Joining the Middle Class

A book changed my life. This is a Bengali novel, about someone who joins revolutionary communist movement in Bengal. The book shot to fame as it won some sort of an award that year [It had a second year of fame much later, when it was made into a movie]. I was in the final year of college then. I was not communist, in the sense of card carrying, but shared the deep sense of anger and disillusionment that communists were supposed to have.

The book, which appealed to me because this was about a 'true' communist, a revolutionary one, who did not compromise with the establishment and did not become a clerk. He, instead, fought, got tortured and died or became paralysed, I don't remember which one after so many years. What I remember is that he had a rather futile end - nothing really changed - and he wasted his life, in a way.

Frankly, this was not just about the romanticism of my adolescent years. There was something more, a personal story. My uncle died young, presumably shot by the Police in his sleep, because he was a revolutionary communist. He was in the mould of a late sixties college leaver, someone who felt real anger about how the country was run and tried to do whatever little he could do.

My mother's own brother, but I haven't seen him. I was very young when he died. His photos were erased from all family albums, particularly because the police were looking for him at the time. My mother and my grandmother lived in hope that the story of his death is untrue, because his body was never found. My grandfather learnt about his death from some source, but concealed his feelings as stoically as humanly possible; rest of us had to wait for declassification of police records a couple of decades later. No one spoke about him, and questions about him were met with silence and awkwardness. In time, I learnt not to speak about him, but, almost inevitably, felt his presence [or the lack of it] all the time.

There was a big problem in my life. My father's family was very different. They were successful business people, steeped in the values of hard work and enterprise, and believed that if you try hard enough, you will make it. They also sounded right - their own lives bore testimony that their theory was right. I idolized the patriarch of the family, the eldest brother of my other grandfather. He was all about discipline, courage, honesty and hard work. I learnt that it did not matter what the world threw at you, you must do your work and you would prevail. Which, surely, had its own appeal.

This was irreconcilable. I missed my uncle. I fantasized about his coming back from the dead. I noted that my mother never believed that he was dead, and made a secret wish for his long life on every 'bhaiphota', the autumn day when every sister in Bengal bless their brothers and wish for them luck. I remember, vaguely, that moment when a photo of my uncle fell out from my mother's secret hiding place: There he was, all smiling, absurdly holding a baby, me!, is his arms. I did not even know that he ever saw me. My questions were never fully answered: no dates, no time, how old was I, where was this photo taken, and the photo was returned to its hiding place, secretly. But, in the context of all the lessons I was learning in life, his battles looked quixotic, and his absence, pointless.

Therefore, I went to college undecided, knowing that you can make it in life if you try, but in effervescent presence of my brilliant uncle who died fighting against injustice. Shot in the head and burnt secretly! Outwardly, I was a out-of-place suburban teenager with an awkward dress sense madly in love with smartest girl in the class. So, I had no option but to keep a little private revolution going, and preach my anger at social norms when we could not go beyond holding hands. Awkward and confused, I was shifting between the absence of my uncle and the presence of the girl of my desire, deeply ingrained with the belief that one can change one's own life but deeply frustrated that one has to live within prescribed boundaries.

Big tragedies happened thereafter. The girl left me, never rewarding my deep desire. My exam results were more than disappointing. My parents demoted me, mentally, one grade lower in the government service that I should aim for. Again, revolution seemed only way to go. I was angry, truly disillusioned, on the threshold of taking the plunge, mixing with the secret society kinds, arguing on the desirability of throwing out the state power through armed uprising, and reading Che Guevara.

Then, suddenly, I met this book, written by an alumni of my college, who flirted with revolution himself and finally made it in life as a writer. I encountered a familiar story of wasted lives, anger and deep passion, a will to change in the world and the powerlessness and confusion of middle class Calcutta, all tied together by a seething sexual frustration, a desire for freedom that could only be requited by consummation but was constrained by the social norms. This, suddenly, was not just a story of the writer's life, or even my uncle's life with some change of detail, but my story as well.

But this was the story of sixties told in eighties, the wastefulness of such passion in full evidence. The anger felt misplaced, the injustice self-inflicted, and the reality of freedom more distant. The central theme of the book seemed to be not the desire to change the world, but, waste, waste, waste - I kept feeling - wanting my uncle to come back, wanting to discover a doctrine that puts me at ease, with the world, with myself.

And, then, I found one. The protagonist's father advised - one should attain success in the traditional way before trying to change the world. He was nationalist, with deep respect with heroes of India's freedom movement. He cited Nehru, and others, who trod the predictable path before jumping into the struggle of Independence. By then, they were leaders, he preached; they did not have to die.

Suddenly, this reconciled all the bits - my middle class aspirations with my uncle, the romanticism of his cause with the waste of his life. I could now become a clerk, marry a girl, have family, have a house - and, then, when I am done with all this, return to revolution. A cosy doctrine at ease with whoever I was and whatever I was expected to do, and whoever I wanted to be.

Looking back, many years later, this was when I joined the Middle Class. Irreversibly, I made peace with myself, and closed my eyes. I disagreed, but postponed the expression of my disagreement. I chose to wait, and surrender. I traded the desire for freedom for sexual attainment. I converted my anger to enterprise, and my desire to change the world with the desire to change my life. This was the age before EMIs, Housing Loans, Private Jobs and Designations, Low Aeroplane fares and even Satellite Televisions; it did not feel bad to cross over the line and think the only person you could really oppress is yourself. Life has only got more tempting since then, and I have managed to forget how my uncle really looked like.


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