When I wrote to Tariq Ali, to introduce Bengal Lights and to invite him to the 2013 Dhaka edition of the Hay Festival, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I came to know of Tariq Ali during my A-level days, when teen angst in Nottingham drove me to book stores. Fresh from Bangladesh, I struggled to navigate my way through the colourful bookshelves of Britain: So many names, too many bestsellers, staff recommendations, must-reads, must-buys… Unsettled, I picked names I knew about (Rushdie, thanks to the fatwa), or could relate to: Kureishi, Chaudhuri, Ghosh. Then there was Ali, prominent on the non-fiction shelf. Soon, I noticed the name recurring in British journals and newspapers as well as on television channels. Now an eminence grise of the international left – his numerous books and articles – coming at an astonishing rate for a 69-year-old man – is evidence that the ‘Street Fighting Man’ of the Rolling Stones song is very much alive, angry and kicking!
Over the phone, Tariq has a clear, baritone voice, with a warmth that put me at ease. A few days later, I was ringing the doorbell of his front door. I had been invited over for tea. He answered the door of his neo-gothic house, tucked away on a private road in the leafy, posh North London suburb of Highgate. He looked relaxed dressed in casual gear: polo shirt and jeans with a pair of elegant sandals, while I’m sweating in my linen jacket and brown loafers. Must be the nerves. He insists I not take my shoes off – a reflex habit from my Kuala Lumpur days. We go through to the lounge exchanging small talk and settle by a large wooden reading table, on top of which are copies of New Left Review (edited by Susan Watkins, his partner of many years) a large lamp and books. He pops to the kitchen to get me a drink. Interesting paintings on the walls, and as expected, an impressive book collection.
Tariq looked forward to being in Dhaka in November. “For us growing up in Lahore, Dhaka was our Paris. But I have not been back since independence for various reasons.” But he has been following Bangladesh closely – the military coups, the many emergencies, the prodigal rise of the garments industry, the national dependence on NGOs, and more recently, Shahbagh. “It is wonderful to see the youth rising to demand trial of the war criminals, and while they should be tried, due legal processes must be followed.” Putting the copy of Bengal Lights that I had given him on the table, he came back to Shahbagh: “What about the Maoists in 1971? Most of them supported the Pakistan Army back then, so the trials should not be limited to the Jamaatis.” He recalled his Aamtala speech to the students of Dhaka University in 1969, and lamented at not being able to find a single photo of that day, when he had called for East Pakistan’s separation from West Pakistan. He met Bangabandhu for breakfast and recalled that the latter had called him “too extreme” for openly suggesting independence. I told him someone in Dhaka must have a photo or two of the Aamtala event. “When I left Dhaka, hundreds of students came to say farewell with clenched fists and cries of ‘Lal salaam!’”
I always wanted to thank him for introducing Saadat Hasan Manto to readers in the UK, and effectively, the West. “Thanda Gosht”, he murmurs almost to himself. He thinks that to date, a strong translation has not been done of Manto, and that he still remains largely underrated. A travesty, according to Tariq. I ask him about his film-making pursuits and he tells me Bandung, his own independent television company, is sadly no longer operational. He blasted Channel 4 for morphing into a trashy channel – Channel 4’s mission in Britain was originally conceived to provide, and did so for a decade, programs for minorities as well as high-level arts content, but now is reduced to commercial TV-type doc dramas and cooking shows. It is symptomatic to Tariq of the continuing decay of Britain, with its “…assault on education; the continuing privatisation of the NHS; the never-ending propaganda directed against benefit claimants; the youth unemployment levels (much higher in the North than in the South-eastern bubble); the vassal status in relation to the United States (how could the NSA-GCHQ links come as a surprise?); a supine state television network under the control of frightened men and women, scared of their own shadows; an utterly debased House of Lords packed with cronies of the most dubious variety.” (LRB, 7 Aug, 2013).
In the late 90’s, he was commissioned to do a 4-part series on four sub-continental assassinations: Bandaranaike, Mujib, Bhutto and Indira. It didn’t happen because of funding issues. I wanted to know about Mujib’s episode – had he approached anyone in Bangladesh? “Well, when I told Rehman (Sobhan), he said the Bangladesh Ministry of Cultural Affairs should fund this, but then Hasina was in power and she probably got scared of me,” he laughed. Tariq Ali’s charm and self-confidence is rooted in his family. A feudal one, with deep roots in Punjab – his maternal grandfather was prime minister of Punjab, while his communist parents, though members of the Establishment, dissented mightily with it. Oxford was another step in the radicalization process, with the late ‘60s street battles being his finishing school.
Tariq talked about Edward Said, about how he missed him. And here, looking at my left wrist, I felt I should give a miss to my auto-evolving questions. I had taken up enough of his time. We looked outside and it was a bright day. The living room is airy, with tons of natural light; through large double doors, it also accessed a sun deck, leading to a decent-sized garden at the back. When Tariq had offered a drink, I had wanted water; I assumed it would come from the tap, which I'm fine with. Only now I realize, with my last sip, that I had been given a pour from a bottle of mineral water. All very nice, but it prompted me to ask something banal at the end:
What would he say if someone called him a 'champagne socialist'.
"Better make it an expensive champagne," Tariq smiled. I laughed, and then I stepped out on to a graveled pathway. I bid farewell, hatless, doffing a ‘Lal salaam’ in my head.