Just Like That | Poet and statesman, unstained by politics
Former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee was, indeed, a statesman who was also a great human being, far above the coarseness of politics.
I got to know Atal Bihari Vajpayee only after he became the Prime Minister (PM). One day, as joint secretary (Africa), I was at his residence for a meeting with the legendary Nelson Mandela. As we waited for Mandela to come, it seemed that Atalji had dozed off. But suddenly, his eyes opened, and looking straight at me he said: “Woh tasveer toh purani hai (That picture is an old one).”
I was flummoxed. Was he speaking to me? But when he repeated his remark, I realised he was. I was clueless, wondering how to respond. After a pause, he continued: “Shabana ne mujhe di thi. Mere sirhane rakhi hai. Main padh raha hoon (Shabana had given it to me. It is kept next to my bed. These days I am reading it).”
I realised then that he was talking about the book of poems of Kaifi Azmi, which I had translated into English. Shabana Azmi, his daughter, must have given him a copy, and the cover photo of Kaifi Azmi he was referring to was of a much younger Kaifi, and, therefore, “purani”! Soon after that, I got to know that Atalji wanted me to translate his own poems into English. When I received a call to see him, and he made the request, I was prepared with my response. “Sir, I would be honoured to do so, but I have three conditions.”
“Kahiye (tell me),” he said. “Sir, I would not like to translate your political poems, the choice of the personal poems would be mine, and you must not say a final yes until you have seen some of my translations.” In retrospect, I think it was rather audacious of me, but I was responding not as a mere joint secretary but as a writer. However, Atalji did not in the least take umbrage. In fact, with a smile that lit up his face, he said: “Manzoor hai (agreed).”
And thus began a very cherished association. His original book, “Ekyavan Kavitayen” (51 Poems), was pared down by me to a volume called “21 Poems” and he did not once object.
At the launch of the book, on his birthday on December 25, 2001, I was privileged to be seated on stage along with Atalji, former PMs VP Singh, PV Narasimha Rao, IK Gujral and deputy PM, Lal Krishna Advani. One of my most treasured possessions is what Atalji wrote in his own hand on my copy of the book: “Pavan has translated my poems and made them more meaningful.”
Atalji’s sense of humour was legendary. I once met Namita, his foster daughter, at a dinner, and she said: “Baapji (as Atalji was called) was saying that if Pavan would write some of my speeches, it would make me happy. But perhaps he does not like my party. Toh unse kehna, mujhe kaun si pasand hai (Tell him that neither do I).” Of course, he did not mean what he said. He was a committed soldier of the party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), but it was just his personality that he could, despite his unquestionable loyalties, light-heartedly joke about them.
Rajat Sharma of Aap Ki Adalat fame recalled to me that as PM, Atalji came to his show. After the recording, he told Rajat that he was not khush (happy) with him and that he should see him.
A worried Rajat sought an appointment immediately. When they met, Atalji told him that he was unhappy because Rajat had not asked him the tough questions, which as a journalist he should have. When I was leaving on posting as high commissioner to Cyprus, I went to say goodbye to Atalji. With an enigmatic smile he said: “Aap chaliye, main aata hoon (You leave, I shall follow)”. I did not take the remark seriously, but soon thereafter he actually came on an official trip to Cyprus! No such visit was due, and the Cypriots were as surprised as they were delighted. We spent a wonderful two days together.
He was, indeed, a statesman who was also a great human being, far above the coarseness of politics.
Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers. The views expressed are personal