During those post-war years, inflation was a big topic and father invited a friend, a reputed professor, to give a talk on the subject. Strangely, father asked this young student to preside and introduce the professor. The professor knew the student too and suggested something stranger. He wanted the student to speak and he would preside. That’s the first time I heard the man. I was in school and knew nothing of inflation or economics. Yet I understood everything he said and realized the importance of inflation for ordinary people.
Some years later, when I had joined college and begun exploring my father’s library, I was surprised to find a thin book, For Democracy. The author, I recognized from the photo at the back, was the young person father liked so much. He had written a book! Curious, I started on it. I was spellbound.
Few books, beyond Aristotle, Freud and Marx, have influenced me as much as that modest book. It gave me the clearest idea of what a democratic society means. It certainly does not mean Modi’s India or Trump’s USA, majoritarian societies that mistreat or disempower minority groups. But, more than what it said, the way it said it changed my way of thinking.
It took little for granted and argued step by step, in the most limpid prose, leading the reader from the premise to the conclusion in clear, simple, unambiguous reasoning. I am not easily impressed, but the book bowled me over.
I was deeply moved and impressed. I immediately took his address from my father and went to see him in his tiny apartment. He made tea and we talked for a long time. He talked like nobody else I had encountered, nor have I met anybody since. He listened intently, as if his life depended on it. Then, before he responded to you, he summed up what you had said, often presenting it better than you had done. If he agreed with you, he said why and carefully mapped the area of accord. If he disagreed, he graciously laid out the grounds.
He was the living Bible of good exchanges, scrupulously courteous and punctiliously fair. He took the best interpretation of what you said, either to build on it or, if he thought it wrong, take each strand, analyze it fairly and discard it, often with your agreement.
Then I got to see the other side of him when I joined the university and encountered him as an instructor. I felt comfortable with him and thought of him more as a counsellor than a professor. I discussed all manner of things with him, whether it was an unobliging girl friend or a confusing family issue. I had no hesitation turning up at his home if my mind was troubled. He would make me listen to Bach and make me coffee. His patient hearing and thoughtful clues were just the salve my restless heart needed.
My years overseas cut off our personal contact. I heard of his administrative role in two universities where political activists paid him scant respect and scantier heed. I heard of painful rumors that he twice tried to end his life. I wanted to talk to him again. I was to visit Kolkata on a World Bank mission, and I called from Washington to make sure that I could meet him.
On a gloomy autumn evening, I finished my work downtown and directed the rented car to his Lake Town home. He looked older and frailer, with a graying forelock and thicker lenses. But his smile was radiant.
We were meeting after a decade, but an intangible nexus had endured. I told him of my new life abroad, my work and my family. He talked of the intervening years, the tumultuous experiences of his work as a university head and his current thoughts about society and its evolution. He continued to write, he said, then ruefully added that he was not sure anybody was reading or paying attention.
We had tea together and time seemed to have slipped away.
When I left at dusk, he limped to the door to say goodbye. From the car, in the pallid evening light, I had my last view of the man who had taught me how to think straight and how to speak direct. Maybe some activists and politicians did not care for him. I did. To me, he was special. He was always what his name said he was, untarnished.