I remember Praful from his pre-journalist days – the IIT days, the Magowa days – days when we were closest. This is a Praful who is not very well known and today I would like to speak about him.
For me Praful was mentor, comrade and friend all rolled into one. He joined Mumbai IIT in 1966 and I in 1967. We formed a bond because I found in him a kindred restlessness and a search for meaning. In spite of a brilliant academic record, he soon lost interest in his classes. He was entirely unsuited for the deadening academic routine that IIT, or any other institution for that matter, imposes on its students. And though we plodded on despite that, Praful, being Praful, simply could not.
Very soon a group formed around him, which he, as a natural leader, led. By the beginning of my second year, many of us occupied one floor in the last wing of Hostel Four and Praful and I had become roommates. We were looking for something to immerse ourselves in. We walked a few km every day to YP and RK’s for a chai. We went on long, punishing hikes. We plunged into music. I am eternally grateful to Praful and Achyut Godbole for having initiated me into Indian classical music. We helped found Swaranjali. We went to the annual 5-day Rangbhavan sangeet mahotsavs. But above all, we read, we read voraciously, and we discussed and we argued. We raided the non-technical sections of the IIT library. Nothing was anathema to us, philosophy, history, biography, literature. For Praful an opinion that was worth holding was also worth defending, propagating and arguing for. He only had to be himself to impose that unwritten discipline on the group. His presence and his leadership brought a rigour to our thinking that I still value and hold on to.
Those were restless times. The year I joined IIT was the year of Naxalbari. The following year was the Paris May Revolt. And there was Vietnam. And Palestine. And the hippies. It was almost inevitable that we would be drawn into those strong currents. On Independence day in 1969 Kumar Ketkar who then worked in the Computer Department took us to a worker’s shibir in the Mill area organised by the Lal Nishan Party. It was a double encounter for us. We were seeing working class quarters up close, meeting workers and worker activists for the first time. The day long shibir consisted of three sessions: an exposition on historical and dialectical materialism by Comrade S. K. Limaye, a session on the Working Class movement by Comrade Yeshwant Chavan and a concluding session on the Class Structure of India by Prof. A. R. Desai. That was our second encounter, an encounter with theory., orthodox it may have been, but its rigour appealed to our sensibility.
This double encounter would stay with Praful all his life; the working class movement and Marxist theory. Praful changed. What was curious exploration had now become vocation, a life’s mission.We decided to work in the Matunga Labour Camp. We began to take classes for students there. Tried to organise youth clubs. Praful’s room, already overflowing with books he had begged, borrowed or stolen, was now additionally littered with pamphlets and theoretical texts. There was a strong influence of the Naxalite movement, with which we strongly disagreed on many counts but inherited from it a sense of the immediacy of revolutionary change , of wanting things to happen right now rather than in some distant future. He was our pollinator of new ideas and new contacts as he roamed the non-party left circles and brought us into contact with different groups with different thinking from all over.
By then Praful had decided to devote himself full time to the movement. Technically, Praful quit IIT in 1971. We plodded on, concentrating on acquiring a degree before we made our final decisions. After graduation in 1972 I too along with a couple of others decided to become a full time activist. By then increasing interaction led to the coming together of the group from TIFR, Sudheer Bedekar and the group from BJ medical college in Pune, the group that had started working in Shahade and many individuals, mostly from all over Maharashtra. They formed what came to be called the Magowa group, taking its name from the monthly magazine that Sudheer Bedekar edited and which also became its mouthpiece. It became an important rallying point for the non-party left in Maharashtra. Magowa had succeeded in creating a loosely defined space for a kind of New Left thinking in the non-party left, and Praful had an important share in creating it.
At that time, we all dreamt of becoming full time grass roots activists and joining those already working in Shramik Sanghatana, an organisation that led the movement of tribal agricultural workers and peasants in the Shahade region in the now Nandurbar district in Maharashtra. Praful and a few others did a stint in 1972, a few stayed on. I did a stint working with sugar factory workers in Sakri before moving on to Shahade. Praful returned to Mumbai after three or four months, I was to stay on till sometime in 1974. Returning to Mumbai, Praful along with a few other Magowa comrades plunged into the working class movement. They worked with trade unionists like Vasudevan and Thankappan, and lawyers like Indira Jaisingh. They formed the Worker’s Democratic Union, committed to working class rather than parliamentary and party politics. At the same time Praful also came into contact with Trotskyism. If Naxalism gave him a sense of immediacy of the revolution, Trotskyism gave him a similar sense of internationalism, or to use the new jargon, a sense of the global. Though he never became a hard core Fourth International Trotskyist, this sense stayed with him till the end, whether it was his dogged pursuit of the Palestine issue or the way he followed international debate and discourse.
Within Magowa, his Trotskyism became a big issue and he was ousted from Magowa by late 1974. His Magowa days were over. By mid 1975, however, Magowa itself was dissolved falling under the weight of its own dissensions. And before anyone had time to think, the Emergency was upon us. We scattered. Almost all of us had warrants out for us and there was no knowing which warrants would be seriously served and which not. After the Emergency we regrouped, each in their own ways. Some joined the mainstream parties, some formed new groups. Praful after some attempts at being part of some of the groups finally decided to go his own way. But the one thing that tied us all together was the commitment that Magowa had given us. We remained committed, wherever we were.
Praful was not cut out to be a grass roots activist. His interests were too wide, and he loved his good food, good music and good wine too much. In his tastes he was an aristocrat, in true `Sardar Bidwai’ fashion, as we used to tease him. That does not take away one bit from his commitment and the material and moral support that he gave to progressive issues and Left politics all his life. He considered his journalism a vocation and an instrument of that support. After establishing himself as a journalist, Praful mellowed, He became more inclusive, that little bit more eclectic, sometimes at the cost of theoretical rigour. The virtual desperation and aggressiveness of his early days gave way to a more reasoned and measured discourse. Journalism allowed him to find a true balance between his commitment, his wide ranging intellectual pursuits and his zest for life.
Free of the organisational shackles that groups like Magowa imposed, Praful soared. The body of his work is before us and will be, I am sure, more ably described by others. What I consider the most important are his dogged pursuit of the Palestine issue, his anti nuclear work and his work on Indo-Pak friendship. All three of them are issues that are becoming harder to advocate and we will miss him sorely on that count. And he never gave up on the mainstream Left and continued to reason with it.
Praful was innately generous and affectionate. Magowa treated him pretty shabbily in its last days, yet he valued his Magowa days and did not hold it against any of us and made it a point to keep in touch and we reciprocated. He had his moments too. He was sometimes a spoilt brat and boy, could he throw a tantrum! But he would bounce back very soon and be his foot stomping genial self again. As he mellowed I saw lesser and lesser of these moments. But then I was seeing lesser and lesser of him. We met pretty frequently till about 1982, till the time I was on the editorial staff of Science Today. Later we kept in touch and met intermittently. Last time we met was a year and a half ago at his place with Vinod Mubayi and we had an almost day long chat covering practically everything under the sun. I could also feel how much he enjoyed the new book on the left that he was writing.
That was the way it was with Praful. We would meet after a couple of years, we would begin talking and the intervening years would simply disappear. I never missed him, not just because I read the stuff he wrote and the occasional email we exchanged, but because I knew that the next time I met him, the years would fall away. There will be no next time any longer. How I wish I could meet you again and at some nice point in the conversation receive from you the affectionate bear hug you reserved for special moments. Now I truly miss you Praful and mourn your passing away from the bottom of my heart.