| A CPI rally in Calcutta, 1968
A Traveller and the Road By Mohit Sen, Rupa, Rs 395
Let all the cards be on the table. The author of this book of memoirs happens to be an affectionate, dear friend of the reviewer; the relationship extends to half a century. At the same time, the reviewer considers Mohit Sen’s political views altogether foolish, outrageously so. Therefore, this review has to be at two levels, but at both levels, it should not suffer from lack of either subjective objectivity or objective subjectivity.
The road Sen refers to actually ends in a cul de sac. A dream-filled adolescent, scion of a true-blue Brahmo aristocratic family, was trapped by accident into an ardour for socialism and communism. The early inspiration was provided by an elder brother and, subsequently, a professor of history in Presidency College, Calcutta. The young man received party membership, proceeded to Cambridge for doing a tripos, met Marxist ideologues there, and imagined himself to be a hard-boiled communist. The party sent him to China to gain first-hand experience of the praxis of a popular democratic revolution.
Sen lapped it all up, even the rigours of commune existence. Returning home, he decided to be a whole-time party functionary. Beginning with work for party journals and allied publications, he gradually drifted into other responsibilities: not much of activity amongst the masses, but helping leaders to draft documents and write books and speeches. Partly because of his happening to be in Delhi, he climbed to top leadership. Following the party split, he in time became a member of the Communist Party of India’s central executive committee, which gave him the entitlement to live in quarters set apart for the top brass in the party’s headquarters. It was nearly a painless transition from the life of a cadre to that of a leader.
Perhaps some sort of a warning bell had already sounded inside. The border skirmish with China occasioned a kink in what was, hitherto, a smooth process; Sen, the faithful communist ideologue, discovered Indian nationalism. It has been a tortuous journey since then. Communists, both in India and world-wide, he gradually convinced himself, had made several egregious mistakes because of their failure to understand the intensity of nationalist fervour in the human soul. He also came to appreciate the historically significant role played in the nation’s life and living by the Indian National Congress, more particularly by the dynasty which presided over it, the Nehru-Gandhis, in both the pre- and post-independence phases. Communists, to be effective and relevant, must reach out, Sen concluded, to the Congress. That has been Sen’s mission since the Sixties. The CPI put up with his foibles till the late Eighties. Then it turned him out. Sen set up his own outfit which, to be honest, has remained a paper orgnization. S.A. Dange was his kindred elder mate; with Dange’s death, he is ploughing a lonely furrow. His wretched former comrades would not heed his advice. So what, he would still carry on, steadfast, with the search for the Holy Grail.
Of the 20 chapters in the book, at least four are directly related to Sen’s proximity to the Nehru-Gandhis and identity with the latter’s cause — “Talking with Pundit Nehru” (Chapter 7), “Meetings with Indira Gandhi” (Chapter 14), “Indira Gandhi, Tirupati and Gujarat” (Chapter 15), and “Rajiv Gandhi’s Endeavour” (Chapter 16). Not that the other chapters do not talk ceaselessly of the dynasty and its earth-shaking contributions. Sen is starry-eyed for each and all of the Nehru-Gandhis. True, Sanjay Gandhi had his negative side; even so, Sen would not let us forget that it was Sanjay’s decisiveness at the time of the Emergency business in June 1975 that saved Indira Gandhi and India from the gravest peril: “The person who stood by her [Indira Gandhi] most firmly and called upon her to rise to the occasion on behalf of the nation was Sanjay Gandhi…he was an ardent nationalist, secularist and a firm believer in action. He also knew that his mother remaining in power was indispensable for India. His positive role at that crucial moment cannot be underestimated.”
Sen’s adulation for the Nehru-Gandhis does not exclude attention to Rajiv Gandhi’s widow either: “Any unprejudiced person who talked with her on a variety of subjects over the years would be convinced of her intelligence, rapid learning capacity, sincerity, deep attachment to the great family of which she is now taken to be the representative by vast millions and, above all, love for India, her country.” Sen surely could not be serious, someone might query. Unfortunately, he is, deadly so.
It is an interesting, albeit pathetic, transition. A person had strayed in his early youth, and ever since, he has been trying arduously to get back to his class roots. He has finally succeeded. Hang proletarian internationalism, Mohit Sen, the former communist, is now not only an old-style jingo of a nationalist, but he is a pucca believer in medieval feudalism as well.
Once your wind is warped, you are bound to stumble into novel perceptions. What a huge joke, E.M.S. Namboodiripad was, according to Sen, envious of Dange’s “brilliance”. Sen does not think much of P.N. Haksar, because he, Haksar, did not think much of Indira Gandhi. Narasimha Rao is Mohit’s chum and has to be protected; Rao’s Babri Masjid folly, Mohit insinuates, is on account of wrong advice tendered by a well-known journalist, a former communist. This is uncharacteristically unkind on Mohit’s part; this journalist, now dead, was very fond of him.
This book nonetheless deserves to be read, and with great care, for dynasty-induced aberrations apart, Sen is nature’s gentleman and has a persona full of affection and integrity. The political ramblings are only one segment of the narration. A Traveller and the Road is the chronicle of a great love affair, which lifts the book from ordinariness. Sen recounts in simple yet evocative language his first meeting with Vanaja lyenger, their courtship, marriage and then the sojourn together for 45 wondrous years. It is a beautiful story and restores as well as strengthens one’s faith in human bonds. Mohit and Vanaja lived for and sustained each other. Vanaja provided silent support to Mohit’s quixotic wanderings, Mohit reciprocated with the deepest love. He is proud of his wife and her achievements; he has every right to be. The chapter, “Vanaja Dies”, is a moving account, bordering on poetry, of the splendour of the departure of a radiant woman intensely in love with life.
Even otherwise, when Mohit writes about his family and his early days in Calcutta, about his friends, about the good ordinary men and women in his Hyderabad neighbourhood, his sentences are invested with a special sparkle. He is equally felicitous when describing his life at Cambridge or the camaraderie he shared with party colleagues at Ajay Bhavan.
Mohit Sen’s politics is at best forgettable; nevertheless these memoirs often reveal nuggets of sublime beauty.