Close to the Communist Party
I saw quite a bit of the Great Calcutta Killing of August 16-17, 1946 with my own eyes. There were a large number of dead bodies lying on the streets. There were many more floating down the Hooghly. I saw an extensive destruction of private and public property by fire as well as by mob fury. The death and desolation all around moved me to despair about human nature itself. But I did not try to find the causes of this holocaust or to fix its responsibility on the political movement which had provoked it. Instead, I wrote a long article, The Devil Dance In Calcutta, in which I held both Hindus and Muslims equally responsible for this meaningless massacre. The article was circulated in a cyclostyled newsletter which a circle of friends was publishing from Delhi. Some of these friends appreciated the graphic picture I had drawn and the literary flourishes I had displayed.
But the letter I received from Ram Swarup in the next few days was quite different in its tone. He had not appreciated my “sitting on the fences” and equating Muslim violence with Hindu violence. He urged me to see the right and wrong involved in what I had described as an internecine strife. According to him, Muslim violence was aggressive and committed in the furtherance of a very reactionary and retrograde cause, namely, the vivisection of India. Hindu violence, on the other hand, was defensive, and forced upon them in the service of a very worthy cause, namely, the unity and integrity of India, which was worth even a civil war. I must confess that I could not see the point. I was not prepared to forgive the Hindus for the orgy of murder in which they had also indulged. How were the Hindus in a better moral position, even if it was granted that Muslims had started it in the first instance?
A few months earlier, Ram Swarup had sent to me the typescript of a long dialogue, Let Us Have Riots: The Philosophy of Those Who Want to Divide India by Street Riots, which he had written in a Shavian style. Many prominent political leaders belonging to the Congress, the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha figured in it. Dr. Ambedkar had also made his own characteristic contribution on the subject of Partition. I laughed hilariously as I read it again and again. The Muslim League leaders, particularly Mr. Jinnah, had made themselves thoroughly ridiculous. So had Pandit Nehru, who could see nothing beyond what he described as Hindu communalism and could not talk coherently on any subject for more than a few sentences. Ram Swarup had a way of putting their own words in the mouths of many leaders, which took away the glamour with which they were clad in public eyes and reduced them to their real stature which was puny and piteous most of the time. But I again failed to read the serious message spread all over this dialogue. I could not see the tragedy of the situation in which a whole national leadership had surrendered not only its political will but also its moral judgment to a pack of bullies, rowdies, clowns and lunatics. The tragedy was all the greater because this national leadership also represented a large chunk of the educated Hindus who passed as the intellectual and political elite.
By now I had become emotionally as well as intellectually neutral between Hindus and Muslims. There was perhaps a tilt towards the Muslim point of view. The Communist pamphlets which I had read in support of Pakistan had left me cold for all practical purposes. But the Communist weekly, New Age, which I now bought and read regularly, had started exercising its influence. This weekly always presented the Muslims as die exploited peasantry and proletariat, and the Hindus as the exploiting landlords and capitalists. It constantly accused the Congress leadership of striking a compromise, almost a bargain, with the British imperialists for sharing power and pelf rather than make a common cause with the Muslim League leadership and seize power by revolutionary mass action.
My disgust for the Hindus was reinforced by what I heard from my own people amongst whom I lived again, after I had sent my family to the village. These were the same people who had always ridiculed me as an educated nincompoop. They were always denouncing Mahatma Gandhi, many a time in pretty foul language. The Mahatma was moving about in Noakhali where Hindus had been massacred and molested on a large scale by Muslin, mobs maddened by Muslim League demagogues. He was doing his best bit to put down the fires of communal frenzy. He certainly did not deserve the denunciations which my people were daily hurling at him. These denunciations became more violent when the Mahatma went on a fast unto death to restrain the Hindus of Bihar, who now became bent upon taking revenge for Noakhali. I also used equally violent language in defence of Mahatma Gandhi. The result was my excommunication from the community to which I belonged. They started calling me “sooar ka baccha (son of a swine) Suhrawardy”.
By now I had become some sort of a senior executive in the firm in which I was employed. The salary was small. But I had an exclusive chamber, a telephone, and a peon at my command. I could also sell at my discretion some small quantities of a chemical which was in short supply. A young Marwari broker always pestered me for a drum or two and I always drove him away. Little did I know that this broker was to lead me straight into the lap of the Communist Party in Calcutta.
One day I was reclining in my swivel chair during the lunch break, with my feet on the table and the latest number of the New Age spread out before me. Suddenly this broker moved into my chamber. My peon was away and could not stop him. His face became bathed in broad smiles as soon as he saw the paper I was reading. Next he confided: “This is something I never knew about you. You are a progressive. Then you must be knowing many other progressive people in Burra Bazar. Tell me the names of some of them. I know practically all of them.” I told him that I knew no progressives except myself. He went away after assuring me that he would see to it that I met quite a few of them, and very soon.
He kept his promise. A few days later he came to me with a pass for a shadow drama, which the Indian People’s Theatre Association, a Communist front, was staging in a well known theatre house of Calcutta. I went and saw it the next day and came away quite impressed. It was a caricature of the Congress leadership which was luring the common people into communal riots so that it could conspire with British Imperialism behind the people’s back. It depicted how the streets of Calcutta had been rendered unsafe for both Hindus and Muslims and how the only man who felt safe now was the white man. It appealed to Hindus and Muslims to unite and make the streets of Calcutta unsafe for the white man once again, as had happened during the days of the INA trials in the Red Fort and the RIN revolt in Bombay.
A greater gain from this theatre attendance was my meeting with a number of other Marwari young men to whom my broker friend introduced me after the show. One of them now became my constant companion in the coffee house. He was also a broker, though in the more prestigious share market. But it was his knowledge of Communist leaders of India which really impressed me. He told me many heroic tales about Muzaffar Ahmed, P.C. Joshi, Dange, Adhikari, Ranadive and so on. In my ignorance I took them to be true and was filled with admiration for these great personalities. I did not know at that time that it was mostly Communist mythology meant for the consumption of party comrades.
But I could not help taking as true one tale he told me about a Communist leader from Nagpur. He was imprisoned in the same jail as Acharya Vinoba Bhave, sometime in 1941. Vinobaji used to wash his Own Clothes every morning while the Communist leader sat nearby smoking a cigarette. His clothes were never clean. One day Vinobaji invited him to join him in washing clothes and observed that it was quite a fun. The Communist leader walked away quietly, came back with a bundle of his soiled clothes, piled them before Vinobaji and said: “Come on, Bhave, have some more fun.”
A few days after I met these Marwari Communists my place was visited by a Bengali comrade who was most probably the secretary of some Party unit in Burra Bazar. He cited the name of my Marwari friends as his reference and invited me to visit the Commune in which be lived along with some other party members. I went with him to a nearby place and met a dozen boys and girls who shared a small ill kept room and a smaller kitchen. I was told that there were three married couples amongst them. This was my first and last visit to a Commune. I did not like the look of it. Nor did I meet the Bengali Communist very frequently. My only gain from this contact was that a hawker started supplying me a free copy of the Communist daily in Bengali, Swadhinata, and I was introduced to the Progressive Writers Association, another Communist front organisation.
The president of the Progressive Writers Association in those days was the noted Bengali novelist, Shri Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya. I had read some of his novels and thought very highly of him. I now hoped to meet him in the Association office one Of these days. That turned out to be a vain hope because I never met any writer whatsoever in that office during my frequent visits lasting over an year. I did not Particularly like the two novels of Tarashankar which the comrades recommended very highly Manbantar and Hansuli Banker Upakotha. The great writer was to tell me later on that these were the only two novels he wrote under Communist influence and that both of them had failed. He had to revise Manbantar quite a bit before it became acceptable to his normal readers.
A notable event of my association with the Progressive Writers Association was the staging of the Russian film, Ivan the Terrible. It had been directed by the famous Eisenstein during the Second World War to whip up Russian nationalism against the Nazi invasion. And it had been hailed as a great achievement of Soviet cinematography. Someone in the Association gave me a book of 25 tickets to sell amongst those I knew, or could influence to see this masterpiece of progressive art. I succeeded in selling only a few, distributed the rest, and paid some Rs. 64/from my own pocket. The language of the film was Russian with titles in English. I could not make head or tail of the story. It bored me and I wanted to run out of the crowded hall. But when I compared notes with other comrades in the coffee house, I thought it better to say some words of appreciation. They were full of praise for it while denouncing the decadent Hollywood productions. Eisenstein came under shadow in 1948 and had to make an abject confession of his errors.. Ivan the Terrible was one of those errors.
I was heading full steam into Communism when I received a severe jolt. It was a novel by Alduous Huxley, Time Must Have A Stop, which had just appeared on the stalls. As I saw it, I was reminded of Ram Swarup and could not resist buying it, although its price was the only money I had in my pocket. But it was almost the end of the month and I could look forward to my salary after a few days. I had never read a book by Huxley so fir. This one was quite a revelation of his unique genius. I was enraptured by one of its characters, Bruno, contemplating the dark destiny of an erudite scholar with great compassion. But what almost broke my Marxist spell was his demolition of the dogma of inevitable progress which was the bedrock of all Western thought, including Marxism, during the 19th century. He also questioned as a “manipulative fallacy” the repeated reconstruction of social, economic and political institutions to achieve a more equitable order of things. His conclusion was that the roots of social evils lay ultimately in human nature itself. A desirable order could not be built out of the desire soul of man. Shades of Sri Aurobindo, I thought.
This book shook me very badly and its influence was to surface two years later. Meanwhile, I took to reading Huxley and finished his major novels as well as his two famous books, Ends and Means and Perennial Philosophy. I was preparing myself to dwell on a different dimension of thought and feeling. I confessed my misgivings to my Communist friend from the share market. He had not read any Huxley. But he knew the party line on this great writer. It was not at all flattering. Next, my friend accused me of’ being an intellectual. It was his settled opinion, and experience also, that intellectuals did not last in the Party for long. Their great sin was their failure to become partisans on major ideological issues. They suffered from bourgeois objectivity. I felt properly snubbed, even though I knew that my friend had hardly ever read a book in his whole life.
A few days before the riots broke out in August 1946 I had run into an American journalist who was the bureau manager of a prestigious US news agency in Calcutta. He banged the table and made our coffee cups fly when I observed that Truman was a criminal who should be hanged for dropping that atom bomb on Hiroshima. I thought that was the end of our acquaintance. But he rang me up a few days later and explained that he should have tried to understand the Asian point of view on the matter. We met again and again and became friends. He was at that time what the Americans call a liberal and we in India a leftist. It was he who first took me to the Communist Party bookstall in Dacres Lane at Calcutta. He thought that they published some good literature and that their weekly in English was a very well edited tabloid.
He was also a good friend of Mr. Jeelani, the editor of the Muslim League daily, Morning News, who later wrote often in the RSS weekly, Organiser. But he had no friend who could explain to him the Hindu point of view. He had toured the whole of Calcutta during the August riots. He thought that the Muslims had suffered far more than the Hindus. Later on, he visited Noakhali. His impression was that the situation was not so bad as the Hindus were painting it. One day he met me soon after he had attended a debate on Noakhali in the Bengal Legislative Assembly. He was very angry with Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookherjee and other Hindu leaders for their making so much of the Hindus in Noakhali being forced to eat beef. “What is so awful about eating beef?”, he asked me. I had no opinion on the subject. But I readily joined him in ridiculing “that potbellied demagogue”, Dr. Mookherjee. Sometime later this friend moved to Delhi and met Ram Swarup. I promptly received a letter from Ram Swarup saying that I had made quite a Muslim Leaguer out of our American friend. But I did not take the hint.
My personal fortunes changed for the better when I joined as manager of another concern. The salary was much better. But what mattered to me most was that my new boss, a young Marwari of my own age, was a convinced Communist. He was a very well read man and had a wellstocked personal library from which I could borrow whatever I wanted. He was also a subscriber to many foreign journals which toed the international Communist line. I remember how I gulped down large doses of Communism as I read the American periodicals, New Masses and New Republic, week after week.
I had given the good news about my new job and my new boss to my American friend on the Eve of his departure from Calcutta. A few days later I received a letter from Ram Swarup which said: “I learn that your boss is a Communist. It is like hearing that a Buddhist made a war. But it seems that the ordinary man is wiser than Marx and Lord Buddha. He will never give to them anything except his subjective loyalty.”
But once again I failed to take the hint.