“What interests you these days?”
“Nothing. I sleep.”
“What can we get you? What would you like?”
“I would like to die.”
For a few years, conversations with Ashok Mitra on visits to Kolkata had ended on this note. Not necessarily a grim note, for his death wish was articulated forcefully, in the voice of a man in full command of himself. My wife Antara always asked, and Mitra answered with the bare truth. He could be honest — he always was, anyway — because they had a shared past. “Never forget, I was your first driver,” he often reminded her mock-seriously. He had driven her and her mother home from the hospital where she was born.
Too long after Mitra expressed his last wish, the void that stands in for God in the communist cosmos has put out the light. He died on May Day, like his wife Gouri, whose loss he had borne painfully for exactly a decade. Much is being written about Mitra the economist, the politician, the activist and polemicist, the avatar which aroused the sharpest reactions. Indeed, he was a formidable figure, the only public intellectual who grimaced, teeth bared and sinews standing out at the jawline, when he engaged with opinion which he considered stupid.
Sometimes, that opinion emanated from his own party, and he lit into it with the same vigour with which he would attack a political foe. He was no party animal, and he sundered ties with the CPM in 1986, after serving as its finance minister in West Bengal. That left him entirely free to speak his mind.
I first met him at his Pandara Road flat in Delhi in the early Nineties, when he was a Rajya Sabha MP. It was for a profile, and I had to be careful on account of family connections. A mere profile has never served as a ground for divorce proceedings, but there can always be a first time. As it turned out, the copy was fairly harmless, apart from the mention of Sanchayita, a chit fund which had attracted the middle class in West Bengal with astronomical returns. Mitra, as finance minister, had reported adversely against it to the Centre and had it shut down. Sound economics but bad politics. Savings were wiped out, and the people felt that the ponzi had not cheated them, but the minister had. For the CPM, it meant the loss of the goodwill of the middle class. But to return to the inoffensive profile. After it appeared, Mitra reacted in Bangla: “Michke shaitan (subversive devil)!”
Sharp words made Mitra’s reputation as a columnist who was simultaneously loved and feared. Loved because he exposed what was wrong with the world, with politics, with the city, with your own life. And feared, because he could actually focus on your life, just yours, and take it apart with a scalpel. His work was especially powerful because he used the language and sensibility of the poet. He was one of the last bilingual writers, and his most popular work in Bangla is titled Kobita theke Michhiley (loosely, From Poetry to the Barricades). Lenin, Hemingway and Samar Sen stood shoulder to shoulder on the shelves in his sitting room, which was mainly furnished with literature, cinema, music, politics and economics, and his depiction of the poverty in the streets, the poverty of modern Bengali culture, and the poverty of contemporary thought were extraordinarily powerful because they were poetically articulated.
In his last years, Mitra turned publisher. He launched a Bengali little magazine named Arek Rakam (An Alternative). It published some of the finest names of Bengali literature, politics and academia, along with newcomers to the scene. It flourished for a while, but Mitra feared that he was unequal to the task. Perhaps on the basis of statements like this, the unkind said that Mitra was losing his mind as he turned 90 in April. But in March, I found him much more clear-headed than I am. It takes great clarity to acknowledge that death is a necessary end. Especially when it’s your own death.
Mitra’s last collection of columns, unabashedly titled First Person Singular begins shortly after Independence in 30 Pandara Road, in the same neighbourhood where he would live again almost half a century later as an MP. It was a D-II apartment shared by some of the people who set up the Planning Commission, including K N Raj and I G Patel, future governor of the RBI, apart from Mitra himself. He described himself as a clumsy hick from Dhaka, Banaras Hindu University and a little-known institute in the Netherlands, with a little teaching experience in Lucknow. Patel, from King’s College, Cambridge, and Raj, with a hot PhD from the London School of Economics, helped him leave behind his provincial diffidence (“I was crude and uncouth in my gait.”). Apart from Rhodes scholars and Yale lawyers, people from the pages of contemporary Indian history were regular visitors to the flat — Mohit Sen, Hiten Bhaya, Latika and Chanchal Sarkar, Jamila and George Verghese, M N Srinivas, P N Dhar, Usha and K R Narayanan.
Ashok Mitra was kind enough to give me a copy of the book. He still remembered that offending profile from 25 years ago. The inscription to the michke shaitan reads: “To Pratik, with fear and love.” It’s a strange feeling, to have been feared for one’s writing by a writer whose pen was universally feared. Even if it was half in jest.