The political legacy of three lost friends

'Interacting with Colin, Blake and Pratip illuminated the intersection of the personal and political registers'

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Over the past 12 months, I lost three friends, each of whom had a profound impact on my life, thinking and career. But behind my grief and survivor’s guilt I think I can discern some valuable lessons about what one can learn from the most interesting people we meet and how crucial it is to look past superficial foibles. I owe each one of them a considerable debt of gratitude.

The first loss was hardly unexpected. On April 25, 2022, Colin Cavell passed away from complications of diabetes. He was a close friend in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and proved especially loyal and warmhearted. I found Colin fascinating immediately because in the early 1990s he already seemed a figure from the mythic past, almost like seeing a pterodactyl swoop by, as he was a committed member of the Communist Party USA. Until I met him, I thought that organisation was long gone.

He appeared a walking contradiction. Here was an all-American guy oozing the Cajun charm and gentility of his native Baton Rouge, Louisiana. With his moustache, boots, overcoat and hat, he might've been a stagecoach driver out of another mythic past. Yet he was the proud owner of the collected works of Marx, Lenin, Engels, Mao and even Stalin.

Colin Cavell, a close friend in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and especially loyal and warmhearted. Hussein Ibish

No one worked harder to rename the UMass library after the great African-American scholar WEB Du Bois. My friends and I successfully nominated him for the UMass Chancellor's Award for Multiculturalism in 1996. When accepting the award, however, he made the assembled dignitaries sit through an endless Leninist harangue worthy of Fidel Castro. It was simultaneously hilarious, excruciating and tedious.

Colin went on to teach at the University of Bahrain’s American Studies Centre from 2002-2011. In October 2008, he arranged for me to be the keynote speaker at the Centre’s 10th anniversary. Neither the end of the Cold War nor the many decades following the collapse of the USSR shook his baffling Marxist-Leninist convictions. He never budged an inch.

Since Colin’s health had been deteriorating for several years, his death was saddening but unsurprising. But I was utterly shocked when Blake Hounshell died by suicide by jumping off of the Taft Bridge in Washington DC on January 10. He was just 44, and among the most talented American journalists of his generation. He was editor of the New York Times' 'On Politics' newsletter, but I had gotten to know him earlier as managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

Blake spent several years in Egypt studying Arabic and working at the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies. As Blake and his mentor, Susan Glasser, were brilliantly reinventing Foreign Policy, I had numerous lunches with him. One of them gave rise to a short and provocative article in June 2012, asking asking whether the then-ongoing Arab uprisings were worth it – a question that eventually became far more widespread.

Blake was rare American journalist with a deep understanding of the Arab world and a reliable voice of reason on the Middle East. His tragic death is a loss not just for his family and friends, colleagues and readers, but also for better understanding of the Arab world in the US.

On January 26 came the sudden and shocking passing of Pratip Dastidar. He was definitely the most intelligent person in my own age cohort I ever met (we were exactly the same age), and had a tremendous influence on my life and career.

Pratip Dastidar outside his former home in Amherst, US. Ge. Pratip was the most intelligent person in my age cohort I ever met, and had a tremendous influence on my life and career. Hussein Ibish

We became extremely close in 1990, during the buildup to the first Gulf War, in campus activism and journalism at UMass. We worked closely together at the Third World affairs page in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian newspaper and the "Voices of the Third World" programme on WMUA radio station originally hosted by another close friend, Madanmohan Rao, and later by me.

Like another of my closest friends, the late, great contrarian Christopher Hitchens, Pratip wasn't always right

It wasn't Pratip’s ideology or political orientation that struck me so deeply. Indeed, his specific views were somewhat ephemeral. He could flip from what seemed to be the far-left to what most would consider the ultra-right without batting an eyelid, although his Indian nationalism and pro-Palestinian commitment remained consistent. His pronouncements often seemed calculated to produce an effect more than stake out a passionately-held claim.

However, watching him analyse and almost clinically dissect another person, an event, or a development was a masterful seminar. He had an uncanny ability to size up his audience, and especially his opponent, no matter how small or large the group and the topic at hand, identify the weak spot and strike at the jugular with the sudden speed of a king cobra. He was a master of psychology, always probing for the emotional rather than the logical or factual vulnerability on the other side. I watched him regularly stun practiced and well-prepared interlocutors into dumbstruck silence and, on many occasions, obnoxious opponents into tears.

Yet, beneath the (sometimes sadistic) interpersonal ferocity and ideological malleability lay a wealth of invaluable insights for those who could withstand the tempest. Like another of my closest friends, the late, great contrarian Christopher Hitchens, Pratip wasn't always right. Indeed, in my view both of them were often wrong. But their analytical prowess and rhetorical genius turned long, late-night conversations into methodological and stylistic master classes.

Pratip was unexpectedly diagnosed with stage four brain cancer and died just a few weeks later. With him goes a pile of books I am sure he was going to write, and that I am furious I will never get to read. We seriously discussed co-authoring an a volume on the changing nature of work, productivity and human fulfilment.

Interacting with Colin, Blake and Pratip illuminated the intersection of the personal and political registers.

Colin’s ideological passion made his seeming contradictions all the more fascinating. Blake was the first editor to bring out the best in me as a writer and translate conversations into publications.

Many of my formative political experiences were shared with Pratip. Working with him trained me to analyse a political problem and act with effect, but also what to avoid. He often said our campus activism taught us almost everything we needed to know for our later life and careers. He was right, and working with him was a major part of that invaluable extracurricular training.

Losing friends who were also our teachers is exceedingly painful. The best I can do going forward is to honour their legacy through writing that faithfully reflects these lessons.

Published: February 14, 2023, 7:00 AM