Friday, November 23, 2007

We Loved Them Once

Upon the Centenary of DD Kosambi and Hiren Mukherjee
Everything for the cause
By Ashok Mitra (The Telegraph)

In this season of pragmatists and musclemen, thinkers are a distraction. It is therefore hardly surprising that centenaries of two outstanding ideologues — Damodar Dayananda Kosambi and Hirendra Nath Mukherjee — have passed almost unnoticed in the country: one or two tepid seminars, the rest is silence.

Kosambi was a mathematician who travelled to Marxism and stayed stuck. It was quite an extraordinary journey. Conferred a degree with summa cum laude from Harvard, Kosambi was a Phi Beta Kappa too. He could have opted for a comfortable existence in the United States of America, winning laurels after scholarly laurels, gaining great social eminence and rolling in wealth. Instead, he chose to return home to India, and spent years in research and teaching at the universities at both Benaras and Aligarh, perhaps to take a measure Everything for the cause Everything for the cause Everything for the cause Everything for the cause of orthodoxy and sectarianism of two different genres.

At some point in the late Thirties, he responded to the invitation from Pune’s Fergusson College where, under the tutelage of the Servants of India Society, the stress was on plain living and high thinking. Kosambi fitted snugly into the milieu and embarked on the most productive phase of his academic career. In 1942, Homi Bhabha invited him to join the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, which became Kosambi’s abode for the next 17 years. His services were rudely terminated in 1962 in the wake of the anti-communist frenzy sparked by the border clashes with China. One of the greatest mathematicians the nation has produced since Srinivas Ramanujan was sent packing on the ground that he was an ideologue and, what a horrid thing, a Marxist.

Curiosity does not die down though: how could a pure mathematician of Kosambi’s genre end up, in the course of a bare few years, in the turgid terrain of Marxism? Albert Einstein’s introductory essay, “Why Socialism”, which launched Paul Sweezy’s Monthly Review 60-odd years ago, perhaps provides part of the answer to the riddle. A mathematician is engaged all the while in tackling problems of symmetry and asymmetry, of linearity and non-linearity, of equations and non-equations. He deals with complex variables and the boulevards of statics and dynamics and, in the process, the laws of motion are at the centre of his scholarly concern. As he stares out of his window, he easily discovers in the real world the empirical correlates of the symbols, numbers and puzzles he has been cogitating over. The universe of mathematics has its prototype in the multiplex known as society. Are not integration and differentiation daily issues of human existence, and does not social structure eerily resemble a matrix which is the staple of algebra?

The cognitive aspect apart, Kosambi’s journey to ideology was the denouement of a step-by-step progression, from mathematics to statistics, statistics leading to worrying over a riddle in numismatics, numismatics prodding him on to archaeology — and what could be more natural than archaeological enquiry to evoke an interest in social history, from there the logical final point being the arcadia of ideology? In due course, Kosambi was bowled over by Marx’s law of motion of society, it was precise, logical, coherent, encapsulating history, economics, sociology, anthropology, biology, literature and much else. Kosambi ambled into Marxism much in the natural manner a child learns to walk. At the same time, he possessed much too original a mind to be a conformist. Those whom he used to playfully address as Official Marxists felt uneasy with his somewhat unorthodox analysis of the class structure of Indian society in ancient times. Kosambi was unconcerned. Marxism was a science, it is the burden of science to challenge orthodoxy.

While steadfast in his faith, Kosambi did not care to join the communist party. Hiren Mukherjee, on the other hand, was very much an organization man, always with the party, even in moments when his conscience was tortured by particular party decisions, such as during the Communist Party of India’s vocal support of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.

A brilliant historian, Mukherjee imbibed the Marxist faith early in his youth, and from then on, dialectical materialism jammed every stream of his consciousness. His oratory, whether English or Bengali or Urdu or, for the matter, Sanskrit, would reach unbelievably great heights. He was a prolific writer as well, ceaselessly at work on behalf of the cause. Each of these was a secondary element in his metabolism; his outstanding attribute was his passion. This passion was, very nearly, a physical phenomenon. One could almost touch it. It would reverberate within the precincts of the Lok Sabha when he was speaking; it would pour out in waves of quivering expressions when he declaimed at public rallies, it would spill over and beyond sentences and paragraphs of the essays on diverse issues he wrote in English and Bengali.

This is where the two ideologues walked away from each other. Kosambi’s Marxism was a package of cool deduction, carefully argued, the harvest of intellection honed over long years. He considered the analysis of social asymmetries as belonging to the category of scientific investigation, historical determinism revealed itself in the course of such explorations. Hiren Mukherjee’s starting point was Damodar Kosambi’s point of rest. To Mukherjee, an ideologue has to be, very nearly, a religious person, a proselytiser in the noblest sense of the term. To disseminate most effectively the seeds of faith, one must, he was convinced, carry along a load of honest passion. Spreading the message of the communist millennium that is a-coming is the most rightful of all causes; to ensure the success of this mission, one must avail of all possible resources, including the armoury of passion. Mukherjee would proceed even further. He would sternly remind his callers that, where Marxism was concerned, passion was more than an accessory, it was the principal thing. Ideology is passion; sans passion, ideology is an inert heap, a heap of abstruse theorizing bound to go over the heads of those whom it is intended to bring into the fold.

Beside the issue of passion, there was that other gulf, already mentioned, separating the two ideologues. Kosambi shunned the party apparatus, Mukherjee was unflinching in his party loyalty. With one exception: he was with the CPI but refused to toe its line of denigration of Josef Stalin. He would extol Stalin as much as he would extol Gandhi and Nehru, defending his position with passion and yet in a manner which did not compromise his ideology. His party was embarrassed, but could do nothing about it.

The middle decades of the 20th century were a golden age for romantics on the Left. A mathematician, otherwise a fanatic for the rigours of science, could still take pride in the philosophy of dialectical materialism he had arrived at, thinking and toiling on his own. An historian, born in the same year as the mathematician, only six months the junior of the other, had voyaged along a different route; his alma mater too was not Harvard, but Oxford, and his forte was not logic but passion. The divergence in the two trajectories hardly mattered. They gave their everything for the cause. The luckier of the two bade adieu before the catastrophe that struck international socialism. The other one lived longer and raged passionately against the dying of the day till his very last moment.

Both these noble ideologues belong, at this juncture, to the category of the discarded. Their centenaries have passed almost unnoticed. The eternal verities, it would seem, remain the patent of classics; consider this couple of lines from the lips of a Marlovian character: “I loved her once, but that was in another country./ And besides, the wench is dead.”

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