By Manindra Nath Thakur
Translated by Priyanka Yadav
“Vidrohi”- the famous revolutionary poet! Last evening, I heard the news of his demise…it was heart-wrenching, not only because he was ‘Vidrohi’ but because of the personal attachment I had developed with him ever since I met him.
Rama Shankar Yadav or Vidhrohi, as he was popularly known by everyone both inside and outside JNU campus, wasn’t an ordinary man as he couldn’t fit into the popular definition of ‘the ordinary’.
He devoted his entire life challenging the ideas and conventional norms of JNU through his poetry.
It was last evening when I was informed about his demise through my Facebook newsfeed. It was filled with several posts by students, teachers and many other people who shared their grief as they mourned; such was people’s admiration for him.
For a moment, I couldn’t believe my eyes as it was just yesterday while passing through the bookstore I saw him sitting nearby, lost in his own world, as he always was. It seemed he was trying to capture every picture through the lens of his eyes before breathing his last, as if he had the premonition that it was now time to go and rest in peace forever.
I tried to divert his attention towards me, thus kept waving, but he seemed to be too busy collecting memories and I had to move ahead without meeting him, as I too was in a hurry that day.
But now I regret, regret not having stopped, maybe I could have made a little extra effort and met him for that one last time, maybe… but alas, that was not to happen!
I remember when I joined the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, I saw this not so ordinary man, sitting near the library canteen. I was there with a colleague. He caught my attention through his strange behaviour: he was busy murmuring. When I went closer and listened to him carefully, I realized that he was busy abusing somebody.
Shabby hair, dirty, tattered clothes, and half-grown beard and a careless behaviour: this is what he looked like! He was sitting on a rock, looking towards the sky…pondering…oblivious of the surroundings and continuously murmuring to himself.
A very good friend of mine quite often asks me, “What is that appeals me so much about such strange people? Why do I take so much interest in knowing them? Why do I need to know them precisely?”
My humble reply to this friend has always been: “The uniqueness in their non-ordinary life is the reason for my attraction. Every such person has an element of extraordinary quality in their personality and that appeals to me. Those who claim to be normal, even they possess an element of abnormality which remains obscure in their continued efforts to look normal.”
After that day, whenever I saw Vidrohi near the canteen, I wanted to know about him. My curiosity grew and this time I wanted to understand him. Thus I started making informal inquiries about him through friends and colleagues. But to my dissatisfaction, I could extract nothing but the fact that he was Vidrohi, the famous poet of JNU.
Ever since that day, I could spot Vidrohi anywhere and everywhere in the campus, near the library, near Ganga Dhaba, Mamu’s Dhaba or sometimes near 24*7 restaurant, with a threadbare blanket on his shoulder, wearing an almost-torn shirt and trousers and shoddy chappals, walking or sitting silently, as if mourning every time. As days passed by, I could gather more information about him and, finally, one day – it was early morning in winter, I remember having seen him sitting at 24*7 restaurants – I grabbed the opportunity of having a cup of tea with him without much thought. I often keep repeating these lines from his poem, “Reading through the day…writing all night, is it life or a project?”
I began my conversation by reciting these lines intending to get the answers to all my curious questions. I asked, “How are you Vidrohi ji? Is everything good with you?”
The kind of man he was, with a capacity to look and sense beyond the obvious, he realized that the question I asked was not as direct as it seemed. He understood the unspoken and the hidden question behind my simple pleasantries. He could gather that I wanted to know about his unusual life and behaviour; what it is that made him the man that he was.
Before long, he replied, “I am good, Doctor sahib! Perfectly alright. My life has become successful and now I am satisfied.”
For a moment, I could not understand him. I could not understand how he asserted himself to be successful as he was nowhere matching the standards of success set by the society – the material standards! It troubled me and it put me into an emotional and psychological conundrum.
Trying to find an answer I looked into his eyes more closely with great anticipation and excitement. As our conversation developed…moment after moment…question after question…the puzzle called Vidrohi started to unravel. I saw my questions getting answered. He said, “Doctor sahib! My journey began as a student of M.A. at the Hindi department, JNU. Everything was smooth in the beginning and even after, till a question struck my mind, ‘Why does the institution (JNU) follow a written model of examination for evaluating a poet like me?’” I was aware by now that he never believed in the idea of scripting anything).
The dissatisfaction or displeasure of written mode of examination made him challenge the rationale of evaluation by the university, following which he was debarred from the same.
Vidrohi further added, “Since that day I took a pledge, a pledge to change the conventional, yet limited, ideology of the system, as according to me, it restricted the growth of an individual.”
During our conversation, I could sense a firm resolve in his voice, a resolution which he carried with himself through the years. Years must have passed by. He was definitely aging but the resolve was fresh and it continued to remain the same. Even while talking to me, he was lost somewhere back in time, probably in those days, when all his ideas had started taking shape.
He was used sleeping right beneath the sky in those chilly December winters but he never looked fatigued. A unique sense of victory reflected on his face every time. Only an institution like JNU could accommodate and venerate such a bohemian poet. Even the canteenwalas would never ask for money; such is the uniqueness of this institution. And thus JNU gave the much needed fertile ground for Vidrohi’s poetry to flourish.
Our conversation extended over another cup of tea. Further, I said, “Vidrohi, I don’t understand how you could assert yourself to be successful since there has been no visible change in the cause which you have been fighting for?” He said, “Doctor sahib, the system can never change so soon. I do not want to change it either! Respect and recognition towards my way of living and doing is all that I seek, nothing else do I need. And yes, I believe I was successful in achieving this recognition, as I never scripted any of my verses, nor did I ever publish any of my work. It is the problem of this system which does not let you simply speak; it wants you to write and publish and this is what I don’t want! A poet should be left alone to think and not get into all this!”
Vidrohi never believed in the idea of writing. He was an effective communicator. He wanted to speak and present his work in front of a live audience. He was a poet who wanted to communicate his ideas through spoken words and not through his pen, and this he believed was the essence of a good poet. His ideas left me impressed: the definition of a poet given by him seemed quite fundamental to me, especially at a time when poetry is reduced to just a business.
In an effort to probe further, I asked him, “How can you be so sure that people have accepted your vision?” To this, his reply was, “My battle was half won the day when the BBC decided to make a documentary on my story, as we know that there is no poet so far whose life has been documented this way. I never made any effort for this as I have barely had any contacts with media person nor do I interact with them. Rather, it is they who came to me! The BBC’s decision to cover my story gave me a sense of satisfaction that my ideas are accepted somewhere and further it will be propagated and may be accepted again. I can still be a poet without writing and this is not an unnecessary demand!
“I simply wanted people to understand that there can be different forms of expression – written or verbal – and these forms should be accepted as well as respected. For that matter, life can also be lived in different ways but what is important is the need to understand and respect an individual’s choice and his way of living.”
At this point, I totally agreed with Vidrohi, since I shared a similar belief. The norms and criteria set by society to map an individual’s position irritate me quite often. It is not only limited but seems unfair, too. And here Gandhi’s notion of Swaraj supports our belief that an individual should be left free, free to decide and choose because he becomes responsible for his own actions and towards the world by doing so. Further, an individual’s choice should also be respected because it is his own, taken by him, for the sake of his own life.
Freedom of one person becomes a condition for the freedom of all and an individual should be respected as a human being. Even philosophers of science have started believing that there are different modes of living and it is the plurality of different forms of existence that makes the world beautiful. Therefore, there can be no justification for the universal theory of the art of living.
Vidrohi said that Gandhi had a huge impact on his life. When he was in his II grade, he had read it somewhere, as he recalled, that there were two tools for life propagated by Gandhi: truth and fraternity. And these tools have been Vidrohi’s principles in life since then. Again, in his IV grade, he came across few lines written on Gandhi whose essence was that Gandhi collaborated with Birla; he became an agent of the capitalist forces. But Vidrohi’s heart did not accept this. Rather, he believed that Gandhi’s followers ditched him and maybe it was they, who collaborated with the capitalist class under Gandhi’s name.
This conversation helped me in knowing the fact that the revolutionary poet called Vidrohi was also a Gandhian.
I was happy to see that the argument which I have been making about the need for a dialogue between Gandhi, Marx, and Ambedkar was more concretely reflected in his ideas.
I was curious to know if his poetry impacted those people’s life for whom he wrote.
His replied, “I do not care about it. I just do my duty as a poet and I am satisfied with it. My poems are not meant for a show or a charity function. I recite for the people; they are the masses to be encouraged and motivated. And sometimes I write to make them understand. Students of JNU have heard me; they have heard me a lot. Some of my poems are based on the protests which these students have carried out. This way I seem to be serving a purpose for them. This is what I need for myself to keep going…” His reply deepened my sense of respect for him.
I never thought that this strange looking man can be a revolutionary philosopher, sensitive like Nietzsche, with a revolution in his mind and calmness in his attitude! Revolution was hidden behind his silence.
I was keen to know his personal life. Since there were rumors about it – some said, he was single, some even said that there was a lady who visited him once in a while, served him food and changed his clothes – but these stories were mostly made up here and there. I looked at Vidrohi with my questioning eyes and asked him about his personal life. He answered, “I am happy, especially today, as yesterday I got the news that I am a grandfather now. Dr. Sahab, as you can understand and maybe will also agree with me that it is very delightful to see your sons and daughters becoming parents, when you are still alive! Earlier I had thought that maybe I neglected my family in the course of my struggle but this news has delighted me and has also given me immense pleasure because I can see my family flourishing.”
Vidrohi’s sensitivity towards his family was both surprising and appealing to me. One of his poems based on women’s plight in our country seemed understandable to me now. He wrote, “The first woman to be burnt, although I do not know her, was my mother and the last woman who will be burnt, I do not know her either, will be my daughter and I will not let this happen.”
These lines reflecting his philosophy and resolve soon became my catch-phrase. I can never forget that winter morning which helped me bond with him so strongly. Vidrohi’s life stands as a message for them, who look at it as a project which it is not, nor it can be.
Vidrohi stood as an inspiration to me. Therefore, I thought of compiling his poetry but none of his verses was written anywhere; so it was difficult. And one fine day, I came across a student group who made the effort of compiling all his poetry so that he could be celebrated across time. They also made some of his videos available on the YouTube. For this, I will remain thankful to the student group forever. Vidrohi was a poet of the masses in the true sense, which was evident during his last rites attended by a huge crowd.
“Red salute to comrade Vidrohi” – could be heard everywhere as his pyre was taken away. I felt that day that a poet like Vidrohi can be respected in these times, too. There is still hope! Our society needs more poets like him.
His funeral procession was a successful illustration of Gandhi’s words: “My life is my message.”
Dr. Manindra Nath Thakur is associate professor at the CPS, JNU. Priyanka Yadav is an MPhil research scholar at the CPS, JNU.
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