“A Guernica of Political Prose”: Ashok Mitra’s Calcutta Diary

Ashok MitraCalcutta Diary.  Kolkata: Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, 2014 (first published in 1977 by Frank Cass, London).  pp xxvii + 300.  Rs 395.

They do not trumpet their inspiration from the rooftops: “their identification with the cause is nevertheless total”.  Amal Sen, the homeopath, was one such sympathiser.  A dreamer of socialist dreams, he medicated, “free of charge . . . the poor and the needy in working class slums.  The coarseness of commerce never intervened. . . .  Doing a good turn to others was for him a cerebral impulse.  The sum of such impulses was his life. . . .  A rainbow of a bridge joined . . . [his] life with . . . [his] dream.”

That 1974 column of “Calcutta Diary” was part of the making of my political consciousness, this when I was an undergraduate student of metallurgical engineering at IIT Bombay, cocooned in an ivory tower.  Sometime in 1972 or 1973, a friend who had joined the advertising firm of Frank Simoes brought the EPW home.  The EPW was the obvious oddball out of the bunch of magazines she shared with me, and I took it home to Dadda, and Dadda and I soon fell for its first half — hook, line, and sinker.  Dadda loved “Calcutta Diary” the most.  The son of a proofreader, Dadda had a felicity with the English language and English literature.  Ashok Mitra’s (AM) column became a source of comfort for him, for he felt that if AM’s political prose — so full of life, of anger and indignation as well as empathy and compassion — could move him, it could also touch others, engage the feelings of a whole lot of sensitive souls, bring about a realisation of the need for progressive change.  The dignity and the elegance of AM’s political prose in that column about the homeopath just hooked me; I wanted to be like Amal Sen and AM rolled together.

Calcutta Diary

The book under review, Calcutta Diary, is a collection of 46 essays, written between 1968 and 1975, two of them in the Kolkata weekly, Frontier, then edited by the post-Tagorean poet, Samar Sen, and the rest in EPW.  In a Prefatory Note, written in May 1979, the author feels that “there is a certain significance in recollecting the terror and inhumanity which were the staple of the regime. . . .  [I]n one part of the country — West Bengal — Indira Gandhi’s Emergency started much earlier, perhaps from 1970 onwards.”  This new edition includes the “Publisher’s Note”, a new Foreword by the well-known multi-disciplinary scholar, Partha Chatterjee, and “A Commentary on Calcutta Diary” by the eminent historian, Ranajit Guha, that first appeared in the Journal of Peasant Studies in 1978.  Penning this review some 40 years after the diary first appeared in EPW, I thought I should give the reader a feel of what I experienced reading this column in the first half of the 1970s, and rereading it now, after the four decades that have gone by.

A Murderous Society

Let me then get to “The Story of Indra Lohar” (1973), the petty sharecropper under oral lease, who, despite the then more recent amendments of the West Bengal Land Reforms Act to plug loopholes, was dispossessed of the small piece of land he tilled, and found to his horror a chronic denial of justice by the administration, the police and the courts.  AM’s prose sketches a profoundly depressing portrait of deliberate and callous discrimination against the poor sharecropper, and the fact that this detrimental outcome was the almost inevitable result of the disparity in political power and economic resources between the landlord and his sharecropper tenant, made worse by the absence of a “living, pulsating organised movement of the peasantry [which] could have made a difference”.

I am reminded of another instance in AM’s diary — that of “The Emancipation of Kamal Bose”, where the police, determined to keep Bose in custody without trial for as long as they can, bring forth a case and implicate him in it the moment bail has been granted in a previous case.  Why did the police behave in such a mala fide manner?  AM does not give the reader even a clue, but this entry in his diary now reminds me of the more recent experience of the radical political prisoner, Arun Ferreira.  In 2011, as Ferreira took a stride to freedom through the Nagpur prison door, police of the C-60 commando force, at the helm of the counter-insurgency in Gondia and Gadchiroli districts in Maharashtra, abducted him, clearly in connivance with the police station and the prison authorities.  They drove him to Gadchiroli, producing him before a magistrate in order to convert illegal police custody into its legal counterpart; after five days in the “company” of policemen, Ferreira was sent back to Nagpur jail after they implicated him in yet another case.  Incidentally, this procedure is not exceptional in the case of radical political prisoners, even today.

Arun Ferreira would perhaps consider himself fortunate, for worse is the fate of radical activists who die “mysteriously in police custody”.  AM’s diary speaks of Pradip and Prabir Roy Chowdhury in 1975, “polite and brilliant and sensitive . . . not capable of disowning their milieu. . . .  [The two brothers were] picked up by the police and detained without trial: otherwise the nation would not have been safe for democracy.”  Pradip, beaten and tortured in the process of interrogation by the Special Branch of the state police, died in its custody, while Prabir was shot dead in Howrah jail.

The diary also tells of “encounter” deaths —

[C]orpses are incapable of issuing rejoinders. . . .  The corpse . . . [is] given an unsavoury name . . . [extremist] . . . retroactive justification of trigger happiness.  [From the second quarter of 1970 onwards, the police assumed] summary powers to hunt down and kill ‘undesirable’ elements . . . point-blank killing. . . .  The British might have cavilled at this ‘something’, but not us. . . .  You must not turn into a dreamer of extravagant dreams . . . [sacrifice]  everything so that a new society could emerge. . . .  [For those who do, the powers-that-be have decided] that [such folks must be] shot like dogs under the canopy of the open sky in concocted encounters with the police. . . .  While they are despatched to their fate, many of the unscrupulous ones, come January 26 and August 15, will be honoured by the state.  They may be rogues and scoundrels, but they enrich the system.  (pp 71, 43, 44, 47, 48).

This entry in AM’s diary floored me, set me thinking, in 1973 itself, about the murderous society India has become.  Perhaps it is time to shift gear to other portraits of ordinary people.

A Load of Responsibility

Here in AM’s diary is an account of an ordinary young woman — and there are several thousands like her, we are told — who “takes on a load of responsibility . . . [and] gets stuck with it forever.”  She is “the leading earner in the family, and the entire salary she meticulously hands over to her mother”.  Every day is a miserable routine of drudgery and toil, the household chores before going to work and after getting back from work, the commuting in overcrowded buses, the same routine day after day — today is the same as yesterday and tomorrow will invariably be the same, and this year will almost definitely have its counterpart in what happened last year, and the coming year is not going to be any different.  She could very well just “run away to her own future”, but she doesn’t.  “[W]ith what face do we look up to a girl like her?”

The diary also has the story of Mother Courage, her “roots in the erstwhile landed gentry of East Bengal”:

The land gone, along with the jewels and other assets, [her husband dead,] the lady survived, the witness to history . . . she left East Pakistan along with her children and grandchildren.  She has since then negotiated each successive stage of immiserisation . . . [finally settling] . . . in a refugee colony. . . .  [There follows] the inexorable slide towards pauperisation. . . .  [T]here is [nevertheless] a certain inner reservoir of courage in her. . . .  [S]he will live her last flickering days condemned to the present squalor.  So be it: she does not complain. . . .  What wears her down [however is the fact that] her grandchild . . . has turned into a common criminal. . . .  Her grandchildren . . . have chosen the life of wagon-breakers and knife-wielders.  The tragedy . . . is not that she failed to bequeath her legacy of riches to her grandchildren; it is that she failed to bequeath her legacy of courage. . . .  Her own grandchildren, . . . instead of joining the working class, they have joined the lumpens.  (pp 34, 35, 36)

What does one say about this denouement?  Despite the hopelessness of it all, Mother Courage, in AM’s account, retains her humanity, but the set-up — the rotten system — robs her grandchildren of their humanity.

Truly, AM’s prose is at his best in his portrayal of ordinary people, and not-so-ordinary people too.  The passing of Begam Akhtar, the Mallika-e-Ghazal (Queen of Ghazals), in October 1974 gives the reader a feel of what might have been Akhtari Bai’s initial moments of glory, in the 1930s, when her patrons were the zamindars, this until their “style of life was dealt the coup de grace”.  The Indian state then stepped in, and “Akhtari Bai blossomed forth as Begam Akhtar . . . [this] with the nationalisation of Culture, spell it with a big C. . . .  [T]he good things of life were [still] reserved for the rich. . . .  It is a pity she could not be liberated before her death: the nightingale, as long as she was around, remained chained to the cage.”

A Romantic and Marxist Critique

AM is one of this country’s foremost romantic-cum-Marxist critics of the set-up, defined as “slapdash semi- and quasi-feudalism . . . [in coexistence] with degenerate mercantilism and gawky-eyed capitalism.”  Take, for instance, excerpts from his diary in “the season of the Durga” — turned “into an exercise in lavish exhibitionism”:

Gods and goddesses . . . have to survive, they have to for the sake of the parasites who make a living out of the business of community worship. . . .  Business is business; the business of worship. . . .  Society is rendered into one vast marketplace: it is only the cry of prices which matters here, the cry of prices backed by effective demand. . . .  The other cry, the cry of the needy, leaves no impress: money talks, the lack of money is a fatal deficiency, the consequences of this deficiency will visit those who are affected by it.  (pp 139, 140, 141)

Indeed, even as his diary records the passing of the writer Buddhadeva Bose, AM remarks that “even his death has become an occasion for brazen commercial exploitation by capitalist publishers who monopolise the Bengali literary trade”.  And, AM simply detests obfuscation, something that is very common among economists — they are the new obfuscators.  “They love their present role, which in many respects is parallel to that played by the Brahmins in ancient and medieval Hindu society . . . the buffers between the masses and the Hindu kings. . . .  In the structure assiduously built in this country over the past two and a half decades, economists have blossomed forth as the new obfuscators.”

Or take the pieces on foodgrain prices and the widespread pangs of hunger, or the one on vasectomy and tubectomy, wherein “[t]the aborting of births” was reduced to “a transaction in the marketplace.  Forty-two rupees per turnover . . . the opportunity cost set for an extra human being . . . an extra unit of the poor is only worth forty-two rupees.”  Or, “as food prices soar . . . [and] the surplus farmers . . . [reap] a rate of return of 70, 80 or 100 per cent — or even more . . . [even as] the overwhelming majority of the people . . . continue to cut down their consumption of cereals.”  There are five pieces in the diary that are weaved around the idea that economic phenomena must be viewed in their interaction with political categories and processes.  It is here that AM is full of anger and indignation, invective, ridicule and sarcasm to reinforce his propositions on the economy’s most crucial relative prices, the food crisis and its tragic consequences.

A Structure of Feelings

At its core, the diary gives form to AM’s passionate discontent with and hatred of the set-up.  What finds expression is a structure of feelings and emotions: revulsion at the domination of exchange value, the cold calculus of price and profit; the tricks and frauds of the New Obfuscators; the chronic denial of justice, indeed, deliberate and callous discrimination against the poor — a severe indictment of the set-up which robs human beings of their humanity and of the murderous society India has become; but yet, the courage and the perseverance of those who do not permit the set-up to rob them of their humanity, the ones who do not permit the coarseness of commerce to intervene in what they choose to do.

The diary is an assertion of life in the face of the weariness that has entered the Indian soul; there is indignation and there is empathy, there is hatred, but there is love too, there is despair but yet, hope is never deferred.  The oppression, the tragedies, the wounds, the suffering and the grieving of the innocent, the dream and the lie of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the many protests, the visceral sectarianism of the Left, all of these are brought to the reader’s attention.  Like Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, intended to bring the Spanish Civil War to the world’s attention, AM’s prose engages the feelings of his readers, perhaps in order to bring them to a realisation of the need for progressive change.  Truly, a Guernica of political prose.

Bernard D’Mello (bernard@epw.in) is Deputy Editor, Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai.  This review first appeared in the EPW, November 8, 2014.