March 2004… Bhupen Hazarika had whipped up a storm in his native state Assam by announcing his decision to join the BJP and contest the elections from Guwahati. Earlier, in 1967, the singer-lyricist-composer-filmmaker had been elected to the legislative assembly as an independent candidate but lost in ’71.
Three decades later, Bhupenda was ready for another brush with politics and I had 15 minutes to discuss his three-point agenda with him. A little nervous because as a schoolgirl in Shillong I’d grown up listening to his songs, Ganga Amar Ma, Padma Amar Ma.. and Dola, Hey Dola…, I stepped into his Lokhandwala office. He greeted me warmly and started off explaining why he was not the “opportunist” he’d been dubbed.
Our conversation that eventually stretched over three hours, veered towards the Congress. He had never supported its policies but in ’67, when he was being escorted to a meeting, a cop informed him that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted to hear him sing. “I sang Ganga Behti Hai Kyun…(Bistirno Dupare… in Bengali) and it amused me to see Congress leaders clapping for a fiery Marxist who was using the Ganga as a metaphor to rant against injustice,” he smiled.
So how did the Marxist shrug off his Red ideologies and allow himself to be saffronised? The smile turned to a frown. “I don’t belong to any party, I’m a ‘Sarva Bharatiya’ (Indian)… A ‘Vishwa Bharatiya’ (global Indian),” he asserted. “Give me a harmonium, a tabla and a microphone and I will talk to the people in their language. In the North-East I am called ‘manu’… man.”
Manu reminded me of Manush Manusher Janne… that had been voted by BBC’s Bengali service as the ‘Best Song of The Millennium’. Bhupenda hummed a few bars for me and told me he had sung it for the first time in ’64 when Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur were burning. Reverend Scott, Jayaprakash Narayan and the Chief Minister had tried to put off the fires and finally approached him to sing for peace.
Bhupenda arrived in Kohima surrounded by cops. In the crowd, he spotted a man staring at him and beckoned him over. He was told the rebels didn’t like him being a guest of the CM. “I got on the scooter with this man, was whisked off to a small rebel village and asked to sing. I’d just written the Assamese version of Manush…, Manuh Manuhor Babe… and asked a young boy to translate it in Nagamese, a mix of Assamese, Urdu, Hindi and Bambaiya Hindi, and sang it,” he reminisced.
The next day, the Eastern front was all was quiet. “The BJP has assured me that Assam’s identity will not be eroded and its development will be top priority. I’ll sing Manush Manusher Janne.. on the election trial. Keep the faith, Manu is coming,” he boomed.
He did sing the song. And his companion, Kalpana Lajmi, told me that he also xeroxed my interview and distributed copies of it during campaigning. Last Wednesday, Bhupenda’s body was consigned to the flames. I watched the last rites on TV and remembered Manu whose office was just above my daughter’s playschool. Around noon, when my mother-in-law or I would be waiting to pick up Ranjika, Bhupenda would step out of his car and smile at us before going up. When I told ‘ma’ he was gone, she remembered that smile and said quietly, “He will be missed.”
I miss him as I pass by Hrishikesh building on my way to work, his folksy Ami Ek Jajabor… and the soothing, Dil Hoom Hoom Kare... playing in my head. I also remember Shoishobo Ami Tomare Shange Khele Chilam.. that was his favourite love song. It’s a young man’s poignant lament for his childhood sweetheart who betrayed him to marry a goldsmith.
Refusing to cry or kill himself, the jilted lover vows to build a society where a man’s worth is not measured by the gold he has.“The song brings back memories of a 16-year-old girl I met at a radio station,” Bhupenda had sighed seven years ago. He married her, of course? “No,” he smiled sadly. “She married someone else.”