It’s been 10 long years, since my grandfather VP Singh passed away in 2008. As pyre burned on the ghats of Allahabad, India had lost her last socialist son and I lost out on the last chance to say a final good bye.
Barely eighteen then, I gazed at the cremation ghats where millions of people, along with military bands and politicians had come to pay their last respects to the Mandal Messiah.It was the first time after his death, I felt the enormity of VP Singh.
Between Gaharvaar Thakur “Kayda”/ etiquettes, boarding schools and Singh’s rapidly deteriorating health, we barely had time to talk at length on “serious things”, perhaps I was too young, and he was too depleted from his physical condition.
Echoes of “Raja nahi fakir tha, desh ki Taqdir tha,” were dying out, the military band had stopped playing, but a question lingered for me. Who really was my grandfather, who was VP Singh to these people?
Why do the people, be they haters or admirers, so respect him?
Ten years ago that moment started in me a quest fto find VP Singh and receive his love through the countless lives he touched. Today as we celebrate his 87th birth anniversary, I decided to share some of the glimpses of this journey to find VP Singh.
Vishwanath Pratap Singh was the 7th prime minister of India, who went on to be known as the Mandal Messiah for his decision to implement the Mandal Commission. He came to the limelight earlier as the Mr Clean firebreand finance minister in the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet, spearheading a vigilance drive to expose and prosecute big business for illegal operations and corruption. Under pressure from the angry corporate houses, he was shifted to the Defence Ministry, Singh was not dismayed by the transfer, and quickly put his energies to clean up the defence ministry. During this time, he exposed the Bofors scandal which ultimately led to the downfall of the Rajiv Gandhi government. A master of coalition politics in 1989 he became the second non-Congress prime minister with the support of the Left and Right political parties.
One of his first moves as prime minister wasto honour B R Ambedkar with a Bharat Ratna posthumously and bring out the most farmers focused budget ever.
In a decade, I have searched for anecdotes and stories from the corridors of St Stephen College to the coast of Odisha. I came across students of my alma mater at the time who were VP Singh’s team, fought for him and then were the first to protest against his affirmative action program.
People who claimed to help him escape the violence at St Stephen College to campaign in Bihar, who rode their motorcycles along with their “Raja Bahadur” to incumbent state government ministers who stood up in respect for VP Singh even today. Most of them naturally being from league of socialist- Lohia – JP politicians and cadre who had countless stories of encounters with VP Singh.
But to really find VP Singh, I had to find an insider outside family. So the journey swerved and I found myself in a warm living room, conversing with the old purvanchi grandmaster of tales from the Indian subcontinent, Sir Mark Tully. Our family finds many mentions in his stories around India and especially in the Purvanchal area. He was a very close friend of the family and yet VP Singhs harshest critic. “Mrs. Singh told me a little after VP’s funeral, that you have been hard on my husband,” he said.
In Tully’s own words, VP Singh was “a typical Congress man, unduly loyal to the Congress party” with an “image of incorruptibility and dedication to root out corruption”.
Often in conversation with Sant Bux Singh,(Singh’s brother) he would joke that VP Singh wanted to be “Whiter than white and cleaner than clean”. Tully being a loyal friend, has unequivocally preferred Sant Bux over his brother VP Singh. In his story The Tale of Two Brothers, perhaps he has slightly overlooked VP Singh, who was inundated with passion for social justice and preferred to sacrifice family for honesty.
Well 30 years is long time to recall but I wanted to coax the white wizard of stories for two more memories, one on VP Singh’s honesty and the other on his affirmative action through Mandal Commission to put the puzzle together.
“I don’t at any point see VP Singh involved in any personal corruption,” Tully said. I questioned him further on the funding for the Janata Dal government, various corporate corruption allegations, rift with Reliance, etc and repeatedly Tully said “It was a different time then, people really believed in VP Singh. It also my belief that it was Chandra Shekhar and the rest who got money for the party. Maybe Arun Singh or Ramnath Goenka would have deeper knowledge of this. For what I know, VP Singh was an honest man.”
But what about Singh’s social justice program, the Mandal commission. Sadly most upper caste Hindus have been virulent in their attack on VP Singh. Ever year on his birth anniversary and other days too, trolls do their bit and still channelise their personal failures into hate directed against VP Singh. Instead of democracy and social justice, they dream of a supreme Hindu state under upper caste hegemony, and demand of all us Hindus to tilt our sacred swastika to 45 degrees.
Tully soon after began to remember the Indian political situation 1989-1990s. “Back then the Indian political scenario was completely controlled by the upper caste Hindus, whether it be the BJP, Congress or the left. They controlled Indian politics.”
He said that the implementation of the Mandal Commission, “transformed India politically by increasing political awareness, broke open the political dynamic of India by providing increased political power to a majority of Indians and in particular increased the power of the OBCs politicians like Mulayam Singh, Nitish Kumar, etc.”
In this journey to find VP Singh, I discovered the one truth about him. He was a principled, honest and a fair man and this determined all his action.
VP Singh was not just a politician, but a painter, a poet too. These were perhaps the only two windows into his soul. On one of the crossroads of this journey I spoke with Dr Vandana Shiva, renowned scientist and environmentalist, who still cherishes a painting given to her by Singh himself. “He was one of the most sensitive and creative soul, who was always willing to take on the tough fight for the people. Even though he was battling cancer and was on constant dialysis he had an indomitable spirit.”
“It was in the late 90s during a farmers’ rights issue, I met him and explained the matter, he immediately responded by saying we(Singh) would break the locks of the grain godowns if farmers grain is being kept from them,” Shiva remembers fondly. But she is not the brown knight of our story.
It is in fact Bhure Lal, who spent over two decades in contact with Singh, first in as the District Magistrate of Allahabad in the 1977 elections and later in the finance ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.
Talking about VP Singh, Bhure Lal remembers the Bofor scandal which brought Singh to the national forefront. “Bofor scandal was not just Rs 67 crores but much more, in fact that particular Swiss bank account had money from other deals too, VP Singh took a very bold step and exposed for the first time, massive corruption in defence deals, it was not a political stunt but the righteous thing to do,” Lal narrated sitting at his Habitat Centre office.
“Even in his tussle it was never personal. He was respectful and civil towards the Gandhi family, never naming Rajiv in any of his speeches,” Bhure Lal said.
VP Singh was a secular and honest man, for whom social justice was everything. He sacrificed everything in its pursuit. Bhure Lal was the brown knight who worked deeply with Singh. After hours of talking, Singh’s brown knight said, “Raja was a different human being, unlike any you see today. He had seen it all, and yet decided to fight the just fight. Mandal Commission led to the downfall, but he happily sacrificed his office for the people.”
Stories are too many and events countless through which one message stands out. VP Singh was truly a Gandhian rebel who changed Indian politics forever, because of his commitment to social justice and ethos of India. He saw none above it.
Singh, the last Raja of Manda, was not just a member of the 1% but was of the elite class of 0.0001%, and he choose to rebel against them, expose them and suffer eternal damnation as a consequence. His is a Promethean tragedy, who stole fire for the Human and was punished for eternity. VP Singh is that person who stole political power from the upper caste Hindus and gave it to the depressed classes. Whether the OBCs revered him or not, it didn’t matter, he did the right thing for it was his moral imperative.
Well the journey is never complete, but VP Singh remains a force of justice and hope that continues to give courage not only me, but thousands on the righteous path faced with trepidation, slander, and violence. So why is he so hated? Because VP Singh was a rebel who was successful, and engraved the defeat of the 1% upper caste Hindus in the history of India. He opened the doors of education and power to political minorities. An icon for honesty and truth and I feel his relevance in Kaliyug is only beginning grow.
(Indra Shekhar Singh, is the grandson of VP Singh and writes on agriculture, environment and culture. This article was published earlier in hecitizen.in).
INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI
By Shabbir Aariz
This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,
“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..
OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….
ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY
(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..
burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.
His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….
YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.
His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.
John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.
As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,
“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..
HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.
Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.
John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.
(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])
Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer
By Naveed Hussain
I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.
I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.
“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.
Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.
Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.
But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.
Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.
For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.
I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.
Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”
Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.
Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.
Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”
Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.
Gauhar Raza: Giving Poetry the Power to Protest
By Asheesh Mamgain
If things were different his poems would have been different, or maybe he would not have been a poet at all. But things are what they are. And that is why Gauhar Raza, the poet is writing, and it is why he writes his poetry of protest.
“Maybe I would have written about love, the beauty of nature and science. But as things stand my poetry is predominantly about resistance and protest,” said Raza, who is faithful to the tradition of resistance poetry to the extent that he has throttled, without much difficulty, the romantic and the scientist in him. “The need to write poetry always arose when something happened around me which affected me, to the core. I have never written and will never write poetry just for the sake of it.”
“The murder of Safdar Hashmi, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the killing of an activist in Afghanistan, the death of Rohith Vemula are some of those things,” he said.
Raza’s second published collection of ghazals and nazms (71 in all) came out in November 2017 and is titled Khamoshi, or Silence.
Is there a lot of anger in his poems? Yes, there is definitely a lot of anger. But then there is also hope. That is where Raza becomes special.
“For me, a poem that merely complains or rants about the injustice, violence and persecution happening all around is not enough. A poet has to go beyond this; he has to give a vision. The vision of an alternative world, of a better world. Only then will his poetry be successful and meaningful. A poet has to show the consciousness he wants to bring into society.”
So how does he define good poetry? “Well, a good poem should be able to raise the level of the reader at least one notch higher, and also give him a fresh perspective about the aspect being dealt in the poem. Something new to dwell upon,” said Raza.
The influences that shaped his poetic thought came pretty early, at home and at the Aligarh Muslim University where he studied. Raza’s father, Wizarat Hussain, worked in the education department there and was a second-generation Leftist.
“The question about the existence of God came up very early in my life and soon I became an atheist for life,” said Raza. Literature was read with passion at home and by the time he was 15 he had read all the Urdu literature available at the AMU library as well as a solid portion of Russian literature.
“During my growing years, Leftist thought had a major presence in the university. On the other hand, the fundamental forces were also steadily getting stronger. I was smitten by the leftist idea. I was part of a literary study circle, we served tea at the secret meetings of leftist groups and listened to discussions at home between my father and other intellectuals such as Irfan Habib and Iqtidar Alam Khan.”
There was a lot of churning in his mind and soon he started pouring the remnants of all that into his poems. When it comes to poetry some of Raza’s major influences have been Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. He is often seen reciting their work at length during his various lectures, with Sahir Ludhianvi’s long poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ or Shadows one of his favourites.
“Writing the kind of poetry I do is not easy. Each time a write a poem I must relive all the pain and emotion I went through when the particular incident happened that forced me to write. All those disturbing images come rushing back to me. It is a difficult thing to undergo.”
Nor is poetry Raza’s only means of reaching the people. He recently retired as chief scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is also into documentary filmmaking, his documentaries on Bhagat Singh and the 2002 Gujarat genocide being very well known.
Where does poetry stand today, as a means of communication with the reader? According to Raza, “for one, social media has helped. It has helped poets reach a wider audience. Also, the tradition of musharias and kavi sammelans (poetry meets) is still very strong in India. So even if a poet is competing with the multimedia world, it is easy to reach one’s audience with one’s poetry, provided you have something pertinent to say.”
More broadly speaking, however, “I have to say that things have progressed in a disturbing direction. A poem I wrote 20 years ago, I could rededicate it to Rohith Vemula and then to Gauri Lankesh. This disturbing trend is seen all over the world. I believe that the fall of the USSR has been a major turning point in the way our World has evolved.”
A few lines from one of his poems brings out his concern and struggle.
Mein phool khilata hoon jab bhi,
Woh baad e khizan le aate hain,
Mein geet sunata hoon jab bhi,
Yeh aag se ji bahlate hain.
Whenever I make a flower blossom
They bring the autumn wind
Whenever I sing a song
They give the soul succour with flame.
But Raza is still hopeful. “There has been a resurgence of resistance poetry in Urdu in the recent past. The trend of religious poetry in Urdu has also reduced in recent times. The youth today has become more involved in this attempt to bring a positive change. I have seen young people reading protest poetry and reacting to it. Once again universities have become a place of resistance and struggle for change.”