Wednesday, July 14, 2004

While reading John le Carre’s Absolute Friends, I came across the history of the student unrest in West Berlin, when the student community came together to "return the world to where it was before its succumbed to the multiple diseases of fascism, capitalism, militarism, consumerism, Nazism, Coca-Colanisation, imperialism and pseudo-democracy." And to take on the power of the Establishment all that they had was “rotting tomatoes and bad eggs, a few heaps of rocks, a lot of pretty girls and a shining message for mankind”.
The novel, a part of which is based on the tumultuous events of the period, also made a passing reference to the genesis of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, described as a Leftist terrorist group in most literature. I later found a very good site, which documents the entire history of the group: from its rise to iconic status to its inevitable downfall.
Reading about it, and being reminded about the student movements that erupted across the length and breadth of the globe, from the Naxal movement in Calcutta to the student uprisings in Paris, Rome and Madrid, led to the inevitable romanticising about the period.
And like every time, it made me wish I could have been old enough to experience the zeitgeist of the times. That I could have been naive enough to believe that I could change the world for the better. That I could have been there to protest against the US occupation of Vietnam. That I could have spouted Mao and sworn by "affirmative action". That I could have been part of the generation that chanted "Amar bari, tomar bari, Naxalbari, Naxalbari."
But, I often wonder whether I could have been as selfless as the countless young men and women who laid down their lives chasing this utopian dream. Whether I could have left home and hearth and family and gone and stayed in a remote village. Whether I could have braved police beatings and in the face of severe torture managed to protect the identity of my comrades.
One of my most publicly political acts till date was when in Class 9-10, I had scribbled graffiti on the softboard at the back of my class. It was the heydays of the anti-apartheid movement and South Africa was a global pariah, banished from participating in any sphere of international activity, whether sporting or political. It was at this time that former English cricket captain Mike Gatting decided to lead a team to play against the South Africans, in violation of the ban. In a fit of emotion, I had scribbled: “Gatting and his men flouted the ban, ‘coz they are unscrupulous (or some similarly loaded word) to a man.” One of my friends read it and quipped, “Did you think it up yourself, or did you copy it from somewhere.” So, I guess it was good!
Oh! There is another example too. Stay as I did in a typical Muslim locality, every time a Pakistan won against India, most of the mohalla chaps would burst crackers to celebrate the victory. But, as an Indian, and a patriotic one at that, I would hoist the tricolour to make it evident to everybody around where my allegiance laid.
But that’s it. I only remember attending a single general body meeting of the Left-backed Students Federation of India (SFI), and that too because we were forced to do so. By the time, I joined college there was widespread cynicism about this entire business of student politics. Though there were still a small minority which retained a certain level of idealism, most were into it because of the ‘advantages’ a students’ union membership bestowed upon them.
It was in my third year of college, at a time when I was working as an enumerator for a government-aided, foreign-funded social development project to augment my pocket money that I saw another face of Leftist politics. As a part of the job, I would make daily trips to some of the slums of Howrah and Calcutta. It was during one of these trips that I had to interact with one of the local CPI(M) councilors of the area. He was a Muslim chap (I forget his name) and we were sitting at the party office, sipping bhanrer cha, when he pointed to Mao’s Red Book and said, “Yeh kitab parne se, khoon garam honai hai. I felt kicked, sitting there discussing Leftist politics with a card-holding Communist.
But, then I guess I am condemned to be a pinko liberal, the Bangali bhadrolok stereotype, the type that Anjan Dutta describes so beautifully in his song ‘Shei Adbhut Bhalo Lokta’ (The Amazingly Nice Person) as someone “jar chokh chal-chal kore bamponthi gaan shune. (whose eyes fill up with tears on listening to Leftist songs)”.

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