The Arts

BJP Furious as Top Gujarati Poet Blames 'Naked King' Modi for Corpses Floating in the Ganga

Parul Khakkar poured out her distress in a powerful 14-line poem. Now, even as she is praised by writers and people at large for voicing the nation’s suffering, she is a target for the ruling party's troll army.

Ahmedabad: A poet from Gujarat once hailed as “the next big icon of Gujarati poetry” by right-leaning litterateurs in the state, has become the latest target of the BJP IT cell’s troll army for a powerful poem she has written on the sufferings of Indians as the Union government grossly mismanages the second wave of the pandemic.

Parul Khakkar’s poem titled Shabvahini Ganga, which she posted in her social media account on May 11, is a short but powerful satire in Gujarati that describes Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a ‘naked king’ ruling a ‘Ram Rajya’ (kingdom of gods) where the sacred Ganga serves as a ‘hearse’ for corpses.

The 14-line poem was promptly translated into at least six languages, becoming the voice of all Indians who are saddened by the tragedies wrought by the pandemic and angered by the government’s aloofness and mismanagement of the situation.

Leading the list of those full of praise for the poem is Manishi Jani, who had been president of the Navnirman Andolan which, in 1973-74, had managed to oust Chimanbhai Patel, the then chief minister of Gujarat, on charges of corruption. The Navnirman Andolan had been praised by freedom fighter and political leader Jayaprakash Narayan for its originality, raw energy and creativity.

But the BJP’s army of trolls has also sprung into action, attacking Khakkar with its usual barrage of abuse and misogyny.

Poet of truths

Written in the language that Narendra Modi, the ‘naked king’, knows best, by a poet from the state where ‘Ram Rajya’ first began two decades ago, Khakkar’s poem speaks truth to power.

Describing a regime where the king’s aloofness to the citizens of his country has been exposed and there is helplessness, poverty and mismanagement all around, the poem hits out not only at the government, but also at the mainstream media, the opposition political parties and others as they choose to remain silent and spineless under the reign of the ‘naked king’.

Given that truths about the second wave of the pandemic in India are being under-reported, mis-told and sometimes even banned, Khakkar’s poem is an adventure in itself. Gujarat is a COVID-19 hotspot. It was also the first state in the country to vote the BJP into power. And it is also the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is being internationally berated for his poor handling of the coronavirus situation.

But Khakkar’s intention in writing this poem was not at all political. She had simply been deeply moved by images in the media of the bodies of COVID-19 victims, nearly a hundred of them, in the Ganga, India’s most sacred and culture-defining river.

Also read: Uttar Pradesh: Rains Expose Mass Shallow Graves Along the Ganga as COVID-19 Rages

A distant relative of Khakkar told The Wire that Parul Khakkar sees herself as a part-time poet and full-time home maker. According to those who know her well, her best writing moments arrive when she is cleaning her house or rolling out chapatis. Her husband, who works for a bank, is proud of her creativity and writing.

Like many young women in India, Khakkar, who will turn 51 in July, quit college in her second year, married and began a family, her relative said. But she had always loved writing. Her first poem had been written in 1984, when she was in standard 10 in school. It was about Indira Gandhi’s personality and assassination. This poem was special in her eyes, but she gave up writing once she married.

In 2011, when Khakkar’s son introduced her to the internet and social media, she rediscovered her love for poetry. Writing ghazals, she discovered, made her feel as though she was ‘walking on clouds’, said her relative.

“Poetry has been the silent support of my life. My first love. I could always bank on poems to help me wade through life. I write in Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu. I love writing ghazals. I am spiritual and religious. I consider myself God’s best child,” says Khakkar in the introduction to her blog.

In an interview two years ago with a journalism student in Rajkot who had been working on a dissertation on feminism, Khakkar had emphasised that she is not a typical feminist and her biggest happiness is being around her family and doing household chores.

Right-wing icon

Protest poetry has never been Parul Khakkar’s genre, but her powerful poem of the Ganga becoming the shav vahini (hearse of corpses) in a Ram Rajya (kingdom of gods) has shown the grim reality of contemporary India. It has been translated so far into Assamese, Hindi, English and Tamil, with Bhojpuri, Malayalam and Bengali translations on the way. Every translation that has been shared on social media so far has gone viral.

Before this poem was written, Khakkar was very much in the good books of right-leaning litterateurs in the intensely polarised state of Gujarat. Vishnu Pandya, a political historian who has been associated with the RSS and its Gujarati mouthpiece, Sadhna, since he was 22 years old and was awarded a Padma Shri after Modi became the prime minister, had described Khakkar as “the next big icon of Gujarati poetry”.

Parul Khakkar. Photo: Facebook/Parul Khakkar

Khakkar has written at least six poems on Shrinathji, the form of the god Krishna worshipped by the Vaishnava sect in Gujarat. She has also written poems on Radha and Krishna which have become popular Gujarati bhakti songs.

But Pandya, who had once lavishly praised her on stage, has not defended Khakkar against the BJP’s troll army, who attack her with words such as ‘anti-national’, ‘immature’ and ‘anti-Hindu’ and describe her as ‘a woman with loose character and no moral values’.

There have been more than 28,000 abusive and misogynistic comments on Khakkar’s social media accounts and the accounts of the more than one lakh people who shared her poem. All have seemingly been posted by the BJP’s IT cell, which is notorious for aggressively stalking people who are not necessarily political, but sometimes come out as anti-government. This has led Khakkar to change her public accounts on Facebook and Instagram to personal locked accounts.

A BJP leader from Gujarat told The Wire that his party’s trolling of the apolitical poet was absolutely tasteless and further exposed the party’s aloofness from the situation on the ground. He also said that the words “Billa Ranga” and “naked king” used in the poem were the main reason that she is being attacked.

Thakkar has few close friends but even those who are only acquainted with her socially claim that “Parul is an introvert and a very nice person at heart”. They say she is an average Gujarati who is “proud of her Hindu origins” and who lavished praise on Modi when he became the prime minister. Politically, her family primarily leans towards the BJP. A well-known Rajkot-based poet who wished to remain anonymous has confirmed that Khakkar has never been anti BJP. But the sight of bodies floating in the Ganga had stirred the poet in her, this poet added.

“She had not wished to make a political statement. She had simply wanted to express her distress at the plight of India’s citizens,” another friend of hers said.

“Gujarat is not a safe place to voice any type of dissent. We are little known poets,” a journalist turned poet told The Wire.

Urvish Kothari, one of Gujarat’s most astute observers, told The Wire that a poet writes what she feels and does not think of herself as courageous. For her, it is just an expression of her thoughts. However, he added, “What is extremely disturbing is the verbal violence Gujarat indulged in with reference to this case. I wouldn’t say all those who abused her are paid trolls from the BJP, but that the poison in Gujarat is so deep that it has percolated into the societal fabric of the state.”

‘Stand by the poet’

Two days after Khakkar posted her Shabvahini Ganga poem, pro-BJP trolls announced that the poet had removed the poem from her Facebook page. However, The Wire can confirm that the poem is very much there, although since her account is now private, it can only be seen by Khakkar’s friends. And Khakkar’s friends say she is certain that she will not withdraw it.

Meanwhile, the Gujarati Lekhak Mandal (writers’ forum), consisting of more than one thousand writers and poets of Gujarat, has spoken out in support of the poet who has dared to speak up.

Manishi Jani, president of the Gujarati Lekhak Mandal and former president of the Navnirman Andolan, issued a communiqué to the forum on May 13 that subtly referred to the BJP IT cell trolls.

Also read: Why the Modi Government’s ‘Positivity’ Narrative on COVID-19 Vaccination Plan Doesn’t Add Up

“Parul Khakkar is being inundated with abuses and excessive trolling for her poem. Social media is full of certain people systematically targeting her in abusive language and forcing her to cage her expressions,” the communiqué said. “The Lekhak Mandal criticises this and the efforts of a lobby to curtail the creator’s freedom of expression.”

Jani and Manhar Oza, the secretary of the Gujarati Lekhak Mandal, have also started the social media trend of #ISupportParulKhakkar and appealed to every Indian to stand by her.

§

Parul Khakkar’s poem translated into English by Rita and Abhijit Kothari

The corpses spoke in one voice : “All is well, sab kuchh changa-changa”
Lord, in your ideal realm the hearse is now the Ganga

Lord, your crematoriums are too few; fewer the wood for pyres
Lord, our pall-bearers are too few, fewer yet the mourners
Lord, in every home Yama performs the dance macabre
Lord, in your ideal realm the hearse is now the Ganga

Lord, your smoke belching chimneys now seek respite
Lord, our bangles are shattered, shattered are our hearts
The fiddle plays while the towns are ablaze, “Wah, Billa-Ranga”
Lord, in your ideal realm the hearse is now the Ganga

Lord, your clothes are divine, divine is your radiance
Lord, the town entire sees you in your true form
If there be a real man here, come forward and say
“The emperor has no clothes”
Lord, in your ideal realm the hearse is now the Ganga.

[Note: The poem has also been translated by Salil Tripathi and is appended below]¹

§

Hindi translation by Ilyas Sheikh

एक साथ सब मुर्दे बोले ‘सब कुछ चंगा-चंगा’
साहेब तुम्हारे रामराज में शव-वाहिनी गंगा

ख़त्म हुए शमशान तुम्हारे, ख़त्म काष्ठ की बोरी
थके हमारे कंधे सारे, आँखें रह गई कोरी
दर-दर जाकर यमदूत खेले
मौत का नाच बेढंगा
साहेब तुम्हारे रामराज में शव-वाहिनी गंगा

नित लगातार जलती चिताएँ
राहत माँगे पलभर
नित लगातार टूटे चूड़ियाँ
कुटती छाति घर घर
देख लपटों को फ़िडल बजाते वाह रे ‘बिल्ला-रंगा’
साहेब तुम्हारे रामराज में शव-वाहिनी गंगा

साहेब तुम्हारे दिव्य वस्त्र, दैदीप्य तुम्हारी ज्योति
काश असलियत लोग समझते, हो तुम पत्थर, ना मोती
हो हिम्मत तो आके बोलो
‘मेरा साहेब नंगा’
साहेब तुम्हारे रामराज में शव-वाहिनी गंगा

§

The original Gujarati

એક અવાજે મડદાં બોલ્યાં ‘સબ કુછ ચંગા-ચંગા’
રાજ, તમારા રામરાજ્યમાં શબવાહિની ગંગા.
રાજ, તમારા મસાણ ખૂટયા, ખૂટયા લક્કડભારા,
રાજ, અમારા ડાઘૂ ખૂટયા, ખૂટયા રોવણહારા,
ઘરેઘરે જઈ જમડાંટોળી કરતી નાચ કઢંગા
રાજ, તમારા રામરાજ્યમાં શબવાહિની ગંગા.
રાજ, તમારી ધગધગ ધૂણતી ચીમની પોરો માંગે,
રાજ, અમારી ચૂડલી ફૂટે, ધડધડ છાતી ભાંગે
બળતું જોઈ ફીડલ વગાડે ‘વાહ રે બિલ્લા-રંગા’!
રાજ, તમારા રામરાજ્યમાં શબવાહિની ગંગા.
રાજ, તમારા દિવ્ય વસ્ત્ર ને દિવ્ય તમારી જ્યોતિ
રાજ, તમોને અસલી રૂપે આખી નગરી જોતી
હોય મરદ તે આવી બોલો  ‘રાજા મેરા નંગા’
રાજ, તમારા રામરાજ્યમાં શબવાહિની ગંગા.

§

¹Parul Khakkar’s poem translated into English by Salil Tripathi

Don’t worry, be happy, in one voice speak the corpses
O King, in your Ram-Rajya, we see bodies flow in the Ganges

O King, the woods are ashes,
No spots remain at crematoria,
O King, there are no carers,
Nor any pall-bearers,
No mourners left
And we are bereft
With our wordless dirges of dysphoria

Libitina enters every home where she dances and then prances,
O King, in your Ram-Rajya, our bodies flow in the Ganges

O King, the melting chimney quivers, the virus has us shaken
O King, our bangles shatter, our heaving chest lies broken

The city burns as he fiddles, Billa-Ranga thrust their lances,
O King, in your Ram-Rajya, I see bodies flow in the Ganges

O King, your attire sparkles as you shine and glow and blaze
O King, this entire city has at last seen your real face

Show your guts, no ifs and buts,
Come out and shout and say it loud,
“The naked King is lame and weak”
Show me you are no longer meek,
Flames rise high and reach the sky, the furious city rages;
O King, in your Ram-Rajya, do you see bodies flow in the Ganges?


Deepal Trivedi is the founder of Virago Media Private Limited.

Note: The Hindi translation of the poem was earlier misattributed to Ilyas Mansuri whereas the translator is Ilyas Sheikh.