Saturday, July 10, 2010


Just how many known Ashok Mitras could there be in the world? Around 22, on last count.

Prof. Ashok Mitra, (b. 1917) who served Indian Civil Service 1940-75, was Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India 1958-68, was also Secretary to Government of India 1965-75 is probably the senior most of survivors in public memory. Then ..ikk hor, te ikk hor… te ikk main bhool gaya (Santa’s response to the question ‘name the Pandavas’: ikk see Pheeeem, … te ..ikk see Arjan, …te ikk hor …te ikk hor ….te ..ikk main bhool gaya).

One Asok Mitra was leading art critic in West Bengal. Then there was Ashok Mitra, the eminent Calcutta lawyer, who was the first husband of Kanan Devi of ‘Street Singer’ fame. A small Sarani is named after him. Of course, Ashok Mitra the actor, permanent feature in every Bangla movie, is also not to be forgotten. To continue the census, LinkedIn boasts : “There are 5 professionals named Ashok Mitra, who use LinkedIn to exchange information”. The net-savviest of them all, second to appear on Google, is a Plant Manager at Pune. We have observed that the best industrial plants in the country have Bengali Managers. Probably comes from the ability to humour juniors, which is how work can be extracted in Bengal.

And last but not least, is Dr. Ashok Mitra, the king of them all, the raison d’ etre of today’s blog. The one who deserves to be called Ashok Mitra! Ha Ha! And of all persons, why are we are writing about him today? Because he is wacky, he is feisty, he is irreverent, has a great sense of the absurd, always makes an interesting copy, he was Dad’s boss, and alas, is unsung. And above all, he has the turn of phrase!

It can be quite confusing. A person uninitiated in the Multiplicity of the Mitras could marvel how Dr. Ashok Mitra could talk confidently about Satyendranath Tagore’s paintings, versatile though he is. Dad was a contemporary of at least two Ashok Mitras, (i) Prof. Mitra, named by us first, and (ii) Dr. Ashok Mitra, who brings up the rear. Dad distinguished between the two by dubbing Prof. Mitra ‘Census Mitra’, and Dr. Mitra, whose deputy Dad was at Agricultural Prices Commission, ‘Sawale Mitra’ (dark Mitra- in the sense of tall, dark, handsome!). You will find people from East Bengal dark, and their western cousins, fair, at least less dark. Dr. Mitra was a partition migrant.

For the rest of this article, AM stands for Sawale Mitra, unless specified otherwise .

No prizes for guessing who is who is actor Ashok Mitra

Golwalkar sans beard :Rare Pic :And with hirsute appendages

AM has many a claim to fame. Hailing from Dhaka nee Dacca, in East Bengal, he made it right up to the Delhi School of Economics, where he did his Ph.D. He became a communist surreptitiously in his teens and has remained one ever since. Which, as we shall see, did not deter him from accepting the hospitality of the World Bank for 4 full years. AM would also later denounce Manmohan Singh, as FM, being a World Bank plant. As a perceptive AM watcher wrote (Business Standard?):

“The institute was funded exclusively by the World Bank in order ‘to proselytise’ some economic ministers and civil servants from developing countries in the philosophy of the World Bank. Mitra was probably happy that he had a long innings to teach those ministers and civil servants the art of subversion of the World Bank from within.”

He attended the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands. Under the guidance of Professor Jan Tinbergen of the University of Rotterdam, he was awarded a doctorate in 1953.

He was a Finance Minister in the West Bengal Govt., and is now a Rajya Sabha member. A Politburo member also, he is a major component of the intellectual steel frame of the CPM, or whatever is left of it. He is a very prolific, even fecund, writer, writing the column ‘Cutting Corners’ in the Telegraph, and virtually every issue of the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) in its heyday, carried his articles. In fact, his vigorous, manly, prose always floored us. He writes brilliantly in Bangla as well. Has many books to his credit, including some funnily named books in Bangla ( autobiography Apila-Chapila is one- does name imitate Sukumar Ray's Abol-tabol?.) There is hardly a topic he has not touched, including cricket. One hopes he has not eschewed sex.

He is also a recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award for his contribution to Bengali literature.
The glibness of it , khuda bhi mila,
 visaale sanam bhi: The good doctor
has even worked for the  IMF
"It is not easy to do the right thing when serving a system. Ancient questions do not go away. Assuming that each individual is either born with a conscience or develops one, is it always possible for him or her to act according to it? For instance, can economists working within the government system — or, for that matter, civil servants in general — afford to follow the dictates of their conscience?"

AM has donned many hats.  He was in the Indira Govt., and apart from the roles he has played noted above, he was on the Cow Slaughter Commission in 1996, which consisted of a mélange of personalities, including Dr. Verghese Kurien, Golwalkar Guruji, and the Sankaracharya (not adi Sankaracharya). The Commission, a hilariously absurd side-show on the Indian political stage, was disbanded by Morarji, but Kurien and Mitra were floored by Golwalkar, and both remained his lifelong admirers. Golwalkar spoke fluently in 15 languages, Mitra says, and Bangla, he spoke with special felicity. Conundrums, these two kars- Savarkar and Golwalkar: great guys at one level, perverted at the other, should we say. This is what AM writes in Apila Chapila about Golwalkar’s duality:

“...both of us took out our books and started to read. Suddenly I noticed that Golwalkar was reading a juicy novel by Henry Miller. The sums simply do not add up: the one who led a movement aimed at dragging the country back into the grim valley of retrograde obscurantism, in his spare time liked to get engrossed in Henry Miller! Inscrutable India!”

AM was inducted into the State apparatus by Mrs. Gandhi in 1967. Those were the days when Mrs. Gandhi was assiduously cultivating a leftist image. He did two stints in her Govt., one from 1967 to 1970 as Chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission, where he was fortunate to have a Bokil working for him, and one a Chief Economic Advisor, from 1970 to 1972.

Now about what brings him to IndraayaniKathi, our garib khana. For one, it is one thing we admire most in him- his turn of phrase. Well to land into Mathematics again, and to be accurate, this blog is really about the Ashok Mitra AND turn of phrase disjunction, with AM having something like a proprietary interest in the stuff, if that makes sense : A V B.

We always looked out for this phenomenon, ‘ the turn of phrase’. No it is not word play. It is the stringing together of words in an unusual, witty manner, imparting the ‘surprise element’, on which we are likely to write a separate blog some day insha allah. Inventiveness, I saayyy! But not just that. It is as if the words were hanging together like that since times immemorial.

‘The mint with the hole’ for instance. That phrase was coined around 1920, they say (Oxford Dictionary).

Which brings us to another long-standing regret. Well, right from the age of three months, whenever we gave in to the temptation of thumbing through books on quotations in English, we would rue the absence of an Indian name. In vain would we scrounge through the tomes, not an Indian in sight. Or may be a solitary Gandhi here, or a lone Buddha there. No Nehru, no trysting with destiny, no CR-VR, no Salim-Javed-Vaved.. Are we all dense, one wondered? By the age of 2, we learnt that we were simply playing their game, simply importing their technology wholesale, simply being their good boys, hence we did not really count. Why should Oxford have the patience or concern ever to comb Indian thought? So, for quotation from Indians, if any, better buy vernacular books.

One can recall a number of them in Marathi. Samarthachiya sewaka wakra paahe, asa sarva bhoomandali kona aahe is one (we had explained it in one of our previous blogs on Blogspot). You’ll find many such gems in Tukaram, Dyaneshwar and Samarth Swami Ramdas. AM can certainly hold a candle to them. Vrukshawalli amha soyaari : trees and creepers are our kins, said Tukaram.

In Hindi, how about ‘ Meera ke Prabhu Giridharanagar’? ‘ Kaanan kundal kunchita kesa’? Sanskrit: ‘tatha likhitawaan pratah, prubuddau Budhakaushikah’. Plenty of them!

Of course, one has to add hastily, things are changing- otherwise Jai ho never had the caliber to fetch an Oscar for A.R.Rahman.

Let us have some English examples now, if things are getting too abstract and out of hand. Take ‘the feel-good factor’. You thought Indian pollsters invented that term? Noowwwayyy.

See what Michael Quinion says in his column, World Wide Words:

“The cliché which is currently making me quiver every time I see it is feel-good factor. This was coined by the Chancellor of the Exchequer just before the last general election (i.e. 1992), to indicate a prosperous state of affairs which made people feel good and so, by implication, want to vote Conservative. Unfortunately for him, it has turned out to be a bit of a chimera and journalists have been searching for “the elusive feel-good factor” for the last four years (it’s always elusive, by the way, never missing, or invisible, or indiscernible). At one point when the outlook was particularly un-feel-good-like, one bright spark coined feel-bad factor and this is now almost as popular as the original. This cliché has strength and endurance, I’m sorry to say. Hardly a day goes by in the Guardian newspaper without a sighting of it, its antonym, or some compound such as feelgoodery. As we are less than a year away from a general election, and the phrase has such strong political links, it is highly probable that it will stay in vogue at least twelve months more.”

Quinion examines another term that decorates Indian dailies, and bestows distinction on good old Delhi (this is written in 1996):

“A current buzzphrase which, like “serial”, has given rise to many variants is road rage, used to describe berserk attacks by drivers on other drivers, usually for minor infractions or supposed slights.”

So what are we left with? ‘Tryst with density’ was supposed to have been coined by Pandit Nehru. ... Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, ...

Nehru’s steno, M.O.Mathai, sought to usurp Boss’s eloquence, hinting darkly that the word Nehru penned in the first place was DATE and not TRYST, which was in fact, Mathai’s suggestion. Well, well we know who he dated, it was certainly not Density.

Then we have ‘fortune at the bottom of the pyramid’. C.K.Prahalad, may his soul rest in peace.

My life is my message’ … a small bunch of them in the final analysis.

So, what attracted us towards AM in the first place, was the turn of phrase. Look at the Titles of some of his books:

The Starkness of it
From the Ramparts
The Protest is Still on

One always used to take delight in his special quote: “I’m not a gentleman, I am a communist”. Bhadralok ami nyet?

‘meretricious sesquipedalianism’ ( the tendency to use a foot and half long words, likened to a prostitute displaying her wares) was another usage we learnt from him, although it later transpired, this was not invented by AM. To our glee, AM had applied the term to Nirad Chaudhuri, another bete noir of ours.

If nothing, AM is mischievous beyond doubt! The story of how he set up Indira Gandhi is the stuff of legend. Mrs. G. was to address an international gathering (we are not sure if it was at the UN) and with his leftist credentials, AM was the choice for drafting her address. There was an uproar the next day of the address. It turned out that the entire text of the address was straight lifted from one of Mahbub ul Haq’s articles! A Pakistani at that! Now that’s irreverence. And Mrs. G. could do nothing about it, since he was her left mascot! He, he, he! (we learnt that delightful, innocent turn from beloved daughter Bhakti). Seems in his last incarnation he was the wise tailor who stitched the Birthday Suit for 'the Emperor with no clothes'...!

Aar Robindro shongeeter fanoh aachhei! Daroon!Here is another zany anecdote from Dada’s trove: (As kids …)

“we could not quite come to grips with the pronouncement (ennada?- substitute proposed for sick) of the word ‘penalty kick’, with ease we would render it , ‘plantick’. I think we continued to pronounce the word thus even in college. Another hilarious thing was the invariable practice of the losing team in any competition, to dispatch a letter of protest immediately and seek a reply. Our drill teacher was also our teacher in-charge of sports. All letters would go to him. In fact he maintained one file for every team. The standard complaints would be as follows: “we deserved a ‘plantick’ that was denied to us.” Or, “the rule of this particular competition precludes a player from being taller than 4’9”. X or U or Z playing for the opposition is actually taller than the specified height, he wound a rope around his waist and thereby managed to reduce his height by as couple of inches.”

Among the many humorous asides in his autobiographical, is this one: (those were the days of acute power shortage in West Bengal) I was traveling by car and it was in Katowa or Kalna, I saw the writing on the wall, ‘More Power to the State Government’. Next to it was scribbled ‘More Candles to the State Government’!

AM says he became an expert at contract bridge during his teaching stint at IIM, Calcutta. Once while in Srinagar, he was introduced to Karan Singh, who was then the Governor of the State. He says “poor Karan Singh was a novice, and we divested him of a large sum of money, without feeling the slightest twinge of conscience. But Karan Singh was a thorough gentleman: he began addressing me as ‘Dada’ from that time, a practice he kept up in the Rajya Sabha too, when we were colleagues there.”

To Finis, one would make the blog comprehensive, rounded, and compleat thus.

AM was born in the 1920s. Cantankerous, or wily, or communist, he remains a stalwart, and has the heart in the right place. During the freedom movement he did admire Gandhiji, Nehru and Subhas, did he not? As he says, he was drawn to Marxism probably as he witnessed discrimination against the down-trodden, in his child-hood. So were we. No offence meant.

An immensely likeable man. In the mould of the old school of politicians. A G-9 intellectual. Hats off!

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