When Chittaranjan Das crossed the Suez Canal on his way to Europe from Bombay on October 15, 1962, he was quite surprised at the changes he saw on the lands by the waterway. The bank towards the left was tree-lined. Beyond the trees lay superb newly-constructed roads and rail-tracks, and just across these were fields of wheat, potatoes, bananas and millet. Much seemed to have changed from the time he had last passed this route almost 12 years ago as a 27-year-old, on his way to join University Copenhagen in Denmark as a doctoral student of humanities. His impressions from that time were of vast sand-filled horizons, dotted with Egyptian faces weighed down by toil.
When Das had first travelled to Europe in December 1950 via the Suez, Egypt was still a British protectorate; by 1962, it was independent. The administration led by the country’s second President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had nationalised the canal’s management (earlier owned by an Anglo-French company) and the profits were now being used to improve the land and people’s living conditions. Das saw his own sojourn to Europe (financed by industrialist and politician Biju Patnaik) as part of a similar process of decolonisation and nation-building. He hoped to learn from the remarkable experiments in popular education in Denmark and then to work along the same lines back in India.
And he did just that, running progressive educational institutions after Independence. But Das was more than that — he was also one of the foremost writers of Odia prose in the 20th century. By the time he died in 2011, at the age of 88, he was an important public intellectual in Odisha. In a career spanning six decades, he produced more than 200 books — both originals and translations. Quite a significant number of the latter were classics translated into Odia from Danish, Finnish, French, Bengali, and other languages.
Despite having excellent command over more than a dozen languages, including German, Danish Finnish, as well as Sanskrit, Pali, Urdu and Bengali, he wrote mostly in his mother tongue, Odia. He is perhaps the most prolific writer of Odia non-fiction, with numerous diaries, essays, reviews, autobiographies, memoirs, columns, textbooks, and monographs. But his travelogues are the most significant body of his work.
Of these, five are on his travels in Asia. Sagar Jatri (‘Seafarer’) and Sagar Pathe (‘On Marine Ways’) describe his journeys by ship to Europe via the Arabian and the Red Sea, in the years 1950 and 1962 respectively. Eretz Israel (‘The Land of Israel’) is about his experiences in Israel in 1991-92, when he was visiting faculty at a university there — these are juxtaposed with memories from his first visit to Israel in 1953. Israel and its socio-political experiments left an lasting impression on his mind, as did China.
Bharata ru Chin (‘From India to China’) is an account of Das’s travels as part of an Indian delegation to China in the mid-1980s. But the earliest of the Asian travelogues is Nepal Pathe (‘Onwards to Nepal’): the text was accompanied by woodcuts by Beohar Rammanohar Sinha, who had accompanied Das on the trip. Sinha went on to become a celebrated artist, illustrating the original manuscript of the Constitution of India.
In 1947 Das went to Nepal as a 24-year-old postgraduate student of Shantiniketan, part of a group of five. In this book, he observes the first stirrings of the nationalist movement in Nepal as the discontent against the oppressive Rana regime boils over. He says in the introduction, “A reawakening has started in Nepal. Till now the Nepali Gurkha used to obey his masters’ orders as a loyal soldier. Now a new consciousness has taken birth there, where all the various communities call themselves ‘Nepali’, as one nation.”
His first impression of Nepal was of the poverty of the coolies; he saw all of toiling Asia united in this picture of destitution. The extensive Buddhist built heritage of the country alerted Das to the key role religious traditions had played in forging relationships between Nepal and India in pre-colonial times.
On his China travels, he experienced the same profound influence of Buddhist traditions that had originated in India.But what intrigued him the most was that this cultural relationship was one-sided. Despite claims of openness and liberalism, India did not seem to have actively sought out knowledge from other lands. Who is India’s Xuanzang, Das seemed to ask.
What struck Das about post-communist revolution China were the transformations in living conditions and in the political consciousness of the ordinary Chinese. Although Das had briefly flirted with communism in his teens, in his approach to life and politics, he tended to be a Gandhian. He had participated in the Quit India movement when he was in college and had been jailed for one-and-a-half years.
In the latter half of the 50s, he was instrumental in setting up and running what was, arguably, the most important educational experiment in post-Independent Odisha — a high school called Jibana Bidyalaya (‘The School of Life’) in Champatimunda run mostly for students who had been in basic-education schools run on Gandhian principles and whose parents had been part of the freedom movement. It combined ideas drawn from the philosophies and experiments of Gandhi and Tagore. When Das made his trip to China, he was leading a movement to establish the educational ideas of Aurobindo Ghosh and Mirra Alfassa in Odisha. Soon it was to drive more than 200 schools across the State.
Das was inspired by the education system of post-revolution China. Manual labour and book-learning were the the two legs on which it ran: this tallied with Gandhi’s ideas of basic education. Das was also fascinated by the communes that were the central organising institution of socio-economic life in the new China. The system was founded on the idea of Democratic Centralism, where the central leadership provided ideas, guidance and support, and local communes carried out experiments in communal agricultural production, political education and shared living. Revolutionary land reforms in China had removed the intermediary classes; a model of economic development that put peasants’ communes at the centre made agriculture and a new egalitarian political consciousness the basis of social life. What Das saw in China filled him with hope for a new Asia.
It is this movement towards social transformation by creating humane, egalitarian collectives that fascinated Das about kibbutzs too, when he saw them in Israel. Kibbutzs combine ideas of Zionism and socialism, where a group of men and women live and work together, with all resources owned communally and decisions taken democratically. Started in the early years of the 20th century (the first one, ‘Degania’, was established in 1909), kibbutzs soon became central to the project of taming the deserts of Israel, fuelling agricultural and industrial production. During both his Israel stints, Das spent considerable time in the kibbutzs, focusing specifically on its schools.
He also engaged with a number of intellectuals, either personally or through their works, and mentions them in his travelogues — among them the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965), whose emphasis on dialogue creates the conceptual scaffolding for building bridges between the warring Jews and Arabs; Danilo Dolci (1924-1997), the ‘Italian Gandhi’ who fought non-violently and democratically against poverty and social exclusion in Italy; Moshe Harif (1933-1982), the Israeli architect and politician who played a crucial role in the movement surrounding kibbutzs. Another thinker Das writes about is Hu Shih (1891-1962), known for his push towards language reforms. He had advocated the use of written vernacular Chinese rather than the classical version of the language.
Home and beyond
The concerns of all these thinkers are reflected in Das’s own works and writings, pivoted as they are on the vernacular and the common man. When Das started learning Urdu as a teenager, he had made a startling discovery — that the word ‘vilayat’ in the original Persian means what the word ‘desh’ means in most Indian languages: ‘home’ or ‘country’. And yet ‘vilayat’ in modern South Asian languages means ‘foreign land’. This strange morphing of meanings perhaps points to a larger existential truth — we can know our own country only through our travels (both imaginary and real) in other lands. In other words, the only way to be an Indian is to become an Asian and then onwards a citizen of the world.
In this era of heightened nationalism and individualism, it is instructive to read Das’s travelogues. By taking us back to the almost lost worlds of kibbutzs and communes, he reminds us of an ideal of egalitarianism and human solidarity transcending barriers that seems all the more relevant now, in our fractured times.
The writer is an author and researcher based in Bhubaneswar.