Vajpayee the poet

A couplet for every occasion

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Atal Bihari Vajpayee at a function at his residence, in June 1999. Photo: TEKEE TANWAR/AFP

WAS Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s poetry read because he was the Prime Minister or did the fact that he could express himself through poems, so unlike most of his political friends and rivals, help him become the Prime Minister? Well, the hard yards of politics are impervious to the mood and metre of poetry. As for the former, the jury is out. There are the old faithful who believe that Vajpayee did not do justice to the poet in him, that politics took a toll on his poetry. They believe that the poet who gave us Meri Ikyawan Kavitayein (My 51 Poems) and Na Dainyam Na Palayanam (Neither Self Pity Nor Escape) was a man who had a wide range of poetry at his command. He could use the pen as a brush to paint with words. He could use it as a scalpel to heal wounds, too. He could use it as a weapon to settle scores as well. He could write with equal felicity about the dangers of war and Hindu mythological elements. They point to his works like Hum Jung Na Hone Denge and Hindu Tan-man, Hindu jeevan. Each poem merited a rewind o,r as they say in mushairas, mukarrar (encore).

So what prevented him from being more prolific? Politics, and its unending power struggle, a world where only the names of the characters changed, the demands remained the same. Vajpayee himself once confessed, “Politics arrested the flow of my poetic propensity. Poetry and politics do not go together.”

Speeches laced with pauses

Yet together they did go, enabling Vajpayee to rise many notches above the average political speaker. His speeches were laced with pauses, and poetry. For those who covered Parliament, and those who attended his impromptu gatherings in the evening, no mehfil was complete without a Vajpayee couplet or two. Like a skilful practitioner, more often than not, he had a couplet ready for the occasion. The gentle glow of the setting sun and the more amenable pace of life after the humdrum of political existence during the day brought the poet to the fore.

Vajpayee’s poetry had much of what was lacking in his politics. There was space for Urdu, there was a niche for humanism, the inevitability of death, and the futility of life. There was space for hope, just as there was space for confessions of failure. There was sensitivity, and an ability to observe keenly. The politician’s wily brain went into sleep mode even as the poet’s heart throbbed. Not all of his poetry made it to print, but those who heard him up close and personal can vouch for his literary genius, a genius Vajpayee claimed he inherited from his father, who was a poet in Gwalior.

All this was in contrast to his politics, where he preached raj dharma but refrained from pulling up those who failed to practise it. Yet there were occasions when they met beautifully. For proof, one only has to read his Zindagi ka Dastawez published in Dharmyug, a Hindi magazine, in 1988 even as Vajpayee battled serious illness. It was a rare moment when the poet allowed the politician to express himself on his terms. Otherwise, the poet was a prisoner of politics.

So, how was he as a literary figure? Difficult to judge with accuracy, considering the work available for public perusal. Yet, in the limited oeuvre available, Vajpayee proved himself as an enthusiastic poet, one who often wielded the pen to silence his detractors. The pen had much flow. It was like a river in spate in the mountains. What it lacked was the tranquillity, the unfathomable depths of a river in the plains. He always seemed to be in too much of a hurry to finish a kavita, again maybe because of the demands of his political career. But it did seem that he wanted to meet the couplet on his terms rather than allowing it to come to him, to make it his home. This was ironical for a man who used the pause to devastating effect in his speech.

When it came to the written word, there were few pauses, not much scope for punctuation, just a flow of thoughts to some crests and the usual troughs. Many found it beautiful and bewitching. For them, his couplets, even his short poems, were worth a thousand words. Some questioned the sacrifice of depth at the altar of rhythm. They wondered aloud why a particular thought could not develop further, why skimming the surface was the face of each poem?

Nobody, though, accused Vajpayee of tuk bandi (poetry for the sake of it). He never matched words for effect, never introduced words to fill in the gaps. He never had to.

If Vajpayee the poet lost to the demands of Vajpayee the politician, his poetry gained, too, because of the high pedestal he came to occupy for a long time in politics. The renowned Urdu poet Ali Sardar Jafri, who had expressed apprehension of a nuclear war after the Pokhran tests, turned an admirer, and even composed a few couplets praising Vajpayee which he recited at a musical evening in New Delhi. The Prime Minister did not forget the good gesture. When Vajpayee went to Pakistan in 1999 as part of a peace-making exercise, he presented an album of Jafri’s anti-war poems to the Pakistan Prime Minister.

Shah Rukh Khan starred in the music video of Kya Khoya Kya Paya, where the peerless Jagjit Singh gave his voice to Vajpayee’s kalaam. The music video notched up many hits online a few years after its release. Did the fans come to listen to the mellifluous voice of Jagjit Singh? Quite likely. Did they want to see Shah Rukh for free? More than likely. Did they come to listen to Vajpayee's poetry? Debatable. Yes, the jury is still out on Vajpayee’s poetry.

However, the very fact that after the passing away of an ace politician, a former Prime Minister, probably the tallest non-Congress Prime Minister, the nation is discussing his poetry says it all about the efficacy of his written word. Not everybody may cherish it, but Vajpayee’s poetry has outlasted him. It won’t be a surprise if it lends itself to more Indian languages, more translations. After all, Vajpayee was translated in Bulgarian, too.

Ziya Us Salam

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