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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

On the death of Safdar Hashmi

might never have heard of Safdar Hashmi had he not been killed the way he was. For I was a schoolgirl in 1989, and the limited breadth of my education could not have accommodated the spirit of his art, such is the indifference to the contemporary in our school education system. That one name changed the way I would think of the New Year. Safdar Hashmi died on the 2 January, and it has become impossible for me to think of the first day of the Gregorian calendar year without thinking of the violent first day of 1989.

Safdar Hashmi was the founder of the Jana Natya Manch, often referred to as JANAM. Actor, lyricist, playwright and director, he is remembered most for his contribution to street theatre. And it was on the street that he was killed on 1 January 1989, while he was performing the street play, Halla Bol. Hashmi was associated with the Communist Party of India, and he was in Jhandapur in Sahibabad to show his solidarity for the CPM candidate for the post of councillor in the Ghaziabad City Board. The Congress candidate for the same post asked to be allowed across the street where Halla Bol was being performed. Hashmi is said to have asked them to take another route. The result was the violence unleashed on Hashmi and his troupe — the playwright died in hospital the day after the barbarous assault.

It seems strange to me now that the death of a playwright whose name had almost never appeared in the newspapers and magazines we read, our only contemporary archive of those times, had affected us deeply enough to turn his name into a code word for fear. Annotations of that fear came from several places — parents, teachers, guardians, friends, cousins, sometimes the newspapers. It was of those early months of 1989 — one of the most climactic years in recent political history — that I was reminded when Purnendu Pattrea's poem A New Word: Safdar Hashmi came to me in Arunava Sinha's translation.

The grief of this death

Can never be lowered from our shoulders

How foolish barbarism is

As though death is enough to wipe out

The heart of a vow

Assault is not a new word

Violence is not a new word

The new word is Safdar Hashmi

Safdar Hashmi means waking up

Staying awake


For this summed up exactly how the playwright's death had given his name a new meaning. "The new word is Safdar Hashmi." It remained new for years in our relatively peaceful small town in northern Bengal.

The filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, who has suffered more at the hands of a censorious political culture than most, has written a poem for Hashmi, someone who could be called his sahrydya, a sharer, a cohabiter of the heart as it were. Patwardhan documents a time-travelogue of the signposts of the Indian democracy that Hashmi has missed. It is perhaps good that Hashmi was not Patwardhan's humsafar, his co-traveller, in this journey, as this catalogue of violence explains:

safdar (12 April 1954 — 2 January 1989)

so you missed the demolition of the babri masjid

and the violence and hate that followed

you missed ramabai and other dalit massacres

you missed your nation's love for the atom bomb

in 2002 you missed the Gujarat pogrom

and in neighbouring Pakistan you missed

the creation of the Taliban and here

this year you missed the coronation of killers

we who survived you missed none of these

we missed you.

In this seemingly factual list poem, Patwardhan's cunning as a poet lies in the use of parenthesis to mark Hashmi's short life. What he gives us therefore is the history of India-Pakistan post 1989 — only a quarter of a century and such a long list of violence?

Ranjit Hoskote's poem Assassination of an Artist is subtitled in memoriam: Safdar Hashmi (1954-1989). Both Patwardhan and Hoskote are employing the parenthesis as a political tool. Hashmi's short life, yes, but the "closing bracket", semiotically a mimicking of the sickle, a tool of agricultural harvest, but even more significantly, a weapon of violence that brings an end to life, crop and sometimes the communist. Hoskote's remarkable homage uses that geometry of the half arc as a leitmotif, led by the half of the "coconut head" of the first sentence:

They got him, that first hard crack

on the coconut head.

Split in sacrifice, the halves

rolled down bloody slopes,

down red shoulders, arms pinioned

in strict observance of ritual.

Dragged from his altar, a rebel priest:

they left him splayed on the iron ground,

the bleached grass clotting a flood of wounds.

Smeared with permanent red,

revellers with their offering,

they laughed the laugh of angels

unleashed behind the tacit face

of God; put away their words,

struck flags to their axes,

and wheeling in a manic dance

of spring, celebrated

Republic Day.

The "grass", the "coconut", the "spring" — the agricultural tropes follow from the sickle shape of the parenthesis marks, all to culminate in the harvest of the death of the "rebel priest" (note how the grass and the coconut are necessary for Hindu worship and tie with the "priest" image). Red, "the permanent red", still bleaches the spring grass. And Safdar Hashmi dies every year, 25 days before the annual carnivals of "Republic Day", even 25 years later.

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