To the story I was bornby Aparajita Krishna August 18 2020, 3:47 am Estimated Reading Time: 39 mins, 1 sec
Aparajita Krishna plunges into her rich past, where there is a paean to her left leaning parents who inhabited India’s recent political history
This is a personal note no doubt, but there is so much in my inheritance that resonates with historical, political, cultural and social notes; of Ghare-Baire, the home and the world we inhabited.
The backstory of my birth is of a union which was extraordinary in many ways; not because any of us were or are extraordinary, but because the life trajectory of my parents travelled a very different India. Their individual story and that of their union and afterwards was deeply colored by red-politics. It was set in that Bihar, which was markedly of a different shade.
In the autumn of their lives my parents were approached to recount their love story for the Mumbai edition of Times Of India’s Valentine’s Day – 14th February 2010 feature, Love Struck Forever.
My father’s spontaneous reaction was, “Now at the ripe old age of 79, asking a senior-citizen-couple to recall the story of their unusual courtship leading to marriage is quite a demand! Nonetheless, let me share the account, if for no other reason, but that the past remembers me, not I the past. Our ideological nearness, almost oneness, was surely a very important reason.” The feature went by the heading, AN ‘UG’ (underground) LOVE STORY.
Till the very end of their lives, even amidst acute health-challenges, the duo remained a political-citizen-couple. And a very worried one. I don’t know if theirs was a love story or a political story?
It was in the year 1961 that I was born in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. My wake up sight in life was a large house spread over a huge compound with many, many windows, roshandaans and sunshines aplenty. My wake up sounds were continuous giggles, laughter and Bihari-Khatri humour. I was a child of interior-moffasil-agrarian-India, the land of lychee in Bihar. It could have also been called Lycheepur. But… pause… before I go further beyond my birth, I have to go back to Suniti Sharma and Krishna Kumar Khanna’s (KKK) story.
My ancestral family of paternal grandparents belonging to the Punjabi Khatri community had migrated, sometime at the start of the 20th century, from Khanna in Punjab, noted for its agrarian Khanna Mandi, to Patiala to Faizabad to finally settle at Muzaffarpur in Bihar. Many from the Khatri community had migrated from Punjab and Uttar Pradesh to settle in this township. My paternal grandfather, Keshav Ram Khanna (Baoji), was a senior officer in the Imperial Bank. They were four brothers. The eldest one, the patriarch-mukhiya of the family, Amar Nath Khanna (Baba) was a respected lawyer. The third brother Sawal Das Khanna was a treasurer in a private bank. The youngest brother died young but his widow, Chachi to the family, continued to live within the joint family. My grandmother Bhagwan Devi Khanna (Bhabho) hailed from Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. Amar Nath Khanna’s wife was Laxmi Devi Khanna (Mataji) and Sawal Das Khanna’s wife was Annapurna Devi Khanna (Tai). All the brothers stayed in a joint family till later in decades the families would go joint-nuclear.
Into this joint family was born on the 23rd August 1931, my father, KKK. It was the year of Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom. KKK had four elder sisters (Shakuntala, Susheela, Kusum and Sarla) and a younger brother (Sushil) would follow.
KKK’s lucid recall had informed me, “If I remember right my earliest memory of our house is of a bungalow kind of a structure with a roof made of khaprel/brick-kiln. It was situated at Purani Bazaar.”
The native language of the region was a dialect of Maithili. The spoken Hindi and English of its natives of all times would carry a distinctly endearing twang and twist of this regional flavour. My own tongue vouches for it.
The lychee township of Muzaffarpur, a district town in North Bihar situated on the banks of river Boodhi Gandak, was both Baba Gareeb Nath ki Nagari and Daata Kambal Shah Mazaar Shehar. It was also a town of mohallas that had quaintly charming names; Aghoriya Bazar, Chhata Bazaar, Purani Bazaar, Juran Chapra, Akhara Ghat and Chakkar.
Muzaffarpur carries in its DNA a historical-cultural past of great meritocracy and historical suffering. History and mythology would remember Muzaffarpur as a part of Mithila that was ruled by King Janak, the father of Sita. The present district of Muzaffarpur came into its existence in the 18th century and was named after Muzaffar Khan, an Amil (Revenue Officer) under the British. The town imbibed a synthesis of Hindu and Islamic culture. Ambara Chowk, now situated in Saraiya Block on the Muzaffarpur-Rewa road, is believed to be the home village of Amrapali, the beautiful nagarvadhu (courtesan) of Vaishali.
Muzaffarpur was also the land of young Khudi Ram Bose who along with Prafulla Chaki was martyred in the freedom struggle of India for his role in the Muzaffarpur Conspiracy Case. He was just 18. The Sahu family at Muzaffarpur had many extended branches and a very significant presence.
It was at Mahadev Prasad Sahu’s house at Sahu Pokhar where the great writer Sarat Chandra Chatterjee had come and stayed. Many chapters of the famed novel Charitraheen, got written here. His association with the sex-workers of Chaturbhuj Sthan in Muzaffarpur is well documented. The socio-cultural setting and history of Muzaffarpur resonates in the writing of Charitaheen and the epic Devdas. Chaturbhuj Sthan was famous both for its Umrao Jaans as also for its Chandramukhis.
This town’s DNA also carried the heat and passion of political sar-garmi. Noted political personalities and literary-cultural icons lived here or visited the place. Mahatma Gandhi’s Champaran Satyagrha that got translated into the non-cooperation movement had touched this land and left its footprints. Acharya Kripalani taught at Muzaffarpur’s Grier BB College, later re-named as Langat Singh College (L. S. College). The first president of India, Rajendra Prasad, was also a college teacher at L. S. College. Ashok Mehta would get elected from Muzaffarpur constituency.
The town’s literary register would roll-call personalities such as Ayodhya Prasad Khatri (the man who propagated the use of Khadi boli), Devaki Nandan Khatri (the reputed literary Hindi writer of the fantasy tale Chandrakanta; and other works, Parmanandan Shastri (a reputed Maithili writer), Acharya Janaki Vallabh Shastri (reputed Hindi poet and writer) and Shri Narayan Mehta (prominent citizen who was nominated to the Rajya Sabha).
Mithila Painting or Madhubani Painting is a world renowned art of this area. The famous lahthi (Lakh ki churiyan/bangles) of Muzaffarpur, with their beautiful colours, kaarigiri, designs adorned the hands and continue to be an export feature. The town was an important centre for the wholesale cloth trade.
In 1934 the town would experience a devastating earthquake. In 1937 my Khanna family would buy five beegha land in Muzaffarpur’s Rambagh mohalla, at the eastern fringe of the town, and build a beautiful sprawling bungalow of three distinct segments joint internally by a very long running veranda. The built house in 1939 cost Rs 3300/- for the land and Rs 33000/-for the mansion.
The area/mohalla named Rambagh had acres of orchards, trees, plants and gardens. The newly built house housed twelve rooms, many kitchens and a servant quarter. It had a lovely lawn in-front of the building bordered by flower beds (phool qayari) and a vegetable field on the side. The famous Muzaffarpur Lychee trees also stayed planted.
Our ancestral house was named Amar Niketan. The suffix of Niketan was inspired from Rabindranath Tagore’s heritage site Shanti Niketan. The joint family of four brothers and a collective commune of relatives lived under one roof and under the care-taking of the head of the family, Amar Nath Khanna (Baba). Within the larger joint family KKK got as good as adopted by his uncle-Baba who was childless.
Muzaffarpur families had a penchant for fixing funny nick names to fine formal names. Chuchi, Sithu, Chuchu, Bayuya, Tuntun and Thurthuro… were names. KKK was nicknamed Baby. He was anything but a baby. As a child and a boy he had been way too matured for his age both in intellectual inquiry and emotional connects. His slender face and frame suited his maturity and stoicism. He did his schooling at Zila School for Boys. He had been an exceptionally studious and bright student with an incredible lust for books and knowledge. Baba was a man of very progressive and forward mind. He was also shaping KKK’s mind and would take the boy along for community meetings and interactions in the town.
The school students of my father’s time were very aware and participative Indians. The Quit India Movement of 1942 saw the young of Muzaffarpur including KKK participate in the call. He was then in class 6 at Zila School. In coming years another kind of political curiosity circled his mind. He would cut and paste the newspaper reports with headlines saying, Advance and retreat of Allies and Axis Forces.
World War II was marching. KKK would feel thrilled and inspired when his teacher Radhika Nath Dubey would point to the map and forecast the eventual defeat of Hitler. Zila School encouraged literary and cultural activities. In high school my father and his friends took out a self-printed literary magazine called, Jhankar. The school’s Hindi Sahitya Parishad was a very respected department. Along with KKK it had the young Kishore as its secretary. Later, he would make a very fine mark as poet Kavi Kishore. Every Vasant Panchami a Hindi play would get staged.
KKK’s growing up years would read and assimilate Bhagat Singh’s writings; Why I am an Atheist, that Bhagat Singh wrote a few weeks before his death left a deep impression on KKK. His own writing would much later in decades appear on the occasion marking the 75th anniversary of Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom: “The one thing that strikes me most is the sweep of his mind that travelled such a vast space of thought and practice in the very short time that was given to him. The life and death of this young man of yesteryears, who at the age of twenty-four mounted the gallows, has so much to teach us, the young, the middle-aged and the old of today, that the best tribute that we can pay to his memory is to try to live by, even if we are not awake enough to die for, the ideals for which Bhagat Singh lived a short tumultuous life and died an immortalizing death,”
While KKK’s association with the Communist Party of India (CPI) had started in the school days, the man whose words and political, social, cultural formulations cast a lasting effect on KKK was P C Joshi (then the general secretary of the CPI). Yashpal’s literary writings and his Marxist and literary criticisms impressed him. In particular Yashpal’s Gandhiwaad Ki Shavpareeksha - a Critique. Yashpal was a close family friend of KKK’s brother-in-law Rajeshwar Sawhney.
At home the very young KKK had to face successive tragic losses. His biological father died. Baba, his adoptive parent, could not reconcile to his younger brother’s death. He was like a son to him. Acute depression set in leading to a psychological turmoil. In those times, such depressions would largely go unattended. It would finally lead to Baba committing suicide.
Family-lore tells of KKK running towards the water-well in the compound to end his own life. Family servants, members, ran after him to, in the nick of time, stop the traumatised young lad from following in his Baba’s footsteps. He was saved. And he lived to become my father.
But before that…
By the time KKK was 17 or 18 years old, the elder patriarchs including uncle Sawal Das Khanna had died. Sisters had been married off. Younger brother was close at home. KKK was now a regular at the district office of the CPI. He had read up as much as he could on Marxism, its theory and literature.
On the evening of 30th January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead. The seventeen year old KKK happened to be at home at Amar Niketan. He was now a college student at L. S. College (Langat Singh College). Just then a young school friend frantically came running home. He was in the company of two grown-up terrified men, who KKK did not personally know. The school friend urged KKK to give shelter for the night to the two men who were RSS workers. In the circumstances of Mahatma Gandhi’s killing KKK’s home seemed the best sanctuary for the members of an outfit who were now being directly questioned for the dastardly act. KKK told his school friend, “Look, I have disagreed with many aspects of Gandhi’s talk and politics. I am myself a Marxist, but today I cannot give shelter to the people of an outfit that killed Gandhi. Sorry”. The school friend escorted away the RSS duo.
In the coming months and years college student KKK, as a militant communist, would be intermittently living underground, or in jail. He became a party member of the CPI in 1949. Jail and underground… underground and jail… blowing with the winds of political zeal and idealism. So strong was his Left-Political-Passion that it now overtook his love for knowledge and education. College studies got disrupted for quite a while. Literary pursuits continued.
Ramanji was a respected litterateur who had nurtured a literary-cultural organisation called Sanket. It released a book Sahityakaar Raman, and the occasion was graced by the noted poet-writer Harivansh Rai Bachchan. This very book carried KKK’s sharply critical essay of one of Ramanji’s books. Such was Ramanji’s graciousness and the lofty mood of the times, that he gave his full consent to the critical article.
My maternal ancestry information is still a work in progress. As in my mother’s parental side I have been delinked from. All I know is that my mother Suniti Sharma, was born to her family who lived in Bathua, a village in Bihar. Bathua is also the name of a kind of Indian spinach, saag. She would carry in her an iron will perhaps nourished by the iron-rich vegetable. She was born in a Bhumihaar family and remembered her date of birth as 13th February 1931.
She would recall, “My mother said I was born three years before the Bihar earthquake of 1934.” Later in years my Facebook friend Kamlesh Kumar Kohli would communicate to me, “How could Suniti not be a radical? She was born on the same day 13th February, as the Romantic Revolutionary Faiz Ahmed Faiz, but twenty years apart.” This village girl Suniti had an elder sister. The family was well to do and had considerable land and property at Bathua. Sister was married off and raised a family. Suniti’s story contained a very dismal past of her child marriage, which did not last. She did her school in Bathua, college at Patna and in the politically charged Bihar of her girlhood and came into contact with Jayprakash Narayan (JP) and his wife Prabhavati Devi. She became a very close family member. In the late 1940s or so, girl Suniti would get touched by the winds of CPI’s Left politics that was blowing across the state. She would trace it to some kind of a political influence an uncle of her’s had on her. Suniti cast aside her child marriage to travel an uncommon life of choices. She was on paper, still married though.
It would be on 10th April 2020 at 11.04 pm, that Pushpavant Sharma (Raju), my mother’s cousin brother’s son now living in Noida, would for the first time connect via Facebook and WhatsApp to inform me that, “Suniti fua ki sirf ek bari behan thi. Shayad Savitri fua naam tha.”
My mother’s sister died young after marriage. She had given birth to 3 sons. Her husband Ayodhya Prasad Choudhary was an advocate at Darbhanga. My mother’s ancestral house had been demolished and a new house was constructed by the son-in-law. Pushpavant would WhatsApp to me photos of his house at Bathua. The photos would be my first glance of my mother’s homeland.
Back in the past it was the noon of August 15th 1949.
KKK was cycling to the CPI office at Kalyani Chowk in Muzaffarpur. The party meeting was to be addressed by Sunil Mukherjee. As he entered the old, rickety building he spotted three young women in the group attending the meeting. Two of them were working full time and were known to him. Today a third one had joined. KKK took special note of the new entrant. The meeting ended.
In the Party jargon the place where an underground worker stayed to escape arrest was called Den, and the person under whose roof he/she stayed was called Cover. During the first few months of this spell of underground life the nineteen year old KKK’s Covers were a butcher, a sweeper who was a member of the municipal workers union and a peon of his college. He would recall, “Interestingly one of my Covers was a Muslim college friend who was the nephew of the sub-inspector of police assigned the task of arresting me but who had arranged my stay in a desolate mosque.”
One day in 1950, another warrant was issued against KKK. His Cover now was that same girl who he had noted on August 15th 1949. She was his own age, a first year college student, herself a secret party member, but whose membership was not disclosed and she was living with a friend whose husband was also a party member. KKK would reminiscence, “The two of us had met for the first time in 1949. This girl (Suniti Sharma), who was my Cover, was also the courier of secret party documents and who would also go with me to meetings as a Mobile Cover.” Suniti’s place of stay was allotted by the Communist Party to be KKK’s Den, his refuge. It was in this underground hideout at Muzaffarpur that Suniti and KKK, would now meet in person on a day in 1950.
Suniti was fair, very smooth skinned, of average height and weight and had a small pair of eyes, full lips and the most perfect slender nose. Suniti was a native Bihari who was always a Bengali. Her gypsy girlhood had befriended her to many Bengali friends. They were her support system too. If truth be told, Suniti best spoke Bengali. Much less best Hindi and much less best or worst, English. KKK was thin, lanky, of medium height and carried a face that was slim with a pencil thin moustache bordering the lips. He was one who as an infant had the disposition of a child, as a child that of an adolescent, as an adolescent that of an adult and as an adult one who would not grow to be an old man as old men are understood. He spoke Hindi and English very well.
KKK and Sweety fell in love. But Suniti was still under the child-wed bondage. It is said that Jayprakash Narayan was not in favour of Sweety-KKK courtship. KKK was a communist and JP a socialist. KKK’s politics was anti JP’s political ideology. So would JP’s be anti the communists?
Muzaffarpur would remember with immense pride the visit of Prithviraj Kapoor, the thespian actor who was the Vice-President of the All-India-Peace-Council. In the 1950s he, along with his Prithvi Theatres troupe, visited the kasbai Muzaffarpur. They performed the play at Chitra Talkie, a movie hall, owned by Madan Verma. KKK was associated with the All-India-Peace-Council and had the privilege of hosting Prithviraj-ji and the group at Amar Niketan. Prithviraj Kapoor himself had a very close association with the noted Hindi poet/writer and Muzaffarpur’s respected resident, Acharya Janaki Vallabh Shastri. He would also stay at his house. Shastriji had also written a book titled Natya Samrat Prithviraj.
In the new born free India, Muzaffarpur marched to the beat of vigorous and diverse political energies and stamina. While the Praja Socialist Party was the main opposition party to the Congress in the villages of the district, in the town of Muzaffarpur it was the CPI, that till the Emergency remained a very forceful political force.
On KKK-Suniti front it was after nine years of banned love that the cover-courier and her underground Left activist chose to formalize their union. Suniti had before marrying KKK, one day offered to share more of her past life with him. KKK stopped her, “Nahi. Hamara rishta uss din, uss waqt se shuru hua jis din hum dono pehli baar mille. I do not want to know anything of your past. For me our lives begin from the day I first saw you on 15th August 1949 and then met you on a day in 1950 as my cover in the underground hideout at Muzaffarpur.” Much later in life after Suniti’s death, KKK would share this with me. I would smile. I was now a big adult myself and KKK had not questioned all that had transpired in my personal life and relationships.
Suniti Sharma got married to KKK in 1959. She was about 6 months older to him. It was a court marriage at Muzaffarpur. Among the witnesses were KKK’s elder cousin brother Omkar Khanna, who was taken by surprise at this clandestine wedding but gave it his blessings. The other witness was Ramdeo Sharma who was a noted CPI functionary and would be the MLA from Muzaffarpur for many terms. The elder patriarchs of the family were dead. Matriarch Bhagwan Devi Khanna and the other matriarchs may have had reservations, but KKK’s sisters and brothers-in-law more than participated and gave their approval to an alliance which was not a traditional one. A big reception was held for the Muzaffarpur citizenry. The Khatri samaj graciously attended the reception.
Suniti had been a political gypsy and KKK gave her a home. Suniti and KKK would forever remember the Nehru led government that brought in Section 13 in The-Hindu-Marriage-Act, 1955, making the provision for Separation and Divorce as law by 1956. At that time the greatest opposition came to this provision of divorce from the Hindu right wing, that also resisted the principle of equal inheritance by sons and daughters, regardless of whether the daughter was married or unwed.
The Nehru government led reforms also outlawed polygamy in Hindu marriage. A Hindu man could prior to this, have many wives. Thus the Nehru led government facilitated the child-bride Suniti to divorce her child-groom and marry her lover-comrade KKK so that I could be born in 1961. Aparajita meaning the unvanquished would prove to be too overbearing a name to live up to. Aparajita was also the name of a flower in Bengal used as an offering to the subaltern God Shiva. Most of us carry in our lifetime the burden of our names.
My family had a tradition of keeping a retinue of domestic staff. The elder domestic personnel were addressed by the children as Dada and Dadi, Nana and Nani and Chacha and Chachi. It took me quite a growing up to realise that many among them were not relatives but servants. This childhood had also observed the segregation of class divides and the struggle for a classless world when Ramdeo the Dhobi would sit on the floor to take the clothes for washing but sit on the chair beside my father and have tea, when participating in the political mohalla meetings at our place.
Home and hearth now beckoned Suniti. Her teaching at the Chapman Girl’s High School supplemented the family income. Active political participation took a backseat. Much later in years as a teenager I would discover beneath my mother’s bed-mattress copies of The Illustrated Weekly of India, with Jawahar Lal Nehru on the cover. Perhaps Suniti loved Nehru more than she loved KKK. It would be after decades of living, assimilating and negotiating with the world that daughter me would get educated enough to understand the kind of a man KKK was.
Sometimes as an adult-woman I did wonder if KKK telling the soon to be wife Suniti not to share her past, was to avoid a difficult truth? One day after Suniti had left from the world I had argued with an old KKK. Then I let it be. He had been an out of the ordinary man-husband-father. In my mind-diary I noted, “The biggest feminist I've known first-hand has been KKK and the biggest progressive man I've met in the choices of life has been Suniti.”
I never got to communicate this in words to them, perhaps because we three were woefully lacking in celebrating Parent's Day, calendar–love. But now in retrospect I do admit to our being a little too reticent in expressing mutual love.
My parents love story would be sharing camaraderie with many such relationships that emerge out of political or revolutionary strife. However, there is one flashback that KKK recounted to a very adult me, that to this moment touches me as an extraordinary tale lived. A very dear friend-comrade of my parents would be perpetually in and out of jail, or else living underground. He was married in a traditional alliance. His lonely wife would be alone in the marital home with the little sons. After one long spell of jail confinement the husband returned home to discover his wife pregnant with a child. He was shaken up. The child she was carrying was not his. My parents were taken into confidence. The wife was shifted out of her native place and moved into a set-up under the care and know-how of my parents. In due course she gave birth to a girl. The understanding that had been reached between the couple was that once the child was born, the infant would be put in an orphanage. But now upon her birth the mother reneged on her promise. She refused to part with her infant. This husband too was no ordinary man. He agreed to own up the child as his own. But he made an atonement. He left party-politics forever. His rationale being that his political drive and absentia from home had led to this predicament. Years passed. The infant grew to be a young girl and amidst all her siblings it was she who was her father’s favourite. This father-man had long forgotten that this girl he had not sired.
After class 7, I had been sent to study in a boarding school situated in the beatific environs of Kurseong hills in dist. Darjeeling. Thereafter I would remain away-from-home.
KKK had remained for a major part of his young man days a non-earning man. He would summarize his life in later years as caught between the dual passions of Left, Marxist politics and lust for the academics. Both he had loved in equal measure. Faiz’s ‘Kuch Ishq Kiya, Kuch Kaam Kiya’ (1976), he would often quote: ‘Wo log bahut khushkismat theh, jo ishq ko kaam samajhte theh, ya kaam se ashiqui karte theh, hum jeete-jee masroof rahe, kuch ishq kiya kuch kaam kiya, kaam ishq ke aadhe aata raha, aur ishq se kaam ulajhta raha, phir aakhir tang aakar humne, dono ko adhura chorh diya.’ Like all great poetry the idea of love herein lends itself to multiple interpretations.
KKK made many attempts at MA before he finally passed. The brilliant student suffered from a neurological challenge. So great was his desire for studies that the regimen of fixed timed exams made him nervous. He had too much to write and too little time. Invariably he would leave half of the question paper unanswered. So, this student-forever now tried getting himself into some business employment. At Muzaffarpur, a small scale factory called MICO was set up. It soon downed the shutters. A hardware shop, KK & Company, was opened. It downed shutters. The shop-man would be busy studying academics at the counter. Then finally after 2 or 3 attempts at MA he managed to answer 3/4th of the question paper. He would nonetheless top the university and get qualified to become a professor of English.
There is one flashback in particular, of me as a 10 year old, that my memory recalls with the same wonder and awe of childhood. This was post the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war. The victorious Indira Gandhi was riding the crest of her popularity with path-breaking populist measures. She had nationalised the banks. Garibi Hatao, was the slogan that resonated across India. She had abolished the privy purses. Sobriquets such as Durga, Empress of India were bestowed upon her. The Indira is India, India is Indira, sycophantic chant would come later. IG had come to symbolise woman power and How!
Back then, in an India bereft of multi-media and state of the art communication tools, IG’s iconic popularity resonated in the gullies, lanes and chourahas of India’s mohallas. At my Rambagh mohalla there was a vantage point where sat a chai ki dukaan - tea-shop. It was run by a woman. She was very individualistic and always in confrontation. Her fights and arguments with the locals were legendary. Those fights were her survival tools as a working woman. Everyone would refer to her as, Aye Indira Gandhi! So would our family. Perhaps till to-date, apart from her family, no one would know the real name of this Aye Indira Gandhi of Rambagh mohalla. This sobriquet was bestowed upon her by those who were even more economically challenged than her. There would then have resided so many Indira Gandhis in so many mohallas of so many Rambaghs of so many Muzaffarpurs of India.
Muzaffarpur’s famous red-light area, Chaturbhuj Sthan, remained a very noted address through the years. The sex-workers who resided here, gave a stiff competition to the famous ones of Patna and Gaya. This area of sex-workers is said to have existed since the Mughal period. It gained its name from the Chaturbhuj Sthan Temple located there. It was no doubt an exploitative business but it had its own characteristics.
The mohalla had a mandir on the one side and a masjid on the other. No gaddar, no riot, no Ayodhya neither a Babri took place within its contours. As a teacher-principal at Chapman Girl’s High School, Sunitidi had taught and befriended so many children of Muzaffarpur’s sex workers. My parents association with the CPI saw many meetings held on our verandah. It would also see the participation of men and women who came from sex-worker lineage.
The town cultivated a delicately nurtured cultural climate of classical music, dance and music conferences. The children and the young of my times would have subconsciously assimilated the sounds of music and dance as an inheritance. Muzaffarpur’s All-India-Music-Conference, was a very valued annual feature. Among the illustrious artistes to have graced the music conferences were names such as: Omkarnath Thakur, Bismillah Khan, Vilayat Khan, Bhimsain Joshi, Sitara Devi, a very young Amjad Ali Khan, Hema Malini as well as Pashupati Mehta, and Ravi Mehta would play host and organiser to many such conferences as would Uma Shankar Babu’s family.
The most forceful witness claim I can still make for my assertion is that in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film Abhimaan, the Muzaffarpur Music Conference finds a mention in a dialogue that is exchanged between the characters played by Asrani and Amitabh Bachchan. To me, the film-fixated 1973’s twelve year old, this was the ultimate stamp of approval for my town.
In the 1970s the politically fertile bhoomi of Muzaffarpur, became the karmbhoomi of Jayaprakash Narayan’s (JP) anti-emergency movement. It’s headquarter was at The Khadi Gram Udyog Bhawan. Our house in Muzaffarpur town was the other centre, for a part of our sprawling home was now given on rent to the NGO AWARD, whose patron was JP. My father’s Left-wing Communist ideology was in sharp opposition to JP’s politics. This new relationship was between a needy landlord and his socio-politically differing tenant.
Nonetheless, my father’s ideological opposition continued. In a lighter vein he would assert, “Bhai with due respect JP is my kirayedaar, tenant, and I am the landlord.” There was no conflict. Our tenant, the AWARD NGO, would in later decades become the owner of Amar Niketan and the house would become one of the centers of the remarkable Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad, Indian Women’s co-operative. Lijjat would employ a very strong women force and empower them with a consolidated employment.
Muzaffarpur had also elected George Fernandes to the Lok Sabha thrice from 1977 onwards. In 2009, he would lose his deposit. In the coming years Bihar’s political conundrum would throw up diverse and conflicting narratives. In time the Lohiaite Janta Dal’s Mandal-Wave politics and the BJP’s Kamandal-Wave politics would come to rule. The Left would get marginalised. CPI’s class politics would not have the requisite chutzpah to counter the double-whammy attack of the Mandal-Kamandal. In the coming years Muzaffarpur in particular would experience a systematic destruction of its educational and other vibrant institutions.
For the major part of the 1970s, 1980s until 1990s ‘load shedding - batti gul’ was a permanent fixture in the town and district.
In the later 1990s, KKK and Suniti would have to shift to Bombay. We three finally got to live together as a family unit. The separation from Muzaffarpur had uprooted them, no doubt, but that Muzaffarpur of their best years was no longer existing either.
On 15th November 2009, at our Mumbai flat, there would be addabaazi with Govind Deshpande and Satyadev Dubey. The gup-shup also discussed linguistic and regional chauvinism. GPD spoke about their roots in economic and social inequality prevalent in India today; about what Dubey called Hindi’s expansionism at the cost of rich regional literary languages like Brajbhasha, Awadhi etc. The talk also confronted the crisis facing the Left in India, about which GPD and my father both agreed that it is a manifestation of the dense complexities characteristic of the transitory phase of Indian Society, and of which only the Left - today, tomorrow or ever - can and should find out the direction to go ahead. Ramsingh’s cooking added tadka to the talk.
I would watch my old mother right through her late seventies and early eighties write her notes, her life, in her scrawly and indecipherable handwriting. Her audio faculties were now severely challenged and KKK's speech paralytic-challenged. But even now, under house arrest of a different kind, loud political arguments continued to characterise their love.
KKK all through his life, and more so during his 1970s and ‘80s, continued to suffer from a fragile and challenged health. Hospitals and doctors were routine. But Suniti had carried the stamina of her childhood. She had by and large kept sturdy health. At the cusp of 2014-2015 she got hospitalised. Life got further bonded with her hospitalization. It proved how irreplaceable she was to our lives. The girl from Bathua in Bihar, the political bandit, the child bride who had the guts to re-marry KKK in 1959 for love, had subsequently submerged herself into wifehood and motherhood. Her pension was still taking care of KKK. If truth be told, she and me bonded best when eighty-three year old Suniti lay in the hospital ICU - in a sleep-awake-near-semi-coma status.
She once had an elephantine memory. Now I would touch her forehead, her cheeks, and try to softly and lovingly speak to her. It was to wake her up before the eternal sleep set in. I told myself as if whispering to Suniti, “You kind of grudged my not being an openly sentimental and physically demonstrative daughter, right? You and your KKK fear for the person you have raised or who got raised. My choices, my independence have tested your old age. Well, most parents who have raised independent, less fearful if not fearless daughters, are afraid of fear creeping in. KKK had sensed that your daughter would not tread the comfortable path. This sense showed in a strange mix of paternal pride and protective foreboding fear. You cared a hoot for my open admiration for your incredible life story that was bigger than your motherhood. Let me touch-salute the Bihari girl’s challenging childhood in village Bathua of Bihar - from where I guess the iron-rich spinach, Bathua, spread its growth via you. Your demanding circumstances of girlhood, your brave involvement with Bihar’s Communist Party, your underground and under-warrant meeting with a comrade who you fell in love with, the political heat and dust that fuelled your ideological romance, the settling into a teaching profession, your walk-out on the familial inheritance and bondage to choose your comrade-lover and his family to spend the rest of your her life as a wife, bahu, mami, chachi, bhabhi, mother... in the course of which the Bathua girl, the political rebel gradually grew older and older... now you are going to be 84 on 13th February 2015”.
She missed it by a whisker. Much against my father’s planning it was my mother who preceded him in death. She died on 24th Janurary 2015. Her KKK felt cheated that she had walked out on their combined script, which had penned his exit from life before her. There is no perfect death or a happy death. I took comfort in the fact that she had died surrounded by all the care at Belevue ICU Mumbai, under Dr Vijay Lulla’s expert care and in the comfort of love and caring of our immediate and extended family. But Suniti’s own biological family had not been in her life for decades. They remained missing.
One day months later from Suniti’s leave-taking from our lives, in course of an afternoon nap, KKK suddenly started smiling and softly chuckling to himself. He was even humming. I got worried. We as a family of three were woefully lacking in singing sur, but talented in hearing sur. I had never heard him sing or hum.
Me: What’s wrong Papa?
KKK: I was just mulling over the song ‘Bada natkhat hai re Krishna Kanhaiya, ka kare Yashodha Maiya haan…?’
KKK: Which film?
Me: Amar Prem.
KKK: It struck me that my name is Krishna Kumar. That young JNU fellow, his name is Kanhaiya Kumar. Both of us, me in my youth as a Communist, and he now in the prime of his youth as a Communist, have given trouble to Bharat Maiya. In relation to the existing status-quo.
I smiled. Azaadi! Freedom! Always a work in progress. I then went on the net to listen to the fabulous composition from the 1971 film. It had lyrics by Anand Bakshi, music by R D Burman and sung so mellifluously by Lata Mangeshkar. It resonated in its own way in a completely different context: Rohith Vehmula’s death, the student unrest at Hyderabad University, the student protest at the JNU, at the FTII, in Kashmir, the tragic alienation and rebellion of the young.
‘Dhoondhe ri ankhiyan usse chahu oar, jaane kahan chup gaya Nand Kishore - Udh gaya aise jaise purvaiya, ka kare Yashodha Maiya, Maiya re -Sab ka hai pyara bansi bajaiya - Aa tohe main gale se laga loon, Laage na kisi ki nazar, mann mein chupa loon - Dhoop jagat hai re, mamta hai chaiyan, ka kare yashodha maiya - bada natkhat hai re.’
KKK and I both loved dipping into the glorious sentimentality of Hindi film songs.
Her name is Kali! It was after years of seeing her collect the garbage and waste from our Mumbai housing society, that one day I came to know her name. That too courtesy Ram Singh, our life-line, caretaker. I had asked Ram Singh who had in turn asked her, ‘Tumhara naam kaya hai?’ Kali was a middle-aged, tall, base-voiced woman who appeared rough and tough. Her sons who follow this menial caste hierarchy job would walk around with mobiles. Sudama, my other domestic helper giggled upon hearing the name Kali. She said (translating), “My name is Sudama. You remember Didi when I had first told you of my name you had remarked that it is a man’s name? Do you know of Sudama, Krishna’s childhood friend?’” And followed more giggles. I told myself “Hello my father’s name is Krishna and Aparajita (unvanquished) is also Durga’s name. Then there is Kali, Ram Singh, Sudama and Valram in this house. So we are all namesakes of mythical and reverential proportion!”
Newspaper reports in 2016 informed “Sex workers in Bihar hit hard by demonetisation.” I thought of the sex-workers of Chaturbhuj Sthan of Muzaffarpur and their future.
Memories of Suniti would continue to hover over KKK’s remaining years. He would weep that even in death Suniti was supporting him with her family-pension for the spouse. A constant refrain that played through my life was KKK telling me, “You were a child of a revolution that was not to be.” I would often in my frustration with the Indian Left and the Marxists lament upon the existential crisis that ails them.
In mid-2018, Muzaffarpur Shelter Home Case would grab the headlines. An expose would reveal the most shameful sex racket, sexual abuse, rape and torture of girls being conducted as business by Brijesh Thakur’s NGO under political-state patronage. Suniti would have been furious.
Karl Marx in his double century year 2018 would sell and how! His works were being re-visited with a passion by a world gone directionless, capitalist-weary and war-weary.
An excerpt from KKK’s note, A Garland of Thoughts (Not to be confused with Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts), written in 2008: It is, therefore, in the fitness of things that we begin our musings on life in this twenty first century-world of globalization and free market by recalling a modern literary masterpiece, Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman.
‘We’re free… we’re free’, the last words of the play are spoken by a sobbing Linda Loman over her husband Willy’s grave. Having become destitute after a lifetime toil, selling a smile and a shoeshine but hopeful that his life insurance will provide his son with the stake that might induce him to compete and succeed, Willy Loman’s suicide measures the tragic reach of the relentless competition at the heart of capitalist market ethos.
Telling Willy that she had made the last payment on the mortgage, Linda’s words, ‘We’re free…we’re free’, indeed represent the ambivalent and insidious nature of freedom represented by the free-world where, as another line in the play intimates, ‘The only thing you got in the world is what you can sell’.
Miller here would seem to recall what Marx had said a long time back, ‘You must make all that is yours for sale. In other words, a Marxist minimum and real utopia, has still its uses even if the maximum and unreal utopia (realm of freedom), which no doubt appeared fleetingly somewhere on the horizon of Marx’s imaginings, remains an imponderable and a tease; somewhat like the words ‘we’re free…we’re free’.
KKK the health warrior had given death many a defeat over the years of encountering all possible ailments including surviving cancer. He was at the end of his life a very health-battle-weary man at 88. For the last couple of years he had lost his deeply embedded connect with books. Life sat heavy thereafter, on borrowed times.
Till he was coherent in mind and talk he would assert, “I am ready to die.” His hospitalizations at Mumbai’s Bellevue Multi-Specialty Hospital under Dr Lulla is a record attendance. I remain deeply grateful to this hospital’s doctors and staff for giving him many grace marks of years.
Post his recent hospitalization of a week, he had come home. He was insistent that he come home. He would keep looking at the timepiece near his bed. Waiting. And then on 30th October 2019, my father departed. My gratitude to all who were there to aid me with the final moments of departure. Between papa and me we had an understanding of not doing the religious rituals. But I agreed to the offer of my housing society neighbors and friends who on their own initiative arranged for a leave-taking that was religious. An atheist got a religious farewell.
It was difficult to imagine his re-union with my mother who had preceded him in death. He was too much of a rationalist. I will choose to remember him as a man with insatiable longing for books, study and knowledge. “I am a consumer of knowledge, not its producer,” he would counter at my chiding him for not reproducing his vast knowledge of literature and politics into his own works.
Faiz’s book of poetry, Saare Sukhan Hamare and Marshall Berman’s Adventures In Marxism, till the end sat near his bed, on his head.
I still have in my custody the note books containing my old mother’s notes of her life written in her scribbled, scrawly and indecipherable handwriting. I have tried my darnedest to read and type them out… but alas!
Something tells me that her childhood, teenage, youth and young adulthood; all that I do not know sufficiently about, lie therein.