by Timir Basu
Frontier | Vol. 49, No.13-16, Oct 2 – 29, 2016
I used to read Frontier from the very beginning, but did not know where its office was located. Even in the seventies of the last century, when I began writing for Frontier, I had no knowledge of it. I heard that the office of Frontier was situated in an old building, 61, Mott Lane, in the lane behind the Jyoti cinema hall. The Bengali weekly Darpan was also published from that building. The Jyoti cinema hall no longer exists. The alley Mott lane has long been renamed Manilal Saha Lane by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, although Frontier has been using “Mott Lane” as its address. Once a Bengali daily called it ‘Frontier’s lane’. I first went to the office of Frontier possibly at the end of 1978 or in the beginning of 1979. But my first appearance in Frontier was, however, in 1975. It was a piece on the contract labourers of the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation. I was then trying to organise contract labourers by using the Contract Labour Act of 1972. The EPW published that very piece at about the same time and CALL, the central organ of the RSP, reprinted it from the EPW.
When I began to visit the office of Frontier, I did not nurse any desire to be involved in a permanent relationship with the weekly. At that time, there were two office employees, and Bhabani Chaudhury to some extent assisted Samar Babu in matters of proof-reading and preparation of articles and notes. Except preparing editorial-type pieces or reading proofs, he could not help much. He did not have time, because he never distanced himself from active politics.
The infrastructure of Frontier’s management was a bit peculiar in nature .It was a private limited company. In consequence, Frontier was always troubled with a host of problems, and resultant complexities. Well, these problems are still there because it is still a private limited company. One principal reason was that there was no particularly efficient office worker capable of delivering the goods. Frontier could afford to employ only such persons as were able to somehow manage things. Perhaps these problems would not have been there had it not been a private limited company, because as days rolled by company laws and income tax laws were, and still are, undergoing fast changes.
The result was that it was extremely difficult for a small organisation to survive in the face of legal constraints. There was very little income, but the summons of the income-tax department used to pour in regularly. It was a company only in name, because its resources were meagre. Yet various directives used to come from the office of the Registrar of Companies. Whether the members of the board were regularly present or not, it was obligatory to show regular board meetings on paper. Samar Babu was always troubled by such problems, because he had to do all sorts of works. At night, while in his residence, he used to write the minutes book. A Keraliyan fellow named Jose used to look after the office at that time. He was unwilling to go to the bank. Hence, when any bank-related problem arose, Samar Babu himself had to go. Since there was the provision of overdraft, problems sprang up more often than not. One day a summons was served by the income-tax department. Samar Babu was at a loss, telephoning Kiranmay Raha or someone else. Well, Kiranmay Raha was ex-Income Tax Commissioner and a life-long subscriber No. 1. of Froniter. He would refuse to lose the position even when his eye-sight was very poor. Incidentally I was present in the Frontier office at that moment. I accompanied him. It was found that the matter was rather unimportant. It seemed to me that the young income-tax officer had heard Samar Babu’s name but never seen him in person, and hence, he possibly issued a letter in this fashion out of a desire to make an acquaintance with him. Advertisements were scarce; yet whenever there was a possibility of getting any, it was necessary to contact the potential advertiser. Since there was nobody else, I myself had to go. Many among Samar Babu’s close acquaintances held powerful positions in the world of advertising. It is not that Samar Babu did not ask them for advertisements. But the reponse was very poor, and hence Samar Babu stopped disturbing them.
One event must be mentioned in this connection. M J Akbar did not belong to any revolutionary camp in the usual sense, and many did not hesitate to call him a reactionary. Yet Akbar was the only person to have helped Frontier with advertisements at different points of time. He did it during Samar Babu’s lifetime as well as after his death. Government bureaucrats wield enough power. Had they willed, they could have helped Frontier with a few advertisements. But they did not and preferred to evade. Perhaps they felt afraid. The paradox is that many of them used to inquire about Samar Babu’s health. The only exception in this respect was Abhijit Ghosh Dastidar, the regular film critic of Frontier. While holding the post of the Chief Postmaster General, Abhijit procured, although not regularly, government advertisements for Frontier. He gave advertisements many times in disregard of the wishes of superiors.
In organisational matters, Rabida (Rabi Sen) was most cooperative. He was a director of the company also. One morning, he suddenly rang me and asked to go to his house, without mentioning the reason. As I set foot there, he said, “It seems that Samar Babu could not take any salary from Frontier this month. You take this amount of one thousand rupees and deposit it in the bank”. At that time, Samar Babu used to receive monthly salary of 800 rupees from Frontier, and an additional facility was the telephone in his residence of 15C, Swinhoe Street, Calcutta-700025. After Rabida’s death, I went to his house many times, and whenever I looked at that wooden almirah, from which he had taken the money, it seemed that Rabida had never deserted Samar Babu during his hard times. Yet Rabida’s own financial conditions were not particularly good then. Well-wishers were there in those days, and they are still now. Samar Babu often said, “Talks do not deliver the goods”. Perhaps he expressed his annoyance in this regard after hearing from many, “Samar Babu, how are you?”
The problem about the office-room was there from the very beginning. The room was in the possession of ‘Darpan’, which allowed Frontier to use it in lieu of a small amount of rent. There was however no deed or document in this regard. Since the two weeklies were following broadly the same path, there was mutual confidence and understanding between the two. “We are in the same boat”. So said once Darpan’s editor Hiren Basu. So, the afiair was proceeding in some fashion. At first there was no problem. Frontier was always plagued by financial difficulties, but the condition of Darpan was even more pathetic. Hence Hiren Basu, the editor and owner of Darpan, had to spend his time in constant anxiety, and in order to procure finance for his weekly, he fell into the clutches of various kinds of self-seekers. They were small investors interested in the “rejuvenation” of Darpan. Once such an investor suggested to Hiren Babu that if Frontier gave up the room, he would set up a press there, and in that case, the cost of publishing Darpan would be drastically reduced. Besides, he argued, Darpan would be able to do other printing jobs and remove its financial difficulties. Accepting this advice, Hiren Babu pressurised Samar Babu to leave the premises. At that time, Samar Babu had to work under great mental strain and as a matter of fact, it became very difficult for him to work with a normal poise of mind. One day, he told me “I was not finding any room after my exit from NOW. Hiren after all, gave a room and as he is asking me to leave it, I have to do so”. Yet no other alternative arrangement was possible, and hence the publication of Frontier would have to be stopped. I refused to agree and told Samar Babu, “Please ask Hiren Babu to talk with me”. I told Hiren Babu unequivocally that under no circumstances, Frontier would leave the room. Legally, the tenant of the floor was Prasanta Sarkar, editor of ‘Basumati’. Sarkar allowed Darpan to use it and since Darpan did not require so much space, it let Frontier to have an office there. Samar Babu was reluctant to tell anybody about the problem. But I informed Rabida of the matter and he one day took me to Prasanta Sarkar. Hearing everything, Prasanta Babu summoned Hiren Babu that day and told him clearly not to disturb Samar Babu any more. Even after Samar Babu’s death, Hiren Babu once tried to make Frontier leave the place. Rabida was then no longer among us, but thanks to the intervention of Nityapriya Ghosh, Frontier was saved from ejection. In a word, that tradition continues till date. Frontier is without a room of its own. Yet about fifty years have elapsed gradually and 2018 is knocking at our door. In the meantime, the ownership of the house has changed and the sword of ejection is hanging on us afresh. Frontier is in peril, a victim of perennial uncertainty owing to various reasons, one of them being the ‘room’ problem.
What is the matter of greatest concern is that a new readership is not emerging, or rather new readers are not being formed. In this age of Internet, all, particularly students and youths, are engaged in a type of no-risk politics. Even there is no chance that the environment of the sixties of the twentieth century may be resurrected from spontaneous rebellions witnessed in university campuses. Most of the students are apathetic towards party-based student politics, and are reluctant to give a thought to anything beyond their own ambience. As a result, the appeal of Frontier-typejournals to them seems to have been very restricted. The fact is that there is an ebb tide in the desire to study. Now the Internet supplies many things and there is the scope of reading books that are not available in print. I once told Samar Babu, “You did not ask me to read Frontier, but I read it out of my own urge”. Now, it is extremely difficult to persuade anybody to read Frontier. The main reason for this qualitative change is definitely political. Perhaps it is a fact that writers are at a loss to understand what they should write in accordance with the demands of time. Many renowned writers have made such remarks. But most of those who talk in this vein are more interested in theoretical issues, reluctant to think about the problems of practice. The leftist movement is unable to raise any slogan that can impinge on the new generation. Even the election-based parties appear on the scene with slogans whose impact is no longer felt when the polls are over.
Frontier never evinced much interest in publishing organised writing. Samar Babu had objections to that. Frontier only reflected the spontaneous elaborations by writers on the national and international situations. Bhabani Babu had disagreements on this matter. But Samar Babu was against the breach of tradition and was in favour of leaving the entire matter to the writers themselves. On this issue, he once told Bhabani Babu, ‘We never ran Frontier in this way’. Things are much the same still now, but exceptions do occur sometimes. I often try to organise writings based on specific events. I have found that many are willing to write but unable to understand where to begin. In such cases, some initial clue is indeed helpful to the writer. But those from whom ‘editorial’ or ‘comment’-type pieces are commissioned have to be informed beforehand of the subject and the number of words.
There were serious problems about writing ‘editorials’ or ‘ comments’, particularly during the eighties. Samar Babu used to encourage almost all writers to write ‘editorial comments’. He also asked me to do so when I began to write. Asok Rudra frequently wrote such pieces, as did Gouri Prasad Ghosh and Bhabani Babu. Occasionally Debabrata Panda and Sudeshna Chakrabarty also wrote. Yet the problem of getting contributions regularly and introducing a variety in the subjects was there. Finally an ”editorial team” consisting of Partha Chatterjee, Sushil Khanna, Anjan Ghosh and Rudrangsu Mukherjee could be formed. Swapan Dasgupta and Arindam Ghosh Dastidar of The Statesman too wrote, although somewhat irregularly. Partha Chattrejee wrote with a fair degree of regularity. Initially, meetings were held in the office itself, but this arrangement could not be sustained. On most occasions, I had to instruct on the subject through telephone. Gradually this system too collapsed. Swapan Dasgupta could not write for long owing to the objections raised by his employers. Others too could not continue writing for long because of various complexities in their respective places of work and more than that, owing to enhancement of various work-loads. Partha Chatterjee is the person who contributed most. Subsequently, the Oxford University Press brought out a book consisting of his editorial comments in Frontier.
Many of those who wrote from abroad are now dead. Among the living, one name that must be mentioned is Jan Myrdal. Withered by years and with a frail body, he tries as best as he can whenever requested to write. Among the old fellows, another who feels concerned about Frontier is Gayatridi (Gayatri Chakrabarty Spivak). Ever since Samar Babu’s time, she has been helpful with writings and monetary contributions.
I did not have much of an ideological conflict with Samar Babu on matters of principle. On two occasions or so, there were some differences of opinion on publishing some writings, particularly those on China. Samar Babu was some sort of a die-hard pro-Chinese. I have been saying all along that the Chinese are first nationalists and then communists. When their national interests are hurt in the least, their ‘proletarian internationalism’ vanishes like camphor. Once I had a strongly anti-Chinese piece printed in Frontier. Samar Babu then scarcely examined other writings except the editorials. Many readers of Frontier were perhaps unhappy at the publication of such a strongly anti-Chinese piece in Frontier. They seemed to think that by publishing such pieces, Frontier was going against its tradition.
From the beginning, different writings of mine made the CPI(M) a main target of attack. Whether in ‘editorial comments’ or in ‘Calcutta Notebook’, most of my pieces had as their theme the CPI(M)’s frantic attempt to maintain the status quo in the working class movement or to set up an aristocracy in organised trade union movement. Samar Babu had the notion that occasional minor compromises did not do any harm. Regarding many pieces, his suggestion was not to attack the CPI(M) directly and instead use the term ‘left’ without naming the party. His argument was that the range of attack would thus be somewhat broader and its intensity somewhat less. Except in such small matters I never had any significant conflict with him regarding the functioning of the paper.
Once some enthusiastic well-wishers became active in order to give Frontier a changed shape, rather a new outlook to reflect the changing mood of our times. They thought that the needs of time required a drastic change in the get-up and that a glistening and polished office-room was needed. The main inclination was to enlarge the size and make it colourful. At first, I also was prone to think that perhaps a reorganisation financed by a good dose of investment would enable Frontier to conduct its business smoothly. A hawker of north Kolkata once told me that Samar Sen’s Frontiersold as quickly as a race guidebook. But Samar Babu did not evince much enthusiasm in this reorganisation. He did not try to dissuade anybody, but did not show any interest himself. In passing, he once said, “We do not have the infrastructure to do anything on a large-scale. Nor do we have that experience. Frontier has survived till date because it is run on a small-scale”. I later realised how true this statement was. It is entirely true that Frontier has been able to suatain itself so long only because of its existence as a small enterprise, although at present even this small-scale existence is becoming precarious. Any attempt to launch a large-scale enterprise would certainly have invited disaster. During Samar Babu’s lifetime, once an effort was made to sell some shares and collect some capital. But there were not many shares to sell. The capital that was found after selling was scarcely enough to do any real business. Many well-wishers were, however, against the sale of shares. They had thought that Frontier would lose its essential character by such deeds. The matter, however, did not proceed far.
Frontier was born in a period when the political situation, both nationally and internationally, was inflammatory in the true sense. But it began to undergo swift changes in the beginning of the seventies itself. In consequence, the number of readers, instead of growing as before, rather decreased. A wrong notion is ingrained in many that Frontier is an organ of the Naxalites. The CPI(M) is the principal actor of this campaign. What Frontier has always done is to oppose police repression (to put it better, planned state terror) on Naxalites. Since the CPI(M) stood in favour of state repression, it naturally became a target of political attack, and various writings highlighted the failure of their social democratic politics. Some writings on ideological questions in the national and international contexts were published, which had only a very limited appeal to ordinary readers. The long debate on the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ might have influenced only a handful of intellectuals. On one point, Frontier remained consistent; its uninterrupted opposition to the Soviet Union. Perhaps that is why a large section of the Naxalites used to read Frontier, and read it even now. They are not adherents of any particular party or a specific brand of politics. Their number has also of late gone down in a strange fashion. At one time, Samar Babu’s life was endangered owing to his opposition to the ‘annihilation campaign’ of the Naxalites. In an editorial, Samar Babu called them head hunters of Midnapore. This was enough to enrage their leaders. Finally, good sense might have descended on some leaders, and the matter did not move far. The fact is that Frontier was harmed to the maximum extent by the ego-centrism and lack of prescience of one Naxalite leader. This leader is none other than Saroj Datta.
The columns written by Saroj Datta in the pages of the weekly Deshabrati were then read like hot cakes. In the column ‘Patrikar Duniyay’ (In the World of Papers), Saroj Datta wrote that the ruling class has three weapons to suppress the peasant struggles—Eastern Frontier Rifles, Frontier Gandhi and Frontier weekly. Then he gave the mandate asking nobody inside the ML party to read Frontier. It is needless to say that because of this mandate, Frontier lost many readers. But many diehard Naxalites did not obey Saroj Babu’s mandate. They read Frontier on the sly, and even wrote letters to it. It may be mentioned in passing that many of the well-wishers of Frontier did not like its staunch anti-Sovietism. One of them was M S Prabhakar, the then assistant editor of the EPW. Samar Babu published Kutty, some portion of Prabhakar’s memoirs. While speaking about it, Prabhakar said that he did not believe that the Soviet Union had gone to the hades. Samar Babu then was, however, not in the office.
There can be no denying that the fall of the Soviet Union and the reversal in China have on the whole generated a frustration among left-minded intellectuals and among the change-seeking people in general. Many of them indeed are no longer interested in studying serious issues. It is only natural that Frontier should lose some readers of this kind. Persons not holding any party card but sympathetic to party-led movements are not few in number. Many of them were readers of Frontier. Of late, their number has gone down severely, the principal reason being time. Ennui caused by old age has had a dampening impact on them. Yet new readers are not coming, or better to say, not being formed. The ideology of revolution does not evoke much response from the new generation. One section of those who, during the late sixties and early seventies, was not afraid to die for the sake of revolution used to read Frontier out of their own necessity. That situation is now nonexistent; there has been a qualitative change.
Today it is well-nigh impossible to find anybody willing to court martyrdom for the sake of revolution. Writers cannot properly understand the demands of the new generation. There are however turmoils around institutions of higher learning, i.e. the universities. But they are of transient nature and limited breadth. Participants do not wish to go far because the question of ‘career’ becomes a formidable obstacle. In the seventies many among the student community did not give a thought to their careers; they did not care for their bindings. Its impact was felt in every sphere of life, art, literature, film, journalism. Many gave up their studies and research activities and went to the villages in order to get integrated with the common masses, to know and understand real India. It is another question that their efforts failed, but the boys and girls of those days had the courage to undertake risks and sacrifice middle class comfort.
Yet movements are there. Institutions like Jadavpur University, Jawharlal Nehru University, Hyderabad Central University have been hitting the headlines. In the context of these movements, many broader issues are also coming to the fore e.g the varna system, nationalism, definition of patriotism etc. Frontier has been, as before, publishing pieces on such movements, giving vent to different opinions for as well as against these movements. Yet it is incapable of reaching the agitators. One possible reason is the over popularity of the electronic media and their ability to reach a much larger audience.
A strange thing is that although all the leftist parties have their respective all-India students’ organisations, they hardly launch movements on the common problems of students. And university-based student organisations seemingly maintain some sort of aristocracy. Recently, owing to a directive of the Supreme Court, a complexity has arisen regarding medical and engineering entrance examinations and thousands of students aspiring to appear at the examinations are feeling helpless. Yet no student organisation is making the minimum noise in this regard. There is no Vietnam War. But there are too many Vietnams in the Middle East. Yet no protest outside the American consulate in any Metropolitan City. It was not really the case in the sixties. Students were vocal enough to show their international solidarity and brotherhood. American aggression didn’t go unchallenged.
To the new generation, Samar Sen’s familiarity either as a person or as the conscience of revolutionists is getting thinner and thinner. Those who are interested about him are persons of yesteryears. Perhaps it is enough that Frontier continues to be brought out in the face of many types of obstacles. At least this notion is held by a good number of well-wishers. Samar Babu once said in passing, “I could not realise that Frontier would survive so long”. It seems that this is the main reason why he did not lay stress on the improvement of the organisational infrastructure from the beginning. It is indeed an exceptional event that Frontier has survived with such a fragile structure.
Many have wanted to know how Frontier wishes to observe Samar Sen’s birth centenary, whether any ceremony will be held etc. There are many big and small organisations to hold ceremonies. Most of them are more enthusiastic about Samar Sen the poet. Many of the old persons close to Samar Sen are no longer in this world. But many of those who are still alive, in West and East Bengal (Bangladesh), in India and abroad, will reminisce. Frontier can only do this much. In short a publication to be titled ‘On Samar Sen and By Samar Sen’ is all that Frontier is hoping to bring out in due season.
[This is a slightly enlarged version of an article published in the Bengali Magazine, Arek Rakam (June 16-30, 2016), Traslation by Anirban Biswas]