Tears, laughter, poetry, music – this was how his beloved JNU students and his daughter bade goodbye to the rebel poet – Vidrohi.
He died as he had lived – surrounded by students out on a protest march.
When I came to JNU today to bid Vidrohi farewell, there were hundreds of students and JNU alumni from several generations around, their eyes brimming, throats choked. A friend who came up to exchange a comforting hug said, “It just feels like he’ll appear somewhere in this crowd, any minute.”
No protest – whether it was a sedate public meeting, a dharna at Jantar Mantar or a ding-dong battle with the cops – was imaginable in JNU or in Delhi, without Vidrohi’s presence and his gravelly voice, reciting poetry or responding to slogans or telling the cops some home truths spiked with an earthy curse or two.
His poetry was like a flowing river – rushing fast, and yet with a controlled power. In fact, as some of us told each other today, Vidrohi’s life displayed discipline only in two areas: he would never, ever, miss a protest; and he crafted his poetry with as much care and control as any poet ever did.
He was thoroughly irreverent, ready to cut down to size every form of power – be it the State, priests, or the gods, or death itself. This is what he said about his own death:
I too will die, so will Bharat-Bhagya-Vidhata
Even Jana-Gana-Mana-Adhinayak has to die
But I wish Jana-Gana-Mana-Adhinayak dies first
Then Bharat-Bhagya-Vidhata dies
Then dies the uncle of saints
In other words I want everybody to die first
Then I die, there where spring grows, in peace
When milk sprouts from corn, mangoes bloom
Or when the Mahua oozes its ambrosia
And when the tendrils grow
Beside the river my pyre will glare fragrantly
And friends shall jest
How formidable a poet was Vidrohi
Who put everyone to death before he died.
© Translated by Manash Bhattacharjee
Vidrohi did not take himself very seriously – but he took poetry very seriously. He asked JNU students to take care of his needs – as a matter of right. ‘I’m your poet, protect me,’ he said. He chose never to write down his poetry – he declaimed it in the characteristic tone of his native Sultanpur. Vidrohi was fiercely attached to revolutionary politics – and he knew that people could not sup on slogans and speeches alone; they needed poetry as they needed food. That’s what drew him to every protest, where without fail, he would recite his poetry.
Women peopled Vidrohi’s poetry as they do Eduardo Galeano’s prose – he saw the world, its history and geography through the eyes of his foremothers and his daughter.
I think, and can’t stop thinking,
What, after all, is the reason
That a woman’s burnt corpse
And scattered human bones lie
At the threshold of every ancient civilization
Hearing his daughter speak of her father at JNU today, I recalled his words:
I would have killed myself
Near that woman’s burnt corpse
If I didn’t have a daughter …
But that daughter,
Papa why do you get emotional
About us girls? It’s futile,
We girls are logs
To be laid out on the stove when we\re grown.
At marriages, I’ve heard women sing songs about Sita’s wedding. Fathers give away daughters, quoting from the Ramayana ‘Here is Sita my daughter, henceforth your companion; take her hand in yours.’ I’ve heard the songs sung by the women of Mithila too, asking their fathers to get them any husband, anyone at all, but not one like Rama. Sita’s story spoke to Vidrohi too:
And a dead prince
Becomes the son-in-law of the whole country –
Is given the licence to barter away Sitas.
Sitas are tied to white beards
And in the scriptures,
Grasses get pregnant.
Violence against women, in Vidrohi’s poetry, took on a domestic, pedestrian character – it was an everyday family affair, as it is in real life:
The first murder of a woman in history,
Was committed by a son on his father’s orders.
Jamadagni said O Parashuram!
I say to you kill your mother –
And Parashuram did so.
And just like that, the son became the father’s
And patriarchy came into being.
His poem, ‘Women’ was a comment on how the records and the courts tend to belie the truth of gendered violence.
Of their own will
Drowned themselves in wells –
That’s lodged in the police records.
And some women
Burnt themselves in the funeral pyre –
That’s written in the scriptures.
I‘m a poet
One day I’ll summon
Both police and priest together
In the women’s court
And abolish all the courts in between…
Abolish also the claims
That the gentlemen
Have presented against the women and children.
…I’ll bring alive
Those women who drowned in wells and burnt on pyres
And once again record their testimonies
To make sure nothing is left out
Nothing is forgotten
Because I know of that woman
Who cramped her seven-span body
In her one-span yard all her life
And never once even peered outside.
And when she did come out
It wasn’t a woman but her corpse that came out,
That spread everywhere in the open
Like Mother Earth.
A woman’s corpse is like Mother Earth
My friends –
That spreads everywhere
From the police stations to the courtrooms.
I think of Bastar and Muzaffarnagar and Bathani Tola and Shopian when I hear Vidrohi’s voice say:
I see that
All evidence of oppression is being erased.
The priest with his sandal-smeared forehead,
The soldier whose chests swell with weapons
All say praise the King.
I’ve seen the eyes of women from the Delhi slums and villages of Bihar and UP attending dharnas in Delhi, light up when they heard Vidrohi recite his poems: he looked as though he were confiding in them, and they in him.
Vidrohi’s poem ‘Noor Miyan’ is an ode to a lost era of innocence and harmony. His grandmother, he recalls, counted on Noor Miyan’s surma to keep her eyes young as a girl’s. But Noor Miyan went away to Pakistan, when the country was torn by the Partition, and the grandson wonders how it is that Noor Miyan had ‘no one left here.’ ‘Were we no one? Were we not his people?’ he wonders. And when he commits his grandmother’s ashes to the river, he likes to think:
the river’s not a river but
my grandmother’s eyes
and the ashes aren’t ashes but Noor Miyan’s surma
that I’m applying once more in my grandmother’s eyes.
And that poem, so personal and intimate, speaks to us all. Right at the beginning Vidrohiji says, “Today you may use ‘Victoria’ brand kajal or ‘Sadhvi Rithambara’ brand anjan, but the real thing, that only Noor Miyan could make.” That deft reference to the market of communal hatred puts into poignant perspective the memory of the trust that lived between his grandmother and Noor Miyan.
I was amused today to read, among many insightful tributes to Vidrohi, one piece by a student who read in Vidrohi’s ragged appearance, a story of supposed neglect by the JNU community. I smiled, though, because that author did recount how Vidrohi told him off sharply for his patronizing manner and his attempts at ‘charity.’ Vidrohi felt anything but neglected or betrayed by JNU students – he demanded all that he needed from JNU students as his right. Woe betide anyone who failed to recognize that and tried to pity or patronize him – they would get the abrasive end of his tongue for sure! Ever since I knew him (in the mid-1990s) he always had a home in the JNUSU office. The JNU authorities waged a losing battle to evict him from the campus – but without fail, the students would ensure he was back. His irreverence and anger were directed at rulers, at institutions, at oppressors. Students, especially Left activists, were always his comrades, his chosen and lifelong companions.
On a Facebook page on Vidrohi, run by students, I was amused to read a January 2013 post that said, “Seeing Vidrohi walk barefoot in the bitter cold, a Palestinian student Shadi asked him, “Where have your shoes gone?’ Vidrohi replied, ‘In that last protest, I took them off and flung them at the cops!” That was Vidrohi!
Vidrohiji, the tears in hundreds of youthful eyes today, and the slogans of all those young voices of students, including some I met from Hyderabad and Kolkata and Uttarakhand who had only heard of you today, are the best tribute to you. You’ll always be found in your usual haunts – around the rocks and trees and dhabas of JNU and the JNUSU office. And above all, you’ll always be found among the protesters, the rebels. Today, you too were among the students who, having bade you goodbye, were beaten black and blue by the police at Parliament Street.