A Cat’s and Rat’s View of History: Arun Sadhu (1942-2017)

Arun Sadhu was a journalist, writer and teacher whose works reflected his ability to listen and eloquence to express the sufferings of the marginalised and the hypocrisies of the powerful. His life itself was testimony to his aversion to pomposity and manipulation. Here, writer, award winning film maker and Sadhu’s friend for over four decades, Arun Khopkar, writes about him.

Arun Sadhu, who passed away on 25 September, had turned 76 on 17 June. He was a much respected journalist, well-known to his readers in English for his thoroughly researched, analysed and ably synthesised articles, through his long career spread over four decades. 

His was the kind of journalism that flourished when the  “Word” reigned supreme. Sadhu believed in the lived and experienced truth of the word, rather than its surface glitter. Urbane, soft spoken and dignified, he brought his incorruptible values to understand the corrupt world that his profession needed him to write about. He hated pomp, hypocrisy and dishonesty and his life and writing showed how to live without any trace of these traits.

His not-so-frequent appearances on television discussions had none of the trappings of the dramatis personae seen in the masked commedia dell’arte of today’s electronic journalism, like flashy costumes, grandiloquent gestures, threatening postures and moral impostures, histrionics and hysterics. His sheer presence, with his high forehead, neatly sculpted features, intense brown eyes and smooth sun-kissed complexion - he was from Vidarbha - had quiet gravitas. His intense concentration on the topic of the discussion and on the arguments of the other participants in the programme made his silent reaction-shots as effective as his talkie-shots, for he really listened. 

Born near Amravati in Maharashtra and educated in Amravati and Nagpur, Sadhu brought his intimate knowledge of the culture and politics of rural and urban Maharashtra to his writing. He had written for the Statesman, Indian Express and was a stringer for Time magazineand had been editor of the Free Press Journal. He headed the department of journalism at the Pune University for six years, ending his term in 2001. His students loved him equally for his professional expertise and for the values and responsibilities of a journalist that he made them aware of through his own example, without ever taking a selfie.  

His journalistic and political writing in Marathi was informed by his wide reading and study of international politics. He authored four books about the revolutionary societies of the 20th century, two on China and one on Cuba. His book Teesri Kranti ( Third Revolution), traced the main political currents in Russia, from the time of Vladimir Lenin to Mikhail Gorbachev. These books,  well-structured, clearly argued and amply illustrated with examples gave his readers a feel of these societies and brought the characters of history alive.

A Sensitive Listener

His journalism gave him access to decision makers and leading figures of Maharashtra’s politics. Bertolt Brecht had once said that we have always had the cat’s view of history and what we needed was the rat’s view of history to know it truthfully. Sadhu understood the cat’s view by understanding the machinery and the machinations, through his access to the high and mighty. His humanism and faith in democratic values made him understand how the mice felt by lending his ears to the eloquence of their silent fears and sufferings. 

Sadhu’s dual view of Maharashtra -  “bifocal” as Shanta Gokhale calls it in her warm obituary to Sadhu - gave him a vantage position as a creative writer. He wrote five collections of short stories, 11 novels and a play in Marathi. These figures do no justice to the qualitative richness and range of his writings. He explored many layers of contemporary Maharashtra’s urban and rural life. His novel Mumbai Dinank bared Bombay’s underbelly. He showed the obnoxious nexus between crime, corruption and politics, whose cancerous growth is responsible for the decay we see today in every aspect of this city’s life — from the mass murders of its commuters in the deathtraps called footbridges or its open manholes that swallow its citizens and often kill those who have to work in their noxious fumes. And no one, absolutely no one, is ever held responsible. 

Sadhu brought the immediacy and urgency of a journalist writing on the move to his novel Sinhasana ( The Throne) about the power struggle in Maharashtra over the chief minister’s post. He captured a character with a turn of a phrase, toss of a gesture or a mannerism. He brought a compassionate understanding of the frailties and strengths of the people he depicted in his writings. He had no illusions about the diabolical side of the human beings around him. But he had the ability to see wings of angels grow from their shoulders at certain points in their lives. 

In 1979, two of Sadhu’s novels Simhasan and Mumbai Dinank were turned into a film Simhasan by director Jabbar Patel. Fortunately, Patel managed to get permissions to shoot on real locations like the Mantralaya, the bungalows of ministers, etc. Due to this, the film has a realistic look, though its treatment was in the theatrical mould. Patel’s all star cast from Marathi theatre that included Shreeram Lagu, Nilu Phule, Arun Sarnaik, Rima Lagu, Satish Dubhashi, Mohan Agashe, Nana Patekar and many others, gave such fine performances that the film became a super hit. It took Marathi cinema out of its hackneyed themes and rubbed its nose in the not-so-fragrant reality of the day. 

Arun Sadhu received many honours for his writings, including the Sahitya Akademi award. He was elected president of the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Mahasammelan in 2007. This is the most prestigious literary meet of the state and its tradition goes back to 1878, when the first such sammelan was held in Pune and was presided over by the late Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade, a distinguished scholar, judge of the Bombay High Court and one of the founders of the Indian National Congress. As is the tradition of this literary conference, the outgoing president welcomes the new president. In the Nagpur session, Sadhu realised that gradually politicians were creeping into the cultural scene and were supported by worthless sycophants, seeking access to posts of power and  money. Consequently, there was more time given to politicians than to literary personalities. At the Nagpur session, the inauguration was to be done by the then President of India, Pratibha Patil. Sadhu decided not to stage any direct protest or proclaim his dissent from the podium, keeping in mind the dignity of the office of the president, but chose to remain absent to express his dissent, an act characteristic of his dignified way of being true to his values.

Exploding Silence

Sadhu, along with Dinkar Gangal and Kumar Ketkar, his journalist friends and a few others, founded Granthali, which was to put the writer, the publisher (Granthali) and the reader face en face. Granthali published many books, often of first time writers, which were different from those published by the established Marathi publishers. One such book was Baluta by Daya Pawar. It was the first Dalit autobiography in Marathi. It exploded like a bomb. 

For centuries, a conspiracy of silence had reigned over all areas of experience of Dalit Maharashtra. No one had named the parts of the dead cattle, tabooed for the upper castes, which were distributed amongst the Dalits, according to the caste hierarchy. There were no words for many of their tools, their parts and ways of using them that formed the backbone of our economic life. Their rituals were nameless, as they themselves were kept faceless and voiceless. 

Dalit experience of daily contact with human excreta was never spoken of. The foul and suffocating smell and repulsive touch of the night soil, as the euphemism goes, had never been felt in the drawing rooms and classrooms of the Marathi literati. Until the Dalit writers came on the scene, no one had mentioned even one sensuous-factual detail about the filthy and disgraced lives that millions were forced to live in the name of religion, through its caste system. Once the Dalits began to write and publish, hundreds of new word-sparks relit the fires of Dalit anger, which was ignited by Babasaheb Ambedkar on 27 December  1927, by the public burning of Manusmriti. Those silent for millennia had decided to speak in their own voices and in their own words. So terrible were their lives that even if they whispered, their words struck like thunderbolts, due to the electric charge of anger and suffering. 

If the Dalits spoke about the filth and oppression in their lives, Maharashtra’s political life had found a new language of filth and foulness in a provincial and bigoted linguistic movement. What added fuel to the linguistic fires, was the total ignorance and contempt, which even today characterises the English-educated social elite’s response towards all forms of expression in the Indian languages. The local provincial linguistic movement, counter-reacted with greater violence by treating all those who did not speak Marathi as the hateful "Other" responsible for all that was wrong with the newly formed state. These leaders practised systematic character assassinations of their opponents, through the worst kind of abuse, full of sexual innuendos; its obverse side was the physical assassinations, looting, arson and riots. Logic and debate, facts and analysis were totally banned and muscles obeyed the malfunctioning grey matter. Along with this linguistic violence, as its logical corollary, arose the pompous, bombastic, swollen and inflated language of the third-rate  “historical” plays that was used for deifying historic figures that could no longer be allowed the scrutiny of historic analysis. Marathi’s glorious tradition of saint literature, of compassion and devotion, was paid only lip-homage and forgotten. No institutions were set up for linguistic studies or learning Marathi by using powerful audio-visual tools of modern language teaching. Those who spoke in the name of Marathi could hardly speak or write it.  

Unvarnished Truth

Vilification of the mind, as the precondition of the vilification of life, is a principle long-understood and implemented by all totalitarian ideologies. What started in Maharashtra in the late 1960s was what we observe in our national life today, with increasing bigotry, intolerance and violence. It is here that writers like Arun Sadhu made their contribution to a healthy linguistic and social life. They showed the filth in society through their often clinical and unadorned language, while the totalitarian ideologies use the linguistic bombast and filth to poison every cell of our brain and body, as is seen in the post-truth times we live in. 

In a sense, what writers like Arun Sadhu and others who wrote bare prose did, is what Roland Barthes called  “writing degree zero”. It can be compared with the Neue Sachlichkite, which started in Germany after World War I and ended with the fall of the Weimar republic. It was a movement against the subjectivism, distortions and hyperboles of expressionism.

Arun Sadhu was a friend for over four decades. I received the message about his death from a common friend; it mentioned that Arun’s body would be kept at his residence for a few hours for his friends to pay their respects and then it would be handed over to a medical institution in the cause of research. Of course, there would be no rituals. 

Arun lived by his values and observed them equally well in his death. As he did not believe in life after death, I cannot wish him eternal peace after death. I would just pray to the earth to receive an honoured guest, who returns to the earth what she gave him. What he leaves behind is the indomitable spirit expressed in his writings and actions.


1 The art historian Dennis Crockett says that Sachlichkeit should be understood by its root, Sache, meaning "thing", "fact", "subject", or "object." Sachlich could be best understood as "factual", "matter-of-fact", "impartial", "practical", or "precise"; Sachlichkeit is the noun form of the adjective/adverb and usually implies “matter-of-factness”. German Post-Expressionism: The Art of the Great Disorder 1918-1924. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press. 


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