|Politicians & Literature|
Sitaram Yechury | 60 | Andhra Pradesh
Rajya Sabha MP and Politburo Member, CPM
MY EARLY ENGAGEMENT with reading was a vicarious exercise. Books expose you to experiences that you wouldn’t necessarily have had in your lifetime, but are possibilities. They widen your horizons to incorporate the whole ambit of human experience. Once I was drawn in, these books helped me grow and influenced my thought. Howard Fast’s Spartacus, for instance, moved me passionately when I was young, and I realised it was actually an allegory for the growth of capitalism in the United States.
Growing up, my childhood was primarily Telugu-speaking, and I was exposed to Telugu literature and poetry, a lot of which had the themes of social reform. The poetry of Sri Sri, a well-known revolutionary poet, moved me, as did the work of Gurazada Apparao. He was the first one who I heard saying that a country is not its bricks and mortar, that a country is its people. These early exposures raised a lot of questions — the questions of caste, of inequality, of language, of national integration — the answers for which I would eventually find in Marxism.
I was drawn to Marx through a statement I read — I don’t remember where — while in college: “The principles of justice can never rise above the economic conditions of our times.” I realised how true it is, that what is law, what is morality, what is correct, what is incorrect, are all the products of the circumstances in which you live. Marxism is not just Das Kapital. It was the entire philosophical struggle of that time, the conflict between materialism and idealism.
I have revisited Marx many times, as I find him very refreshing. A particular favourite of mine is The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where he says, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” He goes on to make his famous assertion: “Hegel remarks somewhere that history tends to repeat itself. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
These are all quotable quotes, but it isn’t just Marx who shaped my thinking. It was a combination of many things. I’m very fond of Shakespeare, and poetry, from Anouilh down to Tennyson, as well as some of the very powerful authors of other languages like Maupassant. Gorky’s Mother had a major impact on me, as did Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel was Tempered. These were all part of growing up and forming my consciousness.
I’m passionately fond of economics, which is my subject, but also history and culture. Without understanding culture, and the interfaces of culture, you cannot understand the development of human civilisation. And then there are the other areas of development, such as science, that really interest me. One scientist I enjoyed reading was Vilayanur S Ramachandran, who has done amazing work in neurology and neuroscience. He talks about what happens in your mind and how it works, how it is this amazing piece of grey matter that is capable of so much linking.
Of course, I also read a lot of fiction. In my college days, I read everything from Perry Mason to Agatha Christie to EM Rankine. Recently, I read all five Dan Brown books, which I found very interesting. The major problem I face, however, is a lack of time to get my reading done. The urge to read is much more than the time you have to read. You literally have to steal time in order to read. But luckily for me, there is a kind of silver lining, thanks to the sort of work we do. We travel a lot, and that gives you opportunities to read. So that is the only time I get to read nowadays.