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There was no ego attached to his creativity: Pavan K Varma on Vajpayee the poet

Atal Bihari Vajpayee wrote poetry, but there was never a sense of overriding ego attached to his creativity. He took his personal and public achievements lightly, with a sense of abandon, but without devaluing them in any way.

india Updated: Aug 16, 2018 17:39 IST
Pavan K Varma
Pavan K Varma
New Delhi
Vajpayee,Vajpayee death,atal bihari vajpayee no more
A 1980 photograph of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. (HT Photo)

It was the almost ever-present twinkle in his eyes that let the secret out. Atalji was not a uni-dimensional politician. The man who strode like a colossus across the national stage for decades, was a man of many parts. He was far from being only obsessed with power. He had a side to him that was, in fact, transcendent of politics, or of power. He was a lover of life, a sensitive human being, a man of aesthetics who wrote poetry and loved music, a great raconteur with a great sense of humour, but also a statesman, who had the ability to carry all the people of India with him.

I got to know him well when he asked me to translate his Hindi poetry into English. The evening when we discussed this at the PM’s residence is vividly etched in my memory. When I went to see him, I knew that this was what we would discuss. At the time, I was a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs. Atalji’s book of poems, entitled ‘Ikyavan Kavitaen’, or 51 Poems, had been sent to me by his office. Colleagues in the PMO had also told me about what was on the PM’s mind.

Atalji was seated in his customary chair at 7 Race Course Road when I entered. After the initial courtesies, when he made the request, I was prepared with my answer. I said that I was deeply honoured, but had three conditions. His twinkle became more luminous, and he said: ‘Kahiye’. I would not, I said, translate his ‘political’ poems, which were, to my mind, a trifle polemical and predictable in nature. Secondly, my focus would be on those of his poems that dealt with his personal life, his vicissitudes, his occasional existential doubts about the ultimate purpose of life, about friendships and partings, joy and grief, memories and aging. And, lastly, I said, he should not say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ right away, but see some of my translations, and then give a final confirmation. This time the twinkle was accompanied by a broad smile. ‘Manzoor hai’, he said, and shook hands with me.

The book was published by Penguin Books, and titled ’21 Poems’. I had omitted as many as thirty poems, and he never demurred. In a sense, this provides a glimpse to the greatness of the man. He wrote poetry, but there was never a sense of overriding ego attached to his creativity. He took his personal and public achievements lightly, with a sense of abandon, but without devaluing them in any way. He was an astute politician, but not addicted only to the power game. He was, in that sense, perhaps happier sitting in the opposition, than shouldering the ceaseless—and often sterile—burden of managing a coalition and running a government.

Above all, Atalji was a people’s man. I have not met any public personality in my life who was such an eloquent speaker and so genuinely able to establish a rapport with the audience. When I was posted to Cyprus as High Commissioner, I went to say goodbye to him. As I was leaving, he simply said: ‘Aap chaliye, main aata hoon’. I laughed, as did he, and I never thought anymore about the comment, until a few months after I reached that beautiful island, I was informed that the PM would be coming on an official visit to Cyprus! I knew from official records that such a visit was not on the anvil. The simple truth was that, whenever the PM goes for the UN General Assembly session in New York every year in September-October, his plane needs to land somewhere enroute to refuel. That halt, if the PM so desires, gets converted into a short official visit to the country where the halt is made. That year, Atal ji said: ‘Cyprus mein kyun na ruk jaayein’.

For me, his coming was a matter of deep personal happiness. On the day he came, I arranged for him to address a crowd of around 2000 young Indian IT professionals who were working in the many offshore international firms in Cyprus. Just before the function, he asked me: ‘Kya mujhe kuch bolna bhi padega?’. I told him that that was precisely what the huge crowd was looking forward to. He was a little tired after the journey. By Indian time, it was past 10 pm when the function began. But, as we came to the venue and he saw the hugely appreciative crowd, he visibly perked up. Speaking, as usual, extempore, he spoke for close to an hour to an absolutely spellbound audience.

He stayed in Cyprus for two days, and apart from all the official paraphernalia of the visit, we had—for he loved good food—some wonderful meals together. It was a great privilege to talk with him and understand his mind. There was not a whiff of bigotry in his thinking. His spirit was eclectic, his patriotism transparent, and his worldview suffused with a rare idealism. But, in all of this, there was always that irrepressible humour. Once his foster daughter, Namita, told me that Baapji—as Atalji was fondly called—told her that it would be nice if I could write some of his written speeches. ‘But, perhaps, Pavanji is annoyed with my party’, Atalji said. ‘Please tell him’, he quickly quipped, ‘I am not happy with my party either!’

Atalji was the great synthesizer. He could win over even his most trenchant critic, not by Machiavellian manipulation, but by his effortlessly disarming and inclusive personality. It was because of his insistence that I became the first foreign service officer to be appointed Director of The Nehru Centre in London. Even today, one of my most treasured possessions is a signed copy of ’21 Poems’, where—with his usual humility and grace—he wrote in his own hand: ‘Pavan has translated my poems and made them more meaningful’.

(Pavan Varma, a former Indian Foreign Service officer, is the national general secretary of the Janata Dal - United)

First Published: Aug 16, 2018 17:39 IST