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Tributes: Memorial in New Delhi

Transcript of memorial, January 25, 2015

The memorial meeting began a little after 5 pm on the 25th of January. It was a cold but clear Sunday evening. Praful Bidwai, noted journalist and commentator whose friendship with Mike dates back to the early 1990s anchored the meeting with preliminary remarks on Mike’s great political insights and broad range of interests – including a love for Carnatic music.

Achin: 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 with 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. Here let me read what our sons wrote in about his influence on their lives….

Samar: Dear Mike Uncle, I choke back tears when I try to describe my fondest memories of you. Memories steeped in love, steeped in happiness. I remember playing cricket outside our driveway, you bowling left arm chinamen. I remember watching the World Cup Match at the Kotla together.  I remember you counseling those horrible fans (who were inanely shouting out Anti-Pakistan jeers) thereby showing two impressionable kids, the importance of values, the importance of politics and the importance of causes. 

Your ability to intertwine these with music, art and literature lit up every conversation. Your writings, thoughts and musings will continue to do so. 

I am immensely fortunate to have a treasure trove of these memories. Memories I can always dive into and remind myself of your integrity, goodness and warmth. Mine to cherish, mine to keep. For being fortunate to share them with you…I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Love Always, Samar

Anish Vanaik: In the rushing intermixing of our enthusiasms and his, I think Samar’s little note captures wonderfully the spirit of our memories of Mike as we were growing up. Most households live with an invisible idea of things that are Important (capital i) – the lists vary: typically on the list are studies, reading “good literature” (in our, perhaps atypical, case) progressive politics and so on. Then there are the things that are Not. These are things that families do, but even as they do them, they subtly inform themselves that these are not Important (capital i again): sport, movies, holidays, reading trash, listening to music and bad (I mean really terrible) jokes. As kids, the lines between these are very clear at most times. And, then, there is that one person (or more if you’re lucky) whose visits blur those lines in exhilarating ways. Suddenly you find politics interspersing with whose side you pick at a tennis match; discovering that the music you love can teach you as much as those classrooms you attend and seeing the surreal and comedic side of serious politics unfold like some running sitcom. You don’t even realise when the Important and the Not fall away as a means of organising the world.

It requires more than a cold intellectual commitment to intertwining supposedly high and supposedly low culture to convey all this to young people. It needs a shared enthusiasm for the new and a shared energy that comes from throwing yourself into places and causes. But in Mike’s case, there was also a clarity that conveyed complexity rather than either avoiding it or arrogating it to the realm of When You Grow Up. I’ve often wondered where these qualities came from and I can only conclude, as Mike might have for Ali or Dylan, that a personal spark within him was kindled and sustained in the struggles and historic updrafts of popular upheaval that he was a part of. Perhaps unlike those two, however, Mike’s fidelity to creating the new currents that will buffet the status quo meant that the spark would neither be surrendered to cynicism nor captured by some establishment. We do best by him when we nurture and pass on this spark.

Achin continues: 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 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.

Pradeep Magazine: It is hard to believe that Mike is no more. I knew of his cancer but was not aware that for the past few months his health was deteriorating. His passing away is a terrible shock but we have gathered here to celebrate what Mike stood for and achieved in his life. I owe a lot to him and I won’t be wrong in saying he shaped my worldview and changed the way I looked at cricket. I met him for the first time around 1994-95  at the Kotla in Delhi. His understanding of the game, its nuances and technicalities was amazing, and it was hard to believe that writing on cricket was not his prime occupation.

I spent a lot of time with him, while he was in India and a lot in London as well while on tours when the Indian team would be playing there. The long sessions drinking into the night, talking cricket and politics has left a deep impression on me and in more than one, ways that changed me as a person as well as a cricket writer. The last time he visited India, I remember coming here (Achin’s house) and picking him and Liz up and taking them home where we had lunch. Mukta, who was equally fond of him and admired his multifaceted interests and the way he would articulate them, had cooked one of his favourite kashmiri dishes — Yakhni. The picture taken of Mike and Liz with our cat Adrak sitting next to him on that visit is now a prized possession.

Thanks Mike for everything and teaching me so much about life and sports.     

Tanika: Achin introduced us to Mike and Liz and we are forever in his debt for that. I first saw Mike at Southall, London, in January 1993, where some of us were talking about the demolition of the Babri Masjid. From the podium, I kept watching this total stranger in the front row who had an unforgettable expression on his face – intense animation mingled with enormous gentleness and a slight sadness around the eyes and lips. Altogether, a very compassionate face.

That look became very familiar over the years : Mike, either listening or speaking, with almost every fibre in his being, with total involvement and passion, no half measure. This was evident in the late night talks that Anish arranged for him at JNU on Bob Dylan, or on American elections – talks that won him a whole horde of student friends, who sang and danced to Dylan tunes afterwards. That intensity marked our many marathon chats in their large and lovely kitchen where he cooked and fed us wonderful meals, and where he discussed – morning, evening and late night – films, Carnatic music, Kalighat painting, poetry, international politics, travels, Blake and Tom Paine. His curiosity was boundless when he listened and, even to things that were not on the radar of his immediate concerns. When he spoke, there was nothing that he could not render important, urgent, compelling in new and unexpected ways.

And not a word was spoken for effect, not a word that was banal, clichetic, second hand. Mike became a friend at a time when the older poetry of the Left was no longer enough, not its hard certainties, its triumphalism, its telos of an inevitable world revolution. I am not knocking it, that was great in its way, but the salience had been dimmed. Mike provided a different cadence, and it is difficult to specify precisely what it was. May be, above all, it was a way of living, of being that can absorb and acknowledge losses, defeats and pain – existential, political, as well as viscerally physical pain – and, at the same time, reaffirm fundamental human values and identify with struggles against injustice everywhere in the world. He brought together poetry, music, sports, love, struggles for survival, for dignity – not as a grand design, as mechanical totality, but as complex, many-layered, deeply contradictory unity. His poetry and prose, chiselled, dense, rich in resonances, embodied that.

I will end with two small incidents that I somehow find very significant.. When Mike and Liz came to Delhi the last time, we once were driving back from the Qutb Minar. Mike was leaning back in the car, a little tired, when he suddenly sat up with a sharp jolt. A multi-storeyed building was under construction, and there was the over familiar sight of rickety scaffolding and men hanging out of them to work, their lives in their hands. Then began a barrage of questions: are there no laws against this kind of labour, how many die of this, are mortality statistics kept, is there a movement against this? And so on. Of course we had no answers, because we always think of the bigger picture: secularism, neo liberalism, imperialism, feminism and so on. Mike also thought and wrote about all of this, and none better, but he was that very rare person who would also notice, be shocked, outraged and personally affronted by what is done to a wayside labourer. He would not take this for granted, he would not say, this is sad but this is how it is and what can we do about it, let us move on. He would rage, he would never stratify or hierarchise his commitment to justice. If that is innocence, then that is the innocence that creates new worlds, at least in words and dreams, an innocence that says: to each according to his need.

Mike wrote about living with cancer, running the themes of death and public health together. He wrote about the NHS, a system that allowed those unable to afford private treatment to be treated or even to die under humane care, with dignity, and he raged that this was not available in India and in the US and that it was going out under the Tories. Just before he became too ill to talk, he distributed copies of that book to nurses working in the NHS run hospice where he was, to affirm the value of their work.

Thank you, Mike, for living this life, for sharing it with us so generously. We will always remember that this is the good life, this is the only kind of life worth living.

Mohan Rao: I met Mike Marqusee in 1994 at a seminar at the Council for Social Development. I presented a paper on plague, subsequently published in the EPW (“Plague: The Fourth Horseman”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.XXIX, No.42, October 15th, 1994) that Mike liked very much and thus was born a relationship. Over the years since then, I have read him with great enjoyment and admiration. Since I am as undisciplined as he was, I have enjoyed his writings on a remarkable range of themes, art, history, music and politics. It was always a pleasure to meet him and his partner Liz at the SAHMAT programmes on 1st January, which they attended whenever they were here…

I used to occasionally send him something I had written to get his comments, and they were always encouraging and very affectionate.

I loathe cricket, but read his book, a veritable political economy of cricket, Anyone But England: An Outsider Looks at English Cricket (Aurum Press, 1994) with great joy and discovery. I deeply admired If I am not Myself: Journey of an anti-Zionist Jew (Verso 2010), a brave and difficult book to write. I have also read his columns in The Hindu, especially those on the kacheris he attended at the Madras isaivizha. What an extraordinary American, with a passion for cricket and for Karnatak music and of course for justice in the world! His passion for Karnakat music was imbued with what seemed to me astonishing knowledge of the form. He would have been very pleased indeed to hear of T.N.Krishna’s recent efforts to take the kacheri beyond the Music Academy to the fishing village at Besant Nagar.

I envied Mike: he wrote beautifully, with coruscating flourishes of history and of poetry. I was therefore deeply flattered when he asked me last year whether I would review his book, The Price of Experience: Writings on Living with Cancer, for the EPW. I wrote to EPW asking if I may, and they very graciously, if unusually, agreed.

Mike seemed to me a public health worker. I shall quote from my review to show why. “Most writings on cancer, are like what a doctor would write, celebrate the individual’s relentless battle against cancer, glorify victories and use metaphors of war. There is a teleology here of scientific progress, and how individuals have therefore benefited. Marqusee, instead, is a public health worker, looking not at the individual, but the population as a whole, wondering what social, economic and environmental factors have propelled the epidemic of cancers across the globe. He reminds us how doctors, scientists and the industry, fought for years not to reveal the links between smoking and cancer or between asbestos and cancer. The war metaphors at an individual level, he argues, detract from a winder approach emphasising population level prevention. We live in a sea of cancer-causing agents in our environment. What we need are changes in our “health and safety regime, not new drugs”. “A real general attack on the causes of cancer would require industrial, consumer, and environmental reforms on a vast scale, not scapegoating those patients perceived as shirkers and deserters in a holy war”.

This is what public health is about and thus Mike enters our academic programme now, with this book on our reading list for a course I teach, The Political Economy of Health.

He was very pleased with my review and used a line from it for the launch of the book in London. I had titled my review, with a quote from him “Alive to Have a Go at Pharma Bastards”. But EPW did not want to use the B word and retitled it “Fighting and Living with Cancer” ( Vol.XLIX, No.33, 16th August 2014).

He would have been very pleased indeed to know that my sister, also suffering from multiple myeloma, took great courage from his book. I had mentioned this in my review and he emailed me to enquire about her.

My world is emptier without him. And I wish I could quote Blake to say that. Mike would have loved that.

Pamela: We have all recalled Mike, capturing his many wonderful contributions… but there were still so many more facets to his personality that have not figured in this conversation. There was, for instance, his innate feel for art and design. I remember the cover of Achin’s first book, to which Praful had given the title, The Painful Transition, carried an old ballot paper from Indian elections – it was so apt. As a poet he lived for almost eight years with the “hearse outside my door”. The experience deepened the poet in him. It was as if, as life was running short, he needed to compress his thoughts, his rage – which Bhochka had talked about — his finest feelings, in the concentrated form of expression that was his poetry.

The poems he wrote for his partner, Liz Davies, was an intimate expression of the special place she had come to occupy in his life, shot through with a Neruda-esque passion. She was much younger to him, yet the difference in years did not make the companionship any the less equal. It was a partnership built on a shared politics, a shared anger against all forms of repression and human rights abuse, a shared love for the arts and literature — and a shared zest for travel. It was entirely typical of Mike that he wanted to sign off life with a trip to Seville, just before Christmas. Although on a wheelchair, although in excruciating pain when the pain killers wore off, although the visit had to be called off prematurely, Liz mailed that they at least got to do one nice thing every day in the four days they could remain in Seville.

As a poet-activist, Mike was drawn to men and women like him. In 2011, he travelled to Ramallah (Where you there Liz? Yes) and visited the memorial garden where Mahmoud Darwish was buried. Amidst the pines overlooking the tomb, they spent an hour reading Darwish’s State of Siege, a sequence of poems he wrote in response to Israel’s 2002 assault on the city and where he had called upon poetry to “lay siege to your siege.”

He also recalled the lines Darwish used to pay tribute to his friend Edward Said. Today I repeat those lines to pay tribute to my friend, our friend, Mike Marqusee… “Shout, so that you can hear yourself,/ Shout so that you know that you are still alive, and you know life is possible on this earth….”

P.K. Datta: I heard of Mike before I met him and that was thanks to Tanika who alerted me to a curious detective novel, one that featured cricket as its milieu. Slow Turn gripped me. Thanks to Achin I met Mike and what struck me most was the spontaneous and direct way he related to me: curious, sharp with a warm, full smile. This was an impression that stayed with me after other such meetings. As a somewhat recalcitrant Indian, I was very ambiguous about cricket. I had grown up with cricket through radio commentaries and there was no way that I could not share in its excitement; but I was also repelled by the fetishisation of cricket that left other sports and conversations neglected – especially the Them – Us jingoism it promoted. If Slow Turn featured cricket in a new way, Anyone but England opened up a completely new way of thinking about cricket: passionately but historically, one that could take me out of the bind of the love – hate relationship. Later, his book on Dylan opened up another kind of respect for Mike, that came from a delight that someone who was left was also deeply interested in music that was either deemed decadent or just tolerated. The Dylan book made a deep impression because it explored the contradictory consciousness of a time of radicalism and did so with a sensitivity that respected the aesthetic achievements of Dylan even as his songs moved away from overtly social radicalisms. What impressed me about Mike most was that, here was someone with Leftist beliefs who could experience and explore the contradictions of radicalism. It made a lot of sense to me coming at a time when my Leftist certitudes were taking a tumble, leaving me trying to grapple with the contradictory consciousness of myself and of those around me. Thanks Mike for testifying to the times that we shared. And thanks to all of us – especially Achin and Harsh – for weaving the community around Mike today.