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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 20 New Delhi May 5, 2018

Ashok Mitra

Saturday 5 May 2018, by SC



It was more than fifty years ago in the summer of 1967. Some of us, journalists, were sitting at the old Banga Bhavan in New Delhi, conversing with the Food Minister of the newly-installed United Front Government of West Bengal, Sudhin Kumar, belonging to the RCPI. Suddenly, Kumar was summoned by the UF Government’s Deputy CM Jyoti Basu who was in the adjacent room. They had to go out to meet some Union Minister. As one watched Kumar depart, the reporter’s eye did not miss another person behind Basu, noted economist Dr Ashok Mitra (who in ten years time would become the Finance Minister of West Bengal when the CPI-M led Left Front Government came to power in the State following the end of the Emergency rule of the Congress Government at the Centre). He (Dr Mitra) was then at the Centre —first as the Chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission and thereafter as the Chief Economic Advisor of the Government of India once Indira Gandhi became the PM. P.N. Haksar as the PM’s Principal Secretary played a major role in ensuring his elevation to the post of the CEA. That was the time (1967) when he (Dr Mitra) was cogitating whether or not to plunge into active politics.

On May Day this year, that is, last Tuesday, Dr Mitra, 90, passed into history by breathing his last at a private nursing home in Kolkata. Much has been written about him by many including one of his favourite students, economist Prabhat Patniak. Hence there is little one can add to whatever has already been mentioned in the tributes to him. Apart from being a renowned economist of world repute, he frequently shot into prominence by his sharp, acerbic comments. One of his outspoken remarks—“I am not a gentleman, I am a Communist”—had gained wide currency. One did not subscribe to his brand of politics and whenever one met him he did not fail to pull one’s leg by pointing to one’s proximity to the Congress, but all in jest. He was in his personal behaviour a thorough gentleman even if he had sharp differences with his senior party (CPI-M) colleagues when he launched a blistering attack on Indira Gandhi following her tragic assassination. He was close to such personalities like politician Mohit Sen, professor of law Lotika Sarkar, journalist Chanchal Sarkar. Chanchalda wrote a piece after Mohit’s death wherein he assailed the latter’s ignorance of Bengali, primarily Tagorean, literature. It was published in Mainstream for which Dr Mitra had taken me to task. One tried to explain to him that it was not a tribute to Mohit after his death but a review of Mohit’s autobiography and the writer had full freedom to write what he wanted. Moreover, it was printed when Mohit Sen was still alive. He died just before the publication came out.

One first met him at poet Subhas Mukherjee’s residence in Kolkata in 1965. He had heard about me for my association with the students movement and also because I was bringing out a journal for students and youth. But he had gone to Subhasda’s place only to apologise for having been too sharp in his criticism of the poet the other day, prompted as he was by his wife to do so. This was an unmistakable sign of his gentlemanliness, something getting increasingly rare in the sphere of political polemics these days.

Dr Mitra had confided in my father in private when the Left Front was still in power that the party (CPI-M) in West Bengal would collapse after Jyoti Basu’s exit. That is precisely what happened in reality.

What needs to be highlighted, however, is his sensitivity that eloquently manifests itself in his memoirs (Apila-Chapila in Bengali, A Prattler’s Tale in English). He ends the narration with the following words which leave the reader moved beyond measure:

To be without humility is to be an expendable quantity. I have something to say to the world, but many thousands of others also do, the worth of their words is no less to them than that of my own words to me. One cannot, therefore, conceive of a larger social obligation than to keep one’s ego under proper wraps. I have been consistently at fault in adhering to this basic tenet. The blithe other worldliness displayed by Subho Tagore too is also beyond me. I am equally ill-equipped to share the sentiments of these tortured lines by a poet friend, ‘If my name is to be washed away by the showers of a single season,/what have I then achieved by trudging such a long way, or by sampling the waters of so many streams?’ I would rather prefer to disappear without a trace in the fading evening light, with not a speck of myself remaining limpidly in anybody’s mind.

Why not as well own up, it has been a life of comprehensive failure. There are nonethless two sources of contentment: I was fortunate to be born in Tagore’s language, and my sensibilities are by and large the product of my Marxist beliefs.

So ends Apila-Chapila, the tale of a prattler.

To the non-Bengali reader one can assure that the words are more meaningful in my native language (that is, in Apila-Chapila).


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