Archive for July, 2009

Rolling Boulders

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Jul 25, 2009

There’s this part of me that you can pin on Albert Camus

The absurdity of the universe was the first assumption on which Camus based his worldview

Many years later, my mother told me that I had changed as a person at the age of 17, the day I finished reading Albert Camus’ The Outsider. She may have been biased. After all, the novel begins with these lines: ‘My mother died yesterday. Or it may have been the day before. The telegram came today.’

As a young man, I read almost everything I could find written by Camus available in English translation. Over the years, his grave, quiet voice, his ‘limpid language’ (words that the back cover blurbs of the Penguin books used to carry), his imagination and, above all, his seemingly cynical but actually liberating philosophy have kept me going. Yes, I suppose my mother is right.

The Outsider is an intimate study of alienation, about a man who kills someone he doesn’t even know because there was something in the harsh sunlight pouring down on an Algerian beach. It may be his most famous book, but it’s not my favourite Camus novel. Among his novels, I find The Plague the most stunning, in terms of the questions it asks. A remote Algerian town is struck by the plague, and is quarantined off from the rest of the world. While the story is gripping, the subtext is about the irrationality of life, how, as human beings, we have no control over our destinies. Dr Rieux, the principal character, battles the plague tirelessly, but he has no cure for the disease. Therefore, if his patients are all at the whim and mercy of—for the absence of a better word—God, what is Dr Rieux’s role? What power does he have? What is he fighting for? Why at all is he fighting? Dr Rieux’s liberation comes from his decision to continue to try to heal, even though he has no chance of success.

The characters in The Plague are fascinating. Grand is a lowly clerk who has been writing a novel for years. It is later revealed that all he has been working on till now is an opening sentence about a girl who comes riding on a horse on a cobblestoned road through an early morning mist. Every sentence has to be perfect in his novel. But Grand finds his inner heroism and salvation in treating plague victims with Dr Rieux. Tarrou is a vacationer who has got stuck in town because of the quarantine. He seems to be a man with no past and no emotions. ‘I understand everything,’ he tells Dr Rieux. ‘So I judge no one.’ He is the last person to die of the plague.

The day after the plague ends, Dr Rieux gets to know that his wife, who was convalescing from an illness at a sanatorium in another town, has just passed away.

The absurdity of the universe was the first assumption on which Camus based his worldview (‘The only question that matters in life,’ he wrote, ‘is why we should not commit suicide’). His seminal philosophical text, The Myth of Sisyphus, is built on this. According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the cleverest man on earth and repeatedly tricked the gods. Finally, he was cursed by the gods to roll a huge boulder up a steep mountain till eternity. Every time he reaches the peak, the gods roll the boulder down again. Sisyphus has to climb down and roll it up again. Camus saw Sisyphus as the perfect symbol of the human condition. And, he saw Sisyphus as triumphing over the gods every time they have to resort to trickery and roll the boulder down. Sisyphus’ spirit remains indomitable: every time the gods cheat, he rolls the boulder up again, daring them to play dirty with him.

Philosophers are glum people. Most end up questioning the meaning of existence and so on. Camus starts from where they end; he begins with the presumption that there is no meaning. And it’s the most liberating way of looking at the world and how to deal with it that I have been exposed to. ‘There is no fate,’ he wrote, ‘that cannot be defeated by scorn.’ Sisyphus embodies scorn at the randomness and injustice of the universe. He keeps rolling the boulder up.

The Next Gorbachev?

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

Jul 18, 2009

There’s something tragic about Buddhadeb having to preside over the decline of the Left in West Bengal

What Gorbachev wrought, wittingly or unwittingly, was good for people. Sadly, Buddha may not have that satisfaction (Photo: AFP)

As the Left Front in West Bengal totters from one humiliating electoral defeat to another, the time has perhaps come to ask the question: is Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee going to go down in history as another Mikhail Gorbachev? A man who presided over the dismantling of what had seemed to be an impregnable empire?

There were essentially two reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union. One, the anger among people who had survived incompetence, genocide (if Stalingrad didn’t get you, Stalin did), and poor quality of life for more than seven decades. So when Gorbachev shoved the door open a little bit, mayhem ensued. The door was torn off its hinges. The second reason was Ronald Reagan’s strategy to speed up the arms race dramatically. It bankrupted the USSR. Soon, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle called the Soviet Union were flying apart.

The Left Front has been in power in West Bengal for 32 years. It has ruled with an iron hand through its cadre. At the height of the cadre’s power, you could hardly get a bank loan in rural Bengal without their approval. Same for school and college admissions. Industries ran away. In a ruinous decision in the early 1980s, the state government banned English upto Class VI in all government-aided schools. The result was two generations of unemployable Bengalis (Buddha brought English back to schools after he became CM). And I don’t think any other non-insurgency-ridden state has seen so many instances of police firing on political demonstrators as West Bengal.

Most of this happened on Jyotibabu’s watch, but Buddhadeb has been a minister for a large part of the Left’s rule, and held the culture and police portfolios for a long time. And when he became CM, other than his call to industrialists to come and invest, nothing changed on the ground. Brutal beating and killing of opposition cadre continued. CPM leaders remained arrogant. Faced with any difficult question in a press conference, they continued to snap at the media. Buddhadeb, an upright and truly cultured man, could not change that. His direct, simple call to arms to improve Bengal’s economy— “Do it now”—went largely unheeded. After all, how much could one man do?

Then came Singur and Nandigram. At Singur, in its usual hubris, the Party decided it was below its dignity to communicate the benefits of a car plant to the villagers who would be displaced. Mamata Banerjee moved in. Police brutality followed. It became a people’s movement. Ratan Tata pulled the plug on the project. But lessons hadn’t been learnt. Nandigram was mishandled even more badly. The Party couldn’t figure why it couldn’t solve this problem by letting loose its cadre and a nice dose of police firing. After all, this had worked for three decades.

Things became complicated. Suddenly, the cadre was outnumbered. Maoists got involved. Intellectuals came out on to the streets to protest. It was a rout.

What has been the Party’s response? Apparently, theatre personalities like Bibhash Chakrabarty (formerly a close friend of Buddhadeb), and Shaonli Mitra, who protested about Nandigram, find it difficult now to stage their plays in government-run auditoriums. Apparently, government-run art galleries are now closed for painters like Suvaprasanna. And the people have had enough. They are doing what, they realise now, is in their power. They are voting against the Left.

Make a clear distinction here. The people are voting against the Left, not necessarily for other parties.

The Left has been weakened as it has not been since the mid 1950s. Buddhadeb must take his share of the blame for this, as Gorbachev should for the break-up of the USSR. But is Buddhadeb another Gorbachev? No. The Russian at least has his liberal policies and peace treaties to feel proud about. And what he wrought, wittingly or unwittingly, was good for his people. Sadly, Buddhadeb, a good man and a poet, may not have that satisfaction.