A personal reprise

Gerson da Cunha

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IT took quite some years into my friendship with Romesh and Raj Thapar for the truth to dawn on me. (This was in Bombay, the city which presented Seminar in its swaddling clothes to the world). I had first met them in a sort of aftermath, a time without the substance of a lot they had already lived, but also a time of prelude, given all that they were going to realise in the rajdhani. I knew them in 1952 when I was cast in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons which Romesh directed. In retrospect, what followed was a period of scanty rainfall and a declining intellectual crop – until in fact the conception of Seminar and its delivery in September 1959. Then they left for Delhi in 1961.

This may excuse the otherwise inexcusable: this personal indulgence. I knew them in their Bombay years, between Crossroads and Seminar, when the excitements were formative but had as much to do with people as with ideas. Also, it was happening in a city that has since died but may have shaped the content and culture of Seminar, the literate, liberal, questing city that it was.



A good season it was for a lot of us too. Glorya and Arthur Hale, an American couple in Bombay in the late fifties, once asked me who had intellectual leadership of the group I moved in. ‘Romesh and Raj Thapar,’ I replied without hesitation. The Hales were to cultivate a warm and quite close relationship with the Thapars. Only recently has Phillip Knightley revealed in his A Hack’s Progress that the Hales, then his employers, were running one of the CIA’s little operations in Bombay. The Thapars, unfrocked Communists at the time, had been an appetising quarry and an exciting kill for Langley, Virginia.

For me, the Thapars were a liberal education. I had emerged from a strait-laced Jesuit college into environments ever more strait-laced, culminating in that strangest of contradictions, a priggish advertising agency. Yet there I was in the Dress Circle of melodramas like the Roberto Rossellini-Sonali Das Gupta episode, with the Thapars playing a puzzled and unlikely role in it. I could barely credit that this slightly sweaty, slightly bull-necked gentleman whose hand was shaking was really the light of Ingrid Bergman’s life, to say nothing of the impact he was having on the beauteous Sonali.

Corbusier was another personage one ran into at Mayfair, the Thapar abode. One late night he held forth on how the brief must permeate form and structure. The Shodhan dwelling in Ahmedabad had no banisters on the staircases on the fall-off sides (but yes, on the wall-sides), no doors to the bathrooms, or balustrades on bedroom verandahs overlooking the swimming pool. But was Shodhan not a bachelor?

Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet, and the Joliot-Curies were other names bandied about as I listened awestruck. Much went on in Mayfair that many knew nothing about and some of us only suspected. The early fifties were Morarji Desai years of prohibition and vigilance by police of the Communist Party, of which Romesh and Raj Thapar were members in all but ownership of the card. I remember a muttered reference one evening to a meeting the next day. ‘What meeting?’ I asked, because we had been talking of a production of Born Yesterday. ‘Anti-Duhring,’ whispered Raj conspiratorially and of course incomprehensibly at the time.



The theatre provided relief from he weals and cares of politics. After All My Sons, Romesh and Raj organised one or two very successful ‘Living Newspaper’ productions. They gave quite inventive voice to the standard Peace Committee line on various international and national issues. Going even further in the direction of the frankest escapism (if such is the word for it), Raj found time to play Yashodra in Hima Kesarcodi’s production of Light of Asia. Siddhartha, I might add, was played by me!

Another indelible memory I carry of my times with the Thapars pre-Seminar is our involvement with the work of a slightly ‘pink’ English sculptor, Fredda Brilliant. Inspired by a fatality during one of Ram Manohar Lohia’s forays on the Goa border, she resolved to do a bronze to mark the tragedy, something she wished to present to Jawaharlal Nehru. She chose Raj to pose as a lifeless form symbolizing the corpse of colonised Goa. The form would be held up in the strong arms of a heroic Lohia volunteer – to be portrayed, unfortunately, by me.

There was much to escape from. The Party was negotiating troubled times. The Thapar times were if anything more troubled, given their waning devotion to the Party’s oft-altering commandments. It was only very much later that I realised how carefully they had kept their passionate involvement with the Party and its beliefs under wraps. Only very much later did I fully appreciate the shattering blow that the Twentieth Congress delivered at Mayfair, behind the Malabar Hill Post Office, Bombay-6.



But the drift away had begun earlier. B.T. Ranadive, the Communist bossman was a personage carefully devised, it seemed, to disappoint and enrage the likes of the Thapars. Wandering about the grounds of Mayfair one afternoon, garden shears in hand, Raj warned me in comically hushed tones of the man’s murderous proclivities. There were other serio-comic sidebars.

Police vigilance finally convinced Romesh that he was about to be arrested. Presenting himself to them, hands almost proferred for the handcuffs, he received instead a letter banning Crossroads. The story ends both well and badly. The Supreme Court eventually lifted the ban in a landmark judgment. But the Party took away the publication from the Thapars. It had in any case become little more than a party organ, far emoved from the paper Romesh had wanted, something of interest to non-party members and non- (such was the terminology) fellow travelers too.

The argumentative coterie that gathered weekly and oftener at Mayfair and the influence of the hosts on the opinion, taste and values of the group symbolised what was to become Seminar. ‘I want to pose a single problem every month,’ said Romesh of the magazine to come, ‘and to discuss it from as many sensible points of view as I can find.’ Raj thought of Seminar as ‘reflecting the thinking mind of India.’ Shades of Crossroads as a mirror image, which explains the liberal, Nehruvian stance of Seminar in its natal phases.

Just as interesting might be reflections on, if not a requiem for, the Bombay of those times that has become the Mumbai of these times, over the Seminar years. The decline of the city depicts a lot that, in microcosm, afflicts the land that had once inflamed the Thapars and then gradually drove them close to despair.

It is now well-accepted that ‘in the 21st century, the fate of cities will more than ever determine the well-being of nations.’ (OECD-Australia Conference, Melbourne). This will be especially true of Mumbai, the nation’s financial and commercial locomotor. Cities (and Mumbai) as centres of manufacture, even service provision, are fading into history. As inter-stellar and intra-cellular spaces are explored and harnessed, cities are becoming centres of knowledge and the transaction of ideas. It is this that will deliver jobs, standards of living and quality of life.



If cities must become knowledge centres, they will prosper in direct proportion to the quality of mind that they attract. Today’s Mumbai is not just a terrible place to live in, it has also become sectarian and intolerant. The best minds go where there is the best living and conditions for intellectual growth. Mumbai fares badly on both these measures.

How does the Bombay of the Thapars, the world class city of mathematician and physicist Homi Bhabha, economist and journalist Sachin Chowdhury, architect and urban planner Charles Correa (his great but doomed Twin City across the harbour!), painters Husain and Raza, thinkers and constant visitors Vikram Sarabhai and D.D.Kosambi, industrialist J.R.D. Tata and the less-known folk who manned the vital support systems of the more famous names, how does such a city become a provincial backwater which is what Mumbai is today? How does a physically magnificent city by the sea become a decaying, slum-ridden megalopolis shambling towards destruction?



The answer to these and other first thoughts lies in the very system that had brought a glow to the cheeks of Romesh and Raj Thapar and the pages of Seminar. It is the way democracy has gone in a free India. One knows and has certainly heard before questions like, ‘What other system would you suggest?’ and, ‘So what are you doing about it?’ Even such thoughts as, ‘True, the present is dreadful, but it’s inevitable in a democracy as vast as ours.’ And so on. We move quickly beyond these parrying remarks.

Art and thought in what was the most liberal and thus the most progressive city of India 40 years ago has become caught up in that most suicidal of processes, self-censorship. Otherwise, one risks the mob. But have we not elected the goons to power? Alas, yes.

Does the answer not lie in constitutional amendments that make government more reflective of voting proportions, or that make it less vulnerable to corrupt factionalism? Certainly. That is, if you have 10 years to spare – which nobody has, given the high cost of misrule in blood and human suffering. But there are simpler answers.

As citizens, we are simply not monitoring the city’s governance, despite numerous available instruments. H.D. Shourie of Common Cause and lawyer M.C. Mehta in Delhi have shown what government’s own regulations and the judiciary can offer to resistors of muscle-power and redressors of injustice. Lok Satta in Hyderabad and the Public Affairs Centre in Bangalore are other examples of citizen mobilisation and citizen power working for civil society. In Bombay, where there are over 2,000 residents’ associations, NGOs, community based organisations and voluntary institutions, there is much important public interest litigation in the High Court. AGNI, a network of citizen organizations has acquired 70 constituents, with memberships totalling nearly four lakh people, in four months. There is much else.



But underlying nearly all of it is one requirement: supportive and relatively free media. Without that, bad government, lumpen crime, wanton grabbing of public property and attacks on the rights of civil society will go unproclaimed. Redressal will have few champions. The right to know will wither away.

Seminar has stood against all of that. Apart from the Thapar stand in the Supreme Court of the ’50s, Seminar weathered Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in the ’70s. Romesh and Malvika took to the apex Court the issue of government’s monopoly of the electronics media, a petition of the greatest importance when it was filed, if less urgent now in an age of other problems and multiple, MTV-ing channels.

There will be others better qualified than I to write of the Seminar published from Delhi. Forty years is a long time, and yet they are short when a publication is growing and keeping abreast of change. Happily, two things have stayed unaltered in Seminar: its values and unique brand of public illumination.