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Always committed

A tribute to Ashok Mitra

"Just pick up the phone and ring him," V.K. Ramachandran, who was then heading West Bengal's land board, advised me. I had asked my friend of long years how I could go about meeting the iconic Ashok Mitra, not just because he had been Jyoti Basu's finance minister for a decade and before that chief economic adviser in Indira Gandhi's government, but because he was a social philosopher, his interests going far beyond finance, trade and wages to theatre, cinema, music, art, literature and the human condition.

This was in early 2005, not long after I had started to work in Calcutta. I did exactly as Ram advised. Ashokbabu's wife, Gouridi, as we came to know and call her, took the call. "Oh... just a minute," she said when I introduced myself and asked if I could speak to Ashok babu.

A shrill and inquisitive voice came on the line. "Yes?" I introduced myself again and asked if my wife and I could visit. A date and time were un-fussily settled and we went to their flat in Alipore. The front door opened to a horseshoe shaped sitting arrangement that extended to a very small, very cosy dining area. We were accompanied by the aide-de-camp to the governor whom Ashokbabu welcomed with a handshake, saying: "Please make yourself comfortable in this sitting room. The small study where I am taking our guests is too small to hold all of us. Would you care for some tea?" Major Surinder Kharb, I could see, was glad to be addressed - regarded - as a person, not a robot in olive greens. Ashokbabu and Gouridi then showed us into the compact little study which had four walls lined with books from floor level to almost the ceiling. All of them showed age and handling. More importantly, they bespoke belonging. They sat on those shelves, with a few small framed photographs of family and friends - and one of Lenin - as memories do in our minds, quietly but integrally. This study was the centre of Ashokbabu's universe, the place where his visitors and Gouridi's could enter as one may enter a person's confidence, trust.

As tea with singaras and gulab jamuns to embellish the steaming brew arrived, Ashokbabu asked: "How do you find life in Raj Bhavan?" I said it was as expected, with many pleasant surprises such as an excellent pile of books, 'pile' being an important aspect of the collection as it seemed like Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin to have "just growed".

Ashokbabu would not always respond to an answer or a comment, making one wonder if he had heard you or absorbed what you had said. "You must read as much Bangla as you can," he said. He had said 'read', not 'learn'. I noted the nuance and found it interesting. "Give them some time to settle down," Gouridi interjected. "They have only just arrived." Ashokbabu neither agreed nor disagreed with that, continuing with his train of thought. "And you must travel, meet as many people as you can on your own, not just responding to requests for calls." I said I would try to do that. He meant that the latest passing incumbent of the office inaugurated by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari should get to know something of the mind of West Bengal.

Ashokbabu never made any remark casually, 'just like that'. Even when he said or wrote some things that were strong, extreme and could leave a scar, they were never slips of the tongue or the pen. We met often and regularly thereafter, in the Mitra flat, in the home of V.K. Ramachandran and his wife, the welfare economist, Madhura Swaminathan. And, occasionally, in Raj Bhavan as when Italy's prime minister, Romano Prodi, came on a state visit. Ashokbabu sparkled during the conversation over dinner with the guests, ministers in the state government, his former colleagues in the CPI(M) and the Left Front among them. His successor in office, the finance minister, Asim Dasgupta, sat directly ahead of him. State politics remained firmly out of the table-talk steered by Ashokbabu, traversed fields that included Michelangelo, Antonio Gramsci, the lyrics of the Tagore music that was being played by an instrumental choir, Victoria Ocampo and, in answer to a question on whether crime thrillers still fascinated him, a short dissertation on Earl Stanley Gardner's oeuvre. All this at an 'Italian evening'. I could see that Ashokbabu stood at Bangla's threshold but so keenly aware was he of the presence of non-Bengali guests that he used only his stylish English that evening.

When reminiscing, he was at his best talking about persons. Gossip never touched those descriptions, analysis suffused them. A novelist's analysis. His description of Babu Jagjivan Ram's sharp mind, understanding of peasant India, administrative skills was matched by a word portrait of that leader's smoking style. "He always smoked," Ashokbabu said, "his expensive cigarettes holding them at the end of his closed fist like a hookah."

That was vintage Ashokbabu - a Bay of Bengal teeming with the plankton of experience, its bed laden with nodes of scholarship and minerals of insight, yielding up a catch of rare diversity, value. His conversation was lit up by a memory too sharp to forget good turns or bad, too big to hold willed trespasses against anyone. I did not know then and have not tried to find out later (including now, when I write this) what 'prattle' really means but when I got the English rendering of his essays on "Bengal, Marxism and Governance", titled A Prattler's Tale, I understood what it meant, keeping its self-mocking humour aside. I could hear his high-pitched voice in every word of it.

Ashok Mitra lived and died as a Marxist - committed to what he saw as the bane of class divisions, class interests and to the only road human society can take being that of uncompromising justice, social, economic and political. 'The Party' was for him an instrument, as was the State, for this journey, not an end in itself. This cost him what can be called ' samaja'. Of all the unforgettable lines in that book, the one that is never-to-be-forgotten, is, "A rule of life we have to abide by is that those who were once close, grow apart, those who were distant, come closer."

But this plangent thought did not deject him, nor deflect him from reflecting, speaking, writing. He had written a regular column for The Telegraph for many years using his full name, and later he wrote as 'AM', which, for all its elliptical authorship, became known to be the vessel of Ashok Mitra's views.

As much as he was capable of causing hurt, he could feel hurt. As much he could feel touched, he could be touching. When Gouri di died, suddenly, like a lamp blown out by a passing breeze, Biman Bose came to condole and, from Delhi, Prakash and Brinda Karat. He was touched by this and to an extent overcame his perplexity at the absence of many comrades at the funeral.

In subsequent visits to his flat I could see creeping up, like a film of indifferent dust, a sad resignation. The books in his study remained up-standing as before, but looked weary of life. And the singaras and gulab jamuns now looked a trifle lost without Gouri di's voice asking, "Won't you try another?" And his physical frame, always spare, shrank now to a spectral nothingness.

The last time I saw him, this January, with Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Ashokbabu said to us, "I am not even going to try to get up to see you gentlemen off." And then raising both his arms, he gestured what seemed like a farewell, a final farewell and - a benediction. Very un-Marxist? But then when did Ashokbabu do anything that was not un-something or the other?

Pronam, Ashokbabu.

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