Just Like That | Notes on a literary paradise, poems, and Ghalib

Published on Aug 06, 2022 05:22 PM IST
  • A literature festival in the Maldives, a flight I spent reading a biography of Atal ji, and a conversation between Mirza Ghalib and Bahadur Shah Zafar. 
Atal Bihari Vajpayee (L). Mirza Ghalib (R). 

I have recently returned from what must be one of the closest approximations to paradise.

This paradise is in the Maldives, the Soneva Fushi resort. The Jaipur Literature Festival, which is now perhaps the world’s leading literary platform, had an edition here, to which I was invited. The resort is on a secluded island ringed by a translucent turquoise sea, where amidst forests of greenery nestle luxury villas each opening out to the sea. Indigo flies directly to Male, the capital of Maldives. From here you have to transfer to a seaplane. A 35-minute flight takes you deep into the Indian Ocean. A motor boat then transfers you to the shimmering white beaches of Soneva Fushi.

The Festival was a treasure house of intimate sessions on poetry, philosophy, science, culture, books and cuisine. I was in three sessions.

The first was in conversation with William Dalrymple and the acclaimed poet, Ranjit Hoskote, on the “Rediscovery of Indian Civilisation”, in which I spoke at length on how colonised countries grapple with the problem of reclaiming their history, steering clear of amnesia and xenophobia.

In the second, I was in conversation with scholar, administrator and former governor of West Bengal, Gopal Gandhi. The discussion was on his latest book, Restless as Mercury, an anthological biography of Mahatma Gandhi’s early years, from Porbandar to London and South Africa, in the Mahatma’s own words. Incidentally, the Mahatma is still, as a national survey has shown, the most loved icon of modern India, and his relevance is even greater today.

The third was a discussion where the legendary Oxford mathematician, Marcus de Sautoy, the flamboyant but brilliant Shobhaa De, and I were in conversation with Shashi Tharoor, on the future of humanity and our planet.

Carefully choreographed cultural events on the beach made up the evenings. The most memorable for me was Kutle Khan and his famous Manganiyar folk group from Rajasthan.

JLF in the Maldives was a marvel of planning. Full marks to the entire JLF team, and its directors, Sanjoy Roy, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple. Also a salute to Shiv Dasani, the amiable CEO of Soneva resorts, who has worked hard to nurture and enrich the ecology of the island.

PM Vajpayee and poetry

On my return flight from the Maldives, I read Sagarika Ghose’s highly readable and researched biography of Atal ji. He was truly one of the greatest leaders of India, emerging from the crucible of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), but with a liberality of mind and breadth of vision that mirrored the realities of India.

I had the great good fortune of knowing him well. Atal ji wanted me to translate his poems from Hindi into English. This was sometime in the year 2000, when he was the prime minister. When we met, I was prepared, since I had got wind of what he wanted to talk about, and had gone through his book, Ikyavan Kavitayen (51 Poems).

My first meeting with him will remain etched forever in my mind. He was seated in dhoti and kurta at 7, Race Course Road, the PM’s residence.

Main chahata hoon ki aap meri kavitaon ka angrezi me anuvad karein, I want you to translate my poems in English,” he said. I said I would be happy to do so, but I had three conditions. “Kahiye, Tell me,” he said, leaning towards me.

“I would not like to translate your purely political poems, but focus only on your personal ones, those that deal with the poignant and contemplative moments of your life; secondly, the selection of such poems would be mine, not yours. And, thirdly, please don’t say a final yes straight away, and wait until you see a few of my translations.”

The smile on his face lit up the room. “Manzoor hai, Accepted”, he replied, and we shook hands.

Ikyavan Kavitaen was finally published by Penguin as 21 Poems. Thirty poems were jettisoned. He never demurred, nor did he question my choice. On my copy of the book, which remains one of my most treasured possessions, he wrote in his own hand, “Pavan has translated my poems and made them more meaningful.”

Ghalib, faith and wit

Mirza Ghalib was deeply spiritual but not religious. He was disdainful of rituals, fond of his drink, and did not keep the Ramzan fast. The king, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was a devout Muslim. Both were friends, united by their love for Urdu poetry.

One day, during Ramzan, as they strolled together in the Red Fort, Zafar asked Ghalib: “Mirza Saheb, aap ne kitne roze rakhkhe?” Without batting an eyelid Ghalib replied: “Jahanpanah, ek nahin.” Zafar smiled at the deliberate ambiguity of the answer, and dropped the subject.

Pavan K Varma is an author, diplomat and former parliamentarian

Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers

The views expressed are personal

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