Vajpayee's poetic voice

Print edition : November 05, 2004

21 Poems by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, translated by Pavan K. Varma; Viking, Penguin-India, 2000; Rs.195.

IN April this year, after the stampede at a function to distribute sarees in former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's constituency a few weeks before the Lok Sabha elections, I finally bought myself a copy of his 21 Poems. Twenty-two people had just died, falling over one another to clutch at free sarees being flung at them as part of a local Bharatiya Janata Party leader's birthday celebrations. More damaging to the BJP's image than the attempted disrobing of Draupadi was to the Kauravas' reputation in Mahabharata, this macabre spectacle seemed to me to be the stuff of epic poetry. It seemed like something that could cause even the BJP to cringe, if its Kavi Raj had chosen to speak words like whiplashes. But Vajpayee chose to play a mute Bhishma.

His inaction was consistent with the sentiment expressed in one of his poems: that a grand response in the epic spirit is not possible in these benighted times.

"Dharmaraj has not overcome His addiction to dice. In every panchayat Draupadi is robbed of her honour. Without Krishna Today The Mahabharata will be fought. No matter who claims the throne, The poor will continue to suffer."

(From "Who are the Kauravas, and Who the Pandavas?")

Vajpayee may not be a Vyasa, but he does speak on the grand themes - life, alienation, death. On his birthday some years ago, he wrote:

"And so, a new milestone's been crossed. How many more remain, no one knows.

And no one knows when the final destination will arrive...

But the season's turned, the shadows lengthen,

The vessel's drained, all enchantments fade,

Though I staked all I had, it's been a contract of loss...

(Sab kuch daav lagaakar ghaate kaa vyapaar hua, from Naye Meel ka Paththar)

Although Vajpayee himself was re-elected to Parliament, his performance as Prime Minister had been judged by the country as a whole to be "a contract of loss". This, of course, was not the poem he quoted after the elections. He had nothing fresh to offer then, but could only quote himself from one of his earlier poems ("I will not give in! I will wage a new fight!" from Geet naya gaata hoon main - `I sing a new song'.) Perhaps his alter-ego, his man ka meeth (which translator Pavan K. Varma renders as his `muse') had got used to his frequent retreats into the role of silent witness.

With the BJP tying itself in semantic knots ("Hindutva?" or "Bharatiyata?") - instead of inveighing against the mind-set it represents, as is often done - perhaps it might be worthwhile to examine and weigh some of the articulations of its leaders. There is no point saying later on that it was all in print, and that we should have read it more carefully, as happened to the Germans with Hitler's Mein Kampf. Especially those articulations which are intended to last longer than election speeches. Like poems. And we might start with Vajpayee, who has seemed to stand a little apart from the company he keeps.

21 Poems, a small bilingual volume brought out by Viking in 2001, consists mostly of Vajpayee's thoughts on the fleeting nature of life, the insubstantiality of human achievement, and on his sense of weariness and satiation. The poems have been selected by him out of all that he has written over the years, and have been translated into English by Pavan K. Varma.

It comes as no surprise that both in the original and in translation, his poetry "reads well' - to use the language of publishing. When he chooses to communicate, Vajpayee's words are invariably well chosen. These poems reflect his command over language and his awareness of the power of myth in the Indian context. His Hindi has a sombre musicality, and his vivid images make his poems memorable. Eloquent without being obscure, he evokes the genteel ambience of a mushaira or a kavi sammelan. You can almost hear the grainy voice, see the characteristic toss of the head, and feel the vibrations of `wah! wah!' swelling in the mehfil. You can see the top brass, the think-tank, and the cadre all exchanging complacent glances... Vajpayee the poet seems to establish the party's claims to high culture, and to indicate the lofty perspective from which he has overseen and blessed the launching of many of his party's propaganda missiles, its formidable astras. There are flashes of exhortation, and some attempts at prophecy. These have been enough to bestow a bard-like halo on him. For the BJP, short as it is of credible intellectual resources, Atal Bihari Vajpayee's poetic persona has been a godsend indeed.

The question occurs: What if we didn't know that the poet was Vajpayee? Would we still think the poems were good? But the poet is Vajpayee - there's the rub. Like the security guard who stands guard a bare elbow-length behind the Leader, Vajpayee the canny politician is a discreet presence keeping vigil over the poet. Reading and re-reading both his Hindi and Varma's English rendering, and mulling over the introduction, which is vintage Vajpayee, I could almost see the affable, almost shy smile, as he offers readers his admirers' assessment of his poetic gifts. He does not forget to slip in an unexceptionable excuse for not quite making it as a great poet.

"Some friends say that had I not become a politician, I would have become a leading Hindi poet. I don't know about that, but there is no doubt in my mind that politics did interfere with my evolution as a poet."

In other words, he has sacrificed his poetic calling to the claims of public life. Given this modest disclaimer, the reader of the poems cannot ignore the politician, one who has been a prominent role-player in the maya of Indian realpolitik.

IS the poetry an unmasking, or is it yet another mukhota (mask)? That Vajpayee the politician possesses charisma is debatable, but what he has is an almost avuncular charm. Without asking for it, he makes the average Indian want to touch his feet, as he or she would the feet of a respected elder. In most of his poems, even the passionate ones and those that ooze pathos, there is a cultivated attitude of `observer'. If it is a mask, it has become the innermost one, skin tight and opaque, enabling Vajpayee to distance himself from what is happening to him and around him. This makes it possible to read many of the poems without a feeling of intrusion.

But Vajpayee himself does not always enjoy his feeling of separateness. It is not difficult to believe that he is often lonely, as he makes the fervent plea:

"Never place me so high That I cannot embrace those who are not my own. On earth among the living Only a human being Feels alone in a crowd, and Besieged by crowds when alone." (From `Peace of Mind' - Man ka santosh)

This is a person who is not only not at peace, but actually tied up in knots. And he knows it, too, as is evident from the anguish in "A New Knot is Tied".

"Again and again, by a mirage I am enticed. A new knot is tied...

A life, deeply marked, is not easily cleansed... "

(Koi mrgthrishna mujhe baar baar chhalthi. nayee gaant lagthi... dhaagdhaar jindagi na ghaaton par dhulthi.)

Yet, it would be naive to expect Vajpayee to stop himself from being enticed by what he himself identifies as a `mirage'. He is used to swaying his hearers when he makes speeches, and the habit continues when he bares his heart in these poems. The candour expected of a poet is robed in a conscious elegance. Somehow, however, the Goddess of Speech has eluded him when it comes to writing poems on the Motherland... Try as he will, he cannot produce the stirring stuff that Rabindranath Tagore and Subramanya Bharati came out with. It might be that their vision of Bharat Mata was qualitatively different from what has been vouchsafed to him. All we get from him here is nostalgia for a place associated with his childhood:

"A courtyard swept with cowdung, Sounds of bells, the tulsi patch,

On mother's tongue, the nectar of the Ramayan's lines."

In "Agony of Hiroshima" and "We Shall Not Allow War" his Hindi is persuasive and simple, and his pacifism evident. No Loh Purush (`Man of Steel'), Vajpayee as Prime Minister did to his credit stake his prestige on the prevention of war with Pakistan. And yet, there is the sinister image of the scimitar in "No Longer do I Sing" (Geet nahin gaata hoon main).

"The masks have dropped away: These scars run too deep.

The spell has broken, I face the terror of truth

Under the gaze of the evil eye The city shattered like glass I stand friendless among my own... The moon is a scimitar in my back... Rahu's fury knows no bounds Every moment of salvation conceals a snare. No longer do I sing"

The original aaj sach se bhaya khaata hoon summons a picture of a man forced to gulp down a terrible truth. Pavan Varma's translation is almost too polished. Varma is pretty sharp, too: he uses the English word `scimitar' with its West Asian and Muhammadan associations for the simple Hindi word chhuri employed by Vajpayee, which only means `knife' or `dagger'. Why did Vajpayee permit this patently inaccurate rendering? Perhaps because he welcomed those associations. Bedazzled by the flash of `scimitar', perhaps he has no objection to the sly suggestion of betrayal by the treacherous `Other'.

I read with incredulity the poem entitled "Power" (Satta). How could this poet have had nothing of consequence to say to Narendra Modi, and his horde of Muslim-baiters in Gujarat?

"To those who try to reach The throne of power Over mounds of dead bodies Of innocent children Old women Young men, I have a question: Did nothing bind them To those who died? Their faiths differed;

Was it not enough that they too were of this earth?

`The Earth is our mother, and we are her sons':

this mantra from the Atharvaveda is it only to be chanted, not lived? Children charred by fire Women savaged by lust Houses reduced to ash Constitute neither a certificate of culture Nor a badge of patriotism. They are proof of bestiality Proof of degradation... "

The best and the most convincing of his poems are some terse ones written from jail during the Emergency, and they are filled with his sense of suffocation, and emptiness. His unresolved conflicts, as a modern human being and as an Indian, are evident in them. "We Will Not Bend" is, on the other hand, a poem of assertion, and meant to inspire. That period seems to have been a turning point for him, as it was for many others. For those of his political persuasion, the Emergency legitimised opposition to the so-called secular liberal ideology, which Indira Gandhi seemed to have discredited forever. The mass arrests, the censorship, the sterilisation drives, and above all, the dynastic ambitions and personality cult of a leader (an abhorred female leader at that) brought into existence their alternative to Congress rule.

Vajpayee's aspirations to statesmanship have been entwined with the xenophobic ideas of nation and state, culture and religion spun by some of the least attractive figures in the subcontinent's history. He has nursed some delusions of grandeur, not only in himself, but in his colleagues and followers - delusions derived from an understanding of Indian history and of the needs and wishes of most Indians today, which is inherently flawed. He has knowingly given a nod to the idea that unity can be achieved only if diversities are brought to heel, and that the Hindu religion can survive and thrive only in a Hinduised state.

Why did he choose the icons he did? The poems give no hint of his evolution. Rather, they express his yearning to distance himself from the past. His plan of discarding the ideological ladder he has chosen to climb, at some point, and soaring to greatness and glory on his own has not materialised.

"... when all this is done,

when he finally sits down to think, all by himself

in a quiet corner of his home, or in the cacophony of the bazaar, In a plane travelling faster than light In some laboratory of science, In a temple, Or a crematorium... When he puts his whole life in the balance Adds it all up, without mercy, What, then, does he say to himself?" "Peace of Mind" (Man ka santhosh)

Reflections like these strike a chord, because they occur to many of us, sooner or later, and when put into words in any language, they sometimes constitute bittersweet utterance. Melancholy comes easily to poets, perhaps, and they are entitled, by virtue of their calling, to assume a `mukhota' of weltschmerz (world-weariness). Certainly, in the popular mind, poets are always teetering on the brink of deep thoughts, and are apt to stumble into chasms of philosophy. It is an occupational hazard. The difference is that when a really great poet stumbles, his eyes start from their sockets with awe and all the other eight rasas. He shouts exultantly about the view, and he also shouts warnings. Our hair stands on end as a Walt Whitman or a Jorge Luis Borges, a Subramanya Bharati or a Csezlaw Milosz or Pablo Neruda takes risks, eagerly exploring the precipitous slopes of experience, and trying their best to leave a foothold here, a hand-hold there, for the rest of us to share in their epiphany.

These are poems written by a man capable of reflection, who has not measured up to his own expectations. It is as though something is on the tip of his tongue, which he has chosen never to let slip. And so, though they glisten with flashes of insight, his poems give nothing away about the Faustian nature of his climb to the heights.

This is the Vajpayee we have known for the past four decades, who hitched his ratha to what looked like the rising Hindutva star. That star is looking more and more like a misshapen meteorite as days pass. Will this far-from-heavenly body disintegrate before it hits the earth, or is it going to create a horrific crater in the subcontinent?

Not many poets are remembered for more than one poem, or for one telling phrase. It might well be that Vajpayee will be remembered for many of the poems in this book. One that appears to have fought its way up from a deep sadness is the poem, "What Road Should I Go Down?", in which this proud man mourns:

"... honour lost at busy crossroads" (Chourahi par luttha chir).

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