The past as future

ASHOK MITRA

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ONE of my earliest memories apropos of Seminar has as its centrepiece the Mumbai apartment of the Thapars. It was the early days for the journal. It was in every sense a small-scale family enterprise, but the narrow home base did not deter Seminar from aspiring to conquer the world.

My specific recollection is that of loads and loads of freshly printed copies of a new issue being hauled by the two tiny tots, Valmik and Mala, from upstairs to downstairs or from downstairs to upstairs, enthusiasm bubbling over. It was as if the kids too realised the significance of the pioneering venture and could not be kept out of the brisk preliminary goings-on.

Seminar soon moved to New Delhi; the dark recess of the Malhotra Building became its natural habitat. In all seasons it was cool and shady inside, even when the mercury was shooting up to 115 degree Fahrenheit in Connaught Place. Rajís thoughtful decor and the flair of both husband and wife for making the most imaginative use of the nooks and corners of every available space rendered that office into an extraordinary experience for visitors who dropped in.

 

 

In its heydays in the í60s and í70s, Seminar knew its mind; it also knew where it was going. Romesh and Raj had a fantastically wide circle of friends and acquaintances Ė poets, writers, musicians, dancers, film-makers, actors and actresses, painters, sculptors, nuclear physicists, pure mathematicians, economists of different hues, sociologists and anthropologists, political scientists, pundits in international relations and the intricacies of international law, politicians, art dealers, army generals, seismologists, agronomists, lawyers, environmentalists, historians, linguists, geologists, and of course journalists of various descriptions. The ambiance was of Nehruvian India at its dazzling best; the decision to shift Seminar from Mumbai to the nationís capital was carefully reached: the Thapars wanted to be where the action was and to be very much a part of it.

Seminar, howsoever imperceptibly, was a proto-image of Jawaharlal Nehruís India: self-assured, proud of the nationís history and heritage, proud of the diversities of life, living and attitudes the country encapsulated, a questioning intellect, seeking answers to all questions and a desperate eagerness to integrate these answers with Indiaís emerging, evolving future. Each issue was planned in great detail, beginning with the innovation to invite, usually an outsider of eminence, to discourse on the theme around which the number was organised. Let there be light thrown on the topic, light from every direction and at different thrusts of watt power. Truth, Seminar unabashedly made the straight point, had many facets; it dared to explore each of them.

 

 

That confidence had a common breeding ground with the five-year plans, the pledge of self-reliance and the vision of the non-aligned movement encompassing the continents. Seminar felt superior because, in that phase, India itself nurtured a feeling of superiority, and for good reason. It was, therefore, a matter of privilege to be invited to be one of the journalís regular contributors. Such an invitation proved that you had arrived, what you had to say in your area of specialisation was worth its weight in gold, and the nation was to benefit enormously from it.

If someone would take a fortnight off from his or her regular chores and spend the time in the Seminar office to prepare a roster of the names of contributors who wrote for it over the span of these four decades, it would be a compendium of the best and the brightest. I have not the least doubt that, even if the endeavour concentrated on producing a subject-wise classification, 15 or 20 excellent selections could be ferreted out of the corpus of the bound volumes of Seminar, covering, I dare say, themes as distant as taxation and fiscal policy at one end and the interrelationship between technological strides and sustainability of the environment in the next millennium at the other. Think of a problem, howsoever arcane it might seem at first blush, Seminar has covered it, and perhaps more than once, in the course of these forty years.

The new generation who have assumed charge in the Malhotra Building bureau of course also know their mind; they know too the direction they would like Seminar to travel. Even so, they are the Thapar progeny. The charm and the civilisation which is their bequest from the parents are not by any stretch considered by them as dispensable categories, which is why the present issue has been planned, and views of well-wishers of the journal sought on major areas Seminar should traverse over, say, the next couple of decades or thereabouts. It is an open-ended invitation. One can let oneís imagination travel wherever it deigns to and come up with free-wheeling suggestions. That, after all, would be in consonance with the spirit of Seminar: to seek, to interrogate, to learn, to relearn, to substitute shibboleth by cool, precise logic.

 

 

Given this background, the priorities Seminar should set for itself in the immediate future are autonomously derivable. Seminar was never a part of the establishment, not even in the halcyon sixties, although on all occasions it reserved the right to advise the authorities. That role it must continue. Seminar had closed its shutters during the Emergency because Raj and Romesh decided that was the most powerful weaponry of protest; a deafening silence was what Indira Gandhi deserved. However, at other moments, when the system resumed its democratic credentials, Seminar was as vocal as it could persuade itself to be.

Activism should be the number one item on its agenda for the future too. It must advise and it must protest; it must post its dissent where the assertion of such a position is what social conscience dictates. It has to keep stride with the twenty-first century and the multifarious issues it would be afflicted with. The technological challenge of the website and the internet ought to be putty clay to it.

But there is the flip side of the technological revolution that would try to waylay the nation. I would express my mild hope that Seminar, for the sake of the countryís millions and millions of under-privileged, would raise its voice of disapproval at the excesses perpetrated by globalisation and neo-liberalism. Our structure of values, who can deny, is getting eroded at a dangerous speed because of the impact of alien concepts and ideas.

True, we cannot resist the intrusion of phenomena that are now a part of the general system in the rest of the world. There is nonetheless such a thing as acclimatisation. Consideration of that boundary condition has been sadly missing from the nationís recent confabulations or, rather, from the confabulations of the nationís policy-framers. Seminar should bring the deviants back to their senses. That is the role history, maybe by accident, had assigned to it in the middle decades of the century that is drawing to a close. That role should imbibe the magic of converting itself into a continuum. Seminar must see to it that, through absentmindedness or otherwise, it does not get shunted off from its pledge of commitment to the historical process.

Can I be permitted to add one last thought? Seminar every now and then carries a page or two of communications. It would be nice if this is enlarged into a full-blown letters section, where the views of the sophisticated readership of the journal could be more overtly expressed in an enlarged hospitable space.

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