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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 50

A Communist Rishi

Monday 3 December 2007, by Gopalkrishna Gandhi


I began a letter sent to Professor Hiren Mukerjee in December 1998 with the traditional ‘Pujya Hirenbabu’. I was not sure whether the veteran Marxist leader would like that worshipful form of address. Came the reply written in his distinctive hand: “You were right in guessing that I do not take kindly to being addressed as ‘Pujya’, but of course I am grateful for the generosity behind it.”

There was no generosity operating there. I had just then read the remarkable text of his speech on ‘The Glory of Sanskrit And Its Relevance To Our Life Today’. A more erudite work on the subject could not have been expected or received from any pandit of ancient religious lore. Nor one with a more critically contemporary right to it. And I wanted to tell him how much I had benefited from it.

Hirenbabu had quoted Vidura in the speech: apriyasya cha satyasya, vakta srota cha durlabha (for the unpleasing and the truthful, speakers as well as listeners are scarce). And the equally timeless: puranamityena na sadhu sarvam (whatever is old is not, for that reason alone, necessarily right).

“I was reminded,” Hirenbabu continued in his letter, “of Motilal Nehru once writing to Jawaharlal about his impatience with the Mahatma’s ‘worshipful friend’—the Mahamana Pandit Malaviya.” Disdaining the attitude and profession of worship in my letter, he went on to treat me (as on earlier occasions) to a repast of wit, wisdom and rare historical evocation.

“I have been in my own way a Gandhi devotee, in spite of my unrepentant commkunism,” he said. “I present to you from out of my memory, a piece of rhyme in The New Statesman And Nation (circa 1935) by ‘Sagittarius’: “De Valera and his Green Shirts with their back to the wall, Hitler with his Brown Shirts riding for a fall, Mussolini with his Black Shirts lording over it all, Three Cheers for Mahatma Gandhi with no shirt at all!”

“I am sure you have inherited something of his sense of fun,” Hirenbabu continued, “didn’t he order once a new set of false teeth while starting on a ‘fast unto death’!” My not having inherited a sense of fun (or indeed anything else) from the Mahatma did not prevent me from doubling up in laughter at that anecdote. Just as my lack of scholarly credentials had not prevented me from seeing the penetrating connections Hirenbabu had established in his lecture on Sanskrit.

Citing the idyllic visions of our ancient texts, he drew attention in that address to the deviations from the ideal. He cited Kalidasa’s description of a woman: “grihini, sachiva, sakhi, mithah, priya-sishya lalite kalavidhau (housewife, yes, but also keeper of secrets, companion, one-of-a-pair, favoured student, adept in fine arts so numerous)…” And gave time-honoured descriptions of some current-day types such as :

dharma-vanijyaka (purveyor of religion).

Quoting ancient descriptions of Bharatavarsha such as Himavatsetuparyanta (from the Himalaya to the sea), Devanirmita-desam (country raised by the Gods) and the beautiful Ganga-mauktika-harini(adorned by the necklace that is Ganga), he also gave the starkly contrastive smasana-vairagya (the desolation-isolation of a smoldering crematorium).

MY generation of students at University was stirred by his description in a speech in the Lok Sabha of urban squalor: “Does the Hon’ble Prime Minister know that men vie with dogs in the streets of our cities for leavings from the rich man’s table?” It was given to two professors to be the goads to Parliament’s conscience—Acharya J. B. Kripalani and Acharya Hiren Mukerjee. Both were unsparing in their criticism of government and of the social organisations that held India in their vice-like grip. And both veterans of debate received the most undivided attention of the Treasury Benches headed by Jawaharlal Nehru. Hirenbabu’s study of Nehru, The Gentle Colossus, is as much a tribute to the objectivity and receptivity of the politics of those times as it is a critique of India’s first Prime Ministership.

Hirenbabu had another interest (besides Sanskrit) outside of his Marxist commitment: archaeology. His speeches in the Lok Sabha on the subject were remarkable for their knowledge of the contributions to Indian historical research by individuals like Sir Leonard Woolley and Sir Mortimer Wheeler and contained the most valuable suggestions for the future work of the Archaeological Survey of India.

My late uncle C.R. Narasimhan, MP from Krishnagiri, who was an enthusiast for the preservation of the fresco-secco panels in the Brihadisvara temple at Tanjore, looked upon Hirenbabu as a mentor on the subject. The Communist and Congress members of the second Lok Sabha collaborated effortlessly in the matter. And so when Hirenbabu wrote an impassioned piece at the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, he was writing as one whose historical sensibility had been shaken no less than his secular sensitivity.

It was a privilege, years later, to have heard from Hirenbabu while as I was working in Pretoria after he had come across a report of President Mandela’s conferment on Gandhi, posthumously, of the keys to the city of Pietermaritzburg where in 1893 the future Mahatma had been pitched out of the train and into destiny. It was Hirenbabu who was being generous in that communication about some observations I had made on the occasion. Hirenbabu asked me to send his greetings to my brother Rajmohan adding: “Although he and I have a different weltanschauung, I have a soft corner for him.” (He underlined the German word meticulously to signify an italicisation.)

A couple of years later I accompanied President Narayanan, as the President’s Secretary, when he went to call on Hirenbabu at his Ballygunge residence. That was Mr Narayanan’s first visit to Calcutta as President. The event was unforgettable. It was reminiscent of President Prasad’s call
on Acharya Narendra Deva or President Radhakrishnan’s on Archarya Vinoba Bhave.

Some months later, I recall, President Narayanan received a hand-written letter from Hirenbabu, one of several that had been exchanged by the two. He urged the President, as a former student of Harold Laski, to help carry the dynamics of socialist ideology from “contract to relations” even as, earlier, it had been taken from “status to contract”.

I cite this from memory but the words were more or less to that effect. To my mind this showed a remarkable ability on the part of the Marxist nonagenarian to hold fast to the core of his ideas but without denying the impact or significance of the world outside that core.

Hirenbabu had just crossed 90 at that time and was recovering from an episode of ill health. He ended that letter to the President with an anecdote. Lord Palmerston, Hirenbabu encounted, told his doctor who had predicted the death of his patient if he did not listen to medical advice: “Die? My dear doctor that is the last thing I will do!”

To how many is given the privilege of doing the ‘last thing’ with the physical, intellectual and spiritual dignity of Professor Hiren Mukerjee? And with a laughter that could check tears?

(Courtesy: The Hindu)

The author is currently the Governor of West Bengal.

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