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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 1 New Delhi December 22, 2018 [Annual Number]

Through the Prism of a True Communist

Sunday 23 December 2018, by Gargi Chakravartty



Fragments of Time: Memoirs of a Romantic Revolutionary by Subrata Banerjee; published by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID), Chandigarh; 2017; pages i-xx and 494; Price: Rs 875, US $ 35.

In popular image of Indian Communists, the names of Jyoti Basu, Hiren Mukherjee, Bhupesh Gupta or E.M.S. Namboodiripad generally surface. Subrata Banerjee did not belong to that category; yet he was a unique and distinct Communist. He has done a yeoman’s service by penning down his recollection of rich experiences in his 494-page memoirs in 22 chapters. The book has been aptly titled ‘Fragments of Time: Memoirs of a Romantic Revolutionary’. He represented a genre of Indian Communists of the forties and fifties of the last century, who—with no hankering for power and position in the party hierarchy—selflessly and silently worked as foot soldiers for the Communist Party, even when as non-wholetimers they carried on for their livelihood in their professional commitments. In course of that they might have neglected their private and personal space, not given time to their near and dear ones. Still they dreamt with conviction for a better future, of a socialist society and they dreamt inspite of ups and downs till the end of their lives.

This bouquet of memoirs is not a mere family autobiography; it stretches far beyond the personal joys and sorrows of intricate relationships with parents, wife, brothers, daughter and grandchildren. He blends his personal with political experiences in such a manner that this book is a fascinating read for everyone.

Subrata belonged to an enlightened family of Bengal; father Sunit Kumar Banerjee was a revered professor of English literature while mother Nalini Bala led an inspiring life to be remembered for her energetic social work. His early days with an image of a lonely child gazing into the distance from a balcony in Kaptenbazar in Dhaka, subsequent boyhood days of hardship shared with a struggling mother in her singular battle when his father was abroad for higher studies, numerous anecdotes of his extended family and early student life are all portrayed in a prefatory manner like an aalap in a musical composition.

Subrata’s making of an activist and breaking the shell of a protected life could happen in his college days. He narrates them in the chapter ‘Cradle of Many Revolutions’, where he talks about his unforgettable experiences of student life at Kolkata’s Presidency College and Hindu hostel. This was a significant period for him because he was for the first time exposed to political happenings in the country and the world which drew him close to the Communists. Lectures of professors moulded his mind for an understanding of the process of historical changes that enabled him to think for himself and even at an early age he could question the efficacy of the judgement of the Communists. For example, when in 1937, a majority of socialists and Communists criticised the move for formation of Congress Ministries, saying that nothing much would happen as these were dependent on the ‘goodwill of the Governor’, Subrata thought differently and candidly writes: ‘I had not yet been exposed to the communist thinking, and my gut reaction was that it was a step forward.’ (p. 84) Throughout the course of various national and international events and struggles within the Communist Party, Subrata could think differently and yet remained dedicated to the mainstream movement. Since those days, he kept a diary where he could open up his self-analytical mind and pen down his thoughts, his mood, sometimes his own frustrations relating to political developments and even regarding personal relationships within the family.

The book is an important document, a political narration of colonial and post-colonial national scenario and within that framework the contours of the Indian communist movement. What drew him to the movement and made him an activist was not mere theoretical understanding of Marxism but a few factors which he has mentioned: first, an emotional speech by Sarojini Naidu at a meeting of students and youth, second, the realisation of the success of public pressure in the release of political prisoners, and third, the developments in Europe and China which brought him closer to the Communists with an increasing interest in the Soviet Union for its role in halting Nazi advances. A new awakening was visible and he writes: “History was conspiring to change my way of thinking. Our struggle for independence seemed now only the first step in a bigger battle for the creation of a humane society, free from exploitation. In my mind, free India and socialist India became one single goal.” (p. 89) Since then there was no looking back for him, through all the ups and downs he dreamt of a socialist India till his end. That was the period when the academically best students were drawn towards the communist ideology. He recollected a meeting of students with P.C. Joshi, the General Secretary of the then illegal Communist Party, who asked them to do their best in studies. (p. 97)

Subrata remembers his first brush with direct activism on the streets of Calcutta. It was on January 25, 1940. The Bengal Provincial Students Federation led a massive procession against the Imperialist World War, in which Subrata joined others to raise his voice with slogans of Inquilab Zindabad. How his breaking away from a sheltered life and slowly turning into an active Communist was seen by his father makes an interesting reading. Discussing politics at dinner table and reading avidly the pamphlets brought by Subrata, made his father a Marxist, who soon analysed English literature from a Marxist point of view. His father even encouraged his wife Nalini Bala to ‘attend Russian language classes run by the Friends of Soviet Union’. (p. 106) One does gets a glimpse of the family life of the Communists of those days, an added treasure indeed.

There is more to learn. Politically conscious bright students were not allowed to disperse after their student life and were brought into cultural movements with the formation of the Youth Culture Institute (YCI), where they performed political plays, formed music choir groups, organised photo-poster exhibitions, literary meetings and also to avoid police attraction used to hold such meetings by arranging picnics. For Subrata, the YCI was a catalyst for that wider movement, the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), which he considered as having contributed immensely to India’s cultural movement even in the post-independence era. (p. 114)

‘Love in the Time of a People’s War’ is the most interesting chapter for two reasons: first, for unfolding his romantic love relationship with Karuna, later famous for her astounding award-winning performance as Sarbajaya in Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’ and ‘Aparajita’; and secondly, for giving a detailed account of the international war situation with a new political line of the party from an imperialist to a people’s war. The heroic resistance by the ordinary people of the Soviet Union against the fascist forces and Nazi Germany attracted numerous Indians to communism. Subrata writes: ‘As part of the international communist movement, it was our duty to stand by the Soviet Union.’ (p. 123) One gets almost a photographic account of 46, Dharmatalla Street which soon became the cultural centre of the anti-fascist movement.

Here again the analytical mind of Subrata helps the reader to look back in hindsight on the urge for a national government. Subrata candidly writes about the shortcoming of the Communist International. He felt that ‘the Congress recognised that the war was for democracy, against fascism and was willing to participate in it, but only under a national government’. (pp. 131-132) The issue of a national government, according to Subrata, would have helped carry conviction with the people’s war policy of the Communist Party. The mistake of the CPI was due to the political line of the Communist International.

Subrata taught for a brief period in Santi-niketan but was asked to leave for political reasons. However, those years brought him close to the Tagore family. His need for a livelihood made him apply for a job. Finally he joined on October 14, 1942 the Indian Military Academy, which he considered as a way of ‘fighting a people’s war’. His experiences in the war front in Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia are more than mere travelogue. He took it up as a political mission and hence kept a diary with meticulously jotted notes of gripping accounts. P.C. Joshi, the then General Secretary of the illegal Communist Party, advised him to keep the diary and told him: ‘Remember always, especially under the most difficult circumstances, that you are a communist!’ (p. 131) There are such detailed narratives, but to my mind his meeting with Bo Aung San, the leader of the Burmese freedom struggle, is worth mentioning. His long interview with the Burmese leader has rich political meaning. Bo Aung San conveyed his admiration for Nehru and expressed his eagerness to meet P.C. Joshi. ‘Your national movement has been the source of our strength. Your Communists and your Congressmen together should be able to work wonders.’ (p. 209) At one point, Subrata’s experiences in Burma made him realise that ‘nationalism and anti-fascism were not mutually exclusive. In fact one fed the other. But we in India had not quite succeeded in harmonising our national aspirations with the reality of the international correlation of forces.’ (p. 184) Subrata mentions interesting information about Bo Aung San’s meeting with Subhas Chandra Bose whom the Burmese leader knew from his student days. ‘I failed to convince him that 90 per cent of my countrymen had become anti-Japanese. He insisted that the Japanese were our friends. I spoke to him of the reign of terror that they had established in the country.’ (p. 208) At a later stage Subrata could manage to meet Nehru to persuade him to demand the immediate withdrawal of Indian troops from South-East Asia in the ongoing negotiations of the Congress with the British.

After leaving the Army job, Subrata moved to Bombay to work for the CPI’s journal, People’s Age. This period of homecoming is replete with political developments in the country, which he has penned down in detail—the release of INA heroes, observance of Rashid Ali Day, when on February 11, 1946, Hindu and Muslim students marched on the streets of Calcutta, massive role of RIN Strike in the final struggle for India’s freedom. There were students’ protest, peasants’ struggle—a volcanic situation all over. Subrata felt that the CPI failed to perceive ‘to link the revolutionary urges of the working classes, the peasantry and the students with the discontent in the Armed Forces in the environment of negotiations with the British. It took me quite some time to reach this understanding in its totality.’ (p. 304)

Scholars working on Partition and Gandhi will get a graphic account of those critical days on the eve of independence. Some of Subrata’s political realisations reflect a mature mind — ‘violence without mass support causes more harm than good to the revolution’. (p. 311) He was moved by Gandhi’s last efforts to bring peace and stall a partitioned India, ‘to impart dignity to the fractured freedom so different from what he had dreamed of and fought for.’ (p. 312) Here again Subrata minced no words about the limitation of the party for not being able ‘to absorb the strength of Gandhi as a mass leader and political strategist’, and seeing him only as ‘a leader of bourgeoisie and a man who compromised with imperialism’. By merely idolising him as the Father of the Nation was not enough. (p. 322) There are sensitive traits of Subrata, who at a time when P.C. Joshi was ostracised and isolated with the adoption of the new political line of ‘fake independence’ in 1948 within the party, maintained cordial relations with the former General Secretary. Subrata observes: ‘I also felt happy that in the stifling environment of suspicion, accusations and factionalism, I had retained my sanity and some elements of the true communist behaviour, as I understood it.’ (p. 322) These lines speak of a true communist.

Finally in that period of armed struggle by the Party, when the aim was to overthrow the Nehru Government, Subrata was arrested, first lodged at Thane jail and then shifted to Nasik, where his jailmate was S.A Dange, who eventually became a father figure for him. There are political anecdotes during the period of resistance within jail, when Dange took a terrible risk of being shot while facing firing and preventing Subrata from being shot. Dange wanted to prove himself that he was not a coward, as he was deeply hurt at some party documents accusing him as a ‘comfort loving coward for not launching clashes with the jail authorities’. (p. 329) His long association with Dange in jail made Subrata his adopted son. There were imminent signs of inner-party struggle. Dange did not approve of the new line but kept quiet as he was afraid the party would split. But ultimately it did split in 1964 due to two distinct political lines following the Chinese aggression of 1962.

There is so much in this book—news of Stalin’s death and sense of loss and disbelief at the denunciation of Stalin, still the love for the Soviet Union by the people of Calcutta to get a glimpse of Bulganin and Khrushchev during their visit to India in 1955, shocking news of Chinese aggression and the division of the party and so on. Subrata has shared his experience with the Chinese consul in Calcutta, Lee, when in course of a long conversation, Subrata told him: ‘The border dispute too should not be an intractable problem. You may disagree with us. But we cannot understand how a socialist country could suddenly take armed action against a non-aligned developing country, especially one with which China has had historic ties.’ (p. 358) Ironically the Chinese succeeded in dividing the CPI as the CPI-M was formed in 1964.

In his panoramic revelation, there is hardly any event in national or international politics which is not covered. Among these are his in-depth observations on the fall of Khrushchev and later the ultimate decline of the Soviet Union, the ‘New Thinking’ of Mikhail Gorbachev and the debates within the CPI on that score. (p. 474)

The book is a mine of information of the world-wide anti-nuclear campaign, cultural festivals and enthusiastic response of party cadres in the 1952 general elections. Subrata’s activism in taking classes among workers and other political work came to a halt in the early fifties as he realised it would be unfair for him to expect his father to continue feeding his wife and child while he would indulge himself ‘in the luxury of being a revolutionary’. (p. 346) His career as a copy writer in advertising agencies such as Clarion and much later as a journalist in Illustrated Weekly of India in Bombay and even later in Economic Times in New Delhi or as an expert in the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi or working for various journals and Patriot daily and finally working in the CRRID for publications brought him close to many stalwarts in Indian political life like P.N. Haksar.

An important phase of his life was spent in Dhaka as he played a major role in forging Indo-Bangladesh ties as the Counsellor (Information) at the Indian High Commission after the birth of Bangladesh. Before that during the Liberation Struggle, Subrata worked as Director, Public Relations in West Bengal. A very interesting episode of his personal life unfolded when he was with his family residing at the staff quarters within the Raj Bhavan premises in Calcutta. Subrata’s paternal aunt Prabhavati, a widow when Subrata was born, who had been ostracised later for eloping with a cultured Muslim man, Sayed Abul Bazar, disappeared in 1921. After almost fifty years, his son knocked the door of his flat, came in search of his mother’s family. It was unbelievable for Subrata’s mother to get back her favourite sister-in-law who was supposed to be dead as she was told by her mother-in-law. Once Subrata went to Dhaka along with his mother and wife, they could retrieve their forgotten relationship. A wonderful episode no doubt!

The last chapter titled ‘A Dream at the End of the Road’ leaves the reader with a poignant note, of Karuna’s illness and her final exit from his life on November 13, 2001; a huge personal loss. ‘Now I stood alone in a crowd.’ (p. 483) Though Subrata did share a little bit of his private life but the entire memoir is basically a political document. However, at the end he looked back at his precious memories and wrote on Karuna: “I wanted to rediscover her from a distance. It is a never-ending exercise. I have had the proud privilege of watching the unfolding of her personality. Karuna’s intellect encompassed a much wider range than mine. She was a talented actor, writer, painter and sculptor. She was not just wife, mother and grandmother. She was Karuna.” (p. 484) Talking about those precious memories he writes: ‘We never felt the need to measure what we gave one another, what we meant to one another. A half-articulated look, a few broken words, a gesture, a touch, conveyed a message we could easily pick up.’ It is like reading a poem.

Subrata’s loneliness never stopped him from dreaming of a socialist world. He ended his autobiography with these words: “Yes, I am a dreamer still. I am a romantic and a revolutionary, because I am a Communist. I can see before my eyes the new dawn of liberty when padlocks open and chains fall to the ground, and the poor finally inherit the earth. I will not be there to see this new world. May be Piyal and Piyali (his grandchildren to whom this book is dedicated) will see it, but Karuna and I will forever remain a part of that dream of human fulfilment.” (p. 486)

The cover picture of Subrata photographed by his grandson Ahmer Srivastava (Piyal) is remarkable. What is missing is a brief bio-sketch of the author with his years of birth and death on the blurb. More of his photographs along with his family members and associates would have further enriched the book.

A man with such rich experiences and sensitivity will remain forever through this magnificent saga of his life in the minds of the readers.

For anyone interested in great writing, this book is a must.

The reviewer, formerly an Associate Professor of History in Maitreyi College, University of Delhi, is a woman activist and a Vice-President of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW).

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