Small Man in a Large World

There is a proverb in Bengali which, translated, runs,

While Emperors and Kings merrily fight,
The small fries suffer a dreadful plight

The words conceal deep wisdom, as amply borne out by the treatment life meted out to Nishith-babu.

Nishith-babu sold books, but he was more of a hawker than a seller. He could not afford to rent premises for a shop and carried his merchandise in a cloth bag hanging from his frail shoulder as he roamed from office to office in the Kolkata campus of the Indian Statistical Institute. Contrary to the fixed location of a normal book seller, where buyers converge, it was the clientele in his case that occupied a limited geographical boundary, to which he transported his fare from a different part of the city.

As with his customers, almost all of whom held covetable degrees in their respective disciplines and were active contributors to internationally renowned research journals, his books too bore a distinctive stamp. They were all publications of Progress Publishers in erstwhile Soviet Russia. Bingsha Shatabdi was their outlet in the College Street area in Kolkata and Nishith-babu was a private agent marketing their books.

The production quality of the Soviet books was magnificent. Yet they were cheaply priced and, hence, highly subsidized commodities. This had been an important policy of Soviet Russia, of which low-paid professors like me were the principal beneficiaries. I was able to purchase some of my prized possessions of Russian literature at throwaway prices. They included Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin and other classics, as well as great Marxist works, such as Leo Huberman's Man's Worldly Goods. He also brought me brilliantly illustrated books for children, which I would carry back home to my little son's delight.

The commission Nishith-babu received for these cheap books was, understandably enough, hopelessly inadequate. But he managed to survive somehow, being a single man in his mid-forties, living somewhere in a close to rent-free hovel. He did have a family though, especially a mother, but his relationship with the family was none too agreeable. They stopped living under the same roof, ever since he had left home as a young man, to join the Communist Party of India as a regular worker sometime around 1940. He participated in communist movements in Kolkata and the Bengal villages, sacrificing the lure of worldly success, all in the cause of a classless society. But he managed to acquire a modicum of education, either at home prior to his exodus or in night schools for party workers. Consequently, he was able to read up adequate quantities of Marxist literature, which party propaganda work necessitated.

The Bengal Government, as history informs us, banned the CPI in March 1948, with the result that Nishith-babu and his comrades landed in jail. Some of the well-known Communist leaders of today's Bengal faced similar fates, too. However, the ban was lifted eventually and Nishith-babu, still dreaming of a proletarian society, found his way back to his accustomed activities.

He was a small man, intellectually as well as ambition wise. So, he never rose above the rank of a party cadre. But his hardship was probably compensated by his illusions about world communism, till, much to his dismay, the CPI itself split and he had to choose sides. He stuck on to the mother organization, but it was the dissenting group that rose to power. His true struggles must have started around this time, since the CPI was now reduced to a much weaker organization. Its activities were too limited to keep the cadres occupied, which is what probably led to Nishith-babu's metamorphosis from a party activist into an agent for Progress Publishers.

I doubt if he could afford a square meal every day. His appearance proved this beyond a doubt. He looked famished, a thin man with prominent cheek bones and jaws, a protruding hawk like nose, wearing the same clothes everyday as he showed up regularly in the afternoon with his heavy burden of immaculately produced books. He suffered through his privation with dignity, however, for no one had ever found him either begging or borrowing.

Youth, though, can be irresponsible as well as needlessly cruel. As a result, I must sadly admit today, he was a regular target of jest for many of us. We knew about his major weakness, the CPI. So, every now and then, a few of us would surround him and offer observations that would strike him right inside the heart.

"Nishith-babu! We hear the CPI is now the principal stooge of the Congress party? Whatever you say, they are bloody hypocrites, aren't they? Mrs. Gandhi's friends, ha, ha, ha...Great communists. Did they invite you to their cocktail party last evening? "

He was totally guileless. He could never see through the mischief and immediately reacted with set phrases he had learnt by rote during the undivided party days. It was a bit like listening to a lecture in a street gathering organized by a political party. He would strike a pose and embark upon his harangue.

"No, it is the CPI (M) that has compromised with the establishment. They have forgotten the fact that the alienation of the worker from his means of production is the evil that capitalism has unleashed on innocent human beings. The only way to freedom is proletarian revolution, for that alone can prevent the exploiters from extracting surplus value produced by workers ... Democracy is an imperialist conspiracy..."and so on, and on, and on...He provided for us free entertainment in addition to cheap books.

In the meantime all of us were getting older and life started imposing responsibilities that left us little time for childish pranks. So, while he kept supplying books, our interactions gradually diminished. He, too, appeared to be less inclined to be dragged into debates. A probable cause was that an interesting development had taken place in his life at the time. We learnt that he had finally made up with his estranged family.

Age mellows us all. And Nishith-babu was no exception, I explained to myself. Although our conversations did not go beyond short greetings at this stage of his life, once in a while he made a deliberate attempt to open up, not to speak of USSR vs. China, but of someone as inconsequential as his mom. Somehow or the other, he managed to bring her up during our shorts exchanges and I found it touching. This man had lived away from the warmth of a family for a long many years and now, late in life, he had rediscovered the comfort and care of a family.

Nonetheless, there was something odd about the way he appeared to make a special effort to veer the conversation around to his mother. My suspicion was confirmed, when he walked into my office one day and sat down on the chair across the table. He did not display any books. Instead, he watched me somewhat coyly, a look that surprised me to no end. What was he after, I asked myself? Does he want to borrow money? That would be odd, I thought. This man had too much self-respect to borrow or beg. I waited in embarrassment, trying not to look straight into his eyes.

"Can you give me a piece of advice?" he began.

"Ad ... v ...v … ice?" I stammered. What possible advice is he seeking from me? I had nothing to do with politics anyway. Still, out of politeness, I continued, "Sure, but you know I am not a person anybody considers to be a repository of wisdom. My advice can land you into trouble…”

"No, no. Nothing very serious. A trivial matter really." He smiled bashfully again. "You see, my mom was saying, I am getting on with age..." His voice trailed off. I stared straight at his face now and prayed he was not saying what I thought he was saying. But my prayers fell on deaf ears, for he concluded his missive with, "She was saying it's time I got married and started a family."

This was a bombshell indeed. He must have been at least fifty-six by then. He hardly had an income to keep his body and soul together. And the idiot wanted to marry and that, too, under the pretext that he was doing so at his mother's bidding!

Despite the age I had attained at the time, I felt my immature youth rearing its head once again, but I managed to keep my giggles safely hidden inside me and encouraged him to go ahead in gallant pursuit of a wife.

"You think it is a good idea then…" he asked at his gullible best.

"Oh, why not. Sure. Has your mother found the girl yet?" He mumbled something vaguely in reply and left the room.

I learnt later from my colleagues that the same drama had been enacted in other offices, too, and each one of us was shaking in mirth at the expense of the poor chap. The gossips surrounding Nishith-babu's marriage went on for a while and, as in all such cases, slowly petered off with time. I stopped thinking about the man for yet another reason. I soon left for abroad and when I came back after two years, I joined the Delhi Campus of the Institute and stayed there for the next eight years or so.

I kept up my connections with my colleagues in Kolkata, of course, and was flying in and out every other month. On one such occasion, I recalled Nishith-babu, for his all too familiar face was not visible on any of the days I visited the Institute.

Somewhat to my shock, though not so much to my surprise, I learnt that he was dead. Only one of my younger colleagues had kept track of him till his last days and it was from him that I learnt how Nishith-babu lived out the final scenes of his life.

The finale in Nishith-babu's tragedy was not precipitated by his failure to find a bride. Of all people, believe it or not, it occurred instead on account of Mr. Mikhail Gorbachov. What with the USSR leading the bandwagon of globalization and the breaking up of the union, Nishith-babu sustained a rather deep injury. Progress Publishers ceased to exist. So, his simple means of livelihood disappeared into thin air. He had absolutely nothing to fall back upon and literally began to starve. I don't know if his loving mother came forward with help. It is unlikely, since even if she was alive, she was at least as poor as the son.

Nishith-babu died in a semi-charitable hospital in unenviable condition. The young colleague I mentioned helped as much as he could, but he had his financial and other constraints, too. The interesting thing he told me about Nishith-babu's last days was that he kept harping about a sum of hidden cash under his pillow. He was particularly worried about a wicked cousin who was after the money, though no one from his family was visible anywhere in the vicinity. The money was never discovered of course, so the expenses towards his last rites, if any, were probably borne by the same colleague.

As an economist, I have written a good deal in support of India's globalization drive. But whenever I think of the issues involved, I find it very difficult to dissociate my thoughts from a shy-faced Nishith-babu dreaming about a wife. He goofed up, not only in his larger mission to help build a classless society, but in his simpler pursuit of conjugal happiness, and died in painful neglect. I doubt that he had even embarked upon a search for his bride.

Needless to say, nothing remotely similar, in terms of fate, awaited most of the leaders who guided him during his young, impressionable age. And, as we all know, Mr. Mikhail Gorbachov won the Nobel Prize.


More by :  Dipankar Dasgupta

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