I was just about to write that I had worked as a journalist in five countries, when I came to a sudden halt. Could I really describe what I did as editor of the English-language edition of the Kurukshetra weekly in India in 1951 as journalism? I sat pondering the question, then came to the conclusion that the story is so entirely mad, end to end, that I should devote to it an entire issue of the Chronicles, which has turned into two issues.
It all began with my letter in 1950 [when I was 22] to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, telling him how eager I was to move to his country, and undertake some work devoted to its improvement. His great book, Glimpses of World History, written from prison as letters to his daughter Indira, had opened my eyes to the real meaning of colonialism and imperialism, a view of history that they had carefully avoided in our schools. In addition Gandhi’s Autobiography had sensitized us to the glories of their ancient culture.
At the time I was working as a reporter on a small daily newspaper in northern Queensland, Australia, and my wife Shirley was teaching school. I had just read an article printed locally about this praiseworthy experimental colony for refugees, somewhere north of Delhi, designed to uplift the life of the surrounding villages.
Within what seems not to have been much more than the flick of an eye, I received an answer from the Prime Minister’s private secretary, thanking me and warmly welcoming my interest, pointing out that it would be an advantage if my wife and I were to know the local language, and telling me that the Prime Minster had forwarded my letter to a newspaper in Allahabad with which he had had some connection, and to the administrator of the experimental colony in question, Nilokheri. Within another flick of an eye, I received a letter from that same administrator, by name of S.K. Dey, describing himself as the HTA or Honorary Township Advisor, a letter so overflowing with warmth, welcome and enthusiasm for my idea to work in India, as to make what would nowadays be called a mind-blowing impact. This man, whom I later came to realize could be described as a madman, or [let’s be generous], a mad person, in comparison with any ordinary man or woman on earth, outlined, in the most enthusiastic prose possible, that what was underway in his colony was what he called their collective search for the Mazdoor Manzil, or “the music of the muscles,” a concept he had developed when he had come across the 400,000 refugees from the newly created nation of Pakistan, camped on the field of Kurukshetra, which, he said, was the site of the dialogue between Arjuna and the Lord Krishna, as recorded in the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita. As I was later told by someone, these refugees were mostly money lenders who had never done a day’s hard work in their lives.
As the manager of General Electric for south-east Asia, the partition of his country in 1947 had been an epiphany causing him to abandon his job and offer his services gratis to the new government of India. Himself a man of humble origin, from a peasant family, he had somehow managed to get himself an education at an American university, so he was accustomed to overcoming barriers to his advancement in life. Given the cold shoulder by various officials, he managed to start up a workshop among the refugees on Kurekshetra designed to equip them for their new lives. When Panditji toured the refugee camp, the only positive thing he saw going on was S.K.Dey’s workshop. The upshot was that, after talking to the man and noting his unusual combination of learning with a slightly insane enthusiasm, the leader made available to him a plot of unused scrubland 85 miles north of Delhi, and sufficient funds to get going on creation of an entirely new concept of rural village. He wrote me that he had arrived with a group of his followers --- peasants gathered from Kurukshetra --- and had lived in tents as they cleared the land and laboriously built adobe-style mudhuts in which they began the great adventure, which had, he added modestly, attracted people from around the world, people just like us.
He said they had all the attributes and equipment needed to publish their own newspaper, all they were awaiting was a mad person willing to join their adventure. I wrote him back and said we were on our way, and indeed we embarked in Fremantle, Australia’s west coast port, a few months later, headed for Bombay.
After suffering the greatest culture shock we could ever have imagined, namely, the spectacle of Bombay with its hundreds of thousands of desperate people living on the sidewalks under pieces of cardboard or rags for shelter, their starving babies lying on the point of death in full view, we duly arrived at Nilokheri, where we were greeted by a somewhat reserved man in his white dhoti, which as we soon learned seemed at the time to be more or less de rigeur dress as a sign of support for Nehru’s Congress Party. This man, who seemed not altogether to approve of our presence, apologized for the absence of the HTA, who was in Bengal, where he had undertaken the development of a sister village. He would return in a few days. Meantime he had arranged for us to move into one of the little adobe houses, for which there would be no charge, although unfortunately, he said, there was no money to pay for our services. We had not even thought of such a thing.
I do not remember if the HTA in his letter had said he had vowed to be the last person to move from a tent into a house, but that indeed was so, and we soon were shown his magnificent, luxurious tent, the last tent still standing in the village, where he was still living with his wife and family. Before he arrived we were told the HTA had another honorary position as assistant secretary to the Indian government’s Department of Rehabilitation, which also required him to be away frequently. This was not too much of a burden because he had his own chauffeur-driven car in which he could make the 85-mile trek back and forth. When Pandit Nehru had a distinguished overseas visitor, he invariably took them to see this selfless patriot, living in the most simple way in a tent as he devoted himself to his task of uplifting the lives of everyone around him.
On his arrival the HTA summoned us to his small office upstairs in a little round building, where he told us that his trust in Panditji was so complete that if the great man ordered him to jump out of the window, he would jump. We were honoured guests, he said, having come from Panditji, [a detail which I would rather had not been bruited around among the villagers, since it was quite inaccurate, being based merely on my having written him a letter]. But he set up there and then for me to become editor of the English-language edition of their weekly publication Kurukshetra, on which I could work alongside Thakur Dutt, the editor of the Hindi-language version. This man turned out to be a genuine Hindu eccentric, who spoke virtually no English, and appeared to have none of the skills needed for editorship of anything. It was now that I discovered that this vast assemblage of equipment of which the HTA had boasted in his letter, capable of printing the most complete newspaper, was, in fact, just a collection of pre-industrial single-letters that had to be assembled, letter-by-letter, word-by-word, by a workforce who themselves knew no English, beyond the most rudimentary ability to recognize different letters. This was indeed going to be interesting work, difficult to achieve, since I had to be not only editor but sole contributor to this English-language edition. I did not yet know that the HTA himself would contribute the editorial which always occupied the first of the four pages, and that invariably he would retreat into his tent to meditate for some days before producing his words of wisdom at the last possible moment on Thursday evening, for early Friday publication. These were pretty well impossible conditions, but somehow we managed to get the sheet published every Friday during the few months of our residence in Nilokheri.
Having come from Panditji, as they all said, we naturally were objects of curiosity to the core of Indian Civil Service administrators who in fact ran the village. The village had been established as the seat of co-operation, everything, every business, was supposed to be run as a co-op, but the ICS guys, accustomed to the sclerotic workings of the colonial government in which they were raised, did not agree, and were doing everything they could to ensure the village became
a government-run institution free from all this progressive co-operative nonsense.
This did not sit well with some of the outside experts who, as the HTA had told us, had been attracted from all over India to lend a hand. These included some very remarkable people who, too bad, I found were at almost the end of their tether, having been stymied at every turn as they tried to create new-type structures for governance. In particular one man, P.K.Gupta, commonly called Manik, who was from the family in Calcutta that had published most of Panditji’s great works, was an enthusiastic socialist who had nothing in common with the ICS types. He, like me, was a dreamer of a socialist better world and we got along famously from the first. He invited me to work with him as a sort of secretary, helping him write letters, and keeping up the pressure on the administration to fulfil the original aims of the village.
[To be continued tomorrow]