On May 5, 2018 — the world celebrated Karl Marx’s 200 birth anniversary. So, in simple terms, if Marx would have been alive, he would have turned 200. As an alumni of JNU, I have had the privilege of knowing some Marxists from a close distance. My spiritual/intellectual companion (so also my helpline number ) lived a substantial part of his young adult life working tirelessly and dreaming endlessly of bringing a revolution in this country. With a deep laugh, I say to him now, “I am the biggest victim of Marxism.”
On May 5, I messaged him, “Comrade, Happy birthday to Marx. Woh nehin hote toh aap bhi nehin hote. (If Marx would not have been there… you would not have been here).
He answered, “Yes, let’s celebrate. Ideas never die, they just travel.”
Being in an organic, instinctive relationship for more than two decades, I knew he would call up after this. So, when he called up, I just picked up the call and blurted out, “Yes Comrade.” We then got into ruminating about his days of being a ‘Comrade.’ Once upon a time.
His humble room was like an open house with almost no concept of lock and key. Even if it was locked by chance, the key was kept there on the top of the door ledge. So, at best the lock did what the traffic lights in most two-tier cities in India do, advisory function. As the room did have floor sleeping arrangement (sorry if you are thinking of Japanese aesthetics or tatami mats), it gave enough space for the innumerable visiting comrades to lounge and brood over petty bourgeois. The room at any given time had more than four people.
And just because it was open that didn’t mean that my ‘comrade‘ was in the room. He could be anywhere but his room was 24X7 open for fellow comrades from different parts of the country. Nobody other than these comrades understood ‘atithi devo bhav’ (The guests are like Gods) better.
There was one occasion when I and another friend of mine had gone to his room late in the night to look for our ‘missing’ comrade. The room was open and dark. And we found four/five people sleeping on the floor. In our polite middle-class ways, we kept on telling, “Hello, Hello, Excuse Me.” But there was no response for almost 10 minutes. And then out of sheer frustration and anger, my friend shouted, “Comrade, comrade..” It worked like magic and suddenly one of them got up and told us, “We have no idea where’s he. As the room was open, we came and slept.”
There was no concept of personal possession in this world of Marx. Everything was collective. So the shirt bought for this comrade of mine changed hands in less than 48 hours. My blood pressure shot up to 500/200 when I saw another lanky comrade wearing the shirt. These young revolutionaries lived in their own world. So no wonder then when I made coffee for them, after gulping cups of it, one of them (the brightest among them) said, “Waike hi aap chai bahut accha banate ho.” (You really make tea very well). I wish I had an AK 47 with me.
There are many ‘comrade legends’ from Odisha I have grown up listening to. One such legend is about a communist-cum-academician riding a bicycle in his own marriage procession. The whole village gathered to see this unique bridegroom on a bicycle as even poor families go extra mile to hire a car for the marriage procession. And after his marriage, he insisted his new bride and now fellow comrade should come with him on his bicycle. His spirited bride went to her new home sitting on his bicycle. Well, this was followed by the bride’s mother weeping inconsolably and howling, “Why did I choose this rakhash (monster) for my daughter?” However, the silver lining was that the comrade bridegroom didn’t take a single item/penny as dowry.
In the neon-lit streets of India where now dreams and material desires are always engaged in a foreplay, the comrades are a vanishing tribe. But these are also the times of jarring economic inequality. Then when suddenly you look back and you actually look at the comrades with a sense of tenderness. The beauty of being a comrade. When you are young, you dream of the impossible. There are no limits to possibilities. I have always admired them for that vision of a larger world. I may not agree with them but it always warms the cockles of my heart when I look back and remember many bright young minds looking beyond their comfort zone and dreaming of a classless world.
So, here’s to a belated Happy Birthday to Karl Marx.