How does someone’s narrow pursuit become a sacred national issue? Noted Hindi satirist Harishankar Parsai tells us in this biting piece that is as relevant today as it was when written in the 1960s.
Today, I told Bannu, ‘Look here Bannu, things have come to such a pass that be it parliament, the law, the constitution or the judiciary, they have all become ineffective. Mind-boggling demands are being fulfilled at the threat of a fast or self-immolation. Our 20-year old democracy has become so over-ripe that the mere threat of one man dying or going without food determines the destinies of 50 crore people. At this opportune moment you should also go on a fast for that woman.’
Bannu started thinking. He has been pursuing Radhika Babu’s wife Savitri for years. Once he even suffered a sound thrashing for trying to carry her off.
He can’t engineer a divorce and keep her in his house for the simple reason that Savitri detests Bannu.
After some reflection Bannu asked, ‘Is it even possible to go on a fast for such a matter?’
I said: At this juncture, a fast presents a way out for everything. Recently, by sitting on a fast Baba Sankidas (sanki means eccentric in Hindi) has succeeded in getting a law enacted that says every individual must sport matted hair and never wash it. As a result, every head is stinking to high heaven. Your demand, for just one woman, is much more modest.
Surendra happened to be there. He said, ‘Honestly! What a thing to say – a fast to steal some man’s wife? Are we bereft of all shame? Think of the public ridicule. ’
I replied: Come on, man! The worthiest of fasting sadhus and saints never felt any shame whatsoever; we are mere mortals. As for becoming the butt of jokes, people all over the world have had such a good laugh at the expense of the cow-protection campaign that their stomachs have started hurting – so much so that they will not be able to laugh for another decade at least. Anyone who attempts to do so will die of stomach cramp.
Bannu piped up. ‘Will it succeed,’ he asked?
I said: That depends on how well you make an issue of it. If it comes across as a worthy cause, the woman will be yours. Let’s go to an expert for advice. Baba Sankidas is an expert. He has a good running practice. At this very moment, four men are sitting on fast under his direction.
We went to Baba Sankidas. After hearing us out, he said, ‘Okay. I am ready to take on this case. You must follow my instructions and do as I say. Will you be able to hold out the threat of self-immolation?’
Bannu shuddered. ‘I feel scared,’ he said.
‘It won’t come to that, I say! You only have to threaten to do so.’
‘The very mention of it scares me.’
Baba said: Well then, go on a fast. Leave it to us to make an issue of it.
Bannu shuddered again. ‘I hope I don’t end up dying,’ he mumbled.
Baba said: Crafty players don’t die. They keep one eye on medical reports and the other on the possibility of mediation. We will save you and get you the woman as well.
Bannu commenced a fast unto death today. The tent is filled with the fragrance of burning incense. A ‘party’ is soulfully singing a bhajan – sab ko sanmati de bhagwan (bless everybody with equanimity, Lord!)
A pious ambience has been created on the first day itself. Baba Sankidas is a pro at it. The statement printed and distributed by him in Bannu’s name is full of punch.
In the statement Bannu says: There’s a voice rising from the depths of my soul which says it is incomplete. It’s other half is in Savitri. Either unite these two halves or release me from the shackles of life. I am sitting on a fast unto death for this reason. My demand is that Savitri be given to me. If I don’t get her, by fasting unto death I will release my incomplete soul from its mortal frame. I know I am set upon the path of truth and that is why I am unafraid. May truth prevail!
Savitri came sputtering with anger. She asked Baba Sankidas, ‘This bastard is on a fast unto death for me, isn’t he?’
Baba replied: Devi, do not abuse him so. He has embarked on a righteous fast unto death. He may have been a bastard earlier, no more. He is on a fast.
Savitri said: He should have asked me at least. I spit on him.
In a calm tone Baba replied: Devi, you are the issue itself. Who asks the issue? Did the cow-protection people ever ask the cow if they should launch a movement for its protection? Devi, turn back. My advice is that you and your husband should stay away from here. In a day or two, public opinion will be formed. After that the people will not take kindly to the foul words you utter.
She left fulminating.
Bannu was overcome with sadness. Baba consoled him, ‘Don’t fret. Victory will be yours; truth always prevails in the long run’.
Bannu has no stomach for hunger. It’s just the third day and he has already started moaning. ‘Did Jayaprakash Narayan come?’ he asks.
I said: He comes on the fifth or sixth day as a rule. He has been informed.
Then he asks: What has Vinoba said on this issue?
Baba replied: He has reflected on means and end. By twisting his statement a little we can make it work for us.
Bannu closed his eyes and said: Brother, hurry up and get Jayaprakash Babu soon.
The journalists were also here today racking their brains – what is the aim of the fast? Is it for public good?
Baba replied: This is no time to be seeing the fast’s aim. Right now it’s a question of saving his life. To embark on a fast is such an act of self-sacrifice that the aim too becomes pure.
I added: Doubtless, it will lead to public good. Innumerable men want to snatch the wives of other men but don’t know how. If the fast succeeds, it will become a guiding force for the public.
Bannu has become frailer. He has started making threats that he will break his fast. If that happens, we will have mud on our face. Baba Sankidas pacified him.
Today Baba has pulled off yet another feat. He has managed to get the statement of some Swami Rasanand published in the newspapers. Swamiji has stated: Due to [the power of] my ascetic meditation, I am able to see the past as well as the future. I have found out that Bannu was a sage in his previous birth and Savitri was his consort. Bannu went by the name Sage Vanmanus [ape in Hindi]. He has assumed a human form after 3000 years. Savitri’s connection with him is eternal. For an ordinary mortal like Radhika Prasad to keep a sage’s consort in his house is sacrilege. I appeal to the god-fearing public, do not let this ungodly act continue.
The statement drew a positive response. Some people started raising slogans, ‘May righteousness prevail’.
A crowd gathered outside Radhika Prasad’s house as well, chanting – ‘Radhika Prasad is a sinner’; ‘May the sinner be destroyed’; and ‘May righteousness prevail’.
Swamiji has made arrangements for prayers in temples for the protection of Bannu’s life.
Last night there was an incident of stone throwing at Radhika Babu’s residence.
Public opinion has been formed.
Our agents heard men and women say the following: ‘Poor fellow, hasn’t eaten a morsel for five days. Blessed be such unswerving devotion.’
‘But that stonehearted woman has shown no signs of relenting.’
‘Her man is equally shameless.’
‘It seems he was a sage in his previous birth.’
‘Haven’t you read Swamiji’s statement?’
‘To keep a sage’s consort in your house like this is sacrilege.’
Today 11 married women adorned Bannu’s forehead with a tilak and performed an arti ceremony for him. Bannu was overjoyed. The sight of married women makes his heart race.
The newspapers are full of reports about the fast.
Today we dispatched a crowd to the prime minister’s residence to demand his intervention in the matter and appeal to him to save Bannu’s life. The prime minister refused to meet them.
Let’s see how long he puts us off.
Jayaprakash Narayan landed up in the evening. He was quite angry: Who all am I expected to save? Is this my only occupation? Daily somebody starts a fast and screams, ‘save me’. If you want your life to be saved, then why don’t you eat? Why is intervention necessary to save your life? It is absurd that a righteous method like the fast is being used for snatching the wife of another man.
We made him understand – this issue is somewhat different; the voice rose from the depths of his soul.
He calmed down and said: If it’s a question of the soul’s voice, then I shall intervene.
I added: The sentiments of the righteous public are also tied to it.
Jayaprakash Babu agreed to be a mediator. He said after meeting Savitri and her husband he would meet the prime minister.
Bannu was looking towards Jayaprakash Babu with an abject expression on his face.
We admonished him for it later: Bug**r, wipe that abject expression from your face. If any leader gets so much as a whiff of your frail state, he will end up making you drink a glass of mausambi juice. Can’t you see how many leaders are milling around with mausambis in their bags?
Jayaprakash Babu’s mission has come a cropper. No one is buying the story. The prime minister said, ‘Our sympathies are with Bannu, but we are not in a position to do anything. Make him break his fast. Only then will a solution be found through peaceful talks’.
Our spirits plummeted. But Baba Sankidas did not give in to despair. He said: Everybody refuses in the first round; that is the convention. Now what you have to do is step up the campaign. Get newspapers to publish reports that Bannu has been passing a substantial quantity of acetone in his urine. His condition remains worrying. Get a statement published that Bannu’s life must be saved at any cost. How can the government remain a mere spectator to this? It should immediately take steps to see that Bannu’s precious life is saved.
Baba is an amazing man. How many schemes he has in his mind!
He says: The time has come to add a splash of casteism to the campaign. Bannu is a brahmin and Radhika Prasad is a kayastha. Incite the brahmins at one end and the kayasthas at the other. The office-holder of the brahmin sabha is contesting the coming election. Tell him this is the perfect opportunity to get all the brahmin votes in his favour.
Today, there was a proposal from Radhika Prasad that Bannu should get a rakhi tied on his wrist by Savitri.
We rejected the offer.
Today’s papers have screaming headlines – ‘Save Bannu’s life’; ‘Bannu’s condition worrying’; ‘Prayers in temples for his well-being’.
In one newspaper, by agreeing to the going ad rates we even managed to get the following published: ‘The righteous public demands that Bannu’s life be saved. Bannu’s death will have fearful consequences.’
The brahmin sabha official’s statement was also published. He made it an issue of brahmin pride and even threatened direct action.
We have readied four hoodlums to throw stones at kayastha residences.
After completing this assignment the same men will throw stones at brahmin residences.
Bannu has provided an advance.
Baba says that by tomorrow or the day after, there should be talk of curfew or at least Section 144. The case will become stronger for it.
Mission accomplished – last night stones were thrown at the houses of brahmins and kayasthas.
This morning there was a pitched clash between brahmin and kayastha groups; stones were hurled from both sides.
Section 144 has been imposed all over the city.
Fear is in the air.
Our delegation met the prime minister. He said, ‘There are legal hurdles in this matter. The law governing marriage will have to be amended’.
We said, ‘Then have it amended. Get it done through an ordinance. If Bannu dies, the country will go up in flames’.
He countered by saying, ‘First, have him break his fast’.
We said, ‘Let the government accept our demand in principle and constitute a committee to advise how he can get that woman’.
The government is studying the situation at present. Bannu will have to suffer some more.
The matter is stuck. Our talks have reached a deadlock.
There have been minor incidents in the city.
Last night we arranged for stones to be thrown at a police post. It had the desired response.
The clamour of ‘save his life’ has picked up pace today.
Bannu has become very frail indeed. He is terribly scared – what if he dies?
He has started blabbering that we have talked him into this trap. If he makes a statement to this effect, we will stand thoroughly exposed.
Something will have to be done soon. We have told him that if he decides to break his fast at this juncture, the people are sure to kill him.
The delegation will try to arrange one more meeting [with the prime minister].
It’s a deadlock.
All that could be managed was the burning of one bus.
Bannu is becoming difficult to handle.
On his behalf we are telling everybody that he would rather die than give up.
The government has betrayed some signs of anxiety.
Today the sadhu sangha declared its support for our demand.
The brahmin sabha has given an ultimatum saying that 10 brahmins will self-immolate [if our demand is not met].
Savitri tried to commit suicide but was saved.
There’s a long line of people waiting for an audience with Bannu.
A telegram has been sent to the secretary general of the United Nations.
Prayer meetings were held at many places.
Dr. [Ram Manohar] Lohia has stated that as long as this government remains in power, just demands will not be met. It would be better if Bannu spirited the government away in place of Savitri.
Bannu’s demand has been accepted in principle.
A committee has been set up to iron out practical issues.
Baba Sankidas offered Bannu juice to the resounding notes of prayers and bhajans. The mausambis of leaders lay shrivelled in their bags. Baba stated that public opinion must be honoured in a democracy. Since the sentiments of multitudes were tied to the issue, it was providential that the matter was resolved peacefully – or else, there would have been a violent revolution.
The MLA aspirant from the brahmin sabha has made a deal with Bannu who will campaign for him in the coming assembly election. The candidate has parted with a sizeable amount. Bannu’s worth has gone up considerably.
To the men and women who fall at his feet, Bannu says, ‘Everything that happened was god’s will. I am just the means’.
The air is rent with slogans – ‘Hail truth’, ‘Hail righteousness’.
Translated from the Hindi original, ‘The Ten Day Fast’, by Chitra Padmanabhan