Some nights, the phone rings at, say, 2.30 am. It can only be him. It never occurs to me to not pick up, to keep sleeping. I reach out. I say ‘hello’. I go to the balcony.
Anything could happen now. If he is on his sixth peg, it could be a simple: yaar Juhi yaar, ye gaana sun yaar, tu ye gaana sun”. If he has had his much cherished, “a sloooow drink”, maybe he has had it two or three times, that same slow drink, then the night has to expand a bit to make room for his passion. "Ye Muhammad Rafi ko sun comrade, wo koi orfinance nahin la raha yaar, bilkul nahin, wo koi press statement nahin de rahaa…”... “Geeta Dutt kya kar rahi hai yaar, western disturbance kar rahi hai, haan, western disturbance… east mein bhi disturbance kar rahi hai, west mein bhi disturbance kar rahi hai… comrade Juhi ki kali, Geeta Dutt ko sun…”.
Then, follows that which makes the heart fuller and the wind extravagant. Chupke se mile pyaase pyaase, kucch hum, kucch tum, sighs Geeta Dutt. Or Rafi goes, Tum to dil ke taar chhed kar…. And since midnight makes one unafraid of hyperbole, I can say every time, every song, this is the most intoxicating moment of my life.
He has placed his phone next to his laptop on which the song is playing via You Tube. I can hear it clearly, and along with it I can hear his fainter accompanying hum. After such song, what digital critique?
With him I have grown up singing, Aankhon mein kya jee, and Tu zinda hai to zindagi ki jeet pe yakeen kar…. But most of all, it’s thanks to him that my earliest political memories of JNU gain a certain poise and gravitas. For it is he who brings into that world of impassioned left activism, the existential question of the enigmatic Narda.
It was the year when I had just joined University, some 25 years back. The police had arrested a Kashmiri student from one of the hostels. Angry and ablaze with slogans, all of us gathered in front of the Prime Minister’s residence protesting the student’s torture and demanding that he be released. The then PM, Chandrashekhar, said something to the effect that the police could not be expected to do their questioning with love. “Ab dekhiye, police pyaar se to poochh taachh keragi nahin”. Livid, exhausted, full of our own solemnity, but pleased to have made a point, content to have forced the Prime Minister to engage and generally alive to fight another day, we piled into a van.
I found myself squeezed next to a young man with smoky eyes, who, after preliminary introductions, a couple of comments on the situation, and a few pleasantries, solicited my views on a matter of import:
"Yaar, ye Narda hamesha nahaati kyun rehti hai? Kya chakkar hai? Mandrake kabhi nahin nahaata, Narda saara time nahaati rehti hai”.
This was true – the beautiful princess of the comic series did seem to spend an inordinate amount of time disporting by the swimming pool while Lothar and Mandrake confabulated about villains. The question is still up for answering, and often comes back to haunt our midnight conversations, a quarter of a century later.
I then found out that I had just had the pleasure of meeting the very popular ex-Students Union president. Unaffiliated to any party, his had been an independent left union, which had resigned on the issue of reservations for OBCs (the larger student body did not agree with what they saw as the union’s pro-reservation stand). His election campaign had been a triumph of imagination-capturing. “I will change you, you will change me, the whole will change itself”. It had created a western disturbance.
The western disturbance continued to create itself over the years, and it continued to rain, over many activist speeches, public lectures, pamphlets, and articles in the newspapers & magazines he wrote for and edited, and these days, Facebook posts as well. With him, stream of consciousness becomes something like breathless waterfall of consciousness. He writes of solitary trees, thirsty wells, and how our loneliness outside prison is derived from the loneliness of Soni Sori inside the prison. He asks us to identify with the collective suffering and join the resistance in its myriad forms. He writes of Camus and Ghatak and Rosa and Dostoyevsky. He writes “notes from the zigzag”, on Maila Aanchal, Sahir Ludhianvi, Werner Herzog and Walter Benjamin. Irom Sharmila, the anti-Sikh riots, Nandigram, tribal land struggles, the Gujarat carnage. Of humanism in journalism. Of dark times, true loves, bad hangovers.
“Laughter as life-affirmation; obscenity as liberation; caricature and parody as rebellion”, said he. What I gained was a liberating irreverence about both my cherished ideals and passionate hates. The politically correct and incorrect both were a treasure house of sublime laughter, “there is no suffocating morality or immorality…”, because after all “Chal Juhi, vyabhichari naari, chal, bulawa aaya hai, Gautum Budhha ne bulaaya hai”...
So profoundly political a creature obviously did not inhabit a small circle of concern, and his empathy took in all – Phantom’s Diana along with Mandrake’s Narda. On a summer evening before the union elections, a leader from a rival political formation passed by his room to get water from the communal water cooler. How could he help but slow down near this political hotbed of a room, to hear what was going on within? What was going on in the room was something akin to Majaaz’s Hum pee bhi gaye, chhalka bhi gaye. Possibly the political adversary strolled by, jug in hand, once or thrice. His perambulations were noticed and our hero emerged from the room full of rum and caring inquiry. “Are you alright, my friend? Tell me, are you the Ghost Who Walks? Are you? Tell me, are you really Phantom?” And as the adversary hastened away, he pursued solicitously, “How is Diana, yaar? Is Diana alright? You take care of Diana”…
Back from, perhaps, a trip to the Narmada Valley or Bastar, he would enter with a beret on his head, part Dev Anand, part Che Guevara. At times he’d be silent, at times prone to pick a fight, his demons restless. But never such that a trembling song couldn't pick up the weight of it all. Wo hamare geet kyun rokna chahte hain?, and the singing itself would become an intervention that brought peace. Or maybe he’d come with an Asha Bhosle cassette, “Ye suno yaar, total Jean Paul Sartre gaana hai, Godard hai Godard. Aa chal ke tujhe, main le ke chaloon – is se achha kya manifesto chahiye comrade?”
If, after the booze was finished, an unexpected hidden half bottle came out of smug and happy Rohit’s bag, he’d pounce on it, put it on a hip and wiggle his bottom. We’d laugh and shake our heads and sing more. Feeling much better, we’d go off to Ganga Dhaba for the last dregs of dinner, scrounging in respective pockets for loose change. “Aadhi roti kha lenge yaar, share kar lenge yaar… haan… Jesus was a sailor, he walked upon the waters, sailor tha wo yaar, sailor…”.
In the morning, we’d meet in the library and he would cry out in best Hindi pulp title style: Aur, Hangover ke Saudagarrrr….
For nearly two decades now, I have been wished a Happy Swami Shraddhanand Diwas every New Year and warned against keeping an Akshay Trititya vrat on every birthday. One day, we meet on the heels of my having written an admittedly gushing article after a heady trip to Vrindavan. He has published it in his magazine. Aur, vyabhichaari aurat! Tu kya kar rahi hai yaar, ye Brij ki galiyon mein nange pair mat naach yaar, tu ye gobar vobar lep rahi hai kya, chappal pehen, chappal pehen… Tu to Meena Kumari thi, tu Meera kab se bann gayi yaar. Dekhiye comrade, saree pehnein, baal khule rakhein, bansuri par naachein, chappal pehenein, savdhaan rahein, aids se bachein.” On his 3rd peg, he thanks all women like me for keeping men like him from becoming “frogs-in-the-well in a quagmire of Albert Camus shadows”. On his 5th, he offers to pay my rent (since I’m currently jobless). In the dawn, all the bottles finished, he assures me that the people united shall always be victorious, gives me a friendly warning to keep no Dhanteras fasts, and then, thanking me for my cooperative attitude, leaves. The house continues to beam and sing Thandi hawa, ye chandni suhani…
Sing on comrade. Fall like a leaf, beat your wings. Soar like Rafi’s voice. The world has need of your heady, wounded fire. Merry Karvachauth.
(PS: Ye Archimedes hamesha nahaata kyun rehta hai?)