How many lives for VN Rai?
I found the meaning of his name in Platts, the Urdu-Hindoosthani dictionary that I daily worship, introducing a new sect in perhaps the subcontinental denominations of the Hanfi Barelvis, and told him that it was the eight faculties especially attributed to Shiva: animan, the power to become as minute as an atom; laghiman, extreme lightness; prapti, the power of achieving or reaching anything; prakamya, irresistible will; mahiman, illimitable bulk; asita, that is supreme dominion; vasita, the power of subjugating by magic; and kamavasayita, the power of suppressing all desires. It also means individual or separated existence as opposed to union with the divine essence; and it means the holy ashes with which Shiva smeared his body. "In Urdu, we call it Bhabhut," I added. "Sadhus rub it on their naked bodies."
He peered at me quizzically from behind his half glasses. He declares himself an atheist, a nastik who will burn in hell in the life hereafter. In this world, though, he has done everything not to let others be burnt alive, knifed or shot. Vibhuti Narain Rai is a writer of Hindi who spent a lifetime as a senior officer in the department of Police in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
I was speaking at the Delhi Book Fair, at the launch of the Urdu translation of Rai's latest novel, Prem ki Bhoot Katha (Muhabbat ki Tilismi Dastan), and I couldn't help recalling the first novel of his that I read. That was Shehr Main Curfew, the story he wrote after the communal bloodshed in Allahabad where he was posted. A short novel written with such sensitivity that it won him accolades and life-long enemies. "It is not a novel," his detractors insisted. "It is just reportage." Quite unmindful of the possibility that he might have introduced a new genre, fresh from his heart and his beautiful, untarnished consciousness.
In 1987,the motorized Rath Yatras for the demolition of the Babri Mosque were in full swing, spreading hatred against Muslims in the four corners of India. VN Rai at that time was SSP Ghaziabad (UP) when he found out that from Hashimpura, a basti in Meeruth, more than 150 Muslim males had been taken away by PAC (a special police force in those years) in a truck at gunpoint towards a canal that flows parallel to the Meerut-Ghaziabad Road; and the sound of distant firing had been heard from that direction. It was late in the night but he got a team of 20 police personnel ready and rushed to the spot. Dead bodies were scattered all over the bank. In that ghostly silence, he began to examine the bodies to see if anyone was alive in the heap of corpses. At last he found a man who was still not dead, brought him to Ghaziabad, got him admitted to a hospital, and proceeded to file an FIR against the police officers of PAC for their heinous crime.
Vibhuti Narain was soon to begin his research on the police's role in India's communal riots, a year's hard work that resulted in two highly valuable books, Combatting Communal Conflict and Perception of Police Neutrality During Hindu-Muslim Riots In India.
Since then VN Rai has been pressing for the rights of minorities. He has a vision about peace and harmony in his homeland: Indian Muslims need to be respected, cared for, and assimilated as equal citizens at different levels - this has been his main argument. In one of his interviews, when asked what needs to be done when Indian Muslims are used by enemy countries for subversive activities, his response was: "Records of subversion prove that the agents have been recruited from all communities, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and Muslims, mostly for monetary gains. As for the minorities, it is not an administrative matter only. The government must take political action. Give the minorities, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, a sense of belonging to India, address their justified grievances of discrimination, encourage assimilation not by lip-service alone but practically so that the enemy is never able to use them to the detriment of their homeland."
VN Rai's lucid and bold stance completely shocked his superiors and colleagues. This was not coming from some impractically romantic, longhaired idealist, but an empowered and hard-nosed officer from their own exalted ranks. (He retired as AIG Police of the sprawling State of Uttar Pradesh). His publications enraged the saffron brigade. Rallies were taken out against him, his book was burnt in the street and the words 'Mohammad Vibhuti' chalked in bold letters on the walls of his house.
But Vibhuti wasn't daunted by the diatribe against him. He continued to strongly advocate recruiting more and more personnel from the backward classes of religious minorities. "It will have a tremendous impact," he assured his department and the public. "It will restore the confidence of the minorities in Indian Police." When posted in an insurgency-prone state of India, he began to recruit Muslims in the police. His colleagues were aghast and warned him, "Armed and trained by us, these people will run away to the other side."
What happened then? I tried to find out. I was told by others - Vibhuti doesn't like to talk about himself - that there were in fact a couple of such cases, but most of his recruits remained loyal and steadfast.
VN Rai was never just a policeman. He is a writer, his intelligent, watchful eyes taking in all that he sees and also what may not be visible to others, the thoughts, the emotions, the secret nooks and corners of souls.
His first novel, Ghar, made the Hindi literary world take note of him. Shahr Main Curfew followed and two more novels, Qissa Lok Tantr and Tabadla, were published in the ensuing years, both deeply involved with India's changing political complexion. "It is the criminalization of politics in India, beginning from the decade of the sixties, that constitutes my subject matter," he says. Rai approaches this with a subtle, perfectly steered satire, overlaid with a robust sense of humour and an uncanny gift for picking the most mundane and unlikely situations in the story to carry it forward.
I avidly read the Urdu translation of Rai's new novel Prem ki Bhoot Katha. Set in a hill station in 1901, it is the love story of an English girl with a corporal; it is interwoven with a mysterious murder for which Corporal Allen is falsely charged and hanged. The narrator visits the places and invokes the ghosts of several characters of the story. It is magic realism with a difference: the reader is taken into confidence that the narrator doesn't believe in ghosts, yet the reality of the ghosts remains beyond doubt, as the susurrating forest, the giant horse chestnut trees, the thick bed of yellow dry leaves under the tree, the glow of the leaping flames of the bonfire on the naked bodies of the two lovers, all come alive. "The love-making chapter in your book has an echo of D. H Lawrence," I remark. Vibhuti smiles and nods. But I am half wrong. Lawrence preached utter passivity for women. ("Be still, wait and pray and it will happen," he admonished mumbling-grumbling women.) Vibhuti's heroin plays upon her man like a piano and makes his body sing. The act is like a juggalbandi of some ancient Indian raga. I strongly doubt they were British!
"Perhaps they were Indian, the characters," I suggest. He smiles and nods.
Curiously, the English-speaking literati of India are unaware of Rai's literary achievements. I don't see his name much in their print media. "Have you ever resented being neglected by the internationally influential English literati?" I ask him. He shrugs absent-mindedly (making himself as small as an atom). Those he cares for acknowledge his contributions to Indian literature. At the back of Prem Katha, Maha Shweta Devi, now an illustrious icon of Indian literature, remarks:
"VN Rai fearlessly explores the relationship of the State with the masses in India. That a man in the Police Service could be so outspoken and insightful has surprised me and remains a living proof of the splendid distinction of this writer. He also demolishes the pet notion that the Hindus are by nature very gentle and non-aggressive, insisting confidently that the Indian Police must protect all citizens, irrespective of cast, creed and class, and not act as an instrument of Hindutva in the times of communal disturbances..."
"How did you survive," I want to know, "receiving two gold medals for distinguished services in the Police Force?"
He credits the system in India: "There were those who would like to see me dismissed and a few others who would not let them do that. These parallel forces work together here, so I continued. They succeeded in delaying my receiving the President's gold medal for a long time, but that was all."
"They are still after you, as I can see in the records, trying to put you behind bars for... issuing a wrong transfer certificate to a student, is it?"
"I think this would last as long as I am the VC of this University," he says wistfully, referring to Mahatma Gandhi University (he built it from scratch), then laughingly remarks, "But you should know, I am pretty thick-skinned. These pin-pricks do not affect me much."
Fahmida Riaz at the Karachi Literature Festival
I look at him closely and think: perhaps no one is that "thick-skinned". The life-long struggle and fighting intrigues have taken their toll. His handsome face now wears a stern expression and the corners of his mouth are drooping downwards. That is not how he looked twelve years ago, when I met him briefly during a visit to Delhi. He has certainly not taken care of himself for some years, allowing his body to proceed towards "limitless bulk", I think and smile secretly. He must be so used to a position of enormous power and authority. How hard it must be to accept being shorn of all that, consciously or unconsciously, to feel the creeping sense of loss!
As we talk, his real face begins to emerge from the debris of all those years, and the tension around his eyes relaxes. Out of the blue, a very sweet smile lights up his face; his laughter is unreserved and merry still.