& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, April 20, 2009

Meghnad Bhatt 1935-1997

Last week my sister Sonal called to inform me that some kindred soul had remembered our father Meghnad’s death anniversary and written about his poetry in Divya Bhaskar, an important multi-edition Gujarati language newspaper published in India and North America. She was simultaneously emotional and ecstatic. “I’m happy at least someone has remembered him,” Sonal said without being able to hide her pride.

On checking the web link she sent me, I realized that eminent poet, writer and an institution in Gujarati literature, Dr. Suresh Dalal, had done the write-up.  Dr. Dalal’s contribution in shaping Meghnad’s literary career remains unmatched.

Is it possible to write about your father without becoming sentimental? I don’t think so, and yet it is so important to do so especially when he is someone who led a very public life as Meghnad did.

Meghnad’s is the biggest influence on my life.  Twelve years after his death I find myself to be too small a human being to fill in to his enormously large shoes. He was less of a father and more of a friend.  

In addition to being my father Meghnad was a litterateur, a trade unionist, and lifetime socialist who seared with genuine anger when he encountered injustice, a secular fundamentalist, and an Ambedkarite in an ideological sense of the word.

Meghnad was a Gandhian who loved Jawaharlal Nehru and Ram Manohar Lohia. George Fernandes was his friend, though he would have been hugely disappointed with his friend’s closeness to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, but would have sympathised with him in his present isolation. He was an avid follower of political trends, but turned a political activist (as many others did) for Fernandes to help in the 1969 general elections that resulted in Fernandes’ historic victory over S. K. Patil.

After many years of “being exploited” he was instrumental in forming a trade union at the Mafatlal Group, where he worked as an accountant for three decades. That singular act of defiance – so uncharacteristic for a middle class clerk with family responsibilities – typifies Meghnad’s values: To remain committed to one’s beliefs even if it meant a lifetime of struggle and unfulfilled desires.

His radicalism was not just meant for the newspapers (Janmabhoomi Pravasi) where he wrote angry columns at the injustices prevailing in the society. It also got translated into his trade union work. I remember one day late in the evening when he returned home and told his stunned family that one of the Mafatlal brothers had warned him at a meeting, “Mr. Bhatt, I’ll have you arrested under MISA.” This was in the heydays of the infamous Emergency.

Above all else, Meghnad was a man of literature – a poet, a writer, translator, essayist, journalist and a raconteur, who lived and breathed the written word.  As he did not belong to any of the known “groups” in Gujarati literature and believed in his own creative merit, he remained unpublished for many years.
He published his first book of poems – Chhiplan when he was 45 in 1980, and that acted as a catalyst for him. He published two more collections of poems – Malajo (1988; I had a minor role in getting Baiju Parthan to design the book cover) and Amthabharan (1994).
He also published the Gujarati translation of Dr. Rafiq Zakaria’s fictionalized biography of Razia Begum, the queen of India and the world’s first woman Islamic ruler. Dr. Zakaria is perhaps be better known in North America as Farid Zakaria’s father, but Zakaria senior was in his days a well-respected moderate scholar.
Meghnad also published Spiderman – a book of essays on death and dying, written after  my cousin Hamir’s death at a tender age of nine, caused by leukemia.  He wrote a short novel – Amthanubhav (1980) and two short novellas – Avadhoot Sarika (1988) and a book of literary criticism Sankhaghosh (1991). 

He had an unpublished book of essays on Mahatma Gandhi when he died at 62, which was not returned by the person who promised to get it published and then published under her name some years later. 

Meghnad left behind a voluminous output of poems and polemical journalistic writing that remains relevant (but unpublished) more than a decade after his death.
Despite such tremendous achievements he remained extremely modest, and considered his father Harischandra Bhatt to be a far greater poet than himself. Harischandra is often credited with introducing an international perspective to Gujarati literature and his seminal book of poems was published posthumously.
Meghnad was hyperactive. In addition to his accountant’s job that he hated with rare passion he gave tuition to supplement his income. 

He struggled all his life working 16 to 18 hours a day, and enjoyed his struggle. He didn’t know what to do with his free time after he retired and became a full time journalist, writing about wine and non-vegetarian cuisine – he did a surprisingly good job of it considering he had been a firm teetotaler and a vegetarian all his life.
Soon after he died, Sonal spoke to me about how perhaps at the moment he was dying she felt a heart-wrenching pain in her chest, and I told her that I had felt the same, although at that time I had dismissed that feeling and had blamed excessive alcohol.

I have also never really acknowledged my mother Durga’s influence on my life. In so many different ways, I’m more like her than my father.  I have always romanticised my parents’ relationship. To me they were like Marilyn Munroe and Arthur Miller...maybe that's a stretch, but you tend to think of your parents in what you wanted them to be not what they were. 
Durga sacrificed her ambitions - she remained a radio artiste when she could easily have been an actress - first for her husband and then for her children...but about all that, too, a little later on the blog.
I’m reading Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories; it’s a book about the pangs of growing up expressed in a stark lyrical style that is breathtakingly simple and yet unrelenting in the unease it causes to the readers because Huggan has succeeded in portraying the seemingly enormous and often insurmountable difficulties and challenges we all experience during our formative years.
Huggan writes evocatively about Elizabeth’s growing up years from childhood to puberty (I’m still reading the book, so I don’t still know till what age the writer will take Elizabeth’s journey), and the predominant emotion that one feels while reading the book – even to a male reader – is “Yes, of course, I felt this awkwardness, too; and I really would’ve done things differently if ever I were to get another chance.” At one stage in the book, Elizabeth confesses, “...how much I sounded like my father but how much like Mavis (her mother) it was to go and lie down. I could never escape them.”
I guess that really is the story of everyone’s life: We inherit the worst qualities of our parents.  

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