Vajpayee's 'faceoff with death' and how he captured the agony in verse

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New Delhi : Much as he was revered as a stalwart politician, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who passed away at the age of 93 here on Thursday, was widely recognised as a key poet in Hindi, who took poetry beyond the pages of his collections and recited them at numerous public fora. He used poetry as a medium to give expression to his deepest thoughts.

As the news of his sad demise plunged the nation into mourning, his eloquent verses came swimming before the eyes of his admirers. One particular episode that deserves mention took place in the year 1988 when the Bharat Ratna awardee was in the United States for kidney treatment.

In a letter to playwright and his contemporary Dharamvir Bharati from the United States during his treatment days, Vajpayee said he peeped into the eyes of death" and captured the agony in a poem titled "Maut se than gayi" (Faceoff with death).

Recounting the trauma that he was undergoing while uncertainty of his survival loomed large, Vajpayee described in the poem that he had almost accepted the end.

"I had no intention of fighting/ there was no promise of meeting again/ she (death) blocked the path and stood on the way/ in a moment she became larger than life," he wrote.

In the letter originally written in Hindi, Vajpayee added: "Maut ki umar kya hai? Do pal bhi nahin/ Zindagi silsila aajkal ki nahin/ Main ji bhar jia/ Main man se maru/ Lautkar aaonga/ Kuch se kyun darun", reflecting that death too is temporary and lasts only for a while in an ageless cycle of life.

The former Prime Minister noted that he had lived to the fullest and would die with satisfaction, and would again return from his travels.

Notably, when he had written the letter to Bharati, the doctors had suggested him to undergo a surgery. This suggestion had caused an anxiety in his mind and Vajpayee, revealed in the letter that this poem was written in that frame of mind.

It is also interesting to note that then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was responsible for sending Vajpayee to the US for treatment. In a delegation headed to the United Nations, Gandhi had included his name so that he could be treated there.

Vajpayee made his gratitude public to Gandhi and would often say that he was alive because of him.

He emerged victorious in this "faceoff with death" and would go on to live for another three decades, serving thrice as the Prime Minister of India, first for a term of 13 days in 1996, then for a period of 11 months from 1998 to 1999, and thereafter for a full term from 1999 to 2004.

Vajpayee's vision of life is also evident in his poetry. In one of his oft-recited poems, he asks the readers why has the colour of blood turned white, expressing the larger messages of fraternity and brotherhood. His poems also conveyed the firm belief in marching forward that Vajpayee accorded great importance in the course of the nation's journey.

His "Geet naya gata hoon" (Singing a new song) is widely read and features in several school curriculum books, but Vajpayee also expressed his disgust with the face of truth in one of his poems, where he went on to say "Geet nahin gata hoon", or I am not singing.

He wrote that when the truth revealed its real face, he became fearful of the truth itself and preferred to stop singing, or writing about the truth.

And there was a prayer, too. "Mere prabhu/ Mujhe itni unchai kabhi mat dena/ Gairon ko gale na laga sakun/ Itni rukhai kabhi mat dena", where he, addressing to the Almighty, expresses his firm belief in fraternity, in seeing all men as equal and in embracing the others.

"Meri Ekyavan Kavitayen" (My 51 poems) is one of his most celebrated poetry collections and provides a ringside view into the mind of the iconic poet that Vajpayee was.

The literary world, like the rest of the nation, will remain poorer sans him.