Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs – Life and Times of a Sociologist

by T.K. Oommen

Konark Publishers, New Delhi, India, and Seattle, USA

Pages 304, price Rs 695; 2017.


“Workography”, not a biography, that’s how the author, T.K. Oommen, describes this book in the preface.The biography is spanned in two parts—Torments of Sociology, and, Beyond Sociology. Oommen, a noted sociologist, who was born and raised in a tiny Kerala village, narrates how he rose to the pinnacle of the sociology academics, and occupied top positions in one of India’s top university, JNU, in New Delhi, and acclaimed status elsewhere in India and abroad.

Meanwhile, though teaching and research in the academic discipline of sociology in India is only around six-decade-old, it has already added nearly a score of globally-known sociologists’ list—Oommen is deemed to be one among them. He proudly records his academic and other professional laurels after obtaining first degree, and up to doctorate in sociology. Besides, listed also are various honours conferred on him.  The book chronicles all his achievements, stage by stage, as also the huge “torments” that the topic of his Ph.D caused him, and how he finally prevailed. Mentioned also chronologically in first part are his awards in five appendices.

Reading between the lines, one observes how graphically, intimately, even minutely Oommen takes shot on umpteen academic specialisations in sociology, his former colleagues, in selecting students, new faculty, award of Ph.D. degrees, evaluation of masters theses and doctoral dissertations, heading panel and committees to choose incumbents for JNU’s sectional headships. All are meticulously, immaculately, diligentlyaccounted for with dates, official letter numbers, individuals signing and forwarding to the author—for his perusal. However, there’s a clear hint that the authour has opened portals of a brand new research area in sociology, “sociology of pedagogics”, after his nearly four-decade teaching stint at JNU and elsewhere.

In addition, Prof Oommen deserves credit for telling the reader, how by dint of his benchmark sociological research, and nearly four-decade teaching stint, he steadily ascended from a research scholar to a distinguished emeritus professors at JNU, and was bestowed with the signal honour of presidentship of the international sociological association, and finally bagged the prestigious national Padma Award. He prides in believing that his outstanding record as a sociologist “could be inspirational to peers and subsequent generations”.

Cruising through the book, the authour’s sociological approach is reflected in narrating environments with twitch of humour (when he used the word “Muradabad” for “murdabad”), sarcasms (“Oommen is known for his too many sarcasms”), even a ting of “anger” wherever he worked, stand out in the book. He feels how could “notoriety of licentiousness” be described as “misplaced when it’s openly occurring at the place of learning?” When his vehicle was damaged in an incident of campus unrest, he brands it sarcastically”being among the few privileged enough to be targeted.” Again, he sociologically analyses the causes of campus protests due to the “politically attached faculty to their student clients,” perhaps manifestly in inappropriate words by any standards. He admits existence of partiality in evaluation of student assignments due to “ideological polarization”, and tells us of “leftists” being “favourably commented on”…and the “anti-leftists (being) subjected to the cognitive blackout.” He brands his ascension to the presidency of the international sociological association as “great triumph in my professional career” and the “thundering applause” to his presentations, and feels of “presiding over the XIII world congress of sociology.”

As stickler to rules and regulations, he reels out several academic-cum-administrative tangles where his authority was fiercely questioned and tested, but emerged victorious, antagonising seniors; was labelled as “an arch-reactionary” and a confirmed “class enemy”. He tells us that most of his triumphs occurred while he was at JNU, but there were fewer tribulations. He opines that the dictum “the end justifies the means is a dangerous and foolish dictum.” Though he was often lauded for his integrity and honesty, there were instances of allegations of “molestation” and high handedness in his decision-taking processes albeit in JNU matters “unacademic”.

The book is replete with personal idiosyncrasies, whimsical reactions, even arrogant reactions to many academic ideas; he distinctly recaptures his agonising experiences with the Indian Sociological Society. Enumerating his “travails and triumphs of publishing”, he expands how research papers are published and opines that the path to progress in the academics is conducting research and publishing in learned professional journals. He claims to have done so over 200 times. Of these, some were hailed, other censured, but he complains that many Indian sociologists didn’t sufficiently applaud him for some of his scholarly studies. At the end of it all, as Prof Oommen keeps congratulating himself, often now and again, it looks odd, embarrassing and somewhat discomforting, wrenching. Incidentally, with the authour’s abundant self-praise, will the book appeal and motivate the academics, as he states in the preface?

The book’s uncurious characteristic is the author’s immaculateness in counting /recounting with minutest precision and alacrity the positions, assignments, responsibilities, jobs done with national and state bodies like planning commission, Prime Minister’s high-level committee on Muslims’ status, the 2002 Gujarat harmony project in the state. Being a noted Christian, he was also involved in church-related missionary activities. Vividly recorded are some incidents, from ordinary, trivial to the highest academic encounters. He recapitulates at length haggling over the amount of taxi fare in Tokyo, to the loss of his wife’s clothing.

After demitting his JNU position, Prof Oommen settled down in a habitat where he was elected president, though only media persons had occupied that chair. He found himself at thorny positions as his academic disposition didn’t fit the media persons’ moorings and administrative practices. Though he calls this position “turbulent”, but he stuck to it, and faced its vagaries somewhat uncomfortably. He was a “president in agony,” in his own words.

All in all, this book memorialises Oommen’s “life and times”, which he calls “workography” and not a biography, and makes a smooth reading and is well told, but sociology is preponderant all over. However, paradoxically, though Oommen, having been immersed during all his nearly 50 years in teaching and researching sociology, at the end, censures and slams his fraternity of the Indian sociologists as “professionals without professionalism”. Moreover, as a reputed professional sociologist himself, he has had the best of opportunities in making it “professional”, should he not share the blame for not making sociology “professional”? Had the book’s manuscript been tightly edited, its size could have been slimmer and cost sly.