| Bhupen Khakhar: de-stabilizing accepted notions
Whenever he’s dragged off to a picket or a demonstration, my older son has a telling protest: “Why do I have to come along to watch you shout at buildings'” My younger son tends to copy his older brother, while desperately trying not to, and he sometimes comes up with a distillation: “Are we going to shout at buildings now'”
Finding myself as lone parent in the middle of this strangest of English summers, I ruthlessly took my kids off to picket Narendra Modi at the Wembley Conference Centre. I took them knowing full well that had their mother been in the country that’s exactly what she too would have done with them. What’s more I even convinced an English friend and his girlfriend to drive us there.
The Wembley Conference Centre is a huge building, typical of the ugly British architecture of the Sixties and the Seventies. When we reached, a long queue of worthies was filing into the building, the men in suits or silk kurta-pyjamas, the women in heavy saris, many of them worn Gujarati style. Across the road from the Centre is a small island of grass, and that’s where the demonstrators were gathered, most of them behind police barriers, one or two standing outside the fencing, working their loud-hailers. Between the building and the protesters was a road peppered with several policemen making sure that no one crossed the invisible line. Above us, a police helicopter circled.
As we got to the protesters, I clocked one or two small groups I knew from secular organizations, and people from the Dawood campaign, a family which has lost two brothers in the Gujarat carnage. The rest of the picketers were from Islamic organizations, the few women in hijab, the men bearded. The loud-hailers were obviously in the hands of young men from these organizations. The chants of “What do we want' Justice!” and “Modi is a murderer, murderer, murderer!” were frequently interrupted by shouts of “Takdeer! Allah ho Akbar!” I had no quarrel with the first two chants, but I had major problems with the last one.
First of all, what happened and is still happening in Gujarat is a tragedy which has to be taken on not just by Muslims, and certainly not just by militant Islamists, but by anyone who believes in any sense of humanity. Secondly, when you see the whole thing fully unfurled, like the aftermath of an earthquake, you see that it has taken not only the lives and trust of Gujaratis who happened to be Muslim but, among many other things, also the whole world-view, the whole frame of assurance around which secular, Hindu-backgrounded, Gujjus like myself built their identities.
What I wished I’d had the courage to do was to take the loud-hailer from one of the men shouting themselves hoarse and talk to the queue of the “Friends of the BJP”, talk to them in Gujarati, to ask them how their Gita-paath and prayers to Mataji jelled with gang-rape, to ask them which Hindu text gave them the licence to fund the butchering of small children, to say to them that, if they really believed in another janma, should they not be then terrified of the maha-paap they had just reaped' To point out to them that what they were all dressed up to participate in was not a Gaurav Yatra but a Kaurav Yatra.
Instead, I stood silently as the Islamists carried on screaming “Allah Ho Akbar”. I watched as the stream of Mercedes and Toyotas went past the banners and into the Centre’s car-park, drivers showing us the finger every now and then, their gold watches and rakhis flashing in the sunlight as their wrists jerked up. I looked on as the cops gave hard looks in our direction, sometimes walking up with a terse “This is the last time I’m warning you sir, please stay behind the barrier!”
After I’d seen enough, I gathered my kids and our friends and we made our way back to the car. “How come you weren’t shouting at the building today, pappa'” one of my boys may well have wisecracked, but thankfully neither one did.
A couple of days later, I read about the death in Baroda of my friend, the painter Bhupen Khakhar. The news came, as it does nowadays, on the net. And, even though a passing away at the age of 69 shouldn’t come as a huge shock, it sent a jolt of sadness through me. The sense of loss that I would normally have felt at the death of a friend, a man who was one of the most vibrant artists India has ever produced, was compounded by the fact that it is at this moment that he left us.
Bhupen was deeply, religiously, irreverent. He mixed a sharp, ruthless observation with the most gentle warmth. He was, equally, a wonderful singer of bhajans and a writer of ribald prose, he was a chartered accountant and a poet, he was the quintessential small-town man and supremely urbane. He was as gay as they come, and in the latter part of his life as open about it as anyone in the world. He was the kind of person many people on both sides of the Wembley picket hate, because his basic creed in life was to de-stabilize accepted notions, whether these ideas be of morality or sexuality or of line and colour.
Even through this blood-heavy shambles of Gujarat, there has always been the hope that we would all, like-minded Gujarati friends, artists, writers, poets, actors, film-makers, all somehow survive this pestilence and be around to contribute to its inevitable destruction. There was, and still is, a hope that one day we will witness the successful criminal trials of the murderous people who are in power today, see the culpable policemen in handcuffs, see any bent benchmen defrocked, participate in a genuine redressal for the victims, and then, like the Gujjus we are, eat ganthias and phaphdas and drink vodka to celebrate, if not some great new dawn, then at least the passing of a horrendously dark night.
In this imaginary gathering in my head, Bhupen always sits at the centre, chortling with laughter, poking little pins into any balloon of pomposity he can find. Even as I talk about this future party I can hear him saying to me: “Ei you, vagina-worshipper! Painter turned film-maker turned writer! You can become a caterer later. First go do your work properly. Shout at buildings if you must, but do your work!” And I take his point.