The Vajpayee I knew: Witty and wise
Sharing a family name with Atal Behari Vajpayee has been a matter of pride but I was not related to him.
However, growing up in a politically tuned family in northern India, I had the opportunity to know him in the days when he was evolving into the towering statesman that he eventually became.
Vajpayee belonged to an era of leaders who were almost heroic in their idealism – simple, approachable and nurtured by an earthy attachment to the soil they grew up in.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee while visiting the Mysuru Palace as a parliamentarian.
I specially recall the first meeting with him at the home of Piyush Goyal, the current Indian railways minister, in Mumbai’s Sion. Vajpayee always stayed with the Goyal family in Mumbai and the now-cabinet minister was a precocious school-going boy then with a contagious nickname – Happy!
I was waiting with my dad in the living room with a lot of other party members for Vajpayee to make his entry when we had a septuagenarian walk in and fall at my dad’s feet in obeisance. My dad always wore a dhoti and silk kurta and had a close resemblance to Vajpayee. The incident was embarrassing to the gentleman but Vajpayee, who was closely following behind guffawed loudly and the tension just melted.
Left: the author’s father, the late Shashi Bhushan Bajpai. Right: Atal Bihari Vajpayee.— Supplied and PTI
For me, a young school girl wary of pompous politicians, this was the most unorthodox introduction and an immediate ice breaker. He vigorously shook my hand and I found myself smiling and warming up to his informal demeanor.
He met us all (we are five sisters) and immediately dubbed us “Bajpai Bhagini” – the Bajpai sisters. From then on whenever he met one of us, he knew we were one of the gang . He was so endearing with his sparkling wit and humor that for us he was someone from the family.
Personal birthday cards
On his birthday on December 25, we would draw birthday cards for him.
I recall during one of his Mumbai visits on his birthday, walking into the airport and handing him our hand drawn card very proudly. He gave his characteristic guffaw but was clearly trying to conceal the fact that he was deeply touched.
He was a deeply sensitive man who wrote amazing poems, especially memorable are the ones he wrote from his cell during the emergency in India in 1975, when he was jailed for a year. Geet Nahin Gaata Hoon (I do not have a song to hum) and Kya Khoya Kya Paaya Is Jag Main (Things I have lost and gained in this world).
In one instance, I remember walking into his living room at New Delhi’s Raisina Hills in the late nineties and finding him sobbing. He was watching the climax of a Dilip Kumar movie, probably Dev Das, and was so moved. To me, that was an endearing image of a man who was a connoisseur of performing arts and the movies.
My dad often narrated the story of how Vajpayee, originally from Gwalior, studied along with his dad in DAV college Kanpur with the two sharing a room at the hostel. This was the example my dad often gave when he talked about enrolling in college to pursue a masters’ degree and we would try to discourage him.
His rallies were not be missed
Immediately after the Emergency in 1975, the Janata Party was formed and there were a flurry of election rallies in 1976-77 before the polls: the beginning of a new front against the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
As a 10-year-old, I felt indignant and got involved with the poll process because I had felt orphaned when my mother had offered satyagraha and was jailed during the Emergency. I was unwittingly drawn to the pre-poll campaign and Vajpayee was the biggest draw at the rallies – not one could be missed.
He had the gift of smart repartee that would deliver a retort without any bad blood and make his opposition smile, too. During one such speech, he referred to Indira Gandhi’s disdain for Janata Party alliance, which she had dubbed as a “Khichdi” (A bland rice and lentil broth), a taste that the masses would never cultivate. Vajpayee during his speech countered it: “Well, we are so sick of the regular diet of halwa (rich fried dessert) that the Congress party has been doling out for so many years, that people now need khichdi to ease out!”
It is hardly a surprise that the Janata Party won a landslide victory in 1977.
The making of BJP
The most exciting time was during the birth of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) at the 1980 convocation held in Mumbai.
The entire think tank – including Vajpayee, Murli Manohar Joshi, LK Advani and other BJP stalwarts – were camping in Mumbai and at the cavernous tents in Reclamation Area in Mahim.
The party manifesto and election symbol of Lotus were being created.
Living close by in Bandra, we often plied home-made food to the team. Vajpayee was particularly fond of my mother’s authentic North Indian cooking – especially the typical North Indian style dal tempered with cumin and asofoetida.
There were numerous instances when he took us out for dinner. He was a foodie who loved spicy chicken and fish curry as much as crisp dosas and sambhar vada.
He was an absolute delight to watch on stage as he rattled out poetry, witty repartee and quotes spontaneously, sometimes standing with closed eyes for minutes before letting out a witty line that had the audience roaring with laughter.
Voted out for onions!
I recall one instance with clarity. This was after the split and debacle of the Janata Party. When polls were announced, one of the most pertinent issues was rising prices of essential commodities – especially the humble yet staple onion. Vajpayee began his speech thus: “So you voted us out because of onions?” After a long pause, he added: “Ab khao pyaaj! (So now have as much of onions as you want!)
The audience was in splits.
Vajpayee continued to be popular even after the debacle of BJP: Who can forget his oratory during the historic no-confidence motion in 1999 where he lost by one vote?
I continued to visit him with my family at his Raisina Hills residence on his birthday.
In this December 25, 2009, picture Vajpayee is seen with his grand-daughter on his 85th birthday, in New Delhi. — PTI
Moving to Dubai 20 years ago made the geographical distances too difficult to bridge, and when senility set in during his late eighties, he could hardly recall people.
The signs were there much earlier – when during his speeches in the late nineties he often paused for long with his eyes closed struggling for the right repartee.
I will always remember Atalji – as we fondly called him – as a giant among politicians, invincible in his dedication and passion to his country, with an unparalleled wit, grace and poise that won him friends from all sides of the political divide.
I have crossed swords with Death
– By Atal Bihari Vajpayee
I have crossed swords with Death
To struggle with it was not my intention,
To meet it round the corner was not a promise it held,
But when it stood obstructing my path,
I knew it had grown larger than my life,
What is the age of Death, not even two seconds,
But life is an eternity, that hasn’t sprung momentarily,
I have lived my life to the brim, and I will not die within,
I will return, so why fear this momentary retreat?
(Death) don’t come on tiptoes don’t creep stealthily ,
Accost me, attack me, try me out to my face
Unmindful of Death , life spins its eternal journey
The evening turns golden and the music of the night deepens
It not that I don’t feel the pain of hurt from others
But I don’t nurse any grudge against others
Was overwhelmed with love from strangers
That I hold no hurt from loved ones
I have met every challenge
Upheld a million flickering flames in storms
Today this terrifying tempest shakes my roots
My boat rocks in the throes of whirlpools
But I am determined to go across
Riding every ruffle of the tempest with a matching frown on my brow!
For I have crossed swords with Death !
– This poem was written in 1998 when Atal Behari Vajpayee was afflicted with kidney disease and travelled to the US for treatment. The experience made him think about his mortality. Translated by Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhury