He Never Tired, Never Retired: A Journalist Remembers Vajpayee

Mrinal Pande writes about her interactions with former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

3 min read
Letters written to Mrinal Pande by former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee. (Photo: <b>The Quint</b>)

Atal ji and Dharmvir Bharati, my mentor and fellow editor of the Hindi weekly Dharmyug, shared their birthdays on the 25th of December.

Bharati ji helped me cut my editorial teeth on journalism at The Times of India and introduced me to the poems of Qaidi Kavi Rai, a pseudonym that Atal Bihari Vajpeyi had adopted post Emergency when he was jailed.

Later I published Atal ji’s poems in the weekly, Saptahik Hindustan but this was all before I met him in person. The letters accompanying his poems were simple, full of a gentle, self-deprecating humour and comradely jibes at the editorial flaws, which were rare in Hindi authors, rarer still in seasoned politicians.


Confessions of a Journalist

As an editor and a reader, you want your politician writers to be genuinely inspirational. As a journalist, however, you publish an eminent public figure’s writings largely because you also hope for their works to generate drama, and if possible, hint discreetly at facts clinging to the dark underbelly of politics .

All very shameful, I now confess, as I sit at my computer and write these lines for someone I deeply admire as a human being. There was a confessional tone in his poem Kshama Yachna in which he apologised to Mahatma Gandhi and JP for having failed them, as a new coalition formed along their principles. That, perhaps, attracted my editorial attention more than the genuine pain he must have felt when he wrote.

I also confess to having shrugged off a deep personal sense of loss behind his poem Oonchayi, that begins by saying that the world now needs tall leaders, not pygmies, and ends with an appeal to God not to award him so large a persona that no grass grew under him, nor could the buds bloom in his garden.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee speaks during a news conference in the eastern Indian university town of Shantiniketan, 150 km (93 miles) northwest of Calcutta April 2, 2004. (Photo: Reuters)  &nbsp;
Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee speaks during a news conference in the eastern Indian university town of Shantiniketan, 150 km (93 miles) northwest of Calcutta April 2, 2004. (Photo: Reuters)  

A Man of Strength

Atal ji as a poet was perhaps a modernist, but not a post-modernist. His poems are earnest, but there is also a certain shy playfulness about them. While he was being needlessly pilloried by his own, I once misheard him recite one of his well known poems; Haar nahin manunga, Raar nahin thanunga.. (I shall not quit, I shall not start a fight). I wrote a piece asking how can a leader like him capitulate and say he will not quit but also not fight back ?

Suddenly, on a Sunday afternoon, I got a phone call.

Mrinal ji? Main Atal Bihari bol raha hoon.” (Mrinal ji, this is Atal Bihari speaking).

I nearly fell off my chair.

He went on to tell me, “You misheard me. I wanted you to know that I do not believe in throwing down my weapons. The actual word is not nahin but nayi...Raar nayi thanoonga, (I shall begin a new fight).

When he came out with his famous ironical retort, “Na toh tired na retired, bus Advani ji ke netritva mein vijay ki ore prasthan!”, I understood that the man knew how to start a whole new war.

Wishing the former Prime Minister a very happy birthday. The likes of him, we shall, perhaps, never see again.

(Mrinal Pande is a veteran journalist and author. This piece was edited for length.)

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