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OBITUARY: RALPH RUSSELL (1918-2008)

Ralph Russell, who died on Sunday, September 14, 2008, aged 90 years, was certainly one of the more extraordinary and attractive of the English ideologues I was privileged to know.

Russell’s descriptions of his childhood in his autobiography are set in the upper working-class society of rural eastern England, a world almost as remote from us now as that described by Defoe and Pepys. This social group — with its special skills of craftsmanship and a love of music, almost uncorrupted either by the wireless or by commercial advertising — retained a formidable solidarity against propertied exploiters. Russell himself was born in a work-house, but because his parents were master and matron of it.

Through his total conversion to communist theory, which he never abandoned, his time as a student in Cambridge, his conscription and promotion to officer rank, and “his war” (in more than one sense) in India are linked in his own memory with almost total powers of recall.

As a scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge, Russell just scraped a degree as he was wholly enthralled by his role as a “volunteer” demonstrator of the communist party. Once again, his account is of value in grasping the political realities of the period and place. With one exception, none of the significant Cambridge communists and their fellow-travellers figure as Russell’s companions. There is no mention of Victor Kiernan, then a Junior Fellow of Trinity, whom Russell got to knew when they were both translators of Indo-Muslim poets. The local decisions of the Cambridge party were being taken elsewhere. The one exception was Arun Bose, from a well-known Calcutta family, “who with impressive secrecy from his rooms in Trinity (College) guided his fellow Indian communists.” Three years later, Russell spent his only period of leave as a British officer on the Imphal front in trying to contact Indian communist circles. In Bombay, he was warmly welcomed by Bose, and spent twelve days at his house, “sleeping on the floor with other student comrades and getting to know several of them well.”

Russell has a riveting narrative of his “war in India.” On the voyage out, Russell read the entire corpus of Marx and Engels (in a cheap, pirated edition), and with no slackening of his Marxist belief, he began a sharp critique of Marx’s own Germanic racialist attitudes. His admiration for Arthur “Slim” Evans as a working general contrasts with the description of the follies of some of the other British officers. He himself was partially successful in creating a communist cadre among the South Indian troops that had been sent to face the Japanese at Imphal. After the war, Russell felt that his converts had been ignored by influential members of the Indian communist party.

It was at this period that Russell began to master Urdu or Hindustani, the colloquial variety of which was used as the language of command through the whole of the British Indian army. From this mastery of the language, Russell found a place in the greatly expanded School of Oriental Studies in London at the end of the war. His skills were honed by generous periods of study leave, which he spent with Urdu men of letters and scholars. Apart from an excellent cyclostyled Urdu course designed for residents in an English environment — from which I myself have profited and taught several Oxford postgraduate students — his most influential works were two studies of the most famous poets in this Indo-Muslim language, written with Prof Khurshidul Islam as a collaborator, Three Mughal Poets and Mirza Ghalib: Life, Letters and Ghazals. These intimate studies brought to the Anglophone reader a previously unparalleled exposition of the refinement of sensibility in late Mughal India.

A chair was set up in Harvard to “appreciate the work of” two of Russell’s favourite Urdu poets — Ghalib and Mir — and he was duly approached by the Harvard authorities when they found they could not divert the fund to other purposes. Russell wrote back mentioning the intensity of his communist convictions, and they dropped him like a hot potato. A candidate with more flexible views was found for the post.

The leadership of the English communist party in the Stalinist years did not regard Russell’s sincerity as any more welcome. He would not renege on his communist beliefs, but merely expressed unhesitatingly his opinions of the leadership’s own corruption and incompetence. He was unfailing in listening to the demands of irredentist students and in seeing that they were not discriminated against on account of the prejudices of their examiners. He went on teaching to the end of his days, and at least one man of distinction who had been his pupil many decades before continued to come to him for instruction.

Ralph Russell was widely known among those of his friends whose primary language was Urdu as “Rasul Sahib.” In this connection, I remember the late Raja of Mahmudabad once saying “Ham Rasul Sahib se dekh sakte hain kih kafiron men bhi barakat hay!” Rahmatullah ’alayhima — “God’s Mercy be upon both of them!”

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