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

India Today - - THE LEGACY OF VAJPAYEE - By Pa­van K. Varma

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


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

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