The Parable Of The Poet Who Became The Fig Leaf

By Saeed Akhtar Mirza
Film Director, Scriptwriter, Activist

This is the parable of a man who was a politician, but who was, some people said, deep down really a poet and a statesman. He unfortunately belonged to a political party that was widely perceived as being narrow-minded, jingoistic and, as some would say, fascist.

So when in the last election, his political party emerged as the largest single party -- with the largest number of Members of Parliament -- it was invited to form the Government. But there was a hitch. His party did not have the requisite number of elected members to form a government. So other political parties joined up with his, to make the required majority. But they said clearly, very clearly, that they were not supporting his party, but with him as the head of a grand alliance they could have a common agenda for governance. Theirs was therefore a principled collaboration. It was not an opportunistic lust for power. And so the poet ruled, with the help of a large number of extremely dissimilar political parties, for the good of the country and its people.

But some time ago I remember a peculiar whistle being blown. It was peculiar because an ideologue from his own party called the poet a mask. But later, he retracted and said that he had been misquoted. He had actually called him a crown. The words for both mask and crown being similar and therefore the confusion. All those people and parties who, by now, had very high stakes in this one man, breathed a sigh of relief. There was too much riding on him: the respectability and credibility of so many parties, leaders, intellectuals, professionals, newspaper editors and television journalists. Who was this man? Let me briefly summarize, in broad brush-strokes, his rather eventful journey.

If we start in the early nineteen forties, before his country got Independence, there was this nagging and persistent rumour, which I’m sure can be verified, of police records showing the poet as an apprehended young man naming names and saving his skin, while sending others to jail for opposing the Imperial power. This story has been published in several newspapers and has never been contradicted … so I guess it is true. Quite a disastrous beginning for the poet. Definitely not poetic. You could call the man, using popular parlance, a fink, a snitch, a squealer. But definitely not a poet. Be that as it may, it was in the distant past and our man at that time was a young lad.

Very few people had heard about the event and meanwhile, our man was rapidly building up a formidable reputation within his party. He was an orator with amazing skills. And he was used efficiently to garner votes, specifically in the middle class and trader dominated neighbourhoods of Northern cities and towns. His speeches, unfortunately, also has side effects. They sent a chill down the spine of the minority communities. But that didn’t matter. In fact that was one of the functions of his speeches.

The eloquence and power of his skills reached its peak and was triumphantly manifested in a state in the north-east of his country in 1983. The state in question was going through an extremely emotive political phase. It was this explosive cauldron of the local citizen verses the foreigner. And the issue was who could be called a local and who a foreigner. The poet’s party had a large role to play in fuelling the debate mainly because most of the people being labeled foreigners belonged to a minority community. It is also perhaps true that a large number of them could legally be called foreigners. So our poet made an impassioned speech in the capital of the state. A speech that even the police and intelligence agencies who were present at the venue were in awe of. A report in an economic and political weekly of that time testifies to that. It was the speech of speeches. The mother of them all. Following it, thousands of old men, women and children were hacked to death, bludgeoned and disemboweled outside a village. All in the space of a few hours! It must be a record in the history of post Independence slaughter in his country.

Does the poet remember that speech? Does he recall which sentences he punctuated for maximum impact on the vast throng listening to him? It can never be proved that there was a direct connection between the speech and the genocide that followed. But what cannot be denied is that the speech carried a message. Does the poet recall the message? Does he recall his solution to the vexed problem? Was it poetic? The contents of the speech in question were also furiously debated in Parliament. A question crossed my mind. How many speeches of this kind had he made earlier? In how many towns and cities? In front of how many people? And after the speech, how many in his audience carried his vision in their minds? Into their hearts … and into their homes?

As time went on, questions were raised about his double-speak. On the ghastly murder of a missionary and his children in the east. On the attack and murder of tribals who had converted in the west. On his double-speak, nay, triple-speak on a festering wound in the north that threatens to grow into an all out religious war. His harsh response to a state in extreme turmoil in the far north. All definitely unpoetic. But all my doubts were laid to rest when the man himself answered all the queries raised about him in a most unambiguous way.

Some time ago, while representing his country abroad, he attended a function of an ultra religious outfit from his country. And it was here he announced in no uncertain terms, that he was, is and will always be, a loyal worker of the organisation that had provided him with the political and social philosophy that ran through his veins… and nobody could take that away from him. A loyal worker. He said it as if it were a badge of honour. He was a loyal worker of an ideology that was as unflinching and supremacist as that of the Nazis.

I had got my answer. And recently I was witness to bizarre, almost surreal television images that unbelievably reinforced that answer. My poet, as head of government had gone for an on-the-spot study of a horrendous carnage that had occurred in a western state. A carnage in which hundreds of men, women and children were burnt alive…gleefully and unashamedly. Every single responsible newspaper and television channel, both national and international had called it state sponsored terrorism and genocide.

The poet, along with his cabinet ministers, was being escorted by the Chief Minister of the very same state where these barbarous and sickening acts had occurred. Both the poet and the chief minister belonged to the same organisation I have mentioned earlier…only they were different generations.

The poet made an impassioned speech of how ashamed he was about the events. His younger colleague listened impassively. The poet wondered aloud what kind of human being could do something so inhuman. His younger colleague listened impassively. With every single major newspaper and television channel clearly pointing fingers at the inaction of the state administration and police force, of gangs of thugs who found their courage to burn, kill and pillage knowing that the state would look the other way…the performance of both the loyal workers was amazing. At least the older worker sounded shocked. The younger man had no time for such niceties. He represented the here and now. That sent a chill down my spine…is he the future?

But as I was working on this essay, my original loyal worker has released a book of poems with a forward by another poet. Is this other poet a poet? It doesn’t matter. Because now, even he has stakes in the Loyal Worker. Along with the book of poems there is a slickly produced video cassette, the promos of which have been widely telecast. This is the piece-de-resistance. It shows our loyal worker writing in solitude and looking into the distance in what would, hopefully, be perceived as memories, anguish and quiet resolve. But I’ll tell you what I saw. I saw the ghosts of all those slaughtered in the north, east and west of the country laughing hysterically.

I have written this essay not to pillory one man. In other times and other states under the governance of other political parties similar slaughter and genocide has occurred. I have only drawn attention to the fig leaf of poetry behind which so many other political parties and people are hiding. Let’s leave poetry out of this sordidness. As it is there is precious little left that is sacred.

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