“Kavya ki kasauti par mera prayas bhale hi khara na utre, kintu yeh meri zindagi ka dastavez hai,” wrote Vajpayee, which roughly translated into English as “My effort may not stand up to the benchmark of poetry but it is my life’s document.”
The poem, where he wrote of his face-off with death, was published with the headline, Zindagi ka dastavez, in the magazine’s Dec 8-14, 1988 issue and became much-discussed. Wrote the politician-poet, cryptically and philosophically, “Maut ki umra kya / Do pal ki bhi nahin (What’s the life span of death / Not even a few moments).”
In his lifetime, Vajpayee penned hundreds of poems which found their way into collections such as Meri Ekyavan Kavitayein (My 51 poems) and Na Dainyam Na Palayanam (Neither self-pity nor escape).
The books sold well. Within four years of its publication, Meri Ekyavan Kavitayein was in its 12th edition. And they were translated into various languages, including Bulgarian. One of his poems, ‘Kya khoya kya paaya’, was set to tune by Ghazal singer Jagjit Singh. Actor Shah Rukh Khan starred in the music video.
In one of his works in prose, Atmakathya (My story), the former Prime Minister wrote that he had inherited the craft from his father who was a well-known poet in the Gwalior riyasat.
By his own admission, he was inspired by Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, Jaishanker Prasad’s Kamayani, Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’s Ram Ki Shakti Puja and Mahadevi Verma’s geet.
Some Vajpayee poems carry Hindu mythological and medieval historical references. One of them, Parichay (Introduction), begins with the line: Hindu, tan-man, Hindu jeevan, rag rag Hindu mera parichay (Body and soul Hindu, Hindu life, Hindu in my every vein, Hindu my introduction).
His poems, often written in a flowery style, touched upon the themes of valour and nationalism. Vajpayee also wrote of self-resignation and oppression, particularly by the state during the Emergency.
Vajpayee admitted that balancing poetry and politics wasn’t easy. He credited his jail visits with keeping the poet in him alive. Some of his light-hearted but politically-aware verses were written in prison during the Emergency. In these poems, he described himself as “Qaidi kavirai. (Prisoner-poet)”
In his poem Jail ki suvidhayain (Facilities of jail), “Daktaran de rahi dawai / police de rahi pehra / bina blade ke khurdura hua / chikna, chupra chehra (The doctors have given medicine / The sentries guard the jail / But there’s no razor / my clean-shaven face has gone rough and scratchy).
In verse, he also saw the funny side of the Watergate scandal. But there was a self-introspecting side to his poetry as well. Zindagi ka dastavez, later published as Maut se thhan gayee (Face-off with death) is one such poem. Vajpayee wrote, “Tu dabe paon, chori-chhipe na aa / Saamne vaar kar, phir mujhe aazma. (Don’t come tiptoeing, playing hide and seek / attack me from the front, and then test me)
In the end, though, death tiptoed quietly and slowly for Vajpayee.