Ashok Mitra, the Man Who Never Lost Sight of the Big Picture

If there was one thing that defined Marxist economist Ashok Mitra, it was his unwavering commitment to justice and human dignity.

Fifty years ago, Ashok Mitra wrote a tribute to the poet-editor-journalist Samar Sen. The title of that piece, written in Bengali, roughly translates to But he never misses the big picture. To many people, Sen was an enigma – or a lost soul. A brilliant poet, he eschewed poetry at age 28, took up political journalism full time, edited with great distinction some of India’s most admired news magazines, fought with and walked out on the owners in every case, till he set up Frontier, a trailblazer in many ways in the Indian journalism space.

He was (in)famous for his acerbic tongue, was completely irreverent towards all social and state institutions, fought doggedly for his radical convictions, and died a poor man. But, as Mitra did not fail to note, his heart was always in the right place, and it never failed to beat for  the marginalised and the dispossessed. Mitra had known few people worthier of his admiration.

It is easy to see that all through his long life, Mitra himself hated engaging with anything other than the big picture. He had been an outstanding student, an influential academic, a top bureaucrat nationally as well as internationally, had an astonishing facility with both the written and the spoken words and took over as the first Marxist finance minister in the Left Front government that came to power in West Bengal in 1977.

He wore many hats, some crucially at the same time, rather awkwardly even, but at the first hint of his attention getting deflected off the issues and themes that most appealed to him, he gave up whatever he was doing at the moment and sought to go back to basics – which, for him, consisted of an unflinching loyalty to social change. He chose to part company with Jyoti Basu, a man he held in high esteem, when he felt he had run into serious roadblocks at the ministry. (And, of course, he had given up, without the slightest hesitation, his position as the chief economic adviser, government of India, when he thought his intellectual integrity was being compromised – although Prime Minister Indira Gandhi valued his services highly.) True, he was an intellectual first and a revolutionist only after that but, for most of his adult life, he had believed it to be his duty to harness his cerebral faculties to the purpose of changing the world.

And those faculties were stunning in their incisiveness, their ability to range over the whole spectrum of the social sciences, the literary arts, music, theatre and contemporary political and social history. Add to that Mitra’s phenomenal memory for detail, and we have a public intellectual the likes of whom modern India has rarely known.

Inside the Indian Left, only professor Hiren Mukherjee and P.C. Joshi – maybe also Somnath Lahiri – matched the catholicity of Mitra’s tastes and interests, but none approached the wide sweep of his scholarship. (I am thinking here of practicing politicians, not Left-leaning intellectuals.) I have at hand a slim book of Mitra’s essays in Bengali (written during 1957-1974), all of 135 pages, where he writes about or reviews the work of Bertolt Brecht, Mary McCarthy, Buddhadeb Bose, James Baldwin, Achintya Sengupta, Bishnu Dey, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre and Karl Marx – besides commenting at length on the contemporary Indian political climate, its challenges and threats, and the general decline in the standards of political morality all around. (One essay, written in 1972, uncannily presages the 1975 Emergency clamped by Indira Gandhi as well.)

He could – indeed he did – write with great feeling and deep knowledge about popular Bengali music post Rabindranath Tagore. And with equal felicity he could critique Nabokov’s Lolita or review P.C. Mahalanobis’s contribution to India’s planning architecture. In all this, he closely resembled the man he perhaps most looked up to in Indian academia: Professor Dhurjati Prasad Mukherjee of Lucknow and Aligarh Muslim Universities, a true Renaissance spirit who trained two generations of Indian sociologists, economists and historians and whose versatility and brilliance is the stuff of legend. Mitra’s foreword to professor Mukherjee’s book of reminiscences is a disciple’s homage to the master, and encapsulates Mukherjee’s exceptional qualities of head and heart in memorable prose.

Poetry, prose and a prattler’s tale

And Ashok Mitra’s prose seldom failed to sparkle. He was one of the most accomplished practitioners of the prose-writer’s craft in Bengal, and also one of the most readable, holding his own in a field which boasted such stalwarts as Buddhadeb Bose, Sudhindranath Dutta, Abu Sayeed Ayyub, Premendra Mitra, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Samaresh Bose  and Subhash Mukhopadhyay. Poetry had been his first love, and one presumes it stayed very close to his heart right till the end. His prose had absorbed the lyricism of the best poetry written in Bengali, but it also was chiselled with a fine workman’s hammer, and could thus be both robust and delicate, mellow and full-bodied all at the same time.

He could handle pathos and irony, exultation and despair with equal ease. Remarkably, he wrote in English with nearly the same elan, as his Calcutta Diary and The Hoodlum Years, written for the Economic and Political Weekly or his Cutting Corners, for the Telegraph, amply bear out. Like his mentor D.P. Mukherjee, Mitra also chose not to target his writing at the scholarly crowd, and hence his ‘popular’ writing is far more widely known, and is more copious, than the specialist literature that issued from his pen. Indeed, he seemed often to speak somewhat dismissively about his own professional work, of professional  economics even. That, however, does not stop him from speaking affectionately, sometimes also with great respect, of some his colleagues and students who made their mark in academia and the cultural world. A Prattler’s Tale, his memoirs first written in Bengali in 2003 and later done into English, abounds with sensitively-told stories about his teachers, his students and his many colleagues and friends from all over the world.

For Mitra, the world at large mattered as much as the home, because both by temperament and by training, he was a citizen of the world, equally at home in Rabindra Sangeet and in a Brecht play staged by the Berliner Ensemble. And yet, A Prattler’s Tale could only have been written by an educated middle-class Bengali who lived his most formative years in and around Kolkata in the 1940s-50s. The spirit of those turbulent years has been captured with remarkable skill here, particularly that of the world whose denizens were poets and aspiring poets, also bohemians of several kinds. The flavour and texture of the narrative is typically urban Bengal’s.

Mitra revels in anecdotes that shine an unforgiving light on hypocrisy, arrogance and pettiness, but his special favourites are bigots and political turncoats. Somewhere in his memoirs he tells a charming story about the proceedings of a committee set up by Indira Gandhi in 1967 to go into the desirability/feasibility of a ban on cow slaughter, after rampaging mobs of sadhus had laid siege to the parliament in November 1966 demanding such a ban. The members included the Jagatguru Shankaracharya of Puri and M.S. Golwalkar of the RSS, among others, and both Mitra and Verghese Kurien (of ‘Amul’ fame) were in attendance as consulting  experts. After days of interminably long, animated discussions, in course of which the Jagatguru bored everyone stiff, Kurien and Mitra conspired to have some fun at His Eminence’s expense. An extensive tour of Amul’s Anand facility (in Gujarat) was arranged for the committee’s relaxation, during which each member was presented with several boxes of premium Amul paneer, to everyone’s delight.

The next morning, in course of the committee’s weighty deliberations, Kurien nonchalantly let it out that the excellent paneer had been processed with fat from the liver of young heifers. The Jagatguru was far from amused, but Kurien and Mitra had had their revenge. Mitra rounds off this story with an attractive post-script: just a few months later, he found himself billeted with Golwalkar in the same train coupe while traveling to some place. An exceedingly polite man, Golwalkar treated Mitra to some very civilised conversation about this, that and the other, and then each man opened his bag to pick out books to read. Mitra noticed to his delight that Golwalkar’s traveling companion was “a juicy Henry Miller offering”. This, for Mitra, was clinching evidence that India was indeed a country of countless mysteries.

If Ashok Mitra had a blind spot, though – and he inevitably had one, after all he was only human – it was the fact that he carried within him some of the rigidities that clouded the horizons of many old-school Marxists in some measure. Thus, as unlikely as it may sound, he seemed to believe till the end that the fall of the Soviet Union was the result of a set of fortuitous circumstances and the absence of a proper leadership that could have stemmed the tide of a frenzied craving in the ordinary Russian for a bourgeois existence a la western Europe.

In a person capable of so much lucid, original thinking, who also had truly cultivated tastes in most things and could take an enlightened view of many vexed issues in both the political and the cultural worlds, his judgements could also at times take one by surprise – for example, his quite poor opinion of the later work of Subhash Mukhopadhyay, and indeed his rather dim view of the poet as a human being.

On balance, however, Mitra’s was a unique persona in the Indian political universe. In intellectual ability and accomplishment, as also in the courage of his convictions, he towers over the whole bunch of unimaginative, mediocre and cowardly hangers-on that crowd much of the country’s political space today. Years ago, before M.J. Akbar had decided to abandon his liberal worldview for the sake of saffron pastures, he had commented at Samar Sen’s passing that, at a time when the world was crawling with frauds, Sen had been anything but a fraud. One is not sure if Mitra counted Sen as his mentor, but it would have gladdened his heart to know that, like Sen, he will also be remembered, as much by his detractors as his admirers, as one who lived his life as a real man.

Anjan Basu freelances as a literary critic, translator and commentator. He can be reached at As Day is Breaking is Basu’s book of translations from the work of the noted Bengali poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay.

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