If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Friday, 19 December 2008

The first rebel

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.


  1. You all have so many stories to tell, which is so nice to listen to.

    I heard many such stories from my Thakuma and my father. There was a certain amount of genuineness in those days amongst people. Though I believe not all were privileged enough to come across such niceties all the time devoid of such formalities.

    The times when Bengali households shrugged off formalities and opened it doors to people, they look so nice. Your memory is a witness to the openness that you have and so many years ago, the likes of your mother, my grandmother had. Alas, we could not retain such abilities in us and thus we irritate eachother even in our small "extended" families.

  2. I must say that it has been a pleasant read indeed.I had been offline for guite sometime now so I was unable to comment on your wonderful posts.Your posts amaze me a lot. After reading each of your posts I am forced to think that "Hey I have read this somewhere else".This time you remind me of R.k. Narayan and his greatest work "Malgudi Days".Your story has taken me back to my childhood when I used to listen to stories narrated by my grannie.
    This post of yours also reveals the fact you have seen it all-the good and the bad.But unlike most people who grow grim with bitter experiences, you still find time to write such amazing posts and amuse us.

  3. A big thank you to you both, Tanmoy and Partha. Readers like you keep me going. And although responses to my blog are but a few, their warmth and understanding are enormous, at least to me.

    I would certainly love to have more comments on my blog, but will be happy to have even one person like you as a reader. The second is a bonus.

    I hope my wife doesn't read this. She gives me an earful once too often for my lack of ambition, modesty (which, like Churchill's famous quip about Clement Attlee, is most appropriate), and not being pushy enough to promote my writing!

  4. I came to read your blog inspired by my teacher, Suvro-da. I come from a family, with some claims to a history of involvement in the left movement. I heard my mother narrate about a certain Patalmama(Sunil Sen, I think, was his real name)--a trade union leader who probably served a prison term with Mujibur Rehman. Frail and hardworking, he spent days at our Mamarabri. He was murdered. There have been many more 'famous' leaders from her family. But, this name was uttered with great reverence a great many times. Thanks for reminding with such a well-told story.

    'Even at that age of innocence, I knew that people respected him not for what he had, but because he didn’t have anything.' This remark was once so true of Bengal, even in those difficult days after partition. I would love to believe that this is what sets us apart from the Delhite or the Bombay-wallah. Sadly, it does not. Thanks, once again, for telling this story.

    Arani Banerjee

  5. Thanks for your comments, Arani. You are right, Bengalis were not so materially oriented when I was a child, that is, forty or fifty years ago. At that time, scholars used to be more respected than rich people or film-stars. Saraswati was worshipped more than Laxmi. But things have changed for the worse. We are aping Mumbai, and now, Hyderabad and Bangalore, cities that ape the West, and the worst part of the West at that.

    There is so much of selfishness around us, and so little sacrifice ... a time might come when poeple won't believe that men like your mother's mama or Radha Ballabh Gope ever existed in flesh and blood. That is all the more reason that we should recall them. Perhaps their memory is still a potent force, perhaps their memory will help us to become less selfish, to live our lives more meaningfully.

    I am really delighted to see young people like you thinking differently. And I am indeed grateful to your teacher Shuvro sir for introducing some of them to me.


I will be happy to read your views, approving or otherwise. Please feel free to speak your mind. Let me add that it might take a day or two for your comments to get published.