A Book of Memory

Last week, I spent much of my evenings reading A Book of Memory: Confessions and Reflections, the autobiography of the famous Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar. Having finished this enriching, exciting and difficult to put down book at almost blitzkreig speed, I am now drawn to write my reflections on it.

Four aspects of the book stand out as one reflects on what its highlights are. First, and perhaps most important for me, is the intense energy which flashes through it. The narrative is intense, yet quiet. Every significant emotion in the narrative is carefully held up, looked at and explored from different sides. This is done not in the manner of a detached psychoanalyst sitting behind the couch, taking notes and maintaining a clinical silence. Rather, it is done through the eye of a poet, through a dextrously employed language which captures the subtle hues and the richness of the inner life  in a manner that no clinical language ever can.

This careful, detailed, insightful exploration of subtle feelings makes the reader experience them intensely, yet reflectively. Lingering desire, painful longing, threatening fear – these are described intimately, bringing one face-to-face with them. The cover of the book is black and white, conveying an aura of reflection, but the writing on the cover is red, bringing into the reflective aura the intensity of desire. This, is precisely what the book is about.

Some examples:

“Apart from any instinctual satisfaction they provide, sex and violence are also ways of feeling alive in the bleak and barren landscape of loneliness, as as the one in which I found myself at school. Whether pleasurable, or painful as in the case of violence, both were crucial in greening the desert of aloneness during the months I was away from home and family.”

“After long evenings of talk – of books, art, music, ourselves – wherein we were discovering each other with delighted surprise, I would walk her back to her hostel. The one vivid scene of those evenings that my memory serves up is of my sitting on a low wall in the Roman ruins located a couple of hundred metres from her hostel, looking up at her third-floor window till the light in her room was switched off. I would continue sitting on the cool stones … for hours on end in a state of voluptuous reverie, oblivious of time, my senses keenly attuned to the rustling of the grass in the soft breeze, the sharp cry of a bird in sleep, the gradual change in light as the stars dimmed and gave way to the roseate dawn. No one can convince me that love’s gift of a heightened sensate responsiveness … was also not deeply spiritual.”

“It was in my daily experience of intimacy in my psychoanalytic practice – of which I, as the analyst, was the recipient – that kept reminding me painfully of its absence in my own life. It kept the mask from becoming my face. The longing for passionate love, I am convinced, is no more than an intense craving for intimacy, a fusion of souls of which the two bodies are but joyous containers. It promises relief, even if temporary, form the disquiet of the inner divisions that are our human fate.”

Second, it illustrates that most gods have clay feet and the illusions we chase to make ourselves happy are usually just that – illusions. Kakar, it seems, had a fairly good childhood. As an adult, he went through psychoanalysis which would have helped him resolve some of his inner conflicts. Yet, the second half of the book is a testament to one person’s search for happiness and his struggles on the path. Kakar falls in love and marries almost immediately, without much thought to compatibility. After a bit more than a year, the couple realise how incompatible they are. The love dries out, the intimacy is replaced by a harrowing loneliness – a loneliness made even more acute by the presence of the partner who one cannot be intimate with. They stick together for about 20 years for the sake of the children, before their eventual separation when the children are, perhaps, old enough to handle the separation.

During this time, Kakar talks of a string of extra-marital affairs and describes two in detail. His search for passionate love was also, he writes, a way of getting away from a depression resting just beneath the surface, threatening to emerge anytime and drown him. Some of these affairs are rather painful and uncertain, both partners wanting to give everything to the relationship one moment, and withdrawing the other moment out of guilt, anxiety, or mere ambivalence. The pain of the alteration between having the beloved with oneself and losing her is very much present here.

The narrative shows us that none of us is immune to suffering – often self created, not even the psychoanalyst who is thought to understand the psyche the best.

“… for most of us the truth about the ‘self’ is laid bare by memories of loves that evoked our deepest emotions. There, emotions are not only of the ecstatic kind … but also of almost unbearable longing, hurt and loss … In life or art, ‘happy love’ has always suffered in relation to its more melancholic counterpart. Not only has contended and fulfilled love rarely produced a memorable work of fiction, or of poetry, but even in our memories it is always trumped by its unhappy sibling.”

“Closeness and discord followed each other, bringing home again and again, the truth of Freud’s observation that we are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love.”

Third, the book testifies to the significance of the psychology of the unconscious for modern man. There have been times and ages in human history where ‘myth’, ritual and ascetic practices have negotiated the inner world and brought into presence the Absolute, in the form of concepts like God. Today, it is a rare person who can reach the deepest recesses of consciousness without working with the unconscious – the bearer of the hidden desires and conflicts that populate the mind just beneath its surface. To me, Kakar’s deep fascination with the human psyche comes across as a spiritual inclination which has not been developed into a proper spiritual discipline, and will perhaps never be. Kakar fascinatingly tries to fill the theoretical gap between the personal self and the spiritual self, but there are few avenues in our times that fill this gap practically as well.

Kakar himself may not entirely agree with this view. Nevertheless, his life reads as a tireless effort to understand the deeper recesses of the human mind, and his early years of dissatisfaction and confusion, before he becomes a psychoanalyst, lay bear the workings of a heart that has not quite found its calling. Wandering from being an engineer to a researcher in organizational behaviour, Kakar feels the dissatisfaction that only a life full of the kind of intensity I describe above can satisfy. Finally, he finds it in his vocation as a psychoanalyst. When the road opens up, life acquires a totally different hue, at least to begin with. This, for me, is the fourth remarkable feature of his book.

“I had walked on the gravel path … with lightness in my step, feeling intensely alive. The confusion was over; the future stretched before me full of promise. I had hummed to myself and whistled while I walked.”

The book stands out as one of the best autobiographies I have read, perhaps next only to Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain and the Dalai Lama’s Freedom in Exile. While not always reaching the existential depths of those two books, it is extremely well-written and reminds us of what it means to be on a ceaseless search for a vocation, to lose oneself totally in it when one finds it, to experience immense happiness as well as pitiful sorrow, to lose a loved one to death, to live with uncertainty – in short, to be human.

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~ by tdcatss on May 17, 2011.

4 Responses to “A Book of Memory”

  1. What a great book review, Kaif. :) I have to do a review of my choice soon and hope I can be as passionate about it as you were with this one. Also, I asked a group of poets once about if they felt they wrote better from those hard places. It was tossed around some, but most agreed that they did. So, of course, I’ve begun trying to write from moments of joy or thankfulness throughout the day. ha! We’ll see how that goes . . .:)

  2. after your appealing recommendation, i will try to read this book.

  3. hi debbie. yes, there is something about the book that made me quite passionate. and are you saying that the poets thought that they write better when they feel low? i think there is something true there, although one can, of course, write deeply from moments of joy too.

    rangnath, yes, do try to read it! you can borrow it from me if you want to meet me sometime!

  4. This is one hell of a book review; because, it has made me wanting to read this book. And the other two mentioned at the end. :-)

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