Sunday, July 09, 2006

The invincible suicide attempter

(The hopeful, in other words)

A somewhat edited version of this article was published in this week's issue of Tehelka, titled 'Yama, interrupted'. Photo by Lakshman Anand.

If Arun Pathak really wanted to kill himself, people in Benares say, he should have tied a heavier stone to himself before leaping into the Ganges. He could have also consumed a more potent concentration of sulphas and then jumped. And if he truly, badly, wanted to sacrifice his life because Deepa Mehta just wouldn't stop filming Water, his friends who stood by should not have dived in a moment later to rescue him. But because Pathak chose a light stone, and swallowed a substance whose lethality is disputed, and especially because he remembered to hand his wristwatch to the person beside him before jumping into the river, people are not convinced that he wanted to die. Death would have meant martyrdom, and martyrdom is of no use to a politician-in-waiting.

Six years have passed and Water has been completed. Pathak is 31 now, and still a politician-in-waiting. He lives in a tiny blue room on the second floor in the Jain dharamshala near Assi Ghat, and sleeps on the floor on a thin mattress beside his wife and his young daughter, Rakshita. The walls have several photos of gods, and a large one of identical Chinese twin babies. "As you can see it isn't air-conditioned, and if the people have problems with anyone they can come to me straight away," he says. These are two of Pathak's examples of how the country's ruling class has become: they sit in chilled offices and are unaccessible. Pathak says that even though he has very little, he and his supporters ensure justice for the ordinary man. "For example, if the police are harassing someone unnecessarily we make it stop, and we often get medicines and food for people and their babies. No one should suffer unnecessarily, no one should go hungry. But do our politicians understand this?" He says that on some days there is no food to eat at home, so the family sleeps off their hunger. But on occasion his daughter cries from hunger, and he leaves home on his Bullet. It sounds like bad parenting, but Pathak says he can't bear to hear his daughter cry.

Pathak's father is a storekeeper in the dharamshala, and his mother is a housewife whose sole possession is a sewing machine. His friends say he had a normal childhood, like their own, but was better than anyone else at speeches. "On Republic Day every year, my friends would dance and sing, but I would give speeches in clothes just like Nehru's. Then one day my teacher told me that I would become a politician," Pathak says. He abandoned school at the age of 14 and joined the Shiv Sena because "the Hindutva wave appealed to me, and I was told that new recruits would get a Mauser pistol. I was looking for that protection because every month I earned 30 Rupees which locals snatched away from me." He says he told his parents that he would return home late on some days and might not even return some days, to which he says, "They were worried. But when my name began appearing in the news they felt I was doing something good, and they made me guardian of the house."

The grown-up Pathak has a heavier frame than the one in the middle of the Ganges in pictures from six years ago. He has a full head of hair, dark eyebrows, small eyes, and thin lips that rarely shape into a smile. His arms and legs are scarred from police beatings and self-inflicted wounds. There is a nasty gash that runs across the middle of his left forearm, and on that arm is a finger he can no longer straighten. Like Mel Gibson, he revels in violence inflicted upon him, certain in the belief that it is for a greater good. "For my first major assignment we were to pray at [a temple (ed. could not understand his shudh Hindi)] in Ayodhya in 1994," Pathak says. "Two weeks before us Ashok Singhal was allowed to do it, but we weren't. The police would not let us near the temple because they thought our presence would instigate riots. So I cut myself several times. Along the way I cut a vein and a lot of blood flowed. Only then did the police let us in. I required 28 stitches." Pathak likes his violence in a controlled environment, where there is no danger of dying. He won't die in a police cell, he won't be killed by a lathi-charge, and he certainly won't kill himself. But without friends around him, he is not secure. One morning we were on a boat on the Ganges, and he refused to disembark on one particular ghat saying he "had enemies there." Asked to explain, he said they were "people who don't like the good work I'm doing."

Pathak launched the Kranti Shiv Sena in 2003, shortly after emptying and blowing up a bus carrying Maharashtrians. After 14 years of work with them, it was the Shiv Sena's 'Mee Mumbaikar' campaign against north Indians in Maharashtra that made him leave.While he remains upset with his old colleagues, it was under the Sena's shield that he was first recognised in 2000. "The BJP and the RSS had been talking about Water for a month, and the prime minister and chief minister had approved the film, but I managed to get a copy of the script. I found it very offensive. There was a line in it that said, 'Narayan, don't you know that if a brahmin or a god sleeps with a woman, she is blessed?' I thought to myself, 'I'm a brahmin, and I want to bless Nandita Das'." He says about lesbianism that "it is not Indian culture. Like we have Indian culture, there is also lesbian culture." Pathak gave Mehta 48 hours to pack up. "She was lucky I survived. Had I died, people would have torn her to shreds."

Over the years Pathak has gained a band of loyalists who have stayed with him through his attempts on his own life. In 1997, he took up a campaign to prevent alcohol shops from opening near holy sites, just like it was in Ayodhya. He climbed to the top of a 300-foot tall water tank in the Sigra district and threatened to jump. He says a crowd of 10-15,000 gathered to watch. The police arrived and gave him a note in writing that they would not allow the shops to open. "When I got down they tried taking it away from me, but I pretended that I had explosives strapped to myself. The police took evasive action immediately and I ran away, staying underground for two days. Then the matter passed."

On December 5, 1998, Pathak set off to do the Sena's work: put up flags and posters for a hindutva-based festival the organisation celebrated on December 6, the Babri Mosque demolition anniversary. PK Singh, the police official in charge of one district, told Pathak he could not put the flags up. Pathak decided he would, and hung his material above the police station that night. The next morning, Singh pulled everything down and stamped on it, and then had it burnt. Pathak saw his opportunity. He demanded Singh's transfer. When it did not happen, he barged into Singh's office and swallowed 50 sleeping pills. He woke up three days later and found out that Singh was still there. Pathak then lay down in front of the chief minister's motorcade after swallowing 50 more pills. He woke up to find the local superintendant of police had been transferred, but not Singh. "Singh shouldn't have stepped on our flags," Pathak said. "He did wrong." He defended disobeying the police's orders: "Who are they to tell us where we can and can't put up our flags? It's within our rights."

Pathak has a loose grasp of the constitution. We were discussing Valentines Day, which he believes should be outlawed because it is a western influence and, like lesbianism, alien to the Indian way. "How would you like it if someone gave your sister a rose," he asked. I replied it was up to her. "Wait and see. See how you feel when someone really does it. It's like a drug. It messes your mind." I asked him if individuals could make their own decisions in this matter. He replied that if it offended the majority of people, which it did, it should be banned.

Pathak has a way of finding a cause to die for on a perfectly normal day. The police in his area say that Pathak does exactly what they tell him not to. "One day we had cordoned off a street," a policeman said. "Pathak and his men came along and just lay there. They didn't do anything, but just lay there. When we dragged them away the press took pictures and it suddenly looked like they had been protesting." He knows politics is one big circus, a policeman says, and he's more than willing to perform.

Pathak's new visiting card is a saffron colour with the Indian flag stretched along the bottom. In the center is a three-quarter profile of him wrapped in an orange shawl, with a yellow circle, representational of the sun, behind him. "Our time is coming," he says. "Our time is close at hand. When a hindu or muslim baby dies of hunger, do our leaders come to visit?" During one interview session his phone rings. He hears it out and threatens to smack a minister with his shoes. Another time he says several thousands will converge and give ministers a hiding. "They've grown fat in office," he says. It's time for a change. "We must bide our time," he tells associates, "because it is coming soon."

Talking to Pathak is like listening to the ordinary man's utopia of political India, where corrupt ministers are disposed of in ruthless ways. He says that if he is elected, he will be like Anil Kapoor in Nayak. There will be food on every table, no one will be sick, no one will be corrupt. How he means to implement it isn't clear. Asked for a financial plan, he said, "some of my friends run small businesses, so they can handle it." There is no solution except revolution, and beatings by hand and feet.

People recognise Pathak now, but it amuses them that he made a spectacle of suicide. Nobody believes that he ever wanted to die, and Pathak has decided not to put his life on the line anymore. "I have thousands of people ready to do my work now," he says. The police estimate that his party has about 200 followers. Everywhere people give him free boat rides, free tea, free hotel food. But these people who love him stay too quiet, too stiff, around him. "He's a good man," they say softly, and leave it at that. But some talk. One, who ferries people, says he has to be nice to Pathak. Another, a shopkeeper, says standing in the same picture frame as Pathak is like taking a picture with a thief. A policeman from his district described him as "not a criminal, and not a politician either. He's somewhere between the two, if you know what I mean."

There is little doubt that Pathak has been a showman so that he can enter politics. But if he does enter it, there will be little, in terms of ideology, to differentiate him from those in the BJP and the Shiv Sena. Committing suicide to get in is one thing, it's staying alive respectfully in politics that's harder.


The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

'Yama, interrupted' Nice title. And as always, very well written piece.

Anonymous said...

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kaushal shukla said...

He's a really man... and we love the way he is.. Jai Ho Jai Ho
Kaushal S

Kaustubh Tripathi said...

great job