Review Article

Ashok Mitra’s ‘Calcutta Diary’

Anirban Biswas

In the mid sixties, seventies and also the eighties of the last century, Ashok Mitra regularly wrote pieces under the title Calcutta Diary, for NOW, Frontier and Economic and Political Weekly under the initials AM. Forty six of these pieces, all written before the imposition of the internal emergency in June, 1975, were collected together and published in book form, first in England in 1977 and then in India in 1979. It is pleasing to have a *reprint of the Indian edition. This reviewer remembers reading, during his student days, some of these pieces, although in a very imperfect manner. He however could not or did not study the pieces after their first publication in book form. To be able to go through these forty six pieces after so many years is a refreshing experience indeed.

It is difficult to comment on all these pieces within the short space of a book review. A few may be selected at random for discussion. It may be worthwhile to take up first the piece Fascism Shall Not Pass (Piece No 10), in which the episode of Pradip Roy Chowdhury and his brother Prabir Roy Chowdhury, both victims of cruel state violence, is described. This reviewer knew Prabir, who was one year's junior to him at the Presidency College and a co-participant in the then surging left students' movement. He can still remember the face of Prabir, young, unassuming yet bright, passionate but jolly. A few lines may be quoted from the piece, written shortly after Prabir's killing in jail, "For Sadananda Roy Chowdhury and his wife, the ordeal is over, they will not have to worry about their children any more, both their sons are dead, having been most efficiently disposed of by the patriotic, high-minded government. The Lord giveth, and the government of the land taketh away, in a most sensible division of responsibilities. If you have children, children around whom you weave your dreams, children who are the cynosure of your eye, children who are polite and brilliant and sensitive, just leave them in the safe custody of your law-abiding, law-enforcing, anti-fascist government, you will not see them any more, peace will descend on earth". (P-70) This is a telling indictment of the modus operandi of the tyrannical Indira-Siddhrtha regime in West Bengal. The same indictment is found in the piece, Kamal Bose's Emancipation (No 9), written in 1974. In those days, it was one of the strategies of the police to pile up false cases on political suspects. When such a person received bail from the court, he was immediately rearrested on another trumped up charge. Kamal Bose was one such fellow, and then a humble social service worker at the Chittaranjan Cancer Hospital, arrested and rearrested and rearrested, kept in detention for as long as sixteen months until a High Court directive went in his favour. Ashok Mitra's conclusions are perceptive enough, "Those wanting to stay out of prison in this country should beware. Liberty is not your birthright, nor your constitutional right, it is what your government and the police might occasionally like to bestow upon you". (P 63)The piece "All That Lives Must Die" is a sharp exposure of extra-judicial cold-blooded killings by the police and the brazen hypocrisy of the central government in trying to provide justification for these killings, " Tycoons may conceal income and evade tax and cock a snook at the Government machinery; no special measures will be recommended to bring them to book—they do not destroy a system from within, they will not be shot. Cheats, cut-throats, profiteers, speculators, embezzlers and worse rascals, none threaten the system from within: the rack-renter does not, the land grabber does not, the stealer of public funds does not. For each crook or ragamuffin, there is the due protection of the law, the due process of the law; thievery and nepotism and robbing the poor do not harm the system, they do not destroy the house which the authorities are jealously mounting the guard over, these are, almost, honourable professions". (P 46) In another piece (Suffer Us Not to Mock Ourselves), the tragic case of Prabir Datta, who was killed by the police in Curzon Park, Kolkata in 1974, and the patently absurd explanations given by the police and their all-out effort to suppress the actual fact are exposed threadbare. Any humane person, who will read these pieces, if he/she has not alredy read them, must feel shocked and angry at the same time. En passant, it may be mentioned that these tyrannical police officers and their supreme commander in West Bengal, Mr Siddhartha Shankar Ray, were not punished by the Left Front Government that succeeded the Indira-Siddhartha regime in this state. The Left Front Government kept its promise of releasing political prisoners, but did not evince much interest in bringing these policemen and Siddhrtha Ray to book. This reviewer does not know what Ashok Mitra felt, and still feels, about this 'soft' attitude on the part of Jyoti Basu and his cabinet towards Siddhartha Ray and his criminal lieutenants masquerading as custodians of 'law and order'.

Another particularly interesting piece is the obituary on Dr Amal Sen (the elder brother of Samar Sen), the philanthropic homeopath, who died at the relatively early age of 60 in 1974. The piece is instructive and particularly relevant in a period in which the craze for money is the dominant passion in the overwhelming majority of physicians. The piece ends with the sharp observation "It is the ordinary men who shape the modalities of history, despite the fact that the scrolls do not mention them........ Amal Sen, an ordinary man, nevertheless a great man. His greatness will enrich history, even though history will be barely aware of it". (P 132)

Amal Sen was not a celebrity, but Buddhadeva Bose was. Yet it is refreshing to see what Ashok Mitra wrote on him after his death. Bose was a versatile literary figure known for his profound scholarship as well. But Bose, as the author says, had to struggle for money and to produce pot-boilers so as to save some amount that would enable him to venture with an undisturbed mind on the project of completing the second part of the tract on the Mahabharata. But he died before the money was in. Although Bose was exercised over the tribulations of Pasternak or Solzhenutsyn, he did not understand the unfreedom that the creative writers of this country suffered from. "While he got excited over the abstract concept of freedom, he went on missing the relevant clue: freedom is not an independent variable, it is a function of the distribution of wealth....This was so with Buddhadeva Bose, and will be so with other writers: because, irrespective of the label you by which you describe your milieu, till as long as it does not ensure your food and clothing, there can be no free writing on your part." (P-158) This is an apt observation.

Two particularly touching pieces are The Song of Mother Courage and The Story of lndra Lohar. In the former is described the gradual descent into pauperization of an aristocratic family, a victim of partition. The Dame of the family, however, retains her values amidst all these tribulations. "Talk with Mother Courage, she has perhaps one or two surprises up her sleeve for you.... Her grandchildren, she argues, should have developed the courage to de-class themselves all the way and earn an honest living from manual work. Instead, they have chosen the life of wagon-breakers and knife-wielders". (PP 35-36) Thus one has a glimpse of the dual aspects of poverty. Poverty ennobles and de-classes, and on the other hand, it lumpenises also. This lumpenisation is by no means rare. But what is rare is the strength of mind of Mother Courage. In the story of Indra Lohar, the victimization of a poor bargadar by the landlord, in collusion with the local Munsiff during the days of the Indira Raj in West Bengal is outlined. The piece on Maulana Bhasani (A Certain Charm in the Old Rascal), the legendary leftist leader of Eastern Bengal who all through his life, practised a curious combination of leftism and Islamism, is at the same time amusing and delightful.

It is true that many pieces are of historical interest only. Yet in order to know the present, not only of India, but of other countries, some knowledge of history, particularly of recent history, is necessary. Studying Ashok Mitra's book does not require any scholarly interest, but it provides the reader with some knowledge into the reality of Bengal, India, South East Asia and Latin America in the 1970s. It also helps understand the distortions brought into the economies of Asia and Latin America by the imperialist war machine.

Finally, the style of writing is always a source of delight.

*Calcutta Diary
by Ashok Mitra
Revised Edition published by Paranjay Guhathakurta, Kolkata, Second Impression 2015, Pages 304, Price Rs 395

Vol. 48, No. 39, Apr 3 - 9, 2016