Food and football aside, perhaps nothing turns Bengalis on more than a rally. Whichever party appeals for whatever cause, hundreds of people show up on the brigade’s parade ground in the heart of Kolkata to shout “Inquilab Zindabad” with enthusiasm. The first two months of 2019 saw two mega-rallies, one from the ruling government, the other from the left. The two saw “record” crowds.

Why are processions, meetings, bandhs and “all those democratic rights” of such paramount importance in Bengal? Sumanta Banerjee, social historian and activist who has written seminal works such as In the wake of Naxalbari (1980), takes us on a sero-comic stroll to understand where things stand. In Scary Encounters: Gossip and Jokes with Marx, translated from the Bengali original by publisher and documentary researcher Shampa Banerjee, he summons “the bearded German gentleman” for several face-to-face debates.

The preamble establishes the premise. “Anyone with a minimum of common sense should want to establish a socialist state that will replace today’s socio-economic system based on oppression, injustice and the unequal distribution of wealth. So I find it tempting to occasionally delve into Marx’s writings, to assess how relevant it is today and how much of it has become superfluous? Banerjee invites a number of historical figures for a tête-à-tête, including Dwarkanath Tagore, Rabindranath’s grandfather; Bengali social reformer Shibnath Shastri; the novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay; the rival disciples and pillars of Marx Bhupendranath Datta and Manabendra Nath Roy.

Marx’s encounters left him faced with dilemmas: in one, he found himself stuck in a bus during a traffic jam due to a procession of workers. A girl breaks down while her mother has to go to the hospital. An exasperated Marx gets off the bus to address his comrades who don’t bother to listen. In another, he has “friendly discussions” with Charu Majumdar, the founder of the Naxalite movement in India, over glasses of “Kali-marka” or deshi alcohol. After endless arguments and no conclusions – the original is hilarious, although the translation is just as funny – Marx is taken by communist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg to fight other battles.

[email protected]

Frightening encounters: gossip and jokes with Marx; Sumanta Banerjee, very Shampa Banerjee, Thema, 250