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The Artful Scribbler

M S Prabhakara ( is a veteran journalist who now lives in Kolara, Karnataka.

First Person Singular by Ashok Mitra, New Delhi, Paranjoy, 2016; pp xi + 395, 595.

I used to write a column each week for the Economic and Political Weekly, a column that my ego was terribly fond of. It was my rambling pasture, I would berate X, praise Y, weave an irresponsible thought on someone’s poetry or music or philosophy or athletic prowess, offer vapid comments on a political development, try out some amateurish economics, generally indulge myself with words, words and more words. This column was mine kingdom to come.

Thus, Ashok Mitra (AM), in “The Consequences of Indira Gandhi” (pp 241–75), the longest piece in this collection of essays that was first published in three instalments in December 1985 and January 1986 in the now defunct Illustrated Weekly of India. The passage may well serve as the motto for this book, indeed for some of AM’s other journalistic columns marked by the cultivated self-deprecation (“vapid political comments ... amateurish economics”) intended to put even a truly admiring reader on the defensive, a game which the reader can never win. A columnist is entitled to set the rules to the game he invites the reader to play. But the passage certainly does not describe AM’s passionate weekly interventions on political, economic, and cultural matters when he was writing his “Calcutta Diary” column regularly, barring the disruption caused by the declaration of Emergency.

I became familiar with this column when I began to read Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) regularly, sometime in the late 1960s. “Calcutta Diary” columns were certainly no dilettantish interventions, as AM pretends in his teasing and self-deprecating recollection, a piece of verbal legerdemain like “the denial that affirms” cited at the beginning of this review.

Let me recollect from my fading memory a column, one of the many of this kind, AM wrote during this period, about an elderly person making a living of sorts in a slum in Calcutta. The man of East Bengal origin; bearing a double- barrelled surname; bespeaking a feudal origin is now in greatly reduced circumstances, perhaps impoverished. He and his wife have two bright sons who have miraculously flowered into promising adulthood in their benighted environment. The parents have hopes for them, perhaps have some hope for themselves as well of finding some redemption through the promising future of their bright children. The Congress government in West Bengal is headed by a scion of Bengali aristocracy whose police chief in Calcutta is known as the most civilised policeman in West Bengal, perhaps in the country, sensitive and very well read in the classics as well in contemporary literature, an image projected in the media. Even if accurate, this is no big deal, for there have been any number of well-read policemen, with a joint mandate to rid the state and society of rampaging murderous youth, the so-called Naxalites and worse.

These are the days and nights of staged encounter killings not merely in West Bengal, Calcutta was duswapner nagari (city of nightmares), and both the sons are killed in fair succession. I do not remember the details of the story, cannot move without help even within this house and locate the relevant issues in the bound volumes of EPW, but I do remember that AM was writing a fair bit about such of such killings when I began to read EPW and Calcutta Diary regularly, and also in Frontier under the name, Charan Gupta, a name suggested by the late Bhupesh Gupta as AM reveals in the essay, “Ideology and Friendship,” the second longest essay in this volume, for a column that AM wrote for the Communist Party of India’s New Age, though one knew that Charan Gupta and AM were one and the same person.

Sorry for the rambling, natural for one in his 80s, but the point I want to make is that AM’s writings in the Calcutta Diary column, permeated with saeva indignatio can no way be described as “indulging oneself with words, words, words and more words.”

‘Rambling Pasture’

Came the Emergency in June 1975, and the weekly column in EPW had to be discontinued. In fact AM stopped writing the column after he managed to have his previous column, his very first column after an issue break following the imposition of Emergency, get past the censors. The column seemed, and indeed was, a long passage from the Eighteenth Brumaire, that had, in the context of the Emergency, subversive connotations. The details of that intervention, and its consequences, are well known. Clearly, AM was not indulging himself in “words, words and more words” in that column, at least the censors did not think so.

So, ignoring the self-deprecatory “words, words and more words,” “Rambling Pasture” is a fair description of the themes and narration of most of the essays in the collection. Persons are berated and praised, sometimes the praise and admonishment dealt out to the same person who is also perhaps a friend, as in the tribute to Sukhamoy Chakravarty, an admirable scholar though not easily comprehensible to his students (much less to Indira Gandhi), but so willingly allowed himself to be appropriated, should one say, suborned, by Indira Gandhi to join the Plannning Comission after she got rid of D R Gadgil, viewed as too independent-minded. As AM puts it, Sukhamoy Chakravarty did not merely succumb to Indira Gandhi’s “importuning” by enlisting most willingly but later even persuaded Jan Tinbergen, teacher of both AM and Chakravarty and “a dedicated socialist” (for AM, a saint of a man) to issue a statement endorsing the imposition of Emergency. So much for dedicated socialists of the European variety, though AM is much too fond of and respectful of Tinbergen to press the point.

Yes, the “Rambling Pasture” touches upon all the enumerated themes: poetry and music and philosophy, athletic prowess, and more. AM’s fascination with physical prowess, as in his admiration for that most boring of games, cricket, and the game’s most amoral practitioners (a whole essay is on Sachin Tendulkar) has always baffled me (being a fan of football or any other game lasting not more than two hours). Each to her or his taste, I suppose. I am also struck not by his fondness for detective stories but by the choice of the authors and the fictional detectives they have created. His favourites are, as always, Raymond Chandler and his creation, the sentimental Philip Marlowe, who would not allow his girlfriend to buy him an airline ticket, and Rex Stout and his creation, the orchid (an utterly degenerate flower) cultivating Nero Wolfe and his sidekick, Archie, living in a five storey Brownstone house in Manhattan, New York, Wolfe solving murders without ever leaving his house. Fortunately, the real friends (and foes) AM speaks of are far more vibrant than such prissy sleuths and other cardboard characters, even when they are beset with vulnerabilities. Like Khurshid Hassan, the Pakistani scholar and civil servant, and Zohra Sehgal, the dancer in Uday Shankar’s troupe who reinvented herself as an actor of the stage and screen when past 80 and lived to a 100, never losing her zest for life, never weakening in her strong commitment to “unbelief.”

AM, of course, is a master of crafting a portrait in words. One of the most remarkable of such portraits is of the Chaudhuris of Bharenga, the progeny of Narendra Narayan Chaudhuri and his wife Kiranmoyee comprising four talented brothers who left the backwaters of East Bengal to conquer the world; and the equally remarkable four sisters, with Ritwik Ghatak and Mahashweta Devi located somewhere in the extended linkages. For me, however, essays like “Thirty Pandara Road,” and “Ideology and Friendship,” dealing with the heyday of Planning (“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven!”) and the abandonment of the very idea of a planned economy, have intimations of love promised and love betrayed. However, while reading the essay, “Ideology and Friendship,” one is struck by the fact that all the actors in the drama, losers and winners, the no-quitters and those who wanted to cut their losses and run, those who stayed and those who walked away or were thrown out, one and all undoubtedly had a grand time, playing the games that people play.

Updated On : 1st Jun, 2017


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