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The Renaissance Man

The Renaissance Man

The Renaissance Man From the Ramparts by Ashok Mitra; Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2006; G P DESHPANDE As the readers of this journal know very well, the EPW has two distinct parts. The latter part is academic, highly specialised and almost a little frightening. The first part also carries dense statistics. But, until 2003, once you did your customary kowtow to such statistics what followed in the first part was sheer delight, the Calcutta Diary of the redoubtable Ashok Mitra or AM for the readers of the EPW. No other column has been read with as much of regularity and indeed with devotion as the Calcutta Diary has been. It occupied the pride of place in the first half of the weekly. There were any number of people who would jump at the first part, first savour the columns and then turn to the more dense academic pieces. There were days when Romesh Thapar adorned the first part with his Capital View and freewheeling political comment. But there was nobody that could equal the erudition and humanism of AM. His perceptive and penetrating commentary made the world suddenly comprehensible.

Raviaws

the dialectic between national and provincial. That comes through vividly in

The Renaissance Man

From the Ramparts

by Ashok Mitra; Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2006; pp x+268, Rs 450.

G P DESHPANDE

A
s the readers of this journal know very well, the EPW has two distinct parts. The latter part is academic, highly specialised and almost a little frightening. The first part also carries dense statistics. But, until 2003, once you did your customary kowtow to such statistics what followed in the first part was sheer delight, the Calcutta Diary of the redoubtable Ashok Mitra or AM for the readers of the EPW. No other column has been read with as much of regularity and indeed with devotion as the Calcutta Diary has been. It occupied the pride of place in the first half of the weekly. There were any number of people who would jump at the first part, first savour the columns and then turn to the more dense academic pieces. There were days when Romesh Thapar adorned the first part with his Capital View and freewheeling political comment. But there was nobody that could equal the erudition and humanism of AM. His perceptive and penetrating commentary made the world suddenly comprehensible.

The volume under review brings together a selection of the pieces from his Calcutta Diary over five years up to 2003. Mihir Bhattacharya deserves our appreciation for his work. It could not have been an easy job selecting these pieces. All of them have been fascinating. It was great fun reading this selection. One just goes on and on. It is like reading a crime story. AM is unforgiving in his attacks on the hypocrisy and the smug reassurance of our ruling class. It is quite customary to read about the corruption in our public life. What AM does is to remind us of our responsibility in it. People get the corruption they deserve. Nobody talks about it as candidly as AM does. He would then tell you a story of how the daughter-in-law of a minister would get some special favours. He does not give the names. And how right! We have created an army of faceless people who run and destroy the system. He documents all that with a certain feeling for people. There is nothing self-righteous about his attacks. He is in a sense documenting the decline and fall of the nationalist revolution of India.

He is devastating in his attacks on the small compromises but more important than that perhaps he never loses his hope in the Indian people. His criticisms are destructive but they are inevitably in search of truth. There is a category in the Nyaya Shastra (ancient Indian system of logic) called the Vitanda (destructive criticism), which has been celebrated as one of the 16 ways of arriving at the truth. AM’s column is a contemporary Vitanda. I cannot think of many writers today who can use the Vitanda as well as AM does or did.

He belongs to two traditions. He knows the post-enlightenment Europe very well. One can suddenly discover a word like gnosis in his writing. A column carrying the logo of philosophy is rare if not altogether exceptional. But then he knows his Sanskrit right. His range in Bangla shows not just erudition but also a commitment to India’s languages and culture that they store and carry forward. We have forgotten that our languages are a storehouse of the people’s memories of their struggles. That is how they have grown and prospered. Reading the Indian writing especially in English, and I mean even the polemical writing, one gets the impression that modern day Indians do not quite have the sense of history and languages. Therefore they do not have much respect for Indian languages. They have some regard for their own language. But quite often it is more chauvinism than respect. AM in his column has shown a liberal and comprehensive understanding of Indian languages and cultures. He knows his Kolkata as also Dhaka very well. But he knows his Tamil Nadu or Orissa no less. Here is a complete Indian who manages the pages of the book.

Consider the people who figure in these pieces. There are forgotten revolutionaries. There are economists (think of his fond references to A K Dasgupta or Ashok Rudra), writers, actors, journalists and what have you. Most of them were, like those mentioned above, so unlike him. He has written some of the most moving tributes and obituaries. He does get a little sentimental, more than what is to my taste, but even so there is always a pan-Indian perspective that he brings to bear on his assessments. His little piece of Zohra Sehgal and her sister Uzra is a gem of writing. Blessed are those about whom A M has written. His personal tributes are literature. When he is writing about Karuna Bannerji he is talking of Apur Sansar and the films of Satyajit Roy. It does not appear that films are his favourite subject. But literature is. These columns make you understand why he got the Sahitya Akademi award for his contribution to Bangla literature.

Bertolt Brecht wanted to be a biographer of a boxer. It would seem that AM would have liked to write crime fiction. The number of references that you get to Alfred Hitchcock, to John LeCarre are a standing proof of that. He does surprise you occasionally with a German expression or two.

I can go on and on. I really do not know how to review this book. It is both a book and a memory. I might as well conclude the review with a citation on Hitchcock:

Alfred Hitchcock had a Catholic background. He had a task cut out for him to reconcile the mumbo-jumbo of the Holy Ghost and others with his innate cynicism…After all what is God? Once the obfuscations are got rid of, God is a master manipulator of suspense and is in total control of all aspects of production; men, beasts and nature have to abide by him…Suspense is God’s writ. Suspense is also what Hitchcock considered to be his religion. Therefore he is God.

There is little else that is needed although there is plenty in the book to demonstrate that he belongs to the generation of renaissance men.

m

Economic and Political Weekly June 30, 2006

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