Tribute by Achin Vanaik
Delhi, January 2017
and repeated in London, May 2017
I was in correspondence with Mike before I met him. Verso’s Colin Robinson has passed on the manuscript of my first book The Painful Transition to him and he had made a number of suggestions for improvement most of which I incorporated. I subsequently met him in Bombay (as it was called then) in 1990 when he came over to our flat in Versova. I immediately warmed to Mike. I had been radicalized during my 13 years in Britain by the anti-Vietnam War, the women’s and the anti-racist movements of those times. The US ‘Black Power’ movement and later that of Britain’s own had been a huge influence on me. And here was Mike himself talking about Malcolm X’s and Stokely Carmichael’s impact on him in his high school days and of how disillusioned he had become by the assault on Vietnam, so much so, that he left to find his way abroad and eventually Britain became his home base even as he travelled widely in Europe and Asia. On top of all this, he and I could talk endlessly about the British far left with which in one way or the other we were both involved.
Our common experiences in Britain had shaped both our political personalities for life. But Mike had the capacity to be much more politically and culturally open to others and thus to find all kinds of common grounds. More than any person I had met then (or later) he had the most incredible range of interests, nay passions. How could anybody of a politically progressive bent (you didn’t have to be a Marxist or an anti-Stalinist radical lefty – though that would help) not to warm to him as he could to others! My partner Pamela certainly did as did both of us to Liz, his companion, who came with him on many of their trips to India, where they almost always stayed with us for some time before going off to other places and sights in India. This was important and not just because it was a regular nourishing of our friendships. We have two sons, Anish and Samar. And as parents wanting to imbue them with progressive values and beliefs but aware that being aggressively proselytising could well be highly counter-productive, Mike was a Godsend!
Unlike me, who believes one should not take anybody under 40 seriously, Mike did do so with our sons, relating enthusiastically to their interests and concerns. He listened to them, joked with them, informed them, and because he shared their enjoyment of the many forms of mass and popular culture – music, sport, film, TV serials, dance – he could grab their attention as he pointed out the values these products implicitly or explicitly upheld, distinguishing between the good and the bad. In the most natural way he got across the message of the need to pursue a politics that would promote decent and humane moral principles. More than anyone else including perhaps myself and Pamela, he helped inculcate in our sons lifelong values and commitments that made us parents proud and happy. For that alone one is abidingly grateful.
But Mike did so much more for us and for so many others. In India as a writer he was perhaps best known for his two books and his various articles on cricket. In fact, I had to accept that his much more complex and materialist explanation for why cricket emerged in England was superior to my purely cultural explanation which was that only the English could be so lazy as to invent a game that took five days to play and on top of that have a sixth rest day! Here in India he would join in with the demonstrations and other activities concerning, for example, the struggle against communalism and against South Asian nuclearisation even as he carried on his pioneering explorations into what India had to offer culturally, from Bollywood cinema to the architectural ruins of Hampi to a growing passion for Carnatic music. And of course, whatever delighted his senses would then be followed by serious study so as to be able to understand and appreciate all the more what had enthused him.
Because I had been active in Britain and politically formed there, I had an angle of vision and therefore an appreciation of Mike that was perhaps not available to his other good friends –and he had many – in India. In the British left and no doubt elsewhere as well, there is unfortunately sometimes a kind of ‘left elitism’. We admire the writers of remarkable books. We admire even more those who in addition to their penned contributions are also active in the sense that they will lend their names to campaigns, join a demo, and often be a star speaker or generally give talks and speeches on various progressive platforms. And some do this over the years and decades resisting all the temptations of joining the mainstream as “illustrious” renegades. They still maintain their revolutionary beliefs and commitments. Mike was something more. He was a gifted writer of many great, indeed path-breaking books, a powerful columnist, a fine speaker who graced innumerable platforms and causes but he also spent the greatest part of his adult life working in what can be called the trenches of everyday, routinised, time-consuming, tiring, repetitive, unglamorous leftwing political activity on the ground. This is a combination that is extremely rare on the left, let alone anywhere else. It shows a level and depth of radical commitment as well as personal humility and a complete lack of ‘airs’ that to me made Mike very special!
Mike of course had his faults, both very Indian ones. Mike loved to talk. This did not prevent him from being a serious listener and therefore a great conversationalist but such was his range of knowledgeable references and therefore the depth to which he could involve himself in discussion that I would occasionally out of a growing sense of exhaustion, bring matters to a close and then we would both relax watching a video recording of Black Adder or an American sitcom on the box, laughing away. And yes, he would then delight me by intellectually substantiating why I was right to say that British TV comedy as a general rule was better than American. The former was quirkier and situation-wise more daring and creative, the latter much more dependent on witty dialogue and the one-liner.
His second big fault was that he actually liked Indian food. But here was one occasion, when he had to, despite his preferences, accept that I had the winning argument as to why Chinese food is superior to Indian. Who, as shown by the historical record – we were both historical materialists after all — had the worst taste in food? Mike had to agree that it was the British (closely followed by the Finnish). What is the preferred cuisine in Britain, Chinese or Indian? Why Indian of course! My point proved – Chinese food had to be better!
The pain that one individually feels at the loss of Mike is perhaps somewhat lessened by knowing that it is so widely shared. In any case Mike would have wanted us not so much to mourn but to celebrate his life by continuing to do the things he loved doing including fighting for a much more humane democratic and egalitarian socialist order than the mess we have now. Mike — comrade, friend, brother — you will remain loved and remembered.