A Curious Coincidence

Frontier, Samar Sen, Manu Kothari

Sthabir Dasgupta

Frontier started its journey with Samar Sen as its founder-editor, in April, 1968; but this essay is not a customary remembrance of that event. Samar Sen was already well known in our intellectual world. This essay however, is to draw the readers' attention to a mutually unrelated, but a very curious coincidence.

If we recall, the year 1968 was witness to a number of historical events, social and political, having far-reaching consequences across the globe. In the very beginning of that year North Vietnam launched the 'Tet Offensive' against South Vietnam and the United States. It has been regarded as the onset of the end of American involvement in Vietnam war. In the same month, i. e. in January, North Korea captured the American surveillance ship and refused to free the crewmen, until the United States acknowledged that it was a spying ship and promised not to spy in the future. The year 1968 was indeed a year of nightmare for the US.

May 1968 saw a volatile period of civil unrest in France, with massive students' uprising, occupation of the venerable Sorbonne university in Paris by the students and general strikes by the workers in the factories. Luminaries like Derrida and Foucault got themselves involved 'heart and soul' in these unique, spontaneous protests which were not only against American imperialism, but also against capitalism and consumerism. For some time, it is said that 'poetry ruled the streets' with slogans like 'The Revolution must take place in men before occurring in things'. So, it was considered as a social, moral and cultural turning point in the history of France. This brief but explosive period instilled jitters in the hearts of the ruling power.

In April itself of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, following which, despite an appeal to a crowd by the Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy to remain calm, riots broke out in more than 100 cities across the US. Mr Kennedy himself was assassinated shortly after. The Summer Olympics in Mexico City saw a silent demonstration by two black athletes against racial discrimination in the US. In East Germany, a constitutional referendum approved the new socialist constitution. In Czechoslovakia similarly, a 'new model of socialism', rejecting Stalinism but remaining committed to communism as a goal, was adopted by a coalition headed by Dubcek.

While Enoch Powel was delivering his 'Rivers of Blood' speech at a British Conservative Party meeting, the student protesters were occupying five buildings of the Columbia University as a part of demonstration against Vietnam War. On the other fronts, while three human beings pioneered to travel to the moon and circling it ten times by Apollo 8, the USSR were performing Nuclear tests. The Beatles, it is interesting to note, announced at this time only their disillusionment with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his 'transcendental meditation', in India. Again, it was the year 1968 that saw the rise of urban Naxalite movements that swept across many cities, Calcutta serving as the epitome.

To quote from A Tale of Two Cities therefore, 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…'. Frontier was born in such a noisiest and complex, seismic time.

This happened in the throbbing city of Calcutta, in the eastern part of this country. As a curious coincidence however, in the western part, the then Bombay, Dr Manu Kothari, an unconventional medical researcher and teacher in the KEM Medical College published his first article on cancer, named Genesis of Cancer, in a famous medical journal, in April, 1968. In this pioneering essay he had explained cancer as a biological phenomenon, an intrinsic, time-governed and universal, senescent process. It was against the prevailing concept that cancer should be dealt with like an enemy, an alien to a human body. Although quite unrelated in form and content, these two incidents were very curiously related in spirit.

It is clear that both Samar Sen and Manu Kothari were thinking outside the square. Samar Sen, on his part remained highly creative with his enlightening editorial works, even in the world of mischievous media around. His brilliant defence of the Left revolutionaries during state repression and outrage are unforgettable. However, there was an intellectual gap between his ideological stand and the praxis of the Indian Marxists. So, the debates and discussions that he had encouraged were misconceived by many. Today, in a period of exponentially escalating resources in the field of journalism with robust output, it seems that he was sailing in an uncharted sea, alone in a constrained intellectual environment.

Intellectual environment was constrained in the field of medical research also. The kind of researches Dr Manu Kothari indulged in were most unpopular in those days, because it questioned the very reductionist premises of the dominant opinion. The dominant researchers were rather inclined to find a popularly appealing, linear equation in a complex phenomenon of cancer. Manu stood alone in such an intellectually blunt environment around. He was aware that he was putting himself against the multibillion dollar strong 'cancer industry'. So, it was only natural that the authorities chose just to ignore him.

In both the cases of Samar Sen and Manu Kothari, it is clear today that the dogmatists failed to shake off the ludicrous mental strait-jackets they tend to wear.

Samar Sen, at the age of 19 only, came to be known as a poet of a distinctly different genre, breaking away from the gigantic influence of the 'lyrical romanticism' of Rabindranath Tagore. Manu, it may be noted that at the age of 20 only, still as a mere medical student could grab the attention of Hamilton Bailey, one of the most influential authors of surgical textbooks in the 20th century. He had the confidence to write to Mr Bailey, offering a more humane approach in elicitation of an important physical sign in a patient in distress. His alternative suggestion was later gracefully acknowledged by the Hamilton Bailey.

Frontier never enjoyed a popular base; it was in fact, popular amongst some activists, intellectuals and academicians only. As such it has endured economic constraints since its inception. It is known that after having left Now, when Samar Sen made up his mind to start afresh with a new weekly, he thought he would easily collect Rs 60, 000 from amongst his friends and well-wishers. But in reality, not more than Rs 9000 was collected. Still, he did not abandon his new venture. That only proves that he lacked funds, but not direction. His editorials displayed anger sometimes, bitterness often, but always with a blend of vision.

Manu also had a visionary approach to his research in cancer and later on coronaries. However, his research activities also required funds which were conspicuous by their absence. He had expressed this in a humourous manner: 'Neither we killed a fly / Nor broke a test tube / Nor sought a farthing / Nor needed to confer'. He used to say on the contrary that modern cancerology is based not so much on science of biology as it is on 'fundology'. Since power and statistics rule supreme today, we fail to 're-search' and refuse to revise our cherished conclusions. Thus, today's researcher gets known by the funds he begets, he said.

Both Samar Sen and Manu were known for their humour and wits which were indeed scornful, sometimes. When Charu Majumdar professed that the Red Army would march along the vast areas of India, Samar Sen simply remarked in Frontier, 'if faith could move mountains'! As remembered by Gouri Chatterjee, Khrushchev once insisted that the academics and artists must engage themselves in some manual labour, for that would improve the quality of their intellectual work. Samar Sen wrote in response, 'In the Calcutta school I went to, polytechnical training was compulsory and for four years I laboured at carpentry, weaving and dyeing. The result has been most fortunate. I can sharpen my pencil with a blunt knife, thanks to my knowledge and practice of carpentry'.

Manu's well-known humour was that in modern cancerology we are asking a blind man to go into a dark room to find a black hat which is not there! He mockingly drew our attention to 'street-light effect'that goes like this: A drunk man was searching for a lost key under a streetlight. A policeman helped him, but in vain. When the policeman asked, where did he lose the key actually, he said he lost it in the park. The policeman asked, then why he was searching here, and the drunk replied, 'because light was here only'! Such is our 'basic binary blindness'; we are so biased with the nuclear DNA that we forget the 'nebulous cytoplasm' where the cell's genius and the mystery of cancer lie in.

In 1996, during the celebration of the 50th year of the KEM Hospital, the Dean asked him to hold a conference on an unusual topic of cancer. To this Manu had suggested to hold the most unusual and first ever conference on 'Medical Ignorance'! Needless to say, he was simply laughed away with the plea that no sponsors would invest money. It is distressing to note that though Manu was frowned at for his somewhat awkward suggestion, Oxford had already published an Encyclopaedia of Medical Ignorance way back in 1984! What Manu believed in was that medical institutions should have a Department of Ignorance, where students would be taught how to unlearn, question the textbooks and then relearn.

So, was he a dissident, one may ask. Yes, possibly; but dissidence in biological and medical research are not unknown. Suppression of the voice of dissidence by the dominant opinionis also known. However, Manu believed that barking up the wrong tree cannot continue for ever, for the shelf-life of a dominant opinion is finite. So, truth must manifest itself in time, even if it takes decades. Samar Sen also, in many ways was a dissident. It is true that he was not alone in this regard; but his fearless and relentless effort to uphold the truth in the face of many setbacks and somersaulting world made him unique.

Samar Sen was a pure Marxist or maybe, an 'Anarcho-Marxist' according to some. Manu on the other hand, was a devout liberal with a deep admiration of Marx, Mao, Nietzsche and even Vedanta. Both however, hailed a democracy of intellect. Samar Sen made his mark as a dreamer, a poet much before Frontier came into being. Manu made his mark as a teacher who taught anatomy in the language of Shakespeare, without citing a single reference to the textbooks in his class-room lectures! Samar Sen never shied away from raising relevant questions even in the face of Naxalites' criticism. Manu also, even in the face of bitter disregard never stopped saying that 'the emperor has no clothes'!

There was a time when Samar Sen was accused by the then ruling party in West Bengal of being a Naxalite, while the Naxalites on their part labelled him a stooge of the ruling class! A ridiculous time, indeed! However, 'Time is the best teacher', as they say, but fortunately, it did not kill all of his students! After having passed through much troubles and tribulations, reality set in, eventually. The Left radicals realised that despite their huge sacrifices a clear understanding of the nature of our society remained elusive, and that they should start rethinking. It appears that alternative thinking is now trying to find out its own language of expression. The intellectual legacy of Frontier continues.

In cancer studies as well, after an exhaustive and failed 'American war on cancer', we started rethinking, saying that we must carry on more digging for science. So, the newer generation of researchers started finding out that most of the premises held and ideas propagated for so long, by so many people are basically untenable. Many a scientist are now making it clear that the slogans like 'lifestyles' cause cancer and gene 'mutation' causes cancer are simply untruth. They are theoretically proving that mutation does not beget cancer; it is just the other way around. It is now becoming clear that an ethically bankrupt institution of medicine is only responsible for creating cancer phobia in the people.

Indeed, medical ethics has undergone such a metamorphosis that medicine is now designed more to serve the shareholders than the patient, both nationally and globally. Manu realised very early that something has gone so colossally awry that while we celebrate the productivity of science applied to industry we tend to forget about the evil inherent in the technological momentum. Good sense however, has just started to prevail and cancer activists are now coming to realise, albeit slowly that the days of blame-game around cancer and bewildering array of its draconian treatment along with vicious side-effects are destined to be over.

So, 50 years after the inception of Frontier, in this era of boisterous boors dubbing each and every dissenter as 'anti-national', Samar Sen and his frontier must be remembered as defenders of values and principles. And in the same vein, if allowed, we must remember Dr Manu Kothari as a teacher who never preached, remaining critical though, sometimes cynical but never bitter. Far removed from the sparkling powerhouses, both were radical but not shrill, unconventional but not idiosyncratic. Bitter denunciation and scathing criticism notwithstanding, it appears now that both were always trying to read the writings on the wall.

As an example, there was an interesting reading in the very first issue of the Frontier. There was a communal tension in Calcutta at that time to which the then political leaders refused to give attention saying that those were mere sporadic. In an article named 'Politics of Incidents', Frontier made an oblique remark saying that human life was so devaluated at the hands of the politicians 'that Authority need not stir before a tragedy has assumed certain dimensions. That even a single so-called sporadic, isolated communal clash is a rebuttal of all secular professions is not realised by either the administration or the political parties'.

It said that 'Communal riots will not stop until the political parties cease trying to make political capital out of them.… the threat to communal peace comes not so much from parties like the Jana Sangh as from those whose secularism cannot resist the temptation of occasional adventures in communal politics to secure a few votes for themselves and make their rivals lose some. Today it seems that he could foresee the dismal future and warned us long before. It is clear today that 'his prudence fell on sterile hearts'.

Manu on his part, was the first in this country to pronounce in unambiguous terms that cancer is a part of spontaneous evolutionary process needing no 'carcinogen' to operate. He pronounced that cancer cell as a variant of normal, dividing cell, arising from the normal cell itself, with a different behaviour pattern cannot be handled with a military metaphor like 'war'. Instead, there must be more humane, more logical ways to deal with cancer. However, those will be evolved only after we come out of the paranoia that disease is necessarily a conquerable enemy and death is an avoidable nuisance. A new paradigm will evolve only after it is ensured that medical practice is no more a commercial enterprise, Manu envisioned.

Both were the sum of varied talents, an inspiration and yet with simplest lifestyle. Samar Sen was lean in physique, loan with a pair of intense and piercing eyes behind his glasses, talking less and listening more. Manu on the other hand, loved to talk and hardly he was alone! He also had a pair of intense eyes but with disarming smile behind his glasses. While Samar Sen fell victim of his failing health, Manu was full of life even hours before his demise. Samar Sen's first book of poems, 'Koyekti Kobita' was dedicated to Muzaffar Ahmed, one of the founders of the Communist Party of India. Manu's first magnum opus, The Nature of Cancer was first celebrated by Ivan Illich, the father-figure of Medical Humanism.

50 years on, vast and rapid changes occurred meanwhile around the globe. We believe, many coincidences took place during this time, and we also believe that they were not just something unlikely to happen. The problem however, is that sometimes we fail to find a common thread between the coincidences. This is why the birth of Frontier and that of Manu's article on the genesis of cancer are curious coincidences. We suppose, in a larger perspective, these are the products of a pregnant time and seismic waves of the year 1968. 'The world is a fine place and worth fighting for…', said Ernest Hemingway. Let us agree with its second part, in the context of the rebellion of 1968.

An Illness Called Medical Science. Kothari M, Mehta L, Kothari VM. In: Kumar C, Editor. Asking We Walk: The South as New Political Imaginary. Bangalore: Streelekha Publications: 2007. Pp. 99-116.
Genesis of Cancer (A Temporal Approach). Dr Manu L Kothari. J Postgraduate Med. Vol. XVI, No. 2, April, 1968.
*  Politics of Incidents. Frontier, Vol. 1, No. 1, April 14, 1968.
*  Remembering Samar Sen: Frontier editor's dignity, courage a beacon in today's times. Gouri Chatterjee. First Post, Jan 01, 2017.
*  Samar Sen: Centenary. Letters. Arup Kumar Sen. EPW. November 19, 2016. Vol L1, no 47.
*  The Cytoplasmic Basis of Cellular Differentiation—Redressing the injustice done to the Cytoplasm. Kothari ML, Mehta LA. J Postgraduate Med, Vol 30, Issue 4, p 199-206, 1984.
*  The Other Face of Cancer. Manu Kothari &Lopa Mehta. Other India Press, 1994.

* When Poetry Ruled the Streets -The May Events of 1968. Andrew Feenberg and Jim Freedman. State University of New York Press. 2001.


Autumn Number 2018
Vol. 51, No.14 - 17, Oct 7 - Nov 3, 2018