-removal score, are not the angels that Kesavan makes them out to be. Maybe those of his generation were.
In fact, if the ugliness of the Indian male resided only in the list drawn up by Kesavan, Indian women might actually be quite happy to have them, since some of these deficiencies are surface-only and can be reversed with a little grooming, and since Indian women too have grave defects of their own (which for reasons of space I can't go into right now). The real ugliness of the Indian male resides not in his face, but in his mind: in his willing or unquestioning endorsement of patriarchy and chauvinism. But Kesavan's jocular survey of surfaces and appearances, his refusal for a change to probe any deeper, makes for an sly variation in a first-rate collection of essays. The Indian male may be ugly, but in certain instances his writing is remarkably fine.
And here are some essays by Kesavan: "I, The Nation", "Three pivotal moments that shaped early nationalism in India", "How Pluralism Goes Bad", "No Escaping The Nation-State", "The Congress's pluralism became a reflex by the time of Partition", "One-Day Democracy", "Partition became inevitable once the Congress resigned in 1939", and "Memories of 1984".
A long interview with Kesavan from 1998 is here, and Kesavan's excellent cricket blog Men In White is here.
And two old posts on books of essays by Indian writers: "Amartya Sen's large India" and "Krishna Kripalani's faith and frivolity", and a review of Sumantra Bose's excellent book Contested Lands, which is among other things an examination of the temptations and the consequences of majoritarian politics around the world. And here is another old post on a writer greatly, and often annoyingly, stimulated by Indian pluralism, "Shashi Tharoor, banally in love with India", and a post on a somewhat more thoughtful and engaging commentator, "Mark Tully and India".
Kesavan's book is published in India by Black Kite, an imprint of Permanent Black (which publishes some great academic books, often in conjunction with university presses in America) aimed at the lay reader. Among their upcoming titles which might be of interest to you is Amit Chaudhuri's new book of essays: Clearing A Space: Reflections on India, Literature and Culture, which should be out next month.