The book is called Comrade Sak and is written by Mark Wadsworth, a black British writer with Caribbean roots
“The older proverbs are the best,
Repeat them Bachchoo and leave the rest:
‘The Higher the monkey climb
The more him parts expose.’
And ‘Odours change with time
Don’t sniff the festering rose’
And ‘Beware the actor who can’t tell
The pitiful human from the pose’”
— From One Day Martyr Rum by Bachchoo
Idle thoughts in a supposedly idle season. I access my mobile phone more times a day than I used to before the plague of Covid restricted my visits to people and places, including the mother country in which the Ganga flows. But, gentle reader, even so, I have not succumbed to the temptations of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, TikTok or other “time-pass” forums and platforms and don’t want anyone to know what I ate for breakfast and neither do I wish to pass on to the rest of humanity some video I may have chanced on, or some witticism which has gone ‘viral’. (By the way, isn’t this description of popularity a bit ironic since Covid-19 has invaded all humanity?)
No, no, I am not humourless, but get that way when 20 different people send me a video in which a Chinese-looking youth working at a table hears the standard ring-tune of a mobile telephone and looks around to answer it when he sees that it’s his cat seated next to him playing the tune with sticks on a xylophone. Funny the first time and raised a tolerant smile the second, but then…
So, what do I do instead? I cook dishes I find in the cookbooks that have laid on the shelves for years and even download recipes for honey-and-tamarind-marinaded pork ribs (apologies to my Muslim, Jewish, vegetarian, vegan and squeamish readers!). And I scribble, as writers must — except I have taken to wondering whether fingering a computer should retain the same metaphor for modest writing as in the era of the fountain pen.
And as everyone does, I read. The latest literary phase has been books and essays on Indians who brought back to India something they had picked up from their sojourns in the West. The list of such characters includes Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Dadabhai Naoroji, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr Ambedkar and so, so many more. The latest book, which I am still reading, is a biography of Shapur Saklatvala, who doesn’t quite fit the category because he never returned to India after serving twice in the UK parliament as a communist MP from North Battersea in the early 1920s and then again in the late years of that decade.
The book is called Comrade Sak and is written by Mark Wadsworth, a black British writer with Caribbean roots. Before I say that this is an essential book which traces the life, convictions and career of this communist Parsi, a cousin of the Tata family, I ought to declare an interest. Or even a couple. Mark, the writer, is a friend and Comrade Sak, Shapur, was a “cousin-brother”, as we joint-family-Parsis used to say, of my great grandfather Jamshed Saklatvala. Not that either fact affects my reading or evaluation of the biography which traces not only his life and career but appends his speeches and his copious correspondence with Mahatma Gandhi about the organisation and representation of Indian workers. Sak was in favour of their unionisation and his ideological insistence led him to support anti-capitalist communism. Gandhi, in very interesting letters in reply, asserted at length that workers and capital could and should live together. He quotes with approval the stance of the Tata capitalists and their supportive benevolence towards their workforce.
I have said above that the factors which may bias my reading don’t, but perhaps a few pages of the book do resonate in a personal way. Jamshed Saklatvala, my great grandfather, went to work on the setting up of the steel plant in Jamshedpur, helping the Tata cousins with the survey of the land etc. At the time the Saklatvalas and Tatas were partners in this pioneering capitalist venture.
The Saklatavalas didn’t get their name, as I discovered, from some village called ‘Saklat’ in Gujarat. The surname of my ancestors comes from the fact that they owned mills which turned Bengali jute into sack cloth which was used for making ships’ sails and storage sacks — hence ‘sack cloth wala’! And where then did those mills go? Or did the discovery of plastic sacks and the end of sails for ships ruin the trade my ancestors lived off, leaving at least one of us selling words to worthy newspapers and discerning publishers?
Mark’s book tells me that Jamshed Saklatvala’s private papers emphatically allege that the Saklaltvalas were in some sense, through devious means, short-changed or done out of their fortune and partnership by one of the heirs and descendants of the founding capitalist J.R. Tata.
If that is true, just as after the Black Lives Matter explosion, sections of the population of the USA and even of Britain are claiming reparations, perhaps I should, on behalf of the Dhondys and the Sakltavalas claim reparations from the Tata industrial empire. I suppose I would settle for the more profitable branches of the Jaguar and Landrover manufacturing plants and perhaps throw in a small claim on Tata-Tetley tea. Watch this space!