Thoughtful mix

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Thoughtful mix

Diverse The many identities of India.The Nowhere Nation is a collection of Ashok Mitra’s essays that appeared over the years in The Telegraph. Mitra, known for his cynical and biting sarcasm, draws upon his years as finance minister of West Bengal — he was one of the four sworn in when Jyoti Basu began his record-breaking stint as a communist chief minister — and Rajya Sabha member.

Perhaps, one thing that strikes one when reading the reproduced essays in this book is its contrast to today’s largely superficial writing. Mitra belongs to an era when the written word was put down with careful deliberation and thought. It is all the more important, therefore, that these essays have been published, so that a more permanent record exists, and a wider audience might have a chance to read them.

This is no easy page-turner. Almost every article is seriously thought out, every word weighed. It is clear that Mitra relishes writing the last tight sentence in every article, which acts as a sort of a final sum-up — there are no casual endings. It is clear why his essays were so popular, and much discussed.

The book is divided into four sections. While he seriously discusses economic matters in the section titled ‘In the Name of Reforms,’ the last section, ‘Women and Men,’ deals with people Mitra considers worth remembering, as varied as Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Russy Karanjia, Vijay Tendulkar, M N Roy and Tarakeshwari Sinha. I found this section the most readable. Although these names and other people mentioned here are well-known, Mitra gives us his in-depth views on them.

Indeed, many of his essays in this section stand out for their clarity in capturing what these people set out to do in their respective fields, and how they progressed before death claimed them. His chapter on Vishwanath Pratap Singh brings out the life of the man in poignant detail, but yet maintains that understated style which is the hallmark of Mitra’s writing. Russy Karanjia had ushered in the tabloid style of reporting with his Blitz.

Of him, Mitra says, “...He was not everybody’s cup of tea. No matter; Karanjia changed, for better or for worse, the face of Indian journalism...”

There is also an outstanding essay on an unknown regular at Calcutta’s famous Coffee House, abjectly poor, who used to do research on 18th century French cuisine. He could give minute details of the culinary intrigues in those decades within the corridors of French aristocracy, which comtessa had stolen another’s chef...

That is not to say the other sections were not interesting. They were, and Mitra’s biting comments are truly enjoyable. In his argument on why India was, in his eyes, a Nowhere Nation, for instance, Mitra draws a sketch that is quite chilling and bleak. Sample this: “...Segmented minds, segmented attitudes. The sum of these attitudes passes as the republic of India. It is a country, but sorry, shed the blinkers; it is no nation, only an awkward slapping together of competing egocentrisms...”

Mitra’s essay, ‘Cat changes colour’, on China’s long journey with the export-oriented capitalist type of growth as envisaged by communist leader Deng Xiaoping is extremely interesting. More than 20 million migrant Chinese workers, Mitra points out, were being trucked back into “China’s deep, grey interior,” as a result of the American financial debacle. These workers had migrated in large numbers to feed China’s burgeoning exports. Mitra puts his finger on the nub: “...China’s leaders, again according to fairly well-founded reports, are in a funk. They have been forced to admit, howsoever reluctantly, some of the virtues latent in the doctrine of self-reliant growth, the kingpin of socialist developmental strategy...The rendezvous with capitalism is obviously proposed to be adjourned. Whether this turnaround is a full ideological reconversion or a temporary excursion into pragmatism is something yet to be fathomed.”

This is a valuable collection of essays written by one of those rare, interesting political characters of our times. That this breed is fast diminishing is something, which one reluctantly acknowledges. Although the publishers have done themselves no favours by presenting the book in a dull, unattractive cover, the proof of the book is in the reading — and it is a singularly interesting journey.

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