Sunita Aron, senior resident editor of Hindustan Times, Lucknow, interviewed Atal Bihari Vajpayee months after his party lost the general elections and he stepped down as Prime Minister in 2004. Vajpayee died in Delhi yesterday at 93. Here is the interview as published in the Hindustan Times on August 14, 2004.
As he reminisced his six-decade old association with Lucknow, his four-time parliamentary constituency, Atal Bihari Vajpayee went into deep nostalgia.
Travelling down memory lane sitting in the majestic ambience of his drawing room dotted with exquisite Ganesha idols, Vajpayee was neither speaking as a former prime minister nor as a veteran politician but with intense emotions as a person and a poet who missed his ‘azadi’, his evening strolls in Aminabad or ‘baithaken’ (sittings) with his friends.
Perhaps, it was the tranquil atmosphere of his new home that helped him to close his eyes to the turbulence in his party after he had lost an election as he lived and laughed the good old days.
“Lucknow reminds me of Baradari and Chowk where ‘tehzeeb’ of Nawabs is visible in day to day activities, shopping centre Aminabad, historical monuments Bara Imambara, Rumi Darwaza and Bhool Bhulaiyya thronged by tourists from all over the world. I have spent many of my evenings sauntering and chatting with friends on Aminabad streets. The city reminds me of biryani, makhan malai and of rose and chameli petals,” he recalled.
He fondly remembered the Aminabad evenings where gulab and chameli petals were sold in a ‘dona’ (leaf bowl). “A lovely fragrance used to envelope the area as the vendors amused the buyers with their jingle, ‘Majnoo ki haddiyan, Laila ki pasliyan le lo’.”
“What a scene it used to be – ‘Tokri mein phoolon ki pattiyan rakhi huyi, beech mein mombatti jalti huyi…,” he said poetically.
“And ‘makhan malai’ (very light and fluffy) used to be so delicious. I remember that Indira ji too had asked for it during her visit to Lucknow,” Vajpayee said, referring to the late prime minister.
Incidentally, it was the Jhandewalan Park in Lucknow where Vajpayee had heard Jawaharlal Nehru for the first time. “The crowds were huge and unmanageable. Pant ji was trying to control them. Nehru couldn’t stop himself; sprightly he came on the dais to control the crowds.”
However, Atal missed his visits to the sprawling Baradari the most. While not remembering when he had last visited the magnificent building, he recalled ‘kavi sammelans’ were organised there.
“I often shared the dais with (Suryakant Tripathi) Nirala, Bhagwati Charan Verma and Shiv Singh Saroj but never did I recite a poem on Lucknow. The city will figure in the new book that I am writing now,” he said.
However, he cherished the memories of his in-depth discussions with a friend Chaturvedi on burning issues faced by the nation.
“Bahut mehfil jamti thi, ab who din kahan hai,” he recalled.
Though kite-flying as a sport was popular, he never tried his hand on it. Nor did he develop fondness for films though a new cinema hall in Aminabad was attracting huge crowds.
Instead, he remembered ‘qawaalis’ that he enjoyed listening to especially those of Khusro. “People used to take ‘qawwalis’ very lightly. But the ‘qawwals’ used to connect themselves with ‘khuda,” he said.
Engrossed in penning his new book from freedom struggle to Kargil war, Vajpayee had a hearty laugh when told that even his former state president of UP Vinay Katiyar was busy writing a book on BJP’s drubbing in UP.
Though politics and burning national and international issues were not on the agenda, he couldn’t hide his concern for the party’s health in Uttar Pradesh. Admitting that the party had to recuperate in UP to improve its overall health in the country, Vajpayee in a cryptic comment said: “After Maharashtra elections, focus would be on reviving the BJP in UP.”
However, the poet in him came out when he said: “Pehli ki rajneeti main to nazakat, nafasat hoti thi, aaj to 365 din Holi kheli jaati hai’ (there used to sobriety and politeness in the politics of yesteryears, today people play Holi all 365 days).”
“The freedom movement was at its peak when I came to Kanpur’s DAV College to do my MA in 1946. I joined law too as it was a two-year course. My father was also in MA previous. We made headlines, ‘Father-son studying together’, as we shared the same room in the hostel. However, while my father completed the course law, I could not and moved to Lucknow for PhD,” he recalled.
Remembering the pranks played by boys, Vajpayee said, “They were very naughty. Neither did they study themselves, nor did they allow others to study. Often they cut off electricity using a 25 paise coin.”
Asked if he too joined the pranks, Vajpayee laughed and said, “No, I used to oppose them as I wanted to study but the boys always told me to do so in the morning hours.”
Vajpayee spent the days of Partition in Kanpur hearing the speeches of firebrand Muslim League leader Hasrat Mohani. And it was in Kanpur only that he decided to enter politics.
In 1947, he was in Lucknow as Editor of new monthly magazine ‘Rashtra Dharm’ after which he joined the weekly magazine ‘Panchjanya’ and later switched over to ‘Daily Swadesh’.
“The days were different as ‘azadi thi hawa mein’. Colleges and hostels had become ‘ akharas’. The kotwali near the river banks used to remain crowded. There was Hindu-Muslim tension too. The atmosphere was very different from that of today,” he recalled.
“The two cities, Kanpur and Lucknow, have undergone a drastic change, though ‘bahut kuch waisa bhi hai’,” he said.
His concern was how to save its heritage and culture while equipping the city with modern amenities. The Convention Centre at Lucknow was his dream project.
“No other MP ever thought of providing this to his constituency from his own fund,” he said.
Others things that he mentioned as his “little contribution to his city” were railway terminal at Gomti Nagar after 149 years of the first railway station at Charbagh, Rs 280-crore Gomti Pollution Project, flyovers, expansion of Amausi airport, marriage centres, stadiums and a sports complex, among others. However, what he wanted the most was the expansion of the city without losing its rich culture and heritage.