A Tribute

Rana Bose
(October 1950-May 2023)


Rana Bose, who described himself as a “playwright, novelist, author, poet, writer and professional engineer” and was also a progressive, an activist, a Calcuttan of long-standing, a Montrealer of long-standing, a longtime contributor and supporter of Frontier, passed away on 10 May 2023 in Montreal.

He had been in remission for four years from a rare form of leukemia. Early this year the cancer returned, but Rana neither yielded, nor stopped striving. He (and Lisa) visited his beloved Kolkata in January this year and returned to Montreal via Italy (the other place he had grown to love).

Childhood and Upbringing
Born to Amiya Kumar Bose and Chameli Bose (née Dutta) on 17 October 1950 in Calcutta, Rana had a relatively unusual upbringing informed by anti-colonial activism and progressive politics. He grew up hearing how as a teenager, his father toured villages with his younger sisters, giving magic lantern shows about James Connolly, Sinn Fein and the Easter Rising of 1916. And of how great aunts courted arrest, demonstrating against colonial rule.

Amiya Bose, a village boy, became an eminent cardiologist who taught generations of medical students in Calcutta, was a sympathiser of progressive causes and supporter of individuals associated with them. Dr Bose was instrumental in setting up Peoples’ Relief Committee, Students’ Health Home, helped in founding Patha Bhawan School and Islamia Hospital and was a founding committee member of the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR). Chameli Bose, a trailblaser in her own right, was the first woman to graduate from University College, London with a Bachelor’s Degree in Statistics and Mathematics. She worked for the Indian Statistical Institute and then went on to head the Bureau of Applied Economics, West Bengal with a staff of 1600. As a consequence of her life and career, it was normative in the Bose household for a woman to work outside the home.

Politics, local and global, were ever-present in the household. Reading material abounded. Visitors, many of whose names now appear in books or in the annals of movements for change–against apartheid, for revolution, cultural movements–came and went. It was a fertile environment for curious and intelligent young Rana.Right up until his teenage years, the family lived on Elliot Road, in a neighbourhood which had a diverse population of Muslims, Christians and Hindus and was also where many of the city’s Anglo-Indians lived. Growing up in a household and city rich in the culture of progressive politics and what can be called ‘multiculturalism’ (in its purest meaning, sans more recent pejorative connotations), Rana said, from the very beginning, in his environment, bourgeois legitimacy “was declared questionable, correctness was fallible, badness was good.”

Rana’s father was a huge influence on him, though they had their political disagreements. A cherished photo of Rana’s was of his father at Rosa Luxemburg’s grave in Berlin. Rana observed, “My father nurtured me to think rationally, be empathetic and behave in a dignified manner”, hastening to add with characteristic mischievousness, “this last attribute had limited impact on me”.

Rana attended kindergarten in Loreto House and then went to St. Xavier’s, from where he entered Jadavpur University to study engineering. His home environment was bolstered by a Jesuit ethos, and school teachers, many Anglo-Indian, contributed to his developing and critical perspective, even though there may have been at time some inherent contradictions. (Decades later in the late ‘80s, Fr. Bouché of St. Xavier’s remembering Rana said, with a twinkle in his eye, “He was one of our naughty boys!”)In late adolescence, the burgeoning western pop music scene in Calcutta drew him in and he along with friends formed a band that played in upscale venues in the city. Throughout his life Rana had a deep appreciation of music, with eclectic tastes that included Western pop, jazz, experimental, rap, hip hop, reggae and the confluence of beat poetry and music. He also had a love for political music coming out of the anti-fascist movements in Europe and Latin America and for the revolutionary songs of India.

The broader political context was also formative for Rana. As he wrote: “The 1959 Food Movement against the famines had left an indelible impression in my mind about how the Communists (CPI) had organised against it and how the Congress Government of Bidhan Roy, Nehru and Atulya Ghosh had imprisoned thousands of people and killed around one hundred people on the streets of Calcutta and in nearby towns.”Rana was also very familiar with the history of peasant movements in Bengal and elsewhere.

Non-alignment was palpable. His father had been part of the India-China Friendship Association, set up in Calcutta in 1951 by Prof Satyen Bose and Rana grew up hearing about the attempted assassination of Chinese premier Zhou Enlai when the Kashmir Princess, the Air India plane, that had been sent by Nehru to take the Chinese premier to the Afro-Asian Bandung conference in 1955 was blown up in mid-air. Sixteen died, including cabin attendant Gloria Berry. Zhou was alive. He had not boarded the plane due to an emergency appendectomy.

All the above notwithstanding, perhaps the most formative personal and political influence in Rana’s young life was the Naxalbari movement. In 1967 the Naxalbari uprising began and Rana, along with thousands of youth from all sections of society, disenchanted with the unfulfilled promises of freedom after British rule and also critical of the organised left, was attracted to what seemed to them, the promise of real change. Rana described how he came into the movement because “in my household, certain movements and historical events and certain critical books stared at me.” He observed how his “father’s friends included some staunch anti-Stalinists from the time of the end of the Second World War. Some admired Tito more than Stalin, some were Trotskyists and others, who felt things, had gone wrong in 1917 itself. They had read ‘Lenin’s Testament’ long before. They simply chose to detach themselves from the communist movement. They met every Sunday morning at my parent’s house, played cards, had breakfast together and quietly read and discussed books from the past.” Having been immersed in histories of revolutions and revolutionary movements, he was also a realist and pragmatist, which made him “quite wary about the jubilant belief systems and insurrectionary enthusiasm that was being promoted”.

Rana left home and went underground much to the consternation of his parents, despite their progressive leanings and beliefs. Many details of his life at that time are unknown. Perhaps people will never know them all. However, what is known is that he emerged as an iconic leader, who inspired many of his youthful contemporaries to join the movement, and they in turn inspired many more. The state, as was its wont, came down with full force against them, unleashing unimaginable repression. Thousands were killed in so-called ‘encounters’. Many were arrested and subjected to horrible tortures. Those who survived were imprisoned for years.

In 1970, Rana was arrested and charged with the murder of Gopal Sen, Vice-Chancellor of Jadavpur University. He was tortured in police lock-up and interrogated. The police officer who interrogated him told him that it had come down from the highest political person in the land–they must produce a head on a plate in retaliation for Gopal Sen. With his charisma and ability to inspire others, his fame and popularity, and hailing from a prominent family, charging him for this would demonstrate the determination of the state to smash the movement. That Rana was nowhere near the scene --he was undergoing a chest x-ray (he suffered from acute asthma) at the time of the murder --was immaterial. A perpetrator was needed and he fit the bill nicely. Eventually however, the authorities were unable to make their case and Rana was released.

Feeling an affinity with the objectives of some of those seeking liberation for Bangladesh, Rana and some other youth crossed into East Pakistan for a while. Meanwhile back in India, though the state was unable to make a case against him, it was considered unadvisable for Rana to remain in India and shortly after, he left for the USA where he enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis.

Rana’s departure from India however did not mean a rupture in his links with either the city where he was born and grew up in, or the politics he grew into. Relationships with comrades remained a lifelong affair. He and other comrades helped where they could both financially and emotionally. He was also closely associated with two magazines and journals of critical enquiry that came into being as a direct result of the Naxalbari movement–the now defunct ‘Now’ and ‘Frontier’. It was these relationships and this commitment which meant that Kolkata has always been home, even though he has not lived in the city for more than 50 years.

St Louis, Montreal and Beyond
Rana completed a degree in Chemical Engineering and then started a Master’s in Economics. Among other things, he worked on the student paper and wrote the editorial when Saigon fell in 1975. He also participated in the local poetry and music scene. Then, unable to return to India because the Emergency was in force and it would have been unsafe for him to do so, Rana found refuge in Montreal. He got a position as a lab technician with Dr Daya Varma of McGill University’s Pharmacology Department in the Faculty of Medicine. Daya would become a lifelong mentor.

In June 1975, the Indian People’s Association in North America (IPANA) was founded, coincidentally on the same day that the Emergency was declared in India. IPANA had chapters across Canada and the USA that worked in collaboration and solidarity with other groups of expatriates from different countries, who were also concerned with what was happening in their countries of origin at the time–Iran, Haiti, etc. In Montreal, some of them had been in the city for a while, including during the so-called Sir George Williams University affair, when black students’ complaints about racism by a white professor fell on deaf ears and the students and their supporters protested. In Montreal, currents of internationalism and solidarity abounded. Quebec nationalism was palpable, as well as movements that challenged narrow-based nationalist platforms and were more in tune with some of the ideals, like those in India for change from the roots up.

IPANA chapters in the US were comprised mainly of Indian students studying in universities there. In Canada, they were largely immigrant-based. During the Emergency, IPANA was one of the most well-known organisations outside India, raising awareness of what was happening there, demanding the release of political prisoners, to the point where the Indian government impounded the passports of some of the more well-known members. During the clampdown of the Emergency, APDR was outlawed. Rana’s father and others of the group were interrogated at Special Branch [police intelligence services] and the civil liberties report they were publishing about the “‘orgy of slaughter and brutal repression’ unleashed by the Indian state on political activists, in the background of the Naxalbari uprising”, was confiscated in a police raid on the press. Eventually a copy of the text,Bharatiya Ganatantrer Swarup was smuggled out of India by Ranajit Guha, got translated into English by IPANA members and The Real Face of India’s Democracy was published by IPANA Montreal.

Over the years, especially in Canada, IPANA also got involved in local struggles and solidarity movements against racism, for farm workers’ rights, immigrant rights and so on. When Rana came to Montreal, he got involved with IPANA right away. His background, his wide readings–Che, Fanon, Cabral, George Jackson and his knowledge of history informed his work and perspectives. IPANA published New India Bulletin from Montreal and India Now from New York. In Montreal, Rana along with others was involved in writing, typing, lay-out-design, printing and distribution. There was also a lot of community outreach. Study groups met to discuss issues. Cultural events were also organised locally, as well as with visiting activists such as Gail Omvedt and Gursharan Singh’s Amritsar Natak Kala Kendra. IPANA continued to exist even after the Emergency. Debates that had been on-going about the semi-feudal, semi-colonial, semi-capitalist nature of India and about Mao’s Three World Theory continued, inconclusively. The end of the Emergency as well as theoretical disagreements contributed to IPANA eventually disbanding.

However, emerging from these times in Montreal were organisations that continue to live and prosper, and Rana was involved in all three, either directly or with his support, right up until his death –Teesri Duniya Theatre, Montreal Serai magazine (for a time also a theatre group) and the South Asian Women’s Community Centre. Elsewhere, IPANA activists also played key roles, as with the formation of the Canadian Farm workers’ Union.

After leaving McGill, Rana made his way into industry in Montreal, eventually becoming an Executive Vice President Engineering, Research and Development, Quality Assurance and Total Process Improvements in one of the world’s largest valve manufacturing companies. However, he also continued with his cultural activities, writing, directing and producing plays, writing short stories, poems and novels and he became well-known in the Montreal literary scene.

Rana had always subscribed to “freedom 55” and when he reached that age he ‘retired’ but moved into consulting, which also afforded him opportunities to travel. Among the many places he loved to visit was Italy, even recently on his very last overseas trip. He marveled at the polymath abilities of Leonardo–calculations, design, engineering, and problem-solving. In recent months he ranted against Francis Bacon, not because of his theories and methods, but because they are intrinsically linked to modernity, became a litmus test for ‘civilisation’ and the harbinger of the colonialism and imperialism of the last five hundred years; of Western triumphalism; nomenclature became important–‘West Asia’ and not ‘Middle East’ for example.

Rana also felt the need to take care of older comrades who were unwell, or who didn’t have close family. Even doing this when he himself was very ill. For example, his relationship with Paresh Chattopa-dhyay in his (Paresh’s) later years. Paresh, a noted scholar of Marx and a progressive activist in his youth died in Montreal this year at the age of 96. Recognising the importance of progressive legacies, Rana with Paresh’s concurrence and financial contribution was instrumental in setting up Paresh Chattopadhyay Political Economy Scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students at Concordia University. And earlier, he assisted Sam Noumoff who passed away in 2014, and his wife Francesca who pre-deceased him by a few weeks. Sam a very influential and iconic professor taught Political Science at McGill University for many years, introducing generations of students to Marxist political theory and a radical perspective on the politics of East Asia.

Friends, comrades and associates from different periods of Rana’s life and through different types of interactions, professional and personal, would know him for certain things and describe him in specific ways. There are many people around the world who have been touched by Rana. Since his passing they have been connecting, saying how important association with him at a particular point in their lives was.

Rana who was widely read and thought deeply, could also be opinionated and at times cutting. He was stubborn and could be very exasperating, but equally was very giving and generous to a fault. He stood by family and friends, irrespective of his own view on matters at hand; and was capacious and warm.

Those who knew him right through, acknowledge that he changed, and he was the first to recognise this. This evolution is evident with a careful reading of his writings, his plays and novels and his relationships, personal and political. While there are common threads and not complete disjunctions, Rana’s perspectives and understanding became more catholic. He came to value Tagore. He became emotional listening to ‘Sankochero Biwhalata’. In a seeming paradox, even as he became more impatient with hegemonic political status quos, he also became more patient, understanding and appreciative of people and situations that earlier he might not have. One could say that always sharp and clear, Rana mellowed, even as he maintained his acerbic wit and did not compromise on principles. At the end of 2022 he wrote to friends: “This is my message for the end of the year, nothing is happy, nothing!”Among the many causes that were dear to him was justice for Palestinians and in this end-of-year message he said he’d stopped circulating news from Palestine because of the brutality of the Israeli Defence Forces.

Rana was very familiar with the ideas and theories of many who worked for and wrote about political change. While he was attentive to European theorists, he set great store on the ideas and examples demonstrated by Third Worlders or black liberationists such as Walter Rodney, Thomas Sankara, Maurice Bishop, Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara, Fred Hampton and Steve Biko.

Over the years India remained a lodestar and he stayed in touch with events, with splits and continuities, in agreement with some of the directions, disagreeing with others. In these recent days, with the outright denuding of any semblance of democracy in India and many other parts of the world, Rana was a staunch advocate and supporter of coalition-building. In this last year, despite his health issues he participated in diasporic coalitions and even from his hospital bed kept up lively correspondence and conversations. The days he went silent one knew things were very difficult. One waited for the next missive to arrive in your Inbox; a sign that perhaps he wasn’t feeling too unwell. Such as the following: “We have looked for class-based exploitation in all struggles we have participated in. But class has changed and while words have been created to outline the intersections etc., in the end class is not enough. When tribal people clash with workers we are lost; when ethnicities clash for racist reasons, we don’t know what to do; when riots/ wars are started for non-economic reasons, like geopolitical trickle down or incipient white privilege notions, we are overtaken by liberal democracy. My point is that coalitions maybe more important than class confrontation. It has happened before, but education is crucial.” In terms of the world situation he said: “There must be multi-polarity first and the World Majority must determine which system must dominate. And the World Majority is Asia, Africa and Latin America; Third World!!!!”

Rana’s last novel, Shaf and the Remington, which he worked on intensely when he was very ill, as he felt he was running out of time, is a grand work of historical breadth, the result of deep and wide reading of history and is in many ways a synthesis of all he learned and his worldview. Commentators note how he “masterfully incorporates history, politics, philosophy, and physics” and asks people “to question the essence and roots of war and ideology.” And how the book which is set “in the fictitious town of Sabzic in what is clearly Yugoslavia but never identified as such… is an allegory to the forces of human nature, which pit the petty desire to divide against the will to unite.”

Rana said, “[S]acrifice is necessary if change must happen, that a complete undermining of the mainstream consensus must happen. That you may not see what you are working for. You may long be gone before anything is achieved. That you cannot go about doing all the usual things in life and still expect to posture as a socialist of some sort.” This engagement with socialist praxis remained Rana’s anchor and perhaps is why these lines from Tennyson’s “Ullyses” resonated so much with him.

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Rana is survived by Lisa, Raka, Siraj, Durga, Bratin, Kim, Jesse, Jo, Coco, Fran, extended family and scores of activists and friends whom he inspired and was inspired by.

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Vol 55, No. 52, Jun 25 - Jul 1, 2023