Raj Ayyar, a Truant in Philosophy

In discussions, Raj Ayyar could be assertive while being generous, for he practiced a Bergsonian critique of ignorance, which took knowledge and ignorance with equal seriousness. 

Raj Ayyar died last week. He was a teacher, broadcaster, friend, egalitarian, Stephanian and a truant in philosophy. He always played those notes and moved among those tones which made him a “minor legend”, as Lallu (Rabindra) Ray said. Ray, another Stephanian, died in 2019. Raj Ayyar and Lallu Ray were from the same generation who practiced truancy in the domain of knowledge, which breaks what exists as knowledge, the lithic gravity of the past, to prepare a matter for knowledge as kinesis, speed, act. Truant used to mean just that – that which turns, drills, and pierces.

Raj Ayyar was a student at St Stephen’s College and later he began teaching in the college. He had taught my teacher Vijay Tankha. The two became closest friends. The college is also where I met him for the first time. Raj had come to the college to give a lecture on feminism and a philosophy student who already knew of this minor legend had come knocking on the doors of my hostel room and taken me along to attend. He was a confident speaker who quickly made distinctions, as can be seen in one of his YouTube videos.

After teaching in college, Raj went to the US. He taught for several years in the East Florida State University. He was also a radio broadcaster there. In the US too, he was never in the same place for too long. When he returned to India he taught at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi as a visiting professor for many years. He lived in a hotel rather than an apartment or house, in the same way as his fellow truant and grand figure of philosophy in India, Ramachandra (Ramu) Gandhi. Then, suddenly he was called to Bangalore to look after his father whom he lost during the pandemic, where he then chose to remain.

The story of Raj is also the story of a certain era, certainly elitist, of the middle class which has since been a ruin in recent decades. His father worked in the railways in Calcutta (now Kolkata) where he grew up. He loved this city and spoke to me on the phone on one of the two occasions when I had to visit it: “Just walk, lose yourself, find yourself,” he said. He grew up among books with the promised Nehruvian values of knowledge, equality, secularism and freedom as the foundation of the Indian state guiding his readings. Raj was also the possibility of what St. Stephen’s College once was, through the circuit between the library, the lawns and cafe. St. Stephen’s had allowed the springs of Naxal Bari (1967), Prague and Paris (1968) to let bloom in its lawns; it also let some of the currents of postcolonial and subaltern schools of the 1980s move through it, of which one must always remain critical; and in the 2000s it could receive the resonances of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), anti-war movements, and anti-fascist movements.

However, Raj would soon become much more than the Nehruvian promises and the elitism of St. Stephen’s College, even when it was often an elitism that was shared. As Vijay Tankha said once, “Raj is truly egalitarian. He never cared for high and low in any sense of the term. With that openness, he annoyed a lot of powerful people”. As a gay man, Raj also knew what it meant to be kept apart from the parts which assert the rights over the whole. In philosophy, like Ramu Gandhi, Raj thought primarily from within the torsions and floods of intuition of the philosophical openings created by A.N. Whitehead and Henri Bergson. His eclecticism in philosophy was lent to the flows and processes of Bergson and Whitehead. In discussions, he could be assertive while being generous, for he practiced a Bergsonian critique of ignorance, which took knowledge and ignorance with equal seriousness.

The seizure of the process also explains the reason he could not leave many complete texts. As he said, “A few days after writing some pages, thinking turns and changes directions.” But this should also be understood from within the academic and public culture of India, of which he always expressed his criticisms. History as a discipline and as a political project dominated Indian public sphere for a hundred years. When something takes place in the present it is always made contiguous with the past; sometimes this is done through simple analogy; at other times through a charge of betrayal of the past; or often, the recovery of the lost pride of the upper caste people, which is what is at stake even now in the syllabus revisionism by the Indian union government, at the cost of education. Philosophy as the truancy of tradition and the bastardisation of boundaries – race, caste, nation, sex, time, space – is terrifying for any society which is held in the rusting fist of the past. In the truancy of philosophy, one always listens for the blue notes of revolution, correctly.

There is also a danger in philosophy wherever one gets seized by it, but most acutely in India where the conditions are opposed to its praxis and its implications. In each text of philosophy there are trap doors through which one may slip, including this text itself, and if skilled and guided, one may slide back up again through the cracks. Raj fell through many and he could guide his students and friends towards the little glow of the cracks. But one must fall again, for no truant ever finds home in philosophy. It is where the unhomely reigns.

Shaj Mohan is a philosopher based in the subcontinent.