by Pranab Bardhan
My Presidency College friend Premen was always a voracious reader, particularly of political, social and military history. He often told me of new books in those areas and sometimes persuaded me to read them. But by the time I saw him again in Cambridge, I could see his slow turn from his fascination with Trotsky to Mao. This was in line with a general movement among the young in the European left around that time. Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film La Chinoise captured the restless energy of politically-activist students in contemporary France, foreshadowing the student rebellions in a year or so.
A Chinese student in Premen’s hostel provided him with copies of official publications from Beijing, which Premen read with interest, but I saw mainly propaganda in them. He and I used to go to China-centric evening talks, say by Joan Robinson (praising the new anti-bureaucratic directions for the world’s left being shown by the Cultural Revolution) or by Joseph Needham (on the great strides in Chinese history in science and technology). Premen directed me to Needham’s multi-volume magnum opus Science and Civilization in China, but I could manage only a partial skimming. I was, however, attracted by what is now known as the ‘Needham Question’: why has the West overtaken China (and also India) in science and technology, despite their earlier successes? By now there have been several attempts to answer this question by historians and economists, but none of which I have found fully satisfactory.
Through Premen I met one of his friends, a cheerful bohemian fellow from Bombay whom everyone called by his last name Hamied (many years later I found out that he belonged to the business family that started the pharmaceutical company Cipla). He usually spoke to us in a charming mixture of English and Urdu. He was not doing well as a student in Cambridge. One day Premen unexpectedly got a letter from him from Paris, saying that he had decided to seek his fortune in France, and asked him and me to pay him a visit. After a few weeks another letter informed us that he was soon going to give up his lodgings, and this was our last chance for free accommodation in Paris. (He also warned that I should not bring Kalpana as his was a rather Spartan single-room bachelor’s pad not at all suitable for women).
For Premen and me, both poor students who had never been to Paris before, this was some opportunity, so we decided to take him up on his offer. In the last minute something happened so that Premen had to cancel his visit, so I ended up alone at Hamied’s place, which turned out to be even more Spartan than I anticipated. The common toilet was a couple of floors below in a huge ramshackle building. Hamied also told me that in many such buildings in the area there was no arrangement for taking a bath; most people go once in several weeks to the public (‘Turkish’) baths some distance away. I had a clue then to the origin of the French perfume industry. (Later I read stories about how stinking even the Royal Court at Versailles under Louis XIV was). Some even say that Europe slowly learned proper bathing from its colonies.
I also realized that Hamied was soon going to give up this accommodation mainly because he was running out of money and was desperately looking for a job, but one difficulty was that he did not speak French, and hardly understood it. He told me a story that the previous week he saw a sign in a store saying ‘vacances’, which he took to mean as ‘vacancies’. So he entered the store and asked in English for job openings. It so happened that the man in that small travel agency did not understand English at all and proceeded to show Hamied brochures for beautiful places for taking a vacation. Hamied at the beginning thought those were the places where the vacancies were and got excited. Soon both realized what the problem was, and the man got furious for his wasted time. Hamied told me he did not understand what the man was saying but his firm guess was that he was being cursed at. As a hot-blooded man Hamied had to curse back, but he realized that if he cursed in English the man would not understand, while he himself would remain dissatisfied as his command over Urdu curse words was much better than English ones, so he hurled some choicest Urdu epithets at the man and came out of the store.
Next few days while Hamied went on job search, I by myself went to the usual museums and tourist spots in Paris, and in the evenings I would meet up with Hamied and an Algerian friend of his at a café, and then go to an Algerian place for couscous with meat. One problem of being with this nice Algerian was that when we were seated outside, if a pretty woman was passing by he’d immediately stand up and greet her with a warm ‘salut’, which the women usually ignored and went forward. He’d then sit down and shake his head in awed appreciation of female beauty and say ‘formidable’, ‘formidable’!
Back in Cambridge summer late afternoons had a particular ethereal beauty. The daylight would be there until quite late, streets were relatively empty, soft sunlight bathing the houses and the trees where the birds were back and twittering; you saw an eccentric professor riding a unicycle, some boys walking wearily back from the day’s cricket game, a young woman with braids swinging running late for her tryst, elderly people going into college chapels for evensong, distant voices from the students’ acting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the back of a college…
Cambridge was a great place to see theater performances by students. Apart from plays done at the college backs, we occasionally went to the Cambridge Arts Theater (founded by Keynes in 1936), say for some performance of Chekov plays. I always thought, as with detective stories, the British have a particular flair for drama performance, and the standard of even young amateur theater is quite high.
The building where this Arts Theater was had a canteen at the roof top, where I’d often go for lunch, walking through the King’s College grounds. Sometimes I’d see there the stooped figure of E.M. Forster from that College, already in his mid-eighties, seated at a table surrounded by admiring students. I did not go talk to him but looking at him from my lunch table I used to remember the first piece of his I had read in college, long before reading his Passage to India or Howard’s End. This was an essay where the famous lines are:
“I do not believe in Belief….Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance rules…if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”
In the world today of rampant rabid nationalism I often remember words like these of Forster (and Tagore).