Different meanings–same words

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


He asked

The more important thing to ponder upon is how an individual

should prepare himself faced with such tremendous changes

 in fortune.

 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.


About prashant bhatt

A psychologist, interested in mindfulness practices. I practiced medicine as a radiologist for 23 years in India and Libya as a radiologist before shifting to Canada. A regular diarist, journaling since 1983 Reading journal : gracereadings.com
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1 Response to Different meanings–same words

  1. Pingback: Reflections on our Republic Day « Prashantbhatt’s Weblog

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