IT is their unalloyed universality that attracted us. Be they Buddha or Marx, Ghalib or Neruda, the Beatles or Frantz Fanon, in my younger days, there were people who could connect the absurdly diverse checkpoints of life, in which hope and justice were arterial. And these magical people were none other than the old-fashioned, wise and unassuming communists.
They smoked cigarettes, or cigars after Che and Castro. And they read the newspapers scrupulously. Not unusually, they visited the libraries and scoured the archives to endorse or challenge their knowledge. They went to the villages and joined gate meetings at factories to test their ideas about change. They enjoyed theatre and mushairas. They easily toggled between good music and deafening coffee house debates, which could occasionally send a sworn right-winger home with a thought to mull over.
They knew how to drink but never allowed a cosy moment to interrupt their carefully curated quest for a just world. Many of them spoke of the times they spent in jail and life when they went into hiding and were underground for months. It was a delight to hear them speak to each other. It was a learning curve for strangers to spend a short time in their company. Of the art of conversation, they were the masters. They could keep an eye on the election in Balrampur where Atal Behari Vajpayee was to be defeated by Subhadra Joshi. And they would be simultaneously riveted to the battle raging in Dien Bien Phu. I found some of the memories in my late uncle S.M. Mehdi’s notes, which he published in Urdu as Chand Tasveerein, Chand Khutoot. The family doctor who looked after him has transcribed the book into the Hindi script, and is looking for a publisher.
Ziaul Hasan was another such who remained a committed communist through his life though he also left the party with which he began to disagree late in life. Like Mehdi, he too felt the party was falling short of the standards prescribed for self-criticism. To complete the romance of his rich life Zia died in harness as one of the most respected journalists of his time. He was making coffee to work on his notes on Antonio Gramsci when he passed away. It was 1993 and he was only 75 and not in his early 80s as I had erroneously imagined. Divergencies is a fascinating collection of her father’s columns from between 1989 and 1990 that Zia’s artist daughter Saba Hasan has compiled. Some of the pieces offer insightful perspectives from his visit to Pakistan.
Regardless of the jute press, so called because major newspaper proprietors sold jute, communists were held in high esteem in India.
“What really surprised me was that in the various market places in Karachi a burqa-clad woman was a rarity,” he observed. “I do not think I saw more than six of them in three weeks of my stay in Karachi and daily outings for different reasons. Fundamentalism in speeches and writings in religious journals may be quite popular. In day-to-day life, it is a myth.”
Regardless of the jute press, so called because major newspaper proprietors sold jute, communists were held in high esteem in India, and for good reason. They were out there in the fields, speaking and engaging with the people and they brought the treasure trove of their experience to the nation’s attention, through parliament and through street campaigns. Hiren Mukherjee was a delight to hear in English and Chaturanan Mishra brought the house down with his wit and humour in Hindi, a quality that Lalu Prasad Yadav from the socialist corner later imbibed. I was reading the renowned cartoonist Abu Abraham’s tribute to fellow Rajya Sabha colleague Bhupesh Gupta, and it is difficult to believe that Gupta’s communist successors may have lost the plot somewhat.
The late Kenneth Tynan, theatre critic, once wrote in the course of a review of one of Brendan Behan’s plays: “The English hoard words like misers; the Irish take them out on a drunken spree.”
Abu noted that Bhupesh Gupta never drank. “Words in his mouth achieved a kind of inebriation and they flung themselves out like a mob pursuing an enemy of the people.”
Abu found that it was a characteristically Indian phenomenon that Bhupesh, a communist, should have been one of the pillars of the country’s parliamentary system. “While Bhupesh was in action, one felt that the system worked!”
I have been scratching my head like so many others to figure out why or how the revered Indian partisans seem to have lost much of the halo, and most of their celebrated wit today. In Pakistan and Indonesia, they were crushed with brute force. But this wasn’t their story in India. Ziaul Hasan suggests their propensity for sectarianism as a big but not the only reason. The fractious partisans may have inspired the lines from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. “Are you the Judean Peoples’ Front?” Brian asks an anti-Roman comrade. No, he is reminded. “We are the Peoples’ Front of Judea … The only people we hate more than the Romans is the Judean Peoples’ Front.”
As India grapples with a mortal threat to its democracy, Ziaul Hasan’s writings call out to be heeded. “At the moment the Communist is faced with a painful choice between the Congress and the BJP,” he wrote in December 1989. “His party has told him to defeat the Congress. The only choice then is to vote for the BJP because in the situation of a straight fight the Congress could be defeated only be the victory of the BJP.” Zia warned that the party could “wither away bit by bit”. Luckily, it was a prophecy, not a curse. One hopes the comrades will be able to keep their wits about them, the best weapon they have, as they face the people soon again.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, January 10th, 2017