NEW DELHI: Culled from a four hour conversation, the two part TV interview with Fidel Castro in Havana in 1990, remains one of the most valued treasures in my journalistic archives.

Why would an interview with Castro supersede in its value all the others spread over a hundred countries?

A mind reared in Awadh’s Urdu ambience inherited certain attitudes. These faded during years at school, but left their traces nevertheless. To begin with our elders were in opposition to the British who had caused their wonderful Kings to vanish from Lucknow and Delhi. Over time, these attitudes translated themselves into anti colonialism, anti imperialism. This was Urdu’s foreign policy.

Urduwallas faced a contradiction. The language, and the culture accompanying it, had prospered under a feudal system. It was intellectually untenable for the Urdu elite to oppose Imperialism but be supportive of feudal excesses. And yet taking up cudgels against the feudal order would be tantamount to biting the hand that feeds. The situation was more complicated: the bigger Nawabs, Rajas and Taluqdars had made peace with the new British rulers.

The feudal system in Awadh, as elsewhere, was hierarchical and depended on agrarian exploitation. But it was not tyrannical socially. Unlike the polo and tennis playing princely order in Rajasthan and Saurashtra, the Awadh feudal elite encouraged a life of the mind. Diction, quip, repartee, wit, lyric, music, conversation. Libraries were common. Saraswati was on a pedestal.

Urdu poets did prosper under feudal patronage but they also enjoyed the freedom to give vent to their thoughts. Proximity to the Sufis enabled them to keep their ears close to the ground. This is how a courtly language was also filled with Mir Taqi Mir’s folksy flavour, sometimes derived from Kabir.

Marx was nowhere in Mir’s or Ghalib’s ken and yet both wrote poetry with a bent which today would be called leftist.

“Na mil Mir ab ke Ameeron se tu
Huey hain gharib inki daulat se hum”
(Mir, do not mingle with the wealthy
Their wealth has impoverished us)

Ghalib derides the market as a promoter of philistinism:
“Gharat gar e namoos na ho gar hawas e zar
Kyon Shahid e gul bagh se bazaar mein aaye?’
(pursuit of greed, destroys beauty; why should a flower,
the essential beauty of a garden, be sold in the dusty marketplace.)

By early 20th century, particularly after the Bolshevik revolution, Marxist-Leninist ideas had entered the mainstream of Urdu literature.

Majaz Lucknavi was to wear his leftist credentials on his sleeve:
“Baeen rindi, Majaz ek shaere mazdoor or dehkan hai;
Agar shehron mein woh badnaam hai, badnam rehne do”
(His drunkenness notwithstanding, Majaz is a poet of peasants and the workers;
Do not bother if he has a bad reputation among the urbane elite.)

Political leaders of the Left, notably P.C. Joshi of the CPI, tapped into this reservoir of post feudal awakening. Talents like Balraj Sahni were drawn to Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA). The Progressive Writers Movement brought under its umbrella Krishen Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, a host of others. A remarkable detail is often overlooked: from the earliest Urdu poets to the most recent ones, not one ever wrote a line – not a line – supportive of religious orthodoxy, the mullah or capitalism. “Sarmayadari” was always a curse.

In our formative years, a stream parallel to the left inclined aesthetics of Urdu poetry, was the composite nationalism projected by the Congress party. The two streams converged on the persona of Jawaharlal Nehru. Disillusionment with Nehru set in with retrospective effect much later.

My initiation into journalism coincided with Nehru’s death. But Leftism or Nehruvian socialism remained fashionable until the Soviet collapse in 1990-91.

As Rajiv Gandhi’s principal Secretary, when Gopi Arora drew up a list of journalists for the young Prime Minister to meet, he placed Nikhil Chakravarty, a card carrying communist, at the top of the list.

“In a developing country” Gopi explained, “the Left will continue to provide intellectual leadership.”

This framework was shattered with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It was at this turning point in world affairs that I arrived in Havana. I had pulled all the strings I could with the Prime Minister’s office, Ministry of External Affairs, Communist leaders in Ajoy Bhawan and, ofcourse, the Cuban embassy in New Delhi. The prospect of a world scoop was undoubtedly a motivating factor. But professionalism alone did not explain the extraordinary effort I made for the Castro assignment. Iconography sketched on my mind in my formative years also played a role.

I carried all this boyhood baggage in my head, as I nervously waited for a message from the “Commandante’s” secretariat.

At 7.00 pm my crew and I were ushered into a spartan office. At about 9.30 pm Castro made an appearance, looking larger than life in his fatigues. That he spoke in Spanish did not create any distance. With such speed and clarity did his petit interpreter anticipate his ponderous Spanish that one did not miss any nuance.

When I told him that I had set the camera in the lawn outside, he insisted that we have “coffee or brandy” and “relax” before stepping out for the interview. The brandy session lasted till 11.30 pm.

The interview can be seen at:

What was playing most on his mind was Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) that Gorbachev had embarked on. Both were acceptable concepts, “provided the pace is controlled”. He did not say it in so many words, but he feared that Gorbachev may have lost control. Events proved Castro right.

(Cover Photograph: Journalist Saeed Naqvi interviewing Cuban Legend Fidel Castro)