A total of 30 authors, mathematicians, mythologists, philanthropists, and other stalwarts feature as long form interviews in Peerless Minds, a new book edited by Pritish Nandy and Tapan Chaki.
Nandy is a renowned poet, author, journalist and filmmaker. The interviews in the book by renowned writers and journalists extol formidable courage, tenacity and triumph. We sit down with Nandy to talk about this literary endeavour.
When and how did the vision of this book come about?
The original idea was to do a book of 20 people, Indians and people of Indian origin who have made an enormous contribution to the area in which they work. We looked for living legends or people who could very shortly emerge as legends.
We also chose one or two people, like the legendary surbahar player Annapurna Devi, the daughter of Ustad Allauddin Khan, founder of the Maihar gharana, and the former wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar. She chose (for her own reasons) to stay strictly reclusive… So reclusive that people had forgotten that she actually existed. My favourite author VS Naipaul’s last interview has also been documented.
We tried to get the best people for conducting each interview. Authors like Aatish Taseer, Karan Mahajan and Roderick Matthews, and journalists James Astill, Prannoy Roy, Rajdeep Sardesai and Vir Sanghvi promptly responded to our request.
We also chose interesting new professions. That’s how stand-up comedian Hasan Minhaj, mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, music composer AR Rahman and chef Vikas Khanna came in.
Was there someone who you wanted to feature but it just didn’t work out?
I was the saddest to leave out Ashis Nandy, one of India’s greatest political thinkers and public intellectuals. But one Nandy including another, that too a sibling, seemed wrong.
We also tried to include Nobel Prize winner Venkatraman Ramakrishnanbut, but he refused. At that time, he was outraged with what had transpired at the Indian Science Congress, where people were talking about Ganesha’s head as the world’s first known case of plastic surgery. My timing was wrong. Hopefully, he’ll be a part of the next one.
I also wanted human rights activist Arundhati Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri, but they never responded. Since we had decided not to include any full-time politicians, I lost the opportunity to include animal activist and environmental campaigner Maneka Gandhi and Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations.
What makes these particular interviews relevant?
In the book, you have individuals who are brave, honest, and dedicated professionals who have reached the pinnacle of glory in their respective callings. Unfortunately, I thought of this book late.
Otherwise, I could have included a filmmaker like Satyajit Ray, a playwright like Vijay Tendulkar or Badal Sarkar, a musician like Ravi Shankar or Ali Akbar Khan, a singer like Amir Khan of the Indore Gharana or Mallikarjun Mansur, a painter like Francis Newton Souza or Maqbool Fida Husain or Gaitonde, or a novelist like UR Ananthamurthy.
Then, there’s the dilemma of choice. Should we have featured Marxist historian Irfan Habib or Romilla Thapar? We went by our gut and chose Habib.
Were there lines, quotes, anecdotes, or advice shared by someone that helped or inspired you?
Lines, quotes, and anecdotes do not inspire me. What inspires me are the lives of people. Their rise to success, their frequent failures, their tenacity and courage. A philanthropist like Azim Premji would be hard to find anywhere in the world. Another exceptional professional is Ratan Tata who created one of the world’s most respected brands. Lata Mangeshkar is truly peerless, so is Amitabh Bachchan’s acting prowess.
Were there particular questions you deliberately steered away from asking?
Well, this is not a book about scandal and gossip. I would love to do a book on people we have labelled as rogues and rediscover them as the people they are.
The individuals in the book are leaders in their own right. What does ‘leadership’ mean to you?
Leadership is the ability to draw people away from their mundane lives and give them a reason to achieve amazing things.
We often need someone to inspire us, mentor or simply tell us where our skills and talent lie, and give us the confidence to achieve that. You cannot read great literature or watch great art or listen to a great musician without being transformed. As your life is transformed, you acquire the very qualities of leadership that you admire in others. It is as easy as that. Try it. Planning on a sequel?
Most certainly, yes. Three years later, this book will probably feature 50 per cent, different people. The next time I am sure there will be more women and young people from the newer arts and sciences, stuff we are learning to take more seriously.