Learning from Jolly

Many of Jolly Mohan Kaul’s friends and admirers — he had plenty of both as well as a host of adoring relatives — regret he was not spared the last three months that would have made him a centenarian. It’s an understandable sentiment, but the passing of this once prominent Co­mmunist leader on June 29 at the age of 99 did not mark the end of an era. The promised land into which he and his equally dedicated wife Ma­nikuntala Sen poured all their re­sources had passed long ago. Sankar Ray noted that Jolly was the sole survivor of the undivided CPI’s national council elected at the fifth party congress in Amritsar in 1958.

Yet, one never felt he was stranded on the beaches of time. Just as — despite a developing interest in Kashmiriyat — one never felt Be­ngal was not his native land. He and his wife belonged. They were always contemporary. Hope was eternal in them. The English version of Ma­nikuntala Sen’s memoirs, published in 2001, was called In Se­arch of a Better World, appearing nine years later, summed up the mission that drove them long before our paths crossed in 1964 and which they continued to pursue with unflagging zeal right to the end. From Marx to Sri Aurobindo, the Ramakrishna Mission and Gandhi, he remained a socialist and a humanist like Abou Ben Adhem whom God’s love blest in Leigh Hunt’s poem because he “loves his fellow men”.

It used to be a humbling experience in the 1960s to go to his home beyond Delhi’s Daryaganj by bus with him. People invariably offered him their seats, not because he was older, but because they recognised yesterday’s neta in the cheerful man with a face like a freshly scrubbed apple. He was always instantly identified. When I mentioned him in a recent article, Andrew Whitehead, a former BBC World Service editor, at once wrote from London to say he had interviewed Jolly in his Kolkata flat — designated a CPI commune — on April 26, 1997, about that dreadful day of carnage — August 16, 1946 — from which the subcontinent is still bleeding.

As secretary of the Port Trust Employees’ Association, one of Ca­lcutta’s biggest trade unions, and a CPI district committee member, Jolly led a march to Maidan to try and prevent the bloodletting. It was too late. The Great Calcutta Killing had started. Corpses 

littered the way. “We immediately folded our flags and told the workers, let’s march back, let us try to see if we can save our locality from the riots at least.” It worked. Jolly was de­lighted that his trade unionists succeeded in “maintaining the solidarity of Hindu and Muslim workers”.

There were less sombre episodes. He told me he had sat up in alarm when a new social welfare organisation sent him their charter. “It was much more radical than anything we Communists had ever envisaged!” Then he met the young accountants and corporate managers behind Mahanagar Parishad and heaved a sigh of relief. They might have been idealists, but were no revolutionaries.

Another time, we were visiting Ahmedabad in a group when a sethji nursing happy memories of Kolkata asked if there were any Bengalis among us. Mischievously, I pointed out Jolly, calling him “Jaladhar Chatterjee”. It worked. Both chattered away in Bengali, sethji brokenly, Jolly, with his sense of fun and gift for mimicry, fluently. Mimicry was his forte. His take-off of P C Joshi amused even the target. I also remember him singing the folk melodies for which Promode Das­gupta, Bengal’s austere Marxist su­premo, apparently had a surprising flair.

His integration of India’s many strands went beyond mimicry. As a Kashmiri who made Bengal his field of action, he represented the Indian synthesis at its best. His most devastating indictment of Indian Co­mmunism was that it was anti-national. Lenin, Mao, Gramsci and Togliatti “had their roots in the history, tradition and ethos of their own countries and creatively ap­plied Marxist theory to the environmental conditions prevailing there”. Indian Communists “rubbished” India’s “past and all its traditions and thoughts”.

Dropping in unannounced one evening, I found Jolly in a huddle with a couple of unknown young people. He explained they were recording his views on people and politics for posterity. It was oral history, of which there is too little here. Recalling what he said once about CPI hardliners being bribed with a brand new rotary machine, I suppose many skeletons might come tumbling out when those memories are published.

Jolly himself had nothing to hi­de. His life was always an open book.

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