As I sat with my friend and co-reader of “Tripoli Reading Group” Mohandas
in the drizzle in Fornaaj on a Friday musing after a few brief joint exercises
the discussion went to the many meanings the same word means to different people.
Mohandas has started walking after almost three months..a slow but steady progress..
in months which made me see Central hospital -Tripoli in a different way.
“It is not like an iron tablet” which hopefully will mean the same thing to all.
Democracy. Communism. God.
These are terms which mean different things to different people
The discussion went to “Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky”
as an illustrative example
In her essay-My Confession, Mary McCarthy (1912-1989) the testy
worldly, sharp-tongued and unillusioned first-person character
narrated how she found herself on this committee
‘Did I think Trotsky was entitled to a hearing?
It was a novelist friend of mine, dimple-faced, shaggy-headed
earnest with a whole train of people, like a deputation, behind him,
Trotsky? I glanced for help at a sour little man I had been talking with.
What had Trotsky done? Trotsky it appeared , had been accused of fostering a
counterrevolutionary plot in the Soviet Union-organizing terrorist centres
and conspiring with the Gestapo to murder the Soviet leaders.
Sixteen old Bolsheviks had confessed and implicated him.
It has been in the press since August.
“What do you want me to say? ” I protested. ” I don’t know anything about it.”
“Trotsky denies the charges” patiently intoned my friend.
“He declares it a GPU fabrication”
Do you think he is entitled to a hearing? My mind cleared.
Why-of course. I laughed-were there people who would say
that Trotsky was not entitled to a hearing?
But my friend’s voice tolled a rebuke to this levity.
“She says Trotsky is entitled to his day in court.”
.. One thing more Mary, he continued gravely,.
“Do you believe that Trotsky should have the
right to asylum? ”
The right to asylum!
I looked for someone to share my amusement-
were we in ancient Greece or the Middle Ages?
I was sure the U.S. government would be delighted to harbour
such a distinguished foreigner.
But nobody smiled back.
Four days later I tore open an envelope addressed to me
by something that called itself
“Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky” and idly
scanned the contents.
“We demand for Leon Trotsky the right of a fair hearing
and the right of asylum.”
Who were the demanders, I wondered, and, glancing down
the letterhead, I discovered my own name.
I sat down on my unmade studio couch , shaking.
How dared they help themselves to my signature?
This was the kind of thing Communists were always
being accused of pulling; apparently,
Trotsky’s admirers had gone to the same school.
I had paid so little heed to the incident in the party
that a connection was slow to establish itself.
..To my astonishment the trials (Moscow trials) did
indeed seem to be a monstrous frame-up.
The defendant, Pyatokov, flew to Oslo to ‘conspire’ with
Trotsky during a winter when, according
to the authorities, no planes landed at the Oslo airfield;
the defendant, Holtzmann, met Trotsky’s son, Sedov, in
1936, at the Hotel Bristol in Copenhagen, which had burned
down in 1912; the witness, Romm, met Trotsky in Paris at a time
when numerous depositions testitifed that he had been in Royan
among cloud of witnesses, or on the way there from the south of France.
* * *
The discussion finished off with the concluding passages
of Trotsky’s Autobiography- My Life
“Since my exile, I have more than once read musing in the
newspapers on the subject of the ‘tragedy’
that has befallen me,. I know no personal tragedy.
I know the change of two chapters of revolution.
One American paper which published an article of mine
accompanied it with a profound note to the effect that in spite
of the blows the author has suffered, he had, as evidenced
by this article, preserved his clarty of reason. I can only
express my astonishment at the Philistine attempt to
establish a connection between the power of reasoning and
a government post., between mental balance and the
present situation. I do not know, and never have known of
any such connection.
In prison, with a book or pen in my hand, I experienced
the same sense of deep satisfaction that I did at mass-meetings
of the revolution.
I felt the mechanics of power as an inescapable burden, rather than as
a spiritual satisfaction.”
* * *
Different meanings of the same word-Democracy are being made out.
Some friends who wrote back after reading “Passing Sidi Gaber ”
As far as India is concerned, the real tragedy is that the activism is dwindling and the society is degenerating in
deep coma. At least there seems to be some activism left in Egypt.
Earlier the protests would consist of 50 to 60 activists,
now there are tens of thousands.
Another Fellow-reader mused over the different meanings
and inferences which his ‘reading-journey’ has been having.
Is this a revolution?
But again, it has different meanings for different people.
One soul-searching reader’s querry made me remember
The more important thing to ponder upon is how an individual
should prepare himself faced with such tremendous changes
Should he be an opportunist, the go-with-the-flow type;
or should he be loyal to some ideas/ ideals, whatever they may be.
Or is he just as powerless as a boat caught in a maelstrom ?
In this journey of exploring silences, dogmatism, nature of
science and truth also makes one examine gaps and spaces,
shortcomings and openings.
In his famous essay on Chaplin “The Poor and the Proletariat”
Roland Barthes argues that the Poor Man essayed by the
legendary comedian is successful precisely because this
character “is always just below political awareness…still
outside the Revolution.”
Although ‘fascinated by the problem of breadwinning’,
Chaplin-man is “as yet unable to reach a knowledge of political
causes and an insistence on collective strategy.”
A film such as Modern Times is powerful because it
foregrounds the humanity of its worker protagonist:
“Other works, in showing the worker already engaged in
a conscious fight, subsumed under the cause and the Party,
give an account of a political reality which is necessary,
but lacks aesthetic force. In other words, it is the visible space
between the aesthetic and the analytical that makes a work
truly revolutionary in the sense of being ‘politically open to
(As quoted in Literary Radicalism in India.Pages 143-144 by Priyamvada Gopal)
* * *
Fellow-readers parted ways, thinking on ways of Chaplin-man
and the aesthetics and appeals of the movement.