Dr Premen Addy, intellectual, historian, author, former editor Asian Voice and columnist passed away in a Kolkata nursing home on the morning of 15th of January 2020. Kolkata is truly defined by its intellectual life and its creative yearnings and Dr. Premen Addy can be justly deemed one of the many luminaries that gave content to its identity. Kolkata and the wider region had huge impact and produced creative and intellectual giants, from Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Vivekananda to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and filmmaker, Satyajit Ray. But a true galaxy of unrecognised gems, like the unknown mourned in the bleak lines of Thomas Gray’s, Elegy in a Country Churchyard, also throng the alleys and cafes of the city, not least the memorable café of College Street, its Coffee House. Premen Addy, I hazard was one the last of them, in a city transformed in the past five decades beyond recognition, passing away suddenly following complications after an operation.
Premen was a one-off, hugely well-read and possessor of an astounding memory and with the ability to instantly recall countless historical facts. In endless conversations with him, I constantly found myself being educated about history and by his formidable expertise on Russia, its socialist earlier incarnation, China and of course the United Kingdom and India. He also lightly bore a vast reservoir of knowledge of literature and poetry, especially admiring V. S. Naipaul among the modern greats. Those who read his periodic columns in the Calcutta Telegraph, India Weekly, the Asian Voice and many other publications will have relished his scholarly analyses of myriad topics, leavened with refined prose and penetrating insight.
Premen was once attracted to Trotskyism and engaged with its British house journal, the New Left Review, where he had published. But he became less convinced of Trotsky’s historical significance, recognising instead the unparalleled role of Joseph Stalin in defeating Nazism and his unquestionable political acumen. He never succumbed to the temptation of Maoism, which decimated a generation of Kolkata’s best and brightest and inflicted a calamity on the city from which it never quite recovered. In recent years, Premen accorded approval to India’s advance under Shri Narendra Modi though he was uneasy about its ideological direction. His favoured personal friends and acquaintances were great thinkers and writers like the historian Victor Kiernan and the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
In London, he had succeeded his redoubtable predecessor, Iqbal Singh, as editor of India Weekly, writing a searing weekly commentary, as Scrutator, on the misrepresentation and libel against India in the British media. Few interlocutors survived the scrutiny of his pen and logic, expressed in prose as eloquent as a precision scalpel wielded by a surgeon. Although he found the carping criticism of India in the British media irritating and libellous, he was a great admirer of many aspects of British society. With his profound knowledge of its literature and history, he found so much in to admire and worthy of emulation. Dr. Premen Addy also taught a history course at Kellogg College, Oxford and was hugely popular with his students who had never been exposed to such in-depth and diverse knowledge of so many subjects. He was also a visiting fellow at the Centre of International Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He retired to Kolkata 2008, surrounded by his prized private library and a devoted family nearby that assumed responsibility for his mundane daily needs.
Dr. Premen Addy, the son of the distinguished late Professor K. C. Addy, principal of St. Paul’s College, Calcutta, studied at Presidency College. He represented it as a keen debater, also captaining the Presidency cricket team, a sport on which he continued to write informed comment throughout his life, including the Sportsworld. He began a history Tripos at Selwyn College, Cambridge University in 1963. At Cambridge he was a contemporary of renowned economists Professors Partha Dasgupta and Pranab Bardhan, the latter remaining a lifelong friend. He wrote his PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies and went on to become India’s leading expert on Tibet, on which he has recently published a second perceptive comparative historical study. He was carrying on a family tradition established by his maternal uncle, Mr. Sumol Sinha of the MEA, whom Prime Minister Nehru came to trust as principal adviser on China after the 1962 debacle. Premen had a soft spot for Jawaharlal Nehru, applauding his modernising zeal and contrasting him with power-hungry third world dictators.
Premen Addy was a cosmopolitan renaissance intellectual who lived the life of the mind, unconcerned with material possessions. He was modest in life-style and dressed with dowdy self-confidence and spoke incessantly of India’s progress, its setbacks and sorrows, but always confident of its eventual reprise. Despite his nominal Christian identity, he was the person asked to write the introduction to the meaning of Durga puja for the London Committee in its magazine. Sometimes he would surprise me by quoting a Hindu ‘myth’, with evident conviction, to explain a contemporary event, underscoring he was nothing if not learned! Like the philosopher, Bertrand Russell he admired, he was not a believer, but was nevertheless a deeply religious man.
His home town, Kolkata,which has suffered so much setback still hosts book fairs where the impecunious throng in their thousands to spend hard-earned money. It is the city that celebrates Ho Chi Minh and others from distant lands, recognising a common humanity of the courageous, and a shabbily-attired anonymous person will unexpectedly recite Coleridge and one of Kolkata’s own innumerable poets of romance and despair. It is the city of so many without means or indeed future who dream and create beauty and also take to violent protest for no good reason and good reason. Premen Addy, the intellectual combatant, defined Kolkata’s identity and his passing is a loss to the city in its twilight years that he lit up with his prodigious learning, knowledge and infinite humanity.
Dr. Gautam Sen
21st January 2020
(Taught international political economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science for more than two decades).