HIS FIRST LOVE,
poetry, lent Vajpayee’s political persona an ineffable charisma. The poet’s brooding aloofness almost gave the lie to his all-too transparent love of life, his ready wit, his infectious gregariousness and his great joy in hosting grand culinary feasts for
There was a personality dichotomy in Atalji which, sometimes, even those who knew him very closely could not fathom. Was he, when interacting with them, wearing the headgear of a poet or the hat of a politician? The question may appear unnecessary or even facetious. But, in the case of Atalji, it was an enduring reality. And, often, what he said as a politician was at variance with what he wrote as a poet. How then was one to know which part of him—poet or politician—was dominant at any one moment of time?
Nothing brings this out more vividly then his poetry. For instance, a man who led the BJP campaign in 2004 on the slogan of ‘India Shining’ was the same man who had the honesty to write:
Dharmaraj has not overcome His addiction to dice.
In every panchayat Draupadi is robbed of her honour. Without Krishna
The Mahabharata will be fought, No matter who claims the throne, The poor will continue to suffer.
In his Author’s Note to the book 21 Poems, in which I have translated his poems into English, he writes: ‘Some friends say that had I not been a politician, I would have been 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.’ Frankly—and Atalji is no longer there to contradict me—I don’t agree with him. Perhaps, the overwhelming preoccupations of a politician made him write less, but the poet in him remained forever present. His poetry was not about linguistic dexterity but transparent sincerity, devoid of complex imagery, but replete with simple humaneness.
That is why, on that memorable evening, when I met him at the PM’s residence and he asked me if I would translate his poems into English, I put a condition. It was an audacious thing for a junior joint secretary in the external affairs ministry to do, for the request was from no one less than the PM. But, the greatness of Atalji was that he was talking to me then not as the PM of India, but as a poet, and I was responding not as a bureaucrat, but as a writer. I said I would like to translate his personal poetry, those he had written not from the pedestal of a politician but from his heart, as one aware of the mortality of life. It was his humility, as always accompanied by that remarkable twinkle in his eyes, that he readily agreed.
These personal poems reveal the real Atalji. In the midst of the pomp and pageantry of power, and the adulation and sycophancy it attracts, only he could write: ‘Sometimes I
OFTEN WHAT ATALJI SAID AS A POLITICIAN WAS AT ODDS WITH WHAT HE WROTE AS A POET
am overcome by the urge to leave it all behind and lose myself in books, writing and thought. But I have been unable to do that. I have lived over seven decades in this dilemma, and what is left of my life will probably be spent no differently.’
This perennial ‘dilemma’ is what made Atalji such a remarkable human being. The details of the statesman are known; chronologies of the great are always in the public domain. But, what about the inner journey, the subterranean persona, the real person behind the public image? There was, undoubtedly, a certain brooding aloofness about him, mostly successfully camouflaged by his transparent love of life. He was an aesthete who had time for the creativity in others; he had a hearty laugh, a ready wit and an infectious gregariousness in the right company. Above all, he loved good food. A meal with him was a real treat, where he was like a benevolent culinary pope presiding over a never-ending supper. The last breakfast I had with him had a menu of South Indian food, eggs and toast, puri and paranthas, as also the mithais he loved.
And yet, he was a loner. That loneliness gave him a conscience, a transcendence to power, a sense of detachment and a courage of conviction irrespective of the consequences. In a poem, titled ‘Peace of Mind’, he, in a way, writes his own epitaph:
On the occasion of that final journey,
At the moment of parting, When all bonds begin to give way, When the body too is no longer one’s own,
Then, free of self-reproach,
If a man can raise his hand and say
That whatever he did in life, He did because it was right,
He did it not to cause pain, But as his selfless karma,
Then his existence has meaning, His life has been successful.
Pavan K. Varma is a former diplomat, author and JD(U) leader
Atal Bihari Vajpayee addresses a Janata Party rally in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk in November 1979