Symbolic Twins, or the Belated Gratitude of a Nation

June 14, 2010 § 6 Comments


The final humiliation : forced to pose as the public face of defeat. Source: Wikimedia Commons, British Library

My posts thus far have not really been book reviews, but an assortment of associations and ideas triggered off in my mind by the act of reading the book in question. This time around, I have dispensed with the book-reading act as well. Instead, what set me off today was an email I came across recently that mentioned, in passing, a state visit to Myanmar by President APJ Abdul Kalam of India, between 8-10 March 2006.

Now the presidency of India is purely a ceremonial function, and President Kalam was possibly more symbolic than many others, being a non-politician and a deliberately Muslim appointee of a Hindu nationalist government. No doubt he visited several countries in his capacity as President, cutting ribbons and pressing flesh, “boosting bilateral relations” as polite convention puts it, both before and after this visit, and there is no reason for believing the Myanmar visit particularly special.

Newspaper reports of the visit (I have spent serious time on the internet trying to ascertain the facts alleged in the email I received) all confirm that during his three-day visit, President Kalam visited Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay, but do not provide a lot of detail about the sites he visited in these cities. I have been diligent in my quest, scanning reports filed at that time in the Xinhua News Agency, the Hindu Business Line, the Tribune, the Indigenous Herald, the Asian Tribune, the Hindustan Times, the New Light of Myanmar, the Indo-Burma News website, the Singapore government site, and numerous news analysis websites meant for scholars of defence, international trade and diplomatic matters. From all accounts, it was mindnumbingly mundane, and an easily forgotten event, causing no ripples to form even momentarily across the placid surface of human history.

The closest I got to any excitement surrounding the visit was when I read of a seminar organized in New Delhi a few weeks before it took place, in which Burmese exiles and Delhi intellectuals, indignant at the Myanmar junta’s human rights record, strongly urged the President to cancel the trip, but the somnolent public ignored the protests, just as they did the visit itself.

I finally managed to stumble upon part of what I was looking for, on the website of the Indian Embassy in Moscow, where, on the 7th of March, the then Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, had briefed the press on the upcoming state visit to Myanmar, mentioning areas of bilateral interest such as space, energy, shipping, rice and historical cultural links. The Secretary, while expanding on the last item, casually referred to the curious fact that the last Mughal Emperor had spent his final days of exile in Yangon, while the last Burmese king had coincidentally been exiled in Ratnagiri in India.  While the story of the last Burmese king remains for me to discover at a later date, I was instantly reminded of the miserable life and wretched death of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal to rule over Delhi (indeed, he ruled over little else), until the British bundled him off into exile in Burma because of his role in the general imbroglio that goes by the name of the Sepoy Mutiny in British circles and the First War of Indian Independence in Indian history books.

Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Mohammed Bahadur Shah Zafar had much in common with President Abdul Kalam, besides their Muslim faith. Abdul Kalam was brought up in Rameswaram, between the Shiva temple and a mosque; Bahadur Shah’s mother was a Hindu. Both were influenced by Sufism, and were outspoken religious moderates. Leadership came to both with much reluctance; both were heads of state in title only, nominated as uncontroversial compromise candidates by others more powerful than they; yet both were powerful inspirational symbols for the general public, and both were more at home with poetry than with statecraft.

But poetry is also a point of difference between the two men. President Kalam’s poems attempt to make up in effervescent optimism what they lack in literary merit, while a rich, dark bitterness colors Zafar’s poetry, but no reader is left in any doubt that he was a poet of the highest calibre. Kalam’s poems are infused with visions of a radiant future, while Zafar’s are haunted by the loss of a glorious past. Legend has it that he poured his broken heart into a poem after his sons were killed by the British, after he had lost his kingdom, after all shreds of imperial dignity and the illusion that he was a leader of his people had been stripped away mercilessly. Bewildered, devastated and all alone, the octagenarian wrote:

Na kisi ki ankh ka noor hoon.
Na kisi ke dil ka karaar hoon.
Jo kisi ke kam na aa sakey
Mein woh ek musht-e-gubaar hoon.

(I am the light of no-one’s eye
There is no heart that beats for me.
A wretched clod of dirt am I
Of use at all to nobody…)

Perhaps, by then, he had forgotten that he was just a symbol, and that the indignities heaped on him were symbolic of the treatment of a slave nation at the hands of the victorious colonial masters – perhaps, then, he needn’t have taken it so personally.  His defeat and inadequacies were no different from those of the people he represented; the clod of dirt he called himself was indistinguishable from the ancient soil of India. Or perhaps he was aware of this, and his anguish was for the nation. Jo bigad gaya woh naseeb hoon, jo ujad gaya woh dayaar hoon…

The Mughals had come to India as foreigners: Babur made no bones of his disgust for the hot, dusty plains of Hindustan, pining openly for the gardens and orchards of Samarkand and Farghana. But Time worked on his descendents for three whole centuries, wrapping them in the earth, sun and water of India, its saints, its opium, its music, and its women, and it changed them. As Stanley Lane-Poole puts it, the Great Mughals arrived in India from Central Asia as ‘ruddy men in boots’, but left it four centuries later ‘pale men in petticoats’. The last Mughal wept when forced to leave the country. Legend says that he wrote with all the despair of a leader who had failed his people; his people, who had marched cheerfully to their death in his name, with a blind faith in him of which he had always secretly known that he was not worthy. This secret knowledge was his shame, and he wept because it was a secret no more, and he knew (and accepted) the harsh verdict that history would deal him:

Pay-fateha koi aaye kyon
Koi char phool chadhaye kyon
Koi aake shamma jalaye kyon
Main woh bekasi ka mazaar hoon…

(I am the grave of that unfortunate
Where no one ever kneels to pray
No lamps are lit, and at my gate
No floral wreaths shall people lay)

The British did not kill Zafar; he was more dangerous to them as a martyr than as a confused and incompetent commoner, stripped of his grandeur. They killed the aura around the Mughal imperial throne, and allowed the occupant to wither away on his own. The nation watched briefly, then turned her eyes away – the man was no longer useful to her cause, and others waited in the wings. But it was martyrdom in a way, for it is a kind of death for a king to be robbed of subjects who believe in his kingship, and it was a glorious martyrdom at that, precisely because it was uncelebrated and unsung.

But then legend tells us things that history doesn’t, because history tries to convince us, while legend strives merely to move us. In that sense, legend is more powerful than history.

News reports only tell us, for instance, that on 8 March 2006, President Abdul Kalam visited the dargah of Bahadur Shah Zafar in Yangon, but they do not tell us what he did there, and history must remain silent on the subject. However legend feels no compulsion to stop there, and gallops on.

The email I received last week told me that President Kalam, poet, president and patriot, had spent an entire hour at the memorial of his predecessor as symbolic leader across centuries, that he wrote on the visitor book before he left, and that this is what he wrote:

I lit a lamp at your grave today. Today did I lay a wreath of fresh red roses against it. There I sat at the very foot of your grave, and I read the Fatiha. May your soul rest in peace.

Signed, Avul Pakir Jainulabdin Abdul Kalam, President of the Republic of India

Yes, legends are more powerful than history, and over time, legends can become accepted history. And I believe it is just, and correct, that this should happen. It is difficult for me to verify the words written by the President, in the visitor’s book: Yangon is a long way off. But I know that I would like to believe that the event took place exactly as narrated above.

And yes, it was an inconsequential event, the empty gallivanting and speechifying of a figurehead, barely worthy of inside page newsprint. But somewhere in this busy universe, I imagine fondly, there exists a giant register where these things are recorded and reconciled, and on that register, a nation’s debt had just been reduced by a tiny bit.

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