CHATTERJEE’S new book is what she herself calls an “excursion in the history of ideas.” Based on nine chapters, it provides her reflections on ordinary-sounding words, such as enemies, strangers, friends, neighbours, forgiveness, mortality, and hospitality. For most of us, the laity, these are familiar words, which feature in our everyday living, but Chatterjee shows that they have aspects that most of us may not even be aware of. She sees them in our familiar settings, and then puts them in a rich context by showing how they figure in philosophy, history, literature, politics, and other areas. The result is a discussion that takes on a pleasing, though sometimes a bit complex, breadth, which improves our understanding, extends our perspective, and also introduces us to known authorities in different fields of knowledge.
I focus on her first chapter, which is about enemies, to illustrate the method that Chatterjee has used. First she shows how human beings have contended with enemies since times immemorial. They provoke struggles, even cause wars. But enemies do not remain constant; they can turn into friends and friends can turn into enemies. In whatever way we may think of them, their presence indicates a decline in moral sensitivity and a lack of faith in peaceful, democratic process.
To understand the complex issues connected with enemies, both internal and external, Chatterjee takes us to experts among the Greeks and Romans, and then looks at the careers of Clausewitz and Ataturk, to show why and how enemies are to be handled. Though human willingness to see others as enemies is the cause of war, quite often people are pushed into such wars. This leads her to the discussion of the seminal work of Carl Schmitt, the main plank of whose thinking is that the political would not exist without the figure of the enemy and the possibility of war. This can be seen at its worst when societies work to stigmatise sections of their population as enemies and justify ill-treatment and persecution meted out to them, like the Jews in Germany and the untouchables or Dalits in India. In recent years, animosity has penetrated even into the areas of sports and some other forms of popular culture.
(Promilla & Co., C-127, Sarvodaya Enclave, New Delhi-110 017)