Friday, August 26, 2011

How I Got Here: 1

My parents came from two very different families, and my childhood was defined by the differences.

My father's side of the family was rich and entrepreneurial, mostly self-taught, fiercely independent, disciplined and hardworking. My father, the first to go to university and with his teaching job at a college, was as much a misfit in the family as one could be. The family, led by the family patriarch, my grandfather's eldest brother, was apolitical, somewhat elitist and focused on building a great business. My father's popularity as a teacher and his superb musical skills would be fondly referred to, but his profession was almost treated as a hobby.

My mother's side was exactly the opposite. They were not in business: They were in politics and public service. My grandfather went to jail fighting for India's freedom, and my mother's elder brother was a leading light in the extreme left movement in Calcutta in the early Seventies and died a premature death when the Police shot him in his sleep. Other members of the family served as local Councillors and taught in schools, while their house was a hub for leftist politics in the city in the 60s and early 70s. All of them went to the university and got advanced degrees. True to the traditions of the house, my mother did a Masters in English Literature but learned and spoke fluent Russian. She would later turn down an invitation to go and work in Soviet Russia as she was expecting her first child, me, a few years later.

Unsurprisingly, my mother met my father at the University.

Despite these differences, there were common threads between the two families and this made my childhood happy. All of them loved books and music. Indian culture, Sanskrit, Hindustani Classical Music, Tagore's songs and poetry, Hindu scriptures and epics, were embedded in my everyday growing up. Both the houses were full of books of various kinds, and I could go on a journey of exploration from Vedas to Marx on my own. Interestingly, Gandhi was reviled on both sides: At one side, for not going far enough and stalling any armed insurrection during India's struggle for independence and for 'selling out' to the Indian bourgeoisie, and on the other, for undermining the great Bengali nationalist leaders, like C R Das and Subhas Bose, who led the bourgeois struggle for Independence parallel to the Gandhian journey of bringing the peasants and the villagers in the quest.

Indeed, I had to conform to the discipline of my father's house, to various things including fixed dinner time and an early morning walk around the neighbourhood with my grandfather, go to the neighbourhood school where they could keep an eye on my activities and my progress, play on the playground attached to our house, and confine my movements within the neighbourhood which was inhabited mostly by my extended family and was named after them anyway. This meant I never got to start smoking or dated a girl till I reached final years of college.

Within such a setting, I always found the environment of my mother's house, slightly chaotic but loving, open and full of exciting ideas, absolutely refreshing. I never stayed there for too long, regrettably, but would always want to go: In my college days, there was the added incentive of getting some extra pocket money from my grandmother, who steadfastly loved me despite my many digressions, which I would then spend buying books of blasphemous variety, Marx, Lenin, Gramsci and finally, when I started seeing the world on my own, Trotsky.

However, despite my intellectual wandering around, I deeply respected my family patriarch, who was unfailingly loving and as I would find out later, respectful of the otherness of points of views. I would remember, with absolute clarity, the fear I felt when one day he would walk in to my room rather out of turn and inquired what I was reading: I was, of all things, reading The Communist Manifesto at the time, and was deeply frightened that this would upset him. I was preparing myself for a long argument when he saw the book, but turned and smiled to me to say that reading everything was good as long as I had an independent mind to judge its content. I did not understand what he said, but was relieved at the reaction: I have only later understood the value of his advice.

In college, I could never got involved in Student Unions, as they were highly politicized and carried the agenda of one or the other mainstream political parties. I was too much of a non-conformist by then to sign up to any single worldview, and hence drifted close to the uninvolved, which, in the late Eighties Calcutta, meant the extreme left in hiding. I was soon attending informal book reading sessions, discovered Mao, learned about the caste battles in Bihar and helped selling a book - Reports From The Flaming Fields of Bihar - clandestinely.

I was studying economics then, and while my friends were fascinated by Keynes and Friedman, I was more of an Economic History type, perfectly at ease with Scissors Crisis in Russia and could talk about Great Depression for hours, but would see this as an invariable malaise of Capitalism than something that could be addressed by Fiscal or Monetary measures. Some of it, as this blog will stand witness, remains with me to this day. However, by the time I finished college, I have discovered Trotsky and realized that my friends were quietly shunning me. My proposal to read and discuss Isaac Deutscher's Prophet Armed in one of their book reading sessions, labeled 'Time to Open Minds' but confined to books by Mao and a particular version of Modern Chinese history, got me labeled as a heretic, one who had gone over to the dark sides. Surely, I left without regrets.

Looking back is always fascinating, but to think that I went from hawking Maoist literature to being a wannabe stockbroker in three years between 1988 and 1991 is still amazing to me. Serendipity perhaps, but this somewhat reflected what was around me. This was a time for great discontinuity in modern Indian history, a time of political uncertainties, when there was no omnipresent leader and the dynamics of Indian politics were changing suddenly. There was a Hindu resurgence, as was of the lower caste politicians. Suddenly, the Middle Class was in retreat from front-line politics, after having dominated it for most of the preceding forty years, in exchange of economic freedom. There were new opportunities, new businesses, excitement of a different kind in the air. This was the time I would go and see Oliver Stone's Wall Street and get an altogether different message: I came out of the theatre convinced that I want to be a good stockbroker someday. This was the time when I would sign up for a computer programming course, which would eventually change my life. But I shall keep that story for another day.

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