If there was one thing about Atalji that left no one unmoved, it was his eloquence. That oratorical dexterity was mesmerising not only because of his use of words. It was remarkably impactful because the words seemed to flow from his heart. Each sentence, crafted with just the right degree of complexity, was often followed by a pause, pregnant with meaning, allowing the audience to digest what he had said, and then, just at the right time, followed by another volley of sentences that gave the punch line.
But, paradoxically, Atalji could also be a man of few words. This became marked towards the later years of his life, when he would, speak reticently, or sometimes — much to the discomfiture of his interlocutor — not at all! It was difficult then to imagine how the same person, when before a mike, or on the podium, could so dramatically change, and keep his audience spellbound, when in private he could lapse into long moments of silence.
Perhaps it was the contemplative poet in him that became dominant in later life. Indeed, this was the key to Atalji’s personality. He was a politician for almost all his life, occupying the highest public office, including being PM thrice, and yet, in all of this there was one part of him that was transcendent, making him less a participant and more an observer. I personally believe that he was never seduced by the pomp and paraphernalia of power. The poet in him told him that all this was passing, a shadow play, a fleeting moment in the grand canvas of time. Behind it, ultimately, there was a loneliness that prompted a spontaneous sense of detachment, a virakti, a deliberate denial of ownership. It was this interplay between the participant, forever in battle for what he believed was right, and the observer, perpetually aware that for all the sound and fury, this was part of the overpowering transience of all human endeavour, that made Atalji the man he was.
The observer in him negated the ego. His infectious laugh, that could disarm the most trenchant critic, was a consequence of his poetic resolve not to take himself seriously, without diluting in the slightest way his commitment to pursue his goals seriously. Those who did not understand this were often stumped by his inexplicable silence, his habit of closing his eyes while the other person spoke, his undiluted concentration to the matter at hand simultaneously diluted by his essential vairagya to power and position.
Nevertheless, sometimes, encounters with him could be very challenging, precisely because of his elliptical style of interaction. I recall once I was with him at the PM’s residence when the legendary Nelson Mandela was to call on him. However, there was no sign of Mandela at the appointed hour. A frantic effort was on to trace where the grand old man was. Apparently, he had gone to meet some old friends of his in India, supporters of the anti-apartheid movement, quite oblivious that he had an appointment with Atalji. There was no option but to wait for him to show up. While waiting for him, Atalji sat with his eyes closed in total silence. There was Brajesh Mishra, his principal secretary, a joint secretary in the PMO, and myself (in my capacity as the MEA’s joint secretary dealing with Africa) in the room. Suddenly, Atalji’s eyes opened, and looking towards me, he said: “Woh tasveer tau purani hai”.
Frankly, such a sentence, out of the blue, completely foxed me, and everybody else in the room. For a moment, I was not even sure he was talking to me! There was silence in the room. After what seemed an interminable pause, Atalji spoke again: “Mere sirhane rakhi hai” (It is kept on my bedside). This second sentence too made no sense. When, after a pause, he spoke a third time, I began to get the drift. He said: “Shabana ne di hai mujhe padhne ke liye”. It was then that the penny dropped. I had translated, on Shabana Azmi’s request, the poems of her father Kaifi Azmi. The cover of the book had Kaifi’s photograph. That picture was of him in his younger days. Atalji was reading the book. That is why he said: “Woh tasveer tau purani hai”!
The poet in Atalji often made him reclusive, and prone to staccato sentences which he left to the intelligence of the others to decipher. It is this silence that made him write poetry — which I had the great honour to translate into English — that was full of anguish and joy, pain and sorrow, triumph and reflection. I reproduce my translation of one of his most moving poems, dealing with his encounter with death, titled in Hindi, “Maut se than gayi”, for it provides, through his own pen, the most penetrating insight into the man he was:
A battle with death!/ What a battle it will be!/ I had no plans to take her on,/ We had not agreed to meet at the curve,/ Yet there she stood,/ blocking my path,/ Looming larger than life.
How long does death last? A moment, perhaps two —/ Life is a sequence, beyond today and tomorrow,/ I have lived to the full, I will die as I choose,/ I will return, I have no fear of letting go.
So do not come by stealth, and take me by surprise,/ Come, test me: meet me head on./ Unheeding of death, life’s journey unfolds,/ Evenings sketched with kohl, nights/ Smooth as the flute’s notes,/ I do not say there was no pain.
There were sorrows, of my own and of this world./ And much love I received from those not mine,/ No grievance remains against those who were mine,/ I grappled with every challenge thrown my way,/ Lit brave little lamps in violent squalls,/ A savage storm rages today,/ The boat is a brief guest in the whirlpool’s embrace.
Yet the resolve to sail across is firm,/ The storm flashes its fury, this boat will take it on,/ With death, what a battle it will be!