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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 46, November 8, 2014

Santida: The Less Travelled Road

Sunday 9 November 2014, by P.C. Joshi

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the on less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.

—Robert Frost, Selected Poems

My introduction to Santida had come about in an unforgettable way. It was a gift from Puranda (my namesake and Communist leader and very soon my brother-in-law) to Number 2 as he affectionately called me then. In May 1955 I was proceeding to join the Indian Statistical Institute at Calcutta as a Research Technician in its newly started Planning Division in response to a communication from Professor P.C. Mahalanobis.

I had been born and brought up in a simple, quiet and unsophisticated hill town like Almora and then educated at the University of Lucknow, a medium city known for its composite culture and leisurely semi-traditional and semi-modern ways; and which still had no buses and very few cars on its roads and which relied largely on ekkas and tongas for its transport reminding one of the semi-medieaval times. For someone like me accustomed to such environments, the very idea of shifting to Calcutta, the mega city, to its hustle and bustle and its turbulance and commotion was, to say the least, very unnerving.

It was at that time that Puranda had come to my rescue. I was to stay at Calcutta with Mejdi (Kalpana) and her brothers and sisters and her children in their Ballygunge Place residence. Puranda had made another affectio-nate gesture. At the time of my departure he had handed over to me an envelope which was to be opened in the presence of Mejdi after I had reached Calcutta. When I opened it after reaching Calcutta, I was surprised and delighted to find that it contained about a dozen letters of introduction to some of his closest friends and admirers in Calcutta. The list included such illustrious sons of Bengal who had put India on the world map as Satyen Bose, Muzaffar Ahmad, P.C. Mahalanobis, Sushobhan Sarkar and Bishnu Dey. It had also included some of the best in the next generation who were already blazing new trails in their own spheres—names like Sambhu and Tripti Mitra, Sunil and Shobha Jana, Ajit Roy, and Santimay and Sabitri Roy.

In his letters Puranda had requested each one of them to spare a part of the love and affection which they had given him in abundance for Number 2 who had opted for staying at Calcutta and serving the ISI and who needed their love and guidance for making the best of his stay at Calcutta in professional as well as in broad human terms. He had also said that ffor this purpose it was not enough to be exposed to the larger society; it was very necessary that I should have access to the best of Bengali homes so that I did not live like other UP intellectuals living for years in Bengal and yet remaining untouched by what Bengal had to offer.

In his covering letter to me Puranda had given a brief idea about the personality of each one of them. He had a special word for Santimay and Sabitri Roy and Ajit Roy and he said that while knowing the others would broaden my intellectual horizons and would introduce me to the cultural richness of Calcutta, I would receive the best emotional support and suste-nance from Santimay and Sabitri Roy and from Ajit Roy.

Puranda’s words proved to be very perceptive and predictive. When I reached Calcutta I was planning with Mejdi how to meet each one them; the very next day Santida and also Ajit Roy were there at Mejdi’s Ballygunge Place house to give a hearty welcome to Number 2 and to take him round. Another quality that had struck me in both of them was that while they were very warm and loyal towards P.C. Joshi and stood for him when he was maltreated, they had the courage to stand up to him face to face and express their differences quite frankly. While Ajit did it very sharply and unsparingly, Santida could do it very gently and persuasively. I discovered all this in due course. Its full meaning and significance become transparent to me only now by hindsight. In the early fifties the Indian communist movement had witnessed the “cult of one personality” being replaced by the “cult of another personality”. In the mid-fifties, however, with de-Stalinisation in full swing, the crusade against the “cult of personality” tended to often degenerate into several and mindless denigrations of all personalities. In that atmosphere persons like Ajit and Santida stood out, Ajit much more conspicuously and Santida much less demon-stratively but nevertheless very firmly. They were able to combine personal civility and dignity with a critical spirit. While Ajit lifted up the tone of debate and discourse by giving intellectual substance and edge, Santida gave it an emotional poise and balance and also a healing touch.

For a person like me much younger than both of them, it was a very educative and uplifting influence. I recall how I had felt the electrifying impact of the new challenges and opportunities accompanying the new era of Indian emergence into freedom. But I had also experienced how the unresolved ideological knots and moral dilemmas inherited from the Leftism of yesteryears had acted as a formidable constraint on the choices and initiatives of the younger generation. The challenge confronting us, younger intellectuals, was: how to retain the basic concerns, ideals and values of Left politics at its best and at the same time try to be emancipated from the deadweight of its obsolete categories of understanding the changing face of the world and of our own country in the post-Second World War era?

It is in this context that Santida had something to contribute through his own gropings and his own example. Santida did not have the intellectual Iustre and aura surrounding some others who were bigger intellectuals. But he had something which was very rare: the capacity to work tirelessly and selflessly for a cause and to be close to the people in their sufferings and pains and in their striving for a better future. And it is this that in their striving for a better future. And it is this that made all the difference.

Santida and some of the others like him of his generation can be understood better if we place them in their historical setting. I recall how many persons of great promise had failed and come to naught because of the negativism and dogmatism with which they had tried to come to terms with the new era of freedom. Many others had lost their moorings as they had drifted from negativism and dogmatism to political opportunism and careerism the floodgates of which were opened by the respectability which lust for power and privilege had acquired in the era of state-building and of electoral politics.

Here then was the phenomena of missed opportunities; loss of historic opportunities which had opened up in the era of freedom, opportunity of making the transition from the fight for freedom into the fight for consolidation of that freedom; opportunities for transforming political freedom into economic well-being and social opportunity to the teeming millions; opportunity for the intellectuals for turning freedom into a creative upsurge in nation-building in all spheres. It was a massive intellectual default on the part of the Left movement. An agonising self-appraisal is the need of the hour if new opportunities are not to be missed again.

Santida was one of those whose natural instincts and sensitivities were not blunted by dogmatic preconceptions and narrow partisan orientations; nor were they corrupted by the lure of office or lucre taking hold of the natioal elite including large sections of the Left. He had no patience or time for endless engagement in IPS (inner party struggle) which had become endemic among party cadres. Some of th choices that Santida perhaps made in those critical early years of freedom provided abundant scope for the flowering of his personality through identification with and espousal of emerging social issues and causes thrown up by the newly acquired freedom.

If today Santida has found a permanant place in the hearts of Indian minorities with whose sufferings and agonies, problems and challenges he had identified himself for all these decades; if he is remembered so warmly and lovingly in the entire subcontinent, in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India as the true ambassador of friendship, goodwill and peace and as a promoter of bonds between the peoples of these countries; if he is held in high regard as a dedicated teacher and as a protector of the interests of the teaching profession specially at the lower levels; if he is remembered as a Communist who pursued and upheld the Gandhian values in his life and in his public conduct and who is respected by all rising above ideological barriers and boundaries— the roots of all this lie in the choices and options exercised by him during the early years of freedom.

Indeed, the lines of Robert Frost quoted at the beginning and reproduced below sum up the essance of his life:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less travelled by

And that has made all the difference.

How is it that Santida chose the less travelled road? It seems to me that the answer to that is provided by the influences that went into the shaping of his personality. He was not only the intellectual child of Marx and Lenin, he was also the spiritual child of Vivekananda who had said:

Jnanam (knowledge) is alright but there is the danger of it becoming dry intellectualism. Love is great but it may die away in meaningless sentimentalism. A blending of the two is the thing required.

Santida was one of the few who were trying to put this credo into practice all the time.

Prof P.C. Joshi, who is no more, was the Director of the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi from 1962 to 1991.