Having been brought up in a Bengali household where any form of dissent or challenge to authority was tantamount to beyadobi, i.e., talking back with one’s elders, Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011) was a liberating force. It started with his book The Missionary Position, in which, in typical Hitchens’ fashion, he systematically took apart one Agnes Bojaxhiu, otherwise known as Mother Teresa. I had tried some modified rebellion at that time, arguing with the maulana teaching me Arabic that if Mother Teresa could not make it to heaven because she was not Muslim, then none of us on Planet Earth deserved to. But Hitchens’s radicalism was of a different order than mine, and in one fabulous stroke he blew away the Bengali middle-class bhadralok mindset I belonged to.
I left home soon afterwards for England, where I landed amidst its ‘shires’. Here, especially back then, it was easy to be cowed by the pressures of feeling and looking alien. Reading Hitchens was an antidote to such alienation, and I’ve been a fan of Hitchens since my college days. Little by little, he introduced me to some great dissenting minds, to Zola, Parks, Orwell, et al. Part of his charm for me was his ideological but non-dogmatic style, the fluent, anti-academic flow of his writing, a combination that made his complex ideas relevant in the modern context. At the university and afterwards, this attitude resonated with me, at attitude that refused utterly to kowtow to anyone, to treat a blue-blooded Etonian no differently than the school janitor. I had always been a friendly creature, but now in England my responses were tempered by how the Other behaved. In Hitchenseque fashion I would forthrightly put any and all in their place if they tried to put one over me as yet another ‘brownie’! Hitchens showed me something that my parents did not, or perhaps, could not – which was how to not automatically defer to anyone or any authority without being a beyadob! Funny to think that Hitchens the white man gave me racial confidence, but then typically he would be the one to get the greatest kick out of it!
Something else I found engrossing about Hitchens was his intellectual combativeness. He was never one to back away from a good fight, crossing swords with anyone he thought was being mendacious, or worse, second-rate. But more than content, it was again style that was decisive for me, a style that allowed him to be flexible in his thinking. I am particularly fond of his debate with the Respect Party MP George Galloway at Baruch College. Galloway, an equally pugnacious debater, pushed Hitchens to re-think his points, and at times when Galloway’s points appeared indestructible, Hitchens would rebound with an answer. It was exhilarating to watch.
He also was the first, as far as I am aware, to turn his scalpel on Henry Kissinger. As a Bangladeshi, I (and all right-thinking Bangladeshis I am sure) remain particularly indebted to Hitchens for exposing Kissinger for what he was, aiding in the massacre of millions and trying to suppress a people’s struggle for freedom. Read The Trial of Henry Kissinger if you haven’t and survey Hitchens raging in indignation at cold-blooded policies of extermination.
Yet another aspect, though it could be said to be a combination of the two above, would be the ‘Hitch’ persona: For me, it completely re-defined the notion of a public intellectual. Far too many intellectuals come across as bloodless academic types. Not Hitchens. His showmanship was unique. One may not be swayed by his arguments, but he made sure one was never bored. He was much admired by all of us who were part of the debating club at college. It is a style I still search for in public speakers. To me, Hitchens remains the model.
This style was the reason I wrote to Steve Wasserman, the New York-based co-executor of the Hitchens estate, requesting that Hitchens’ public speeches be released in CD, DVD and MP3 formats. Carol Blue-Hitchens, his wife of 30 years, was not too keen on the idea. Though disappointed at that time, in retrospect I found the decision commendable. London, especially during pre-Christmas festivities, is all about consumerist frenzy, and perhaps it would not have been too edifying to see mass-produced box-sets of ‘Hitch discs’ on sale. I’m sure the Hitch wouldn’t have approved of the “cashing-in” either.
Hitchens, ever the contrary figure, made sure that admiring him would be no cakewalk. His support for Bush’s war on Iraq, with arguments close to what the neocons were baying about, was dismaying, to say the least. It felt like betrayal. How could he visit the White House and have tea with Bush? Hitchens outlined his reason: he had been a member of the International Socialists from his Oxford days, had always been opposed to fascist totalitarianism, and thusly the Iraq war was about ending Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, and restoring freedom for the Kurdish people. Hitchens did point out that he had been supporting the Kurdish struggle before Bush waged the war. It was not an argument that found much support among his old socialist friends, nor did it deflect charges of Islamophobia from Hitchens.
At the 2008 Hay Festival in Wales I was in a long queue for Hitchens. He had just come off stage after a raucous session and sat down at a desk at the authors lounge. My conversation with him ran as follows:
“Hi… (shaking hands) Ahsan from Bangladesh.”
“Hi, Christopher from Portsmouth – now, (laughingly) that didn’t sound half as sexy, did it? Are you from Dacca or Chittagong or…? You know it’s bloody a shame I travelled as far as Calcutta but didn’t cross the border to visit your country. ”
I immediately wanted to invite him, and asked how to get in touch.
“You can look me up in the Yellow Pages. I’m the only Hitchens in the Washington DC metro area and my number is not classified,” he said while simultaneously writing his digits on one of those postcards ubiquitous at events such as the Hay. “This is my home, and this is my agent’s – choose your phone date, young man.”
“What would you like to see or do in Bangladesh?” I said, grinning from ear to ear.
“Can you please get your country’s top Muslim scholar to debate God and Islam with me? That’d be fun. Or anything you want - you tell me. We can go visit the tigers, if that’s safer…”
A tweed-jacketed fellow standing just behind me began to make rude noises to a fellow-tweedy that I was ‘hogging’ space. Hitchens, attentive and quick as ever, put him in his place:
“Manners, sir, (longish pause), manners,” he said firmly, with a raised hand, accompanied by a stern look that brought pin-drop silence.
Hitchens once wrote, “I do not especially like the idea that one day I shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed, not that the party is over but that it is most assuredly going on – only henceforth in my absence… Much more horrible, though, would be the announcement that the party was continuing forever, and that I was forbidden to leave…”
I like to think he is at the center of the Party Upstairs, scotch in hand. He would not be anywhere else!