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The small big man

india Updated: Jan 23, 2010 22:41 IST
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Jyoti Basu was not a tall man but you hardly noticed that when he walked into a room. There was, instead, a spring in his step that caught your eye. Even though he did not smile a lot, his manner was reassuring. He may not have been informal or familiar, but he wasn’t intimidating either. And if you won his respect you could feel the warmth of his response.

Our first meeting was in 1991. We had set up our camera and lights in the ante-room adjacent to his office in Writers’ Building. From the carpet to the sofa and flowers the room was suffused with red. Not crimson but burgundy. Like a deep rich wine. Basu walked in on the dot of time and the first thing he noticed was the colour.

“Is red your favourite?” he asked. I felt he was politely pointing out there was too much of it. “No,” I replied, eager to defend myself. “That’s how we found this room.”

“Ah”, he said softly. “They,” and he waved towards his staff, “obviously think it’s the appropriate colour for a communist!”

Five years later, when I next interviewed him, at his Indira Bhawan residence in Salt Lake, the room was very different. Panelled in wood it boasted of a cuckoo clock with a loud disturbing set of half-hourly chimes. This time Jyoti Basu arrived early, well before we had finished setting up.

“There’s no red in this room,” he chuckled. I was astonished he’d remembered. But I was soon to discover he had a memory like an old warehouse. As I threw carefully researched statistics at him to prove Bengal had seen little advance under his rule, he retorted with a fine collection of his own in staunch defence. He seemed to have the past at his fingertips. He clearly enjoyed the exchange.

However, the interview that I will never forget was the third and last. It happened in late August 1999 and was one of three for the BBC in the run-up to the elections. This time we talked about what ‘communism’ in Bengal actually amounted to. I told Jyoti Basu that it was social democracy. He strongly disagreed. Instead, he compared it to Lenin’s New Economic Policy.

“Mr Basu,” I interrupted, “That was a retreat from communism!” I thought he’d let the ball drop but he caught it at the first bounce when he responded, “It’s one step back so we can take two forward.”

Afterwards, he asked me to stay for coffee. “Where did you learn about communism and Lenin?” He seemed genuinely curious. “At school in England,” I said. “I learnt my communism there too,” and he laughed merrily. “The British have a lot to answer for!”

Jyoti Basu went on to speak about his grand-daughter. I could sense he was close to her. “She wants to be a journalist — or something — and I would like her to speak to you.” Even though he did not specifically say so, it felt like a compliment. He did not seem the sort of person who made such requests casually.

We never met again but years later, when I asked for another interview, he responded to my letter by ringing back. “I’m not well enough to be interviewed. But come and see me when you next come to Kolkata.” I wish I had. I meant to but each time I thought of it, I felt I would be intruding. Now, it’s too late.

The views expressed by the author are personal