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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 31, New Delhi, July 17, 2021

A Troubadour and A Revolutionary | Durba Bose

Friday 16 July 2021, by Durba Bose

Author’s note:

Please note that this piece was written prior to the current uprising in Cuba and the efforts to stifle it by the current Cuban government.

I stand with the anti-imperialist writers and intellectuals, who denounce the cruel and continued blockade of Cuba by the United States and the repression of the Marxist intellectuals, who raise their voices against Cuba’s current government. I was heartened to learn that the intellectual and activist Frank Garcia Hernandez and his comrades were released from jail but remained concerned about the conditions that enabled their arrest in the first place. I join the calls to free all political prisoners still incarcerated in Cuba and in India---and indeed a world free of prisons.

"Part of being revolutionary is creating a vision that is more humane. That is more fun, too. That is more loving. It’s really working to create something beautiful"--- Assata Shakur.

Last night in my dream two men appeared: a poet and a revolutionary leader. These two men from different times and places, who both had set about to revolutionize our world and our collective imagination, met each other in my “dream” in the ill-fated year of 2020. This is the story of that fictional encounter.

On the seashore of a Caribbean Island two men, one old and one young, are sitting on a porch, gesturing to the wind, deeply engrossed in conversation. The young man in an olive suit is sitting on a hammock, smoking his cigar. The older man, in a long white robe, is leaning back on an armchair, holding a tall glass of a green drink, panchon, a bitter concoction of herbs, his latest invention that promises health and vitality. The reflected sunlight glistened on the older man’s long silver hair and beard. The old man, almost in whispering voice, asked his young companion:

Tell me Fidel, how did you all achieve this, what was your magic?

R. Which achievement are you referring to Mr. Tagore?

P.  Your doctors, Fidel, your health workers! I hear them announce that it’s their “revolutionary duty to help other nations” before setting off to foreign lands in the midst of disease and despair. How did your people acquire such a sense of purpose—such love for humanity—when xenophobia and nationalism have reached new heights worldwide? Even as the richest countries blame the “foreigner” for the spread of the virus and hoard their vaccines, all while holding Zoom-Zoom conferences on philanthropy, your little Island at the foot of the Empire is a beacon of hope. How did you all make this happen?

R. Through a revolution, Mr. Tagore—through our Revolution.

P. Yes, I have a vague idea about you and your people’s armed struggle—how you fought those international pirates, their puppet government, and shooed them away. But I’m curious to know about the social revolution that came after the struggle.

R. Oh, that’s a long story, Mr. Tagore. Don’t know where to start —our rebel army took power on January 1, 1959. We literally crashed their New Year’s Eve party. Our comrades were primarily poor peasants. You know what—our campesinos held on to their peasant character—their lack of hubris and their connection to the land throughout the struggle and beyond. How they managed that, I still wonder.

Anyway, the Cuban peasantry emerged as a formidable revolutionary force. There were a few elites like Che, myself, and a group of young students, but we were the minority. It was the peasant soldiers who stood at the forefront and led us where we are now.

P. How did you build trust with the poor peasants? How did you negotiate the gulf of race and class?

R. Oh of course, that was our first, most significant, hurdle. As you can guess it didn’t take place overnight. The Cuban peasants had been deceived and exploited by various ‘political mafias’ forever and they had absolutely no reason to fall for another set of false promises, no matter how genuine they might sound. So, we had to come up with a plan to earn their trust. We made a contract with them — they would provide all the necessary goods to us in exchange for cash.

This was when we were conducting the guerilla warfare from the mountains of Sierra Maestra, the poorest region of the country. We were by then known as Fidelistas...no, not a name I came up with myself. And later when we took over in 1959, our first goal was agrarian reform—returning the land to those who till the soil. And, that had a tremendous impact on the people, since then the entire society had undergone a profound transformation.

P. Could you, please, elaborate on this?

R. Well, we focused on several important issues, such as: the structure of land ownership, land use, organization of agricultural production, introduction of science and technology, agrarian economy, and development of our rural society.

P. That’s exactly what I wished for my country. [His eyes lit up].

 India, you know, is essentially an agriculture-based society too, and it’s been little over seventy years now since the nation got its independence from the colonial rule— unfortunately the crucial issues, e.g. rural reconstruction, land reform etc. still remain far-fetched dreams —with a few exceptions, e.g. Kashmir, Kerala and West Bengal—and even those are precarious and incomplete. Most of our farm workers are landless and insecure. The very farmers who nourish us with their labor are the ones who go hungry in our country. It is a scandal!

R. I know. I sent my friend Che Guevara to India as a goodwill ambassador right after the revolution. Che was keen to meet Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his idol. Nehru’s “Discovery of India” was one of the very few books that inspired young Che, you know. But the experience was painfully disappointing for him when he realized that the Nehru government had no plan to initiate any form of radical agrarian reforms. He also understood that Nehru and his ilk had no intention to challenge the feudal and religious institutions. “[There] was little to be learned from the founding fathers of modern India” he said, utterly disillusioned.

Anyway, Che later admitted that he was being a bit too harsh on Nehru. He understood Nehru’s fear that any radical change would have been counterproductive at that stage, given India’s complex ethnic, class-caste and religious composition. Anyway, I admired Prime Minister Nehru for organizing and leading the non-Alignment movement to counter the western imperialism. And India was one of the first countries to recognize our socialist government after the Revolution.

P. “The right to the land does not morally belong to the landlord, but to the peasant.” It’s not that the leaders didn’t know it, it’s that they lacked the spine to disrupt the powers that be. They just didn’t want to rock the boat.

R. You sound again like a Marxist.

P. Then our indigenous peoples were the original Marxists! Look, you don’t have to be a Marxist to figure this out. Two individuals in two different places can come to the same conclusion.

Fidel got off his hammock and gingerly brought out a bottle of famous Cuban rum from his sack. As he was about to pour the drink into the cups Tagore interrupted: Fidel, thank you. I do not drink alcohol— I have my desi ‘drink” with me. — He brought out his bottle to pour out some more of the muddy green liquid in his glass. The color caught Fidel’s attention: “what’s that?!” ---

P. An herbal medicinal juice— it helps our overall metabolic system.

Fidel: You guys have a great reserve of medicinal plants. Why doesn’t your government invest on scientific cultivation of such crops?

P. That’s a million-dollar question! — The biggest problem in India is its education system. It doesn’t encourage or nurture any sense of adventure or curiosity in young minds. Indian elite often claim that they are “excelling in science and technology”, but it is a myth, an illusion. Two hundred years of British rule has paralyzed our mind, our thoughts. Intellectual colonialism is still hindering our creativity, innovativeness.

R. Hmm... Anyway, could you please save some for us— I’d like to send a sample to the laboratory for further study. -

P. Of course.

Well, it seems that you have turned this island into a laboratory for social experiments— yours was a huge undertaking. My adventures were insignificant compared to yours, but I too tried to put into action my ideas of village reform. I founded the Institute of Rural Reconstruction in Sriniketan in a remote village, near Kolkata in 1922.

R. Now I’m truly intrigued, Mr. Tagore! — That’s quite an astounding entrepreneurship for someone whose primary area of activities were literature, music, and art!

P. In my early forties I, too, got actively involved with the Indian nationalist movement, I got lured by the anti-imperialist fervor of the moment. But soon I realized that there was a deep almost unbridgeable chasm between my ideas of independence and those of the leaderships.

The whole idea of ‘nationalism’, you know, never appealed to me. In fact, I found it a bit archaic. I made my position very clear: the imperialism is essentially an offshoot of nationalism; it carries the seeds of narrow particularism. So, my response to the British presence in India was tricky—you may call it a double critique of both British imperialist aggression and narrow bourgeois nationalism. Do you really think the “multiculturalism” and “Nation”/Statehood can cohabit? Doesn’t it sound a bit oxymoron?

I tried to explain my views in an article “Nationalism”. It was published in 1917.

R. Oh, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution—an interesting coincidence! (smiled)

P.  Yes. In that article, I argued that when this organization of politics and commerce, whose other name is Nation, becomes all powerful at the cost of the harmony of the higher social life, then it is an evil day of humanity.

Also, I strongly believe that Nation/State is essentially an organized self-interest of a whole people, where it is least human and least spiritual. This nationalism is a cruel pandemic of evil that is sweeping over our world of the present age, eating into its moral vitality.

R. Wish we could meet earlier...

P. As you can guess I had to face the music. I often found myself at odds with the Congress Party, even with Gandhi, who I once called the Mahatma. I became a pariah. Therefore, I had to distance myself from the “Swadeshi Movement” (i.e. the nationalist movement). By that time, I had developed my own vision of emancipation—not just theory. I chalked out some action plans to support our rural communities achieve self-determination.

R. How did you get in touch with the rural people?

P. That’s another story. I first came in direct contact with the peasants of Bengal. —Let me remind you again that I am referring to the undivided Bengal, i.e. before the partition of India in 1947. The British colonial power divided India on the basis of religion—you probably are familiar with that part of our history. Anyway, it was by the end of the nineteenth century, when my father sent me to Shilaidaha and Patisar, small villages, on the bank of the famous Padma River that flows between East Bengal and West Bengal, to supervise our zamindari, our family estate. See, we have a lot more in common than you’d think. Comrade, I know you have come from landowning class too (his eyes twinkled with humor).

R. Haha...

P. So, this family assignment gave me an opportunity to acquire first-hand knowledge about the living condition of the rural population, their hardship and poverty. I have told you earlier about the ideological discord that had developed between the Congress and myself. I urged the leaders to invest in basic needs especially in the villages—build atma-shakti, what you might call “self-power.” Mind you, my idea of self-power is antithetical to the atma-nirbhar model of the 21st century governments...I am calling on the hidden strength of the collective, not the idea that every individual must be left to fend for himself in a society ruled by the tyranny of the market.

We needed to prepare a “Swadeshi Samaj,” building a strong indigenous society—mere transfer of power through agitational politics and negotiations between the British Raj and the elite leadership of the Congress was never going to fulfill the promise of self-determination for our people.

But of course, our leaders did not seem to think our rural people are worthy of real education. And I feared this arrogance would doom us.

 I was very apprehensive about what I foresaw. I feared that in a complex and diverse society like India, fascism would return under the disguise of ‘patriotism’ and rationalize it in the name of ‘national unity’ once the common enemy the British Raj is gone. They will not have anyone else to blame, so will start hating each other. The leadership and the followers dismissed it as a poet’s unfeasible, romantic ideas.

Now, my worst nightmare has come true.

R. You were much ahead of your time, Mr. Tagore. Anyway, tell me about your own experiences with rural India.

P.  As I told you earlier, I was asked to visit our family estate in East Bengal, now Bangladesh. My wife and children used to accompany me on my ‘field trips’. Actually, as a couple that was the only way we could escape the baggage of our large feudal family to enjoy each other’s company away from prying eyes.

We used to live on a bajra, houseboat, on the Padma River. My initial plan was to devote my leisure time to writings. But I often had to leave my desk and got out of the boat to supervise our estate. That was an eye-opening experience for me. I realized that the heart of India lies in its village. Therefore, the entire movement would be a futile exercise if we ignore our rural community.

Unfortunately, I failed to persuade my politician friends. I had to take up the challenge. Don’t get me wrong, I never felt that I was equipped or competent enough for such an undertaking. But couldn’t stay aloof either. I chose ‘Shilaidaha’ and later ’Patisar’ as my first laboratories (now parts of Bangladesh). I was lucky, a few committed and skilled enthusiasts, like Kalimohan Ghosh, joined me in my venture despite his frail health. He was recovering from malaria and his name was already in the police record.

We began to organize the villagers to work together—they began repairing roads, sewerage, and drainage systems.

R. You mean the basic infrastructure?

P. Yeah. And that includes small business adventures too. Jute was a major cash crop of the region. So, we tried to run small-scale factories—jute mills, brick kilns, sugar crushing mill etc. In Patisar, we opened a “Krishi Samovaya Bank”, a cooperative bank for the peasants. Later I deposited a portion of my Nobel Prize money there too, just to revive its function. We were also able to introduce medical facilities.

R. So, what you aimed for is community engagement?

P. Yes, that’s the key—that’s the only way to achieve true freedom. Anyway, who am I to preach Fidel Castro about community development?

R. Now you are embarrassing me!

 How did you motivate the peasantry? What was your magic?

P. My trust in the people. I never doubted the hidden power, the atma shakti of the peasantry. Despite all my effort I had no illusion that I would be perceived as an outsider. So, I never tried to play the role of a benevolent landlord. It was a conscious decision. “Man cannot do good to those whom he does not respect”

I had faith in the dormant energy and creativity of the people that had been suppressed by our feudal system. I essentially tried to act as a catalyst—trying to create conditions that would facilitate their innovative and cooperative efforts that are essential to realizing the promise of self-determination.

R.  You are a Revolutionary!

P. Oh no, I am just a Baul—a Troubadour, remember? (smiled)

R. Baul?

P.  Yes, Baul. They are wandering minstrels, village singers. The Bauls may be spiritual, but they are not religious, at least not in the usual sense of the term. They belong to a popular faith community of Bengal. In Bangladesh (then East Bengal) they are known as “Fakirs.” These Bauls and Fakirs do not worship idols, they do not have shrines or temples. Neither do they follow any sacred texts or ceremonial traditions. Their songs are about the sanctity and splendor of human existence, universal love for human beings and Nature. These “unsophisticated” men and women lead a very simple, unpretentious life. They worship the God of Humanity. God as Superpower is irrelevant to them, they consider God as an extension of human existence. Our Baul-Phakirs do not believe in the institution of marriage either—true nonconformists!

After listening carefully Fidel responded:

R. Then your Bauls are revolutionaries too.

P. Yes, more revolutionary than I could ever be...as my daughters would attest.

Indeed...Bauls have been a part of a socio-cultural movement, known as “Bhakti Movement,” —it emerged as a popular movement against the Brahminic orthodoxy; it has a deep connection with Sufism. “Bhakti’’ meaning devotion.

R.  You know, you remind me of my hero Jose Martí. His full name was Jose Julian Martí Perez (1853-1895). This was the man who organized and led the movement against the Spanish and freed Cuba from colonial rule, like Gandhi. However, I guess temperamentally he was more like you than Gandhi. He was a poet, philosopher, teacher, essayist, publisher, and much more.

The old man smiled and began humming a tune: “Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera....”

R. [Looking baffled] Who taught you the song?

P.  A friend of mine, she was from Argentina (smiling)

R. Wow! So, you had an Argentinian admirer too?

Anyway, I’m going to address you as Comrade Tagore from now on, if you don’t mind, of course.

P. I would be delighted...but you wouldn’t be the first to call me Comrade — the Russians children already did when I visited their country (smiled).

R.  You visited Russia; I mean the Soviet Union/USSR too?

P.  Yeah, I think it was 1930, if I’m not entirely mistaken...

R. How did you manage that, man—you guys were under the British Rule at that time!

P.  Do you think it was easy for me?! Almost everyone discouraged me, including Gandhiji. So, I had to find a different channel to contact the young socialists. Ultimately, one of my nephews, Suren, introduced me to the young activists. He was an active member of “Anushilani Samiti”, a “terrorist” group. Again, do not get me wrong, do not assume that I supported their violent path, but I always had a soft corner for them. Never doubted their sincerity and commitment, — often felt conflicted. I allowed them to use my “ashram’ as shelter whenever they needed to hide from the ‘authority’ (smiled)

R.  Oh my! Why didn’t the Britishers put you in jail, I would have!

P.  You think they didn’t wish that? They spied on me wherever I went. I was one of the most “Suspicious Persons” on their list. Unfortunately, their hands were tied—by that time I had bagged the Western World’s highest honor—the Nobel Prize(smiled). The first Asian Nobel Laureate —probably the first person of color. By that time, the shadow of the World War was looming over...I started getting invitations from various countries. Became famous overnight, a globetrotter too. The Baul inside me always seeks out all the unknown corners of the world to acquire new experiences. I went out into the unknown world with my “ektara” (a simple musical instrument that bauls use) again. The western world perceived me as a Messiah, a mystic poet, a sage from the East.

[sighs]

They failed to understand me, you know. And I knew my physical appearance and my clothing reinforced that image they wanted to see—but that’s their problem! [laughed]

R. Well, tell me more about your “Russia visit” and your love affairs with the socialists and/ communists.

P.   Russia profoundly/radically changed my worldviews, you may say.

R. How?

P.  Well, in almost all mainstream societies there are commoners, who perform manual labor—but they are considered as the most insignificant, —even though these “nameless” are the majority. Their job is to bear the burden of all the physical labor that make our lives possible, the upper crust of the society. These nameless people have no access to the riches they produce. These people merely survive on our leftovers. It is as though they are the pilsuj, the candlesticks—their job is to carry the light on their heads to illuminate the upper echelons of the society, while they remain in darkness—only molten wax drips off their bodies. I always found this status que hard to accept as the natural order of things. But ultimately, my feudal upbringing taught me to accept such social order as pre-destined.

The Russian experience liberated me from this bankrupt notion. Had I not come to Russia my life’s pilgrimage would have remained incomplete.

As I wrote to my friends and family members from Russia, I fell in love with that country. Through their revolution, Russia sought a radical solution to this historical question of whether society can ever be free of inequality. But I tempered my enthusiasm, knowing that the time had not come yet to make a final judgement about the fruits of this grand social experiment.

 In spite of my own skepticism, I would have to admit that their tremendous achievements in literacy, public education, and healthcare were indeed awe-inspiring. But you know, despite all the accomplishments I noticed some serious limitations of the new experiment.

R.  Hmm...We all love Russia/USSR, and personally I will always remain grateful to the Soviets for being there for us when we needed them most as a friend. The collapse of the Soviets hit our economy severely. —But Cuba survived.

Can I confide something in you?

P. Of course.

R. You know, we never wanted to follow Stalin’s footsteps blindly. The Soviet Union was not our model. I know people would find it hard to believe. But that’s the truth. In fact, we thought some form of Roosevelt’s New Deal would be more sustainable. That’s why we were initially all for free entrepreneurship, free market economy. Unfortunately, Western imperialism, especially the USA, did not allow that to happen...

P.  I, too, was completely and utterly awestruck by the Russian leadership and people’s progress. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t witnessed it with my own two eyes...the people, who had been reeling under extreme poverty and illiteracy only a few years ago, were overcrowding the art galleries, theatres, reading classics! The places and areas that used to be only open for the royals and elite are now filled with “commoners”. In fact, people thronged the gallery to see my paintings, my ‘weird’ drawings too (smiled). And they have achieved all this only within 10-13 years!

Having said that, I also noticed certain inherent contradictions, “grave defects” within the new system. And I did not hesitate to point that out either. Perhaps, in the initial phase Bolshevism was the only answer to the problem— a temporary therapeutic measure. Such a state-imposed socialism is bound to be doomed.

R. Why do you say that?

P. It’s quite obvious, Fidel. The Russian experiment did not have the inner strength to “bear the burden of eternity”. A system that does not have negative feedback, cannot last. I admired Soviet endeavors in the field of public education and health. But it was hard to overlook the lack of freedom—freedom of thought and self-expression. “The freedom of thought enables one to grasp the truth, while fear kills it...” [1]

the

You see, Fidel, you cannot go against human nature. I personally don’t believe in private property. For people like you and me—it’s not important. But, in the lives of most people private property plays a crucial role. “[P]ersonal property is the language of [their] individuality”. “Had it been merely a means of earning one’s livelihood and not of self-expression, it would have been easier to convince him by argument that one improves one’s livelihood by parting with it.”

R.  But how are you going to control the impact of excessive individualism, euphemism of greed?

 P. Yes, it’s tricky. I understand that. Desire for private property is natural because desire is natural. You cannot make a system sustainable if you ignore or violate this very basic fact: you cannot take away property rights by force.

R. This is completely befuddling!

P.  Just suggesting a solution. You will have to allow people to have a sense of property rights, at the same time you will have to channel that natural human instinct to serve the common good. And, we can achieve that through some form of a cooperative movement. The Soviets were making a huge mistake, and I knew that they would have to pay a tremendous price.

 Let me tell you about one of my personal experiences: when I visited Russia, I really hoped to watch a stage production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” It seemed impossible. I heard that in Hitler’s administration the classics were judged on the basis of “ethnicity.” But I never imagined the Bolsheviks would turn out to be similarly myopic. Yes, Chekhov was a writer of the pre-revolution era, and belonged to the bourgeoisie, and so was Tolstoy. I thought rich classics like “Chekhov” would be cherished and treasured in post revolution Russia too!--- In fact, I’m a bit apprehensive about the future cultural trend in India too. As you know the Indian socialists are heavily influenced by Bolshevism. What if they try to imitate them blindly and try to control every aspect of our cultural life, even literature “Then what Marxist graveyard lies ahead?”

R.  I share your concern, I really do. But let’s not make the same mistake that others do, my friend, let’s not equate Bolshevism with Marxism— I personally believe that would be unfair to Marx, if we blame for all the mistakes, all the aberration done in the name of Marxism. When I think back, I can see that people everywhere adopted to use “Marxism” as a mere economic paradigm, ignoring and ripping it off the broad humanist aspect of Marx’s works. I guess that had happened in China too, Mao made the same mistake.

T.  Hmmm...

R.   So, self-power and effective community engagement were your mantra? But in the absence of a nationwide agrarian revolution how did you think your poor peasant could achieve that?

P.  Again, through cooperative movement, which I called “samavaya”. By the way, I am not claiming that it was entirely my original idea—the basic concept was already there in Ireland. Later my Russia trip strengthened my belief.

Look, initially I tried to appeal to other landlords to join me, I naively thought they would be able to protect the poor peasants from the greedy moneylenders. But I was wrong. I realized that the wealth in the hand of the rich could never solve the problem of abject poverty of the mass, only the poor themselves had the power to do so. “Trickle-down-economy” is a hoax.

R.  You got that right (Ha ha)

P. It took me a while, but I finally understood the dynamics—I realized that redistribution of wealth was the only solution.

“Today economic power has been captured by a small minority. But it has acquired this power only by accumulating the productive power of others. Their capital is simply the accumulated labor of millions of working people, in a monetized form. It is this productive power that is real capital, and it is this power that latently resides in every worker."

R.  You have a very clear perception of the problem, Comrade. How did you plan to implement the idea? I’m curious because we had our own form of agricultural cooperatives too in post-revolution Cuba.

P.  Look, in our contemporary world I witnessed the enormous rise and intensification of capitalism throughout the world. The rich were exploiting the labor of the poor, humongous accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few. “But in a cooperative system there was no scope for one becoming stronger at the expense of another through various devious means”. I wrote a play “Red Oleanders” right after my visit to the USA. Got a copy for you.

R.  Oh, really? Thank you.

P. Yes. It’s a play where I tell a story of a mythical society “Jakshapuri”. In Indian mythology ‘Jaksha’ is the god/demon whose sole purpose is to accumulate material wealth and hold onto it—essentially a hoarder of material wealth. Nandini, the protagonist is a woman, who embodies Nature, confronts the King, greedy, authoritarian ruler, who he hides from his people behind a seemingly unbreakable fence. People can only hear his roars. Everyone is scared of him, except Nandini. Undaunted by this masculinist power, Nandini finally emancipates not just the oppressed, but, in the process, liberates the oppressor as well. Eventually, the almighty king comes down from his throne and joins Nandini and her followers—the common people, “the proletariat,” as you call them, and they tear down “Jakshapuri,” the oppressive system together.

You know what, I see my “Nandini” in you (smiled).

R. Oh, that’s probably the most emphatic endorsement I have ever received! Thank you, thank you, Comrade.

P.  I did not have the opportunity to conduct a revolution, nor had I any political power to bring about an overall transformation. I just tried to intervene with my very limited resources and my very own down-to-earth schemes. I tried to explain the very basic principles of cooperative techniques to the poor peasants. I told them “what was not possible for one, would be possible if you all are united. The people who had always cultivated their lands separately should combine their lands, plough, barns, and other tools. Then they would be able to buy modern machines, they would have the capital. The same principle can also be applied to organize healthcare and education at the village level. I also tried to introduce “mandali”, later to be known as “Panchayat”— essentially a local village body represented by residents. The representatives or panchayat members would be elected by the common rural people.

R. Got it, a government body at the village level.

P.  That’s right. It is nearly impossible to govern a diverse and vast country like India just by having a Central Government. We need to decentralize power. Democracy cannot mature or thrive in a centralized system.

R.  Let’s go back to your original question. You asked me what the ‘magic’ was behind today’s Cuba’s “Doctors without Borders’’. — We had to make the whole healthcare system an integral part of the socialist society. The new government made public health and education as its priority. Obviously, there wasn’t any instant solution at hand. But from the very beginning our emphasis was on community development, just like you. We had to strike a deal with the people believe me it wasn’t easy! they had to give up some of their rights, including wage increase, for state protection in exchange for social protection. The Rural Medical Service, “el servicio medico rural”, was established to reach the remotest corners of the rural areas. The medical team there were experienced physicians, and it also had young medical apprentices. And their goal was to improve disease prevention and access to medical services. The radical change came during the 70s, when Dr. Cristina Luna (she was the national director of Ambulatory Care) initiated the real reform. As a result, multi-specialty family polyclinics were established across the country. Alma-Ata—healthcare for all was our slogan [2]

P. How did you manage the finance?

R. Entirely by the State---by using the surplus value of workers’ wages. Emphasis on community and disease prevention are the keys to the success of Cuban healthcare system. You wouldn’t find any huge, isolated hospitals on the island anymore, instead we have integrated the healthcare service with the communities. The service has been organized at the local level, where 7-8 doctors are allocated to serve a group of 1000 patients. The physicians and health workers serve the patients of the same neighborhood where they themselves live. Such arrangements helped develop a communal relationship between the physician and his patients.

P. Hmm, a holistic approach. But such innovative works demand incentives. How did you ensure incentives in the absence of the “free-market economy”?

R. The State provides that incentive. The Cuban government encourages the youth to study medicine. It also offers the opportunities to research and practice medicine. They are often sent to other countries to acquire experiences and learn modern methods and technology. The Cuban government has achieved a great deal in the area of biotechnology. They have turned this into an integral part of their healthcare program too. As a result, they have a very firm infrastructure for production, which again has helped the national economy. The State has subsidized innovative initiatives and technological development directly.

P. I envy you. Fidel. Anyway, I finally invested all my energy to build a model village in Birbhum District, where I launched several programs, e.g. literacy, malaria eradication—as part of health cooperative, agricultural cooperatives. Also, established a school for the village children. I named it “Shiksha Satra,” which literally means “where education was given free.”

R.  Yes, I have heard about your unorthodox approach to education. I am curious, because we too tried to radicalize the education system too, we had to...now, education in Cuba is a right, not a class privilege anymore. It obviously did not take place overnight. I’m not going into the details of how we reached the mass. I’d rather like to tell you about our basic pedagogical model that we adopted. We were lucky to have Armando Hart and Hermino Almendros, two committed educationists to help us. The model they introduced was a version of the Liberal Arts model—the guiding lines for their public school, known as the Dewey Model. Inspired by these ideas Hart pointed out that books and class lectures should not be the only source/tool for the children. Their minds need to acquire nutrients from other sources too—they should be encouraged to engage in all kinds of imaginative mental and physical activities, experimentations. Such an educational approach is the best antidote for the malignancy of capitalist imperialism.

P.  Oh! You Marxists are always stealing my ideas (laughed). Never imagined that I would find another “Shantiniketan” in the middle of a Caribbean Island!

R. Haha-ha... Please, tell me about your own experiments, in “Shyan-ti-ni-ketan” —did I say it correctly?

P. Almost (smiled)—my “The Abode of Peace.” Education should be as broad as humanity itself—I figured this out at a very early age.

I, myself, was a school dropout kid, the claustrophobic environment of the traditional schools repelled me.

R.  O, really?

P. Yeah. I was homeschooled. No, no, it’s not what you think...my father understood me and that’s why he pulled me out of school. He realized that I would be a “misfit” ...Whatever his shortcomings...I will always be grateful to him for this act. He believed in his child—not many fathers can say that about themselves.

Of course, we were extremely privileged, and my father was able to arrange to have scholars come and tutor me at home...he established an entire university within our Kolkata residence. Though he was able to pull this off because of his privilege, it was also a slap in the face to the British who were hell-bent on “civilizing” us through their schooling.

The Britishers destroyed our indigenous schools and replaced it with a mechanical system that served their narrow purpose—just to be pegs in the machinery of imperialism.

R: Your father sounds like a man of vision. You must have had a wonderful childhood!

P: I wish I could say that...yes, my father was a man of visions, but full of his own contradictions...and feudal society limited his imagination. Though I did not have to go to school, I grew up in a golden cage of sorts.

My siblings and I grew up in a large opulent feudal household. We, the children, spent most of our day under the care of male babysitters, barely allowed to spend time with our mothers. They used to keep us literally confined within a room. Luckily there was a huge window in that room— that was my only connection to the outside world—even after all these years I can still see the reflection of the Banyan tree by the pond, kids jumping in the water (his eyes filled with tears). My own childhood experiences had become valuable life lessons.

Every child is born with endless creative possibilities. But they need the right kind of environment to flourish. Close contact with nature is crucial for children—it help them unleash their potential.

R. And that is why you founded an open-air school. By the way, what your father did was radical too.

P.  Yes, I know, given his social milieu— yeah, that was a radical act.

Critical thinking and awareness of oneself as a global citizen—these two values were of central concern. Instead of acquiring skills mechanically, children should be encouraged to ask questions, even of the authority figures at school and at home.

R. Now, you remind me of Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian educationist. Okay, I will invite Paulo next time when you visit us, here, in Cuba...Have you noticed yet that our spooky-situation has a tremendous advantage—no Homeland Security, no visa problems?

P. Ha ha ha

R. You once imagined a world that “has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls...”—see now we have reached that “Promised Land”— just by being Spooky!

P.  Don’t be so pessimistic, Fidel (smiled). You know the motto of my learning center, Visva Bharati, is “jatra visvam vabati eka neeram,”—that is, “where the whole world meets to make a single nest.” Despite the best efforts of the forces, fascism and capitalism, this spirit still lives in my little corner of the world. As we speak, the entire community has organized a movement against the local ethnonationalist, fascist goons. They are determined to break down all the walls—not just metaphorically and physically too.

R. Alright, I will go there and join the march.

P. Don’t think that’s a good idea. [Raising an eyebrow]

R. Don’t worry, I won’t scare them—I will have to just borrow one of your ‘robes’.

P. Sounds like a plan—my ‘jobbas” (smiled)

R.  “Viswa Bharati”—where the whole world has come to make a single nest! Can’t imagine more effective anti-fascist mission statement! Wish my friend Che were here. He shared your philosophy, and he was a poet too!

P. Can’t you invite Che to join us?

R. Great idea, next time we will have our unique Halloween Party!

P.  My friends, the Bauls, will bring the music!

R.  I will introduce them to our Caribbean Baul—Bob Marley!

[The poet began humming a song: “ami kothay pabo tare/amar moner manush je re...” Where shall I find Him’/Her, my soulmate/ I’m looking everywhere for Him/Wandering place to place...]

 R.  You know, people often ask me whether it was Marxism, Socialism or Communism. My answer has always been this: we tried to do what needed to be done, and never tried to give any specific ideological label to it. I guess it should be defined simply as ‘Cuban and Humanist’. Our revolution and/government is neither capitalist nor communist. See, we have a lot more in common than you thought! Cuba has embraced your ‘mantra’ wholeheartedly.

The Troubadour moved slowly near the shore and picked up a sea-shells, gazing at the horizon

P.  Any regrets, Fidel?

R. Many —we failed our women and what we did to good people out of our fear of homosexuality...I often find it so hard to forgive myself... "There were moments of great injustice, great injustice!" They were sent to the Labor Camp. We thought that hard physical labor would make them more “masculine” —“It’s all on me”, you know, “it’s all on me”... [3]

Now my niece, Mariela and her friends, are trying to clean up the mess we made...The new generation is so much wiser.

P. Hmm...I have often suspected that perhaps this masculinity-femininity—this binary is not natural at all. I felt this in my heart even when I was young. My family members, especially my sisters thought there’s something seriously wrong with me—I was not purush enough (‘man’ enough)...(he laughed)—I didn’t care much though. Even my enlightened family didn’t dare to challenge the basic feudal structure. When I look back, I see my life as a long struggle against our feudal values—as a man, as a husband, as a poet and as a social activist. I once hoped, just like everyone else, that the emerging capitalism of our time would break down the age-old feudal structure—a positive outcome. Now, I see that it has accommodated the feudal values quite comfortably within its new mold.

R. So true. Unfortunately, we failed to pay attention to the questions women were raising within the Revolution. I’ll have to admit that the very term “Feminism” irked us, we dismissed it as purely ‘Western Propaganda’. We were not aware of the existence of Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells at that time! We were woefully ignorant...

P.  I knew something great would emerge one day from all this chaos and pain:

“Alas, shadowy Africa,

Under your black veil

Your human aspect remained unknown,

Blurred by the mark of contempt,

Others came with iron menacles,

With clutches sharper than the claws of your own wolves:

Slavers came,

With an arrogance more benighted than your own dark jungles.

Civilization’s barbarous greed

Flaunted its naked inhumanity...” --- from my “Ode to Africa”--- the first version was published in the late thirties. The final version came out in the late thirties when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. The same Mussolini whom I once admired for his passion for Art and Culture!

R.  Is that your only regret?!

P. Oh no—I have my fair share of blunders and regrets too. I failed my own children, especially daughters. All my daughters (I had three) — they quietly began to question and challenge the social norms as they were growing up—that really scared me. I married them off very early. My second daughter, Renuka, was a rebel...violently unsuited for the cage that is marriage.

R. What happened to them when they grew up?

P. They didn’t. Only Meera, my youngest daughter, survived and Rathi, my eldest son.

R.  (Sighed in pain)

P. The great Russian sage was right—the institution of marriage is outdated.

— - What is your biggest fear, Fidel?

R.  Don’t want to be another “socialist deity” — the term coined by our Comrade Pablo Neruda. Don’t want the generation to follow me blindly. You wouldn’t find any poster or sculpture of Fidel Castro in Cuba when I was alive...

 P.  I’ve heard of this Neruda, the poet of Chile—and one of your people. He included one of my poems “In My Sky at Twilight”, in his book “"Twenty love poems and a song of despair.”

R. So, you understand, I hope that it was not just your “Vijaya” (Victoria Ocampo), there were many other poets in South America, who fell under your spell, even before your Argentinian sojourn (he smiled) [4]

P. You know I often felt that I should join the Communists. But always resisted the temptation. Do you know why?

R. Why, Comrade? By the way, I am not “Communist” either...

P. The communists made two major mistakes—they ignored the importance of individuality. Also, they failed to understand people’s right to religious freedom. Private property is “the language of individuality” [5] — they missed this crucial point. Self-expression is a human need too, just like food and shelter. Creative people express themselves through their creative works. For common people personal property serves that function. So, you cannot expect a system to be sustainable if it goes against human nature. Poverty is social, but ‘want’ is natural. “So, desire for land...to have something of one’s own...to pass down to the next generation... is natural.”

R.  If ownership is natural, what about the common good?

P.  Yes, I struggle with this too...In part, my answer is “Samavaya,” co-operatives. It’s tricky—because this cannot be a spontaneous initiative. We need to prepare the ground—through Education (as a movement). For poor people cultivating their tiny plots of lands individually is not a viable solution, unsustainable—they will never have the strength to stand up to the forces that are ready to engulf unless they work together. But this must be people’s conscious choice...And that’s why education is critical. The alternative is government imposed “socialism” — we certainly don’t want that.

R. You know what—you are probably the most pragmatic person I have ever met. Interestingly though, I find an element of mysticism, spiritualism in your poems. How do you reconcile these two separate selves, Comrade?

P.  My dear Fidel, you got me all wrong—they are not separate at all. My spiritual self and my activism, my day-to-day life—all my activities, even as an administrator—these are all connected by a thread of Ananto Prem, unending love for humanity. The very Human existence, as part of Nature, itself is my deity, my Religion.

[The poet, reclining back in his armchair, started humming a tune: “Mori lo mori, Sakhi, amay banshite dekechhe ke? Bhebechilem ghorei rabo/ kothao jabo na/ekhon bahire bajilo banshi/ balo ki kori?”.... “Ah me! / I do not know who sends out/ this call to me/in his flute notes./I thought I would stay at home/and not go out anywhere./ But, now that the flute notes have reached out to me/what am I to do—/pray tell me”. --- So, my friend, it’s not just me, you couldn’t ignore the Call either! Can you deny that? (His eyes twinkled with mirth and ‘mischief)

[Fidel didn’t utter a single word, rose to his feet and embraced the old man in a bear hug, with tears welled up in his eyes.]

P.  Anyway, don’t think I am naïve—I do understand that organized religions are often the source of conflicts, hatred and bloodsheds. But it will always be counterproductive if we try to forbid it. We already have experienced it. Your Karl Marx understood the complexity when he said: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

R.  Unfortunately, people often misquote it by skipping the crucial portion and we get a distorted version.

P.  What is your own stand on this?

R.  I made it very clear, “[there] are 10,000 times more coincidences between Christianity and communism than between Christianity and capitalism...We should not create those

divisions among men. Let’s respect convictions, beliefs and explanations. Everyone is entitled to his own positions, his own beliefs. We must work in the sphere of these human problems that interest us all and constitute a duty for all.” I still remember saying this to my friend Frei Betto, a Brazilian priest: ‘the Cuban nuns, who work in hospitals, the things they do are the things we want the communists to do. When they treat people with leprosy, tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases, they are doing what we want communists to do. A person who is devoted to an idea, to work, and who sacrifices himself for others is doing what we want communists to do. I say this in all frankness.”

P. Then what happened to this Openness?

R.  That’s, again, partly our failure, but you should understand what we were up against (and still are). Goals of religion and socialism/communism are the same. But “the liaison between religion and capitalism is a different story altogether”.

P.  Yes, your Christ was a Socialist, a community organizer. And so are our indigenous people. — The Santhals, indigenous people of Birbhum district, whom I first encountered during my Shantiniketan -days, gave me a lesson I’ll never forget. I had approached them with what I thought was a revolutionary idea—the idea of co-operative movement. In my naivete, I tried to emphasize that they still would own the land—thinking this would be the reassurance they needed. They first respectfully listened to my spiel. And then burst into laughter. One elderly man explained: tora kicchu bujhish lai re, — ei maati, ei Aakash, ei jol — karur sampatti loy ko—amara sabia ei matir, ei jangoler—that is “no one owns the land or the forest, we all belong to it, the forest and rivers—the land doesn’t belong to us”. — It was a humbling experience to say the least.

R. Yes, Indigenous people are our only hope for survival now. Just look at the example from the Americas—from the young indigenous leaders like Evo Morales, the tribes fighting to save the rain forest in Brazil, to the Water Protectors up North—they are the last hope against the predictable mess Capitalism’s got us into.

[The twilight fell. The pale stars began to appear in the sky. The ‘troubadour’ looked up and started singing again in a very low tone:

Jagote anondo joggey

Amar nimontrano.

Dhanyo holo, dhanyo holo manaba-jeebano....”

“I have my invitation to this world’s festival,

And thus my life has been blessed. 

My eyes have seen

And my ears have heard.

It was my part at this feast to play upon

My instrument, and I have done all I could.

Now, I ask, has this time come at last?

When I may go in and see thy face and offer thee

My silent salvation?

 P. My friend, I guess we are both invited to join the World’s Festival!

R. Do you see the ocean liner over there near the shore?

P. Yes, I can see people boarding the ship, they seem to be in quite a hurry.

R. They are a team of trained doctors and nurses, heading for Italy and other countries, to help them fight the current coronavirus outbreak. By the way, you probably haven’t noticed it yet—they named it ‘Geetanjali”—after all it’s our joint offering to humanity...

P.  What are we waiting for then?! Let’s join the peace warriors!

R. Sure. But I just want to show you something before we leave.

P. All right then, I am at your mercy now (smiled)

The two men went to the backyard of Fidel’s cottage. A beautiful kitchen- garden filled with lush green foliage caught the old man’s eye.

P. It seems that you are a devoted agriculturalist too!

R.  This has become my hobby now --- by the way, have you recognized the crop?

P.  (After scrutinizing the garden closely)—O ma! Shojne dnata! I think they call them Drumsticks, in English.

R.  We call it ‘moringa’ in Spanish. It was Che who first brought the seeds, here, from Kerala.

He learned about the plant’s tremendous nutritional and medicinal value during his visit to India.

It’s a miracle plant! The best gift from India! The extract has helped me recover from my acute intestinal trouble. We later discovered that it had a tremendous nutritional value. You have already visited our biotechnological Institute. Our scientists have made a powder from its extract and sent it to Haiti. It’s a remedy for hunger [6]

P. Oh, this is wonderful!

R. Anyway, the Gringos obviously thought that we are making chemical weapons in those Laboratories [ha ha]

The two men held each other’s hands as they slowly moved towards the shore. Their mild laughter echoed through the palm trees and the ascending moon slowly began to shine patchily through the clouds.

(Author: Durba Bose is a freelance writer, who writes primarily about education and democracy from an intersectional feminist perspective. Her works have previously appeared in Man and Development and Parabaas)

The books and articles that inspired this piece:

  • Anderson, Joe Lee, “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life”, Grove Press: New york, 1997
  • Banerjee, Sumanta, “Spooky Encounters: Gossip and banter with Marx” (Translated by Shampa Banerjee), Thema, 2018
  • Battachacharjee, Mausumi, "Politics of Translation: Rabindranath Tagore’s Russiar Chithi (1930) https://www.academia.edu/8413648/Politics_of_Translation
  • “Fidel and the Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto”, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi,1987
  • Huberman, Leo and Sweezy, Paul M. “Cuba: Anatomy of a Revolution”, Monthly Review Press, 1960
  • Kshitis Roy, “Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems and Songs”, Thema, 2012
  • Radice, William, “Africa”, “Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems”, Penguin Books, 2005
  • Tagore, R.N. “Chithipatra” (Bengali), Visva Bharati, 1974
  • Tagore, R.N. “Gitanjali” (English), 1912
  • Tagore, R.N. “Russiar Chithi” (“Letters from Russia”), Visva Bharati, 1960
  • Tagore, R. N. “The Cooperative Principle” (Ed. By Pulinbehari Sen), Visva Bharati, 1963
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