Radha Ballabh Gope was an activist I met when I was quite young. He was responsible for the first political action of my life at the age of six. Tram and bus fares had just been raised in Calcutta and an agitation was on against the move. One day, I was on a tram with my parents. When the conductor approached my father for tickets, I stood up, clenched my fist, and shouted ‘Baarti bhara dicchina, debona!’ (We won’t pay the enhanced fare, never!)
Radha Ballabh was a thin, dark, elderly man who was always seen in coarse white khadi kurta and pyjama. He was possibly of medium height, but looked shorter as he had a slight stoop. His bald pate and round glasses reminded me of Gandhiji, whose framed autographed photo hung in my father’s study. He called my mother didi, although he was old enough to be her father. Ma called him Ballabhda, and so did we, my sister and me. We knew he was not actually related to ma, and we didn’t know how she came to know him.
Ballabhda came to our house every week. He would deliver a periodical named Ganabarta, the mouthpiece of the RSP – the Revolutionary Socialist Party. The paper consisted of eight pages of convoluted Bengali printed in a primitive letterpress. Its masthead was corrupted by thin irregular white lines; possibly an ancient wooden block was used to print it. No one read Ganabarta in our house, except me. And I too did not understand a word of it primarily because Ballabhda died and the supply of the paper stopped before I was ten. Apart from his connection with the political mouthpiece, my sister and I knew nothing about him. We didn’t know where he lived or what he did for a living. But we loved him all the same, with the kind of unconditional and unquestioned affection that only children are capable of.
Ma would offer Ballabhda tea and snacks. He talked and laughed heartily as he drank tea. Evidently, ma attended to this simple, unassuming man with great respect. When she was not around, my sister and I assumed the host’s role. Never pressed for time, Ballabhda talked at length about why prices went up, why one shouldn’t pay the enhanced tram fares, why the poor people were poor, and how unjust Lord Rama had been towards his wife. He treated us as human beings, not as children. And I found in him a friend who could be trusted. Another thing that set him apart was his lively, childlike laughter. I am yet to meet another grown-up who can laugh as innocently.
We were not rich, but my father somehow found a big house for us. It was in the 1950s, the capricious times not long after the partition of India. Some relatives uprooted from what was then East Pakistan came and stayed with us from time to time. Besides, there were others who drifted around and found temporary shelter in our house, which had the smell of impermanence one comes across in railway waiting rooms. Although we were a family of four, I do not remember a day when there were only four of us around the dining table for supper. All our relatives and visitors treated Ballabhda with a special kind of respect. Even at that age of innocence, I knew that people respected him not for what he had, but because he didn’t have anything.
In those days, money had not become the common currency for all human exchanges. Greed was not the force behind every human endeavour. The roads of the city were much cleaner. Instead of the fumes from motor vehicles, clouds of a vague chemical called idealism used to hang in the air. And people like Ballabhda were perhaps inevitable signatures of the time.
The last time when I saw him, Ballabhda was leading a small procession of about fifty men, protesting against something. It was one of those processions one came across in Calcutta roads every other day. A few days later, we read a four-line obituary in a Bangla daily announcing the death of Radha Ballabh Gope, a former freedom fighter who had spent many years of his life in British jails.